Bring Back Extinct Species? Ambitious Plan Draws Investors, Critics

The dodo bird isn’t coming back anytime soon. Nor is the woolly mammoth. But a company working on technologies to bring back extinct species has attracted more investors, while other scientists are skeptical such feats are possible or a good idea. 

Colossal Biosciences first announced its ambitious plan to revive the woolly mammoth two years ago, and on Tuesday said it wanted to bring back the dodo bird, too. 

“The dodo is a symbol of man-made extinction,” said Ben Lamm, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder and CEO of Colossal. The company has formed a division to focus on bird-related genetic technologies. 

The last dodo, a flightless bird about the size of a turkey, was killed in 1681 on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. 

The Dallas company, which launched in 2021, also announced Tuesday it had raised an additional $150 million in funding. To date, it has raised $225 million from wide-ranging investors that include United States Innovative Technology Fund, Breyer Capital and In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm that invests in technology. 

The prospect of bringing back the dodo isn’t expected to directly make money, Lamm said. But the genetic tools and equipment that the company develops to try to do it may have other uses, including for human health care, he said. 

For example, Colossal is now testing tools to tweak several parts of the genome simultaneously. It’s also working on technologies for what is sometimes called an “artificial womb,” he said. 

The dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon, said Beth Shapiro, a molecular biologist on Colossal’s scientific advisory board, who has been studying the dodo for two decades. Shapiro is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press’ Health and Science Department. 

Her team plans to study DNA differences between the Nicobar pigeon and the dodo to understand “what are the genes that really make a dodo a dodo,” she said. 

The team may then attempt to edit Nicobar pigeon cells to make them resemble dodo cells. It may be possible to put the tweaked cells into developing eggs of other birds, such as pigeons or chickens, to create offspring that may in turn naturally produce dodo eggs, Shapiro said. The concept is still in an early theoretical stage for dodos. 

Because animals are a product of both their genetics and their environment — which has changed dramatically since the 1600s — Shapiro said that “it’s not possible to recreate a 100% identical copy of something that’s gone.” 

Other scientists wonder if it’s even advisable to try, and question whether “de-extinction” diverts attention and money away from efforts to save species still on Earth. 

“There’s a real hazard in saying that if we destroy nature, we can just put it back together again — because we can’t,” said Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm, who has no connection to Colossal. 

“And where on Earth would you put a woolly mammoth, other than in a cage?” asked Pimm, who noted that the ecosystems where mammoths lived disappeared long ago. 

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Huawei Latest Target of US Crackdown on China Tech

China says it is “deeply concerned” over reports that the United States is moving to further restrict sales of American technology to Huawei, a tech company that U.S. officials have long singled out as a threat to national security for its alleged support of Beijing’s espionage efforts.

As first reported by the Financial Times, the U.S. Department of Commerce has informed American firms that it will no longer issue licenses for technology exports to Huawei, thereby isolating the Shenzen-based company from supplies it needs to make its products.

The White House and Commerce Department have not responded to VOA’s request for confirmation of the reports. But observers say the move may be the latest tactic in the Biden administration’s geoeconomics strategy as it comes under increasing Republican pressure to outcompete China. 

The crackdown on Chinese companies began under the Trump administration, which in 2019 added Huawei to an export blacklist but made exceptions for some American firms, including Qualcomm and Intel, to provide non-5G technology licenses.

Since taking office in 2021, President Joe Biden has taken an even more aggressive stance than his predecessor, Donald Trump. Now the Biden administration appears to be heading toward a total ban on all tech exports to Huawei, said Sam Howell, who researches quantum information science at the Center for a New American Security’s Technology and National Security program.

“These new restrictions from what we understand so far would include items below the 5G level,” she told VOA. “So 4G items, Wi-Fi 6 and [Wi-Fi] 7, artificial intelligence, high performance computing and cloud capabilities as well.”

Should the Commerce Department follow through with the ban, there will likely be pushback from U.S. companies whose revenues will be directly affected, Howell said. Currently Intel and Qualcomm still sell chips used in laptops and phones manufactured by Huawei.

Huawei and Beijing have denied that they are a threat to other countries’ national security. Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning accused Washington of “overstretching the concept of national security and abusing state power” to suppress Chinese competitors.

“Such practices are contrary to the principles of market economy” and are “blatant technological hegemony,” Mao said. 

Outcompeting Chinese tech

The latest U.S. move on Huawei is part of a U.S. effort to outcompete China in the cutting-edge technology sector.

In October, Biden imposed sweeping restrictions on providing advanced semiconductors and chipmaking equipment to Chinese companies, seeking to maintain dominance particularly on the most advanced chips. His administration is rallying allies behind the effort, including the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – home to leading companies that play key roles in the industry’s supply chain.

U.S. officials say export restrictions on chips are necessary because China can use semiconductors to advance their military systems, including weapons of mass destruction, and commit human rights abuses. 

The October restrictions follow the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, which Biden signed into law in August and that restricts companies receiving U.S. subsidies from investing in and expanding cutting-edge chipmaking facilities in China. It also provides $52 billion to strengthen the domestic semiconductor industry.

Beijing has invested heavily in its own semiconductor sector, with plans to invest $1.4 trillion in advanced technologies in a bid to achieve 70% self-sufficiency in semiconductors by 2025. 

TikTok a target

TikTok, a social media application owned by the Chinese company ByteDance that has built a massive following especially among American youth, is also under U.S. lawmakers’ scrutiny due to suspicion that it could be used as a tool of Chinese foreign espionage or influence.

CEO Shou Zi Chew is scheduled to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23 to testify about TikTok’s “consumer privacy and data security practices, the platforms’ impact on kids, and their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.”

Lawmakers are divided on whether to ban or allow the popular app, which has been downloaded onto about 100 million U.S. smartphones, or force its sale to an American buyer.

Earlier in January, Congress set up the House Select Committee on China, tasked with dealing with legislation to combat the dangers of a rising China.

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Delay in Reforms Puts Pakistan’s Economy in Crisis

Pakistan is facing a severe economic crisis. Prices of staples like food and fuel are skyrocketing. The country must repay billions in external debt, but its foreign reserves are so low it can barely afford to buy a few weeks’ worth of imports. As the government tries to revive stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund to unlock much-needed assistance, Sarah Zaman looks at how delaying reforms has brought Pakistan to the brink of economic disaster.

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AI: World Likely to Hit Key Warming Threshold in 10-12 Years

The world will likely breach the internationally agreed-upon climate change threshold in about a decade and keep heating to break through a next warming limit around mid-century, even with big pollution cuts, artificial intelligence predicts in a new study that’s more pessimistic than previous modeling.

The study in Monday’s journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reignites a debate on whether it’s still possible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as called for in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, to minimize the most damaging effects of climate change. The world has already warmed 1.1 or 1.2 degrees since pre-industrial times, or the mid-19th century, scientists say.

Two climate scientists using machine learning calculated that Earth will surpass the 1.5-degree (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) mark between 2033 and 2035. Their results fit with other, more conventional methods of predicting when Earth will break the mark, though with a bit more precision.

“There will come a time when we call the 1.5C target for maximum warming dead, beyond the shadow of a doubt,” Brown University Environment Institute director Kim Cobb, who wasn’t part of the study, said in an email interview. “And this paper may be the beginning of the end of the 1.5C target.”

Stanford University’s Noah Diffenbaugh, a study co-author, said the world is on the brink of the 1.5-degree mark in “any realistic emissions reduction scenario.” Avoiding a 2-degree rise, he said, may depend on nations meeting zero-emissions goals by the middle of this century.

The artificial intelligence-based study found it unlikely that temperature increase could be held below 2 degrees Celsius, even with tough emissions cuts. And that’s where the AI really differs with scientists who had been forecasting using computer models that are based on past observations, Diffenbaugh said.

In a high-pollution scenario, the AI calculated, the world would hit the 2-degree mark around 2050. Lower pollution could stave that off until 2054, the machine learning calculated.

In contrast, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change figured in its 2021 report that the same lower-pollution scenario would see the world pushing past 2 degrees sometime in the 2090s.

Cornell University climate scientist Natalie Mahowald, who wasn’t part of the Diffenbaugh study but was part of the IPCC, said the study makes sense, fits with what scientists know, but seems a bit more pessimistic.

There’s a lot of power in using AI, and in the future, that may be shown to produce better projections, but more evidence is needed before concluding that, Mahowald said.

Normally, climate scientists use a bunch of computer model simulations, some running hot and some cold, and then try to figure out which ones are doing the best job. That’s often based on how they performed in the past or in simulations of the past, Diffenbaugh said. What the AI does is more keyed to the climate system now, he said.

“We’re using this very powerful tool that is able to take information and integrate it in a way that no human mind is able to do, for better or for worse,” Diffenbaugh said.

Each year, government climate negotiators at a United Nations summit proclaim that they have managed to “keep 1.5 alive.” But with the latest study, there’s a divide among scientists on how true that really is. Diffenbaugh said there’s been so much warming already that it really doesn’t matter how pollution is cut in the next several years. The world will hit 1.5, the AI figures.

Zeke Hausfather of the tech company Stripe and Berkeley Earth, who was not part of the study, agreed, saying it’s time to “stop pretending” that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is possible. Some scenarios do see temperatures warming past the mark but then coming back down, something called “overshoot.”

Other scientists not involved with the study, such as University of Pennsylvania’s Michael Mann and Climate Analytics’ Bill Hare and Carl-Friedrich Schleussner maintain 1.5 is still alive. They say one rapid decarbonization scenario that Diffenbaugh didn’t examine shows the world can mostly keep under the threshold.

If the world can cut its carbon emissions in half by 2030 “then warming can be limited to 1.5 degrees” with a tiny overshoot and then reductions to get under the mark, Hare said.

Believing that the world can no longer keep warming below 1.5 “is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Mann said by email. “In the end it’s easy to overinterpret the significance of a precise threshold like 1.5C warming. The challenge is to limit warming as much as possible.”

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Global Guinea Worm Infections Continue Downward Trend

As the World Health Organization celebrates World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day January 30, the Atlanta-based Carter Center is marking continued progress in the fight against Guinea worm infections. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more on how countries in Africa are working to rid the world of the parasite once and for all.

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US Treasury to Increase Borrowing Amid Debt Ceiling Standoff

The Treasury Department said Monday it plans to increase its borrowing during the first three months of 2023, even as the federal government is bumping up against a $31.4 trillion limit on its legal borrowing authority. 

The U.S. plans to borrow $932 billion during the January-to-March quarter. That’s $353 billion more than projected last October, due to a lower beginning-of-quarter cash balance and projections of lower-than-expected income tax receipts and higher spending. 

The increased borrowing will take place as Democrats and the White House push for Congress to increase the federal debt limit. President Joe Biden wants the cap raised without any preconditions. The new House Republican majority is seeking to secure spending cuts in exchange for a debt limit increase. 

Treasury officials say the debate over the debt ceiling poses a risk to the U.S. financial position. 

“Even just the threat that the U.S. government might fail to meet its obligations may cause severe harm to the economy by eroding household and business confidence, injecting volatility into financial markets, and raising the cost of capital — among other negative impacts,” Ben Harris, Treasury’s assistant secretary for economic policy, said in a statement. 

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, in a letter to congressional leaders earlier this month, said the department had begun resorting to “extraordinary measures” to avoid a federal government default. She said it’s “critical that Congress act in a timely manner” to raise or suspend the debt limit. 

In a letter to House and Senate leaders, Yellen said her actions will buy time until Congress can pass legislation that will either raise the nation’s borrowing authority or suspend the limit for a period of time. She said it is unlikely that cash and extraordinary measures will be exhausted before early June. 

New House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will meet with Biden at the White House this week to discuss the debt limit. 

McCarthy told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday: “I want to sit down together, work out an agreement that we can move forward to put us on a path to balance — and at the same time not put any of our debt in jeopardy at the same time.” 

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WHO: Scope, Scale of Health Emergencies Growing

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warns global health challenges are growing and threatening the well-being of millions of people worldwide. He spoke at the opening of WHO’s week-long executive board meeting. 

The WHO chief began his presentation on a somber note. He told meeting participants that an emergency committee convened to assess the status of the pandemic has concluded that COVID-19 remains a global health emergency. 

He said the situation is much better now than a year ago when the omicron variant of the coronavirus was at its peak. But, he added, weekly reported deaths have been rising since early December. He said more than 170,000 people have lost their lives to COVID-19 in the past eight weeks. 

“And that is just the reported deaths. We know the actual number is much higher. We cannot control the virus, but we can do more to address the vulnerabilities in populations and health systems.” 

Tedros said health providers have the knowledge and means to control the spread of other diseases as well. He outlined an ambitious program for promoting health and protecting people from diseases. These, as well as other proposals for how the world can better prepare and respond to future health emergencies will be under discussion by member countries this week. 

Tedros said progress has been made over the past year in promoting health, by addressing the root causes of disease. He called this action essential in achieving a target set by WHO of seeing one billion more people enjoying better health and well-being. 

“On trans-fat, we have seen an almost five-fold increase in the number of people protected by WHO-recommended policies on the use of industrially produced trans-fat, from 550 million people to 2.6 billion, in just four years. But as you know, still five billion are unprotected.” 

Last year, he said, WHO reached the target it set to support 100 million tobacco users in stopping smoking. He noted, however, this left an estimated 600 million users who want to kick the habit and need support. 

Tedros presented numerous examples of key health achievements in both communicable and non-communicable diseases. He also acknowledged setbacks in many of these same areas, indicating the necessity of remaining alert and responding rapidly to health emergencies whenever and wherever they may arise. 

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Red Cross: World is Dangerously Unprepared for Next Pandemic

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warns the world is dangerously unprepared for the next pandemic and this will have severe health, economic and social consequences for countries around the world.  The IFRC has just released this year’s World Disaster Report.

In a marked departure from previous reports, the IFRC does not delve into the numerous natural disasters that caused untold devastation last year.  It does not rank the severity of disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and drought in terms of deaths and the destruction of livelihoods and infrastructure.

Instead, the report focuses on the global crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic and on warnings of worse calamities to come if the global community does not prepare now for the next health crisis.

IFRC Secretary General Jagan Chapagain said the authors of the report conclude the coronavirus pandemic has been the biggest disaster in our living memory, by any measure.

“I think no other disasters, the hurricane, earthquake, drought, or flood can compete in terms of the terrible human and socio-economic costs.  Of course, the most conservative estimates tell us that 6.5 million people died from COVID-19 across these three years.  But we all know that the real number could be much, much higher,” said Chapagain.

And the financial costs, he said, are staggering.  He said the International Monetary Fund estimates the cost of the pandemic over the last three years to be $13.8 trillion.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call for the global community to prepare now for the next health crisis.  He notes the World Health Organization and multiple epidemiologists have warned disease outbreaks are growing more frequent.

Chapagain said these outbreaks are being driven by factors such as climate change, increased movement of goods and services, urbanization, as well as growing inequity.  He said success in tackling future health crises depends upon building trust among world leaders, within and between communities and countries.

“Without trust, lifesaving pandemic counter measures will not be accepted and implemented by the people who need them most.  Preparedness will require equity.  Our preparedness must include provisions for greater equity because public health emergencies will thrive on and aggravate existing inequities,” he said.

Chapagain said community-based organizations are an integral part of pandemic preparedness and response.  He said local actors and communities have important roles to play as frontline responders in all phases of disease outbreak management.

He notes IFRC staff, and its global network of volunteers have reached more than 1.1 billion people over the past three years and helped to keep them safe from the virus.

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Economic Dividend or Disadvantage as India Becomes World’s Most Populous Country This Year

India’s population is set to surpass China’s sometime this year according to the United Nations. Experts say while this represents an opportunity to reap a demographic dividend, much will depend on how India leverages its numbers, especially its massive population of young people. Anjana Pasricha has a report from New Delhi.

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House Speaker McCarthy Optimistic on US Debt Deal

U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy promised Sunday the United States would not default on its national debts as the country approaches its $31.4 trillion spending limit in June but said the government cannot continue to annually spend more than it collects in taxes.

McCarthy, leader of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” show that he will meet with Democratic President Joe Biden on Wednesday, the first discussions in what could be protracted debt ceiling talks over several months.

The U.S. must raise its debt ceiling before it runs out of money to pay bills it has already incurred. Biden and Democrats want a “clean” approval to raise the debt ceiling not tied to future spending, while Republicans have called for limits on new spending to curb yearly deficits, chronic overspending that often totals more than $1 trillion annually.

“We’re not going to default,” McCarthy said.

The U.S. has never defaulted on its debts, such as on Treasury notes sold to China, Japan and individual Americans, but its credit rating was downgraded in 2011 when Democratic President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans sparred at length over the country’s spending before eventually reaching a 10-year agreement.

Now, McCarthy said, the country’s debt totals 120% of its national economic output, with the debt significantly added to in recent years for two main reasons, the national tax cuts Republicans approved under former President Donald Trump and unfunded coronavirus aid relief approved under both Trump and Biden.

“We haven’t been in this place to debt since World War II,” McCarthy said. “So, we can’t continue down this path. And I don’t think there’s anyone in America who doesn’t agree that there’s some wasteful Washington spending that we can eliminate.”

“So, I want to sit down together, work out an agreement that we can move forward, to put us on a path to balance — at the same time, not put any — any of our debt in jeopardy at the same time,” he said. “We shouldn’t just print more money; we should balance our budget. So, I want to look at every single department. Where can we become more efficient, more effective, and more accountable?”

McCarthy, like Biden, ruled out cuts to two of the most popular government programs, pensions and health care for older Americans, respectively known as Social Security and Medicare.

But he added, “I want to look at every single dollar we’re spending, no matter where it’s being spent. I want to eliminate waste wherever it is.”

He compared government spending to an American family’s budget, saying, “Every family does this. What is – what has happened with the debt limit is you reached your credit card limit. Should we just continue to raise the limit? Or should we look at what we’re spending?”

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WHO: Over 1.6B People Infected with Neglected Tropical Diseases 

Ahead of World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day Monday, the World Health Organization is calling for action to tackle these debilitating illnesses, which affect an estimated 1.65 billion people globally. 

A diverse group of 20 parasitic and bacterial tropical diseases is categorized as neglected. This is because they disproportionally affect people who live in poor, remote communities and are not on the list of global health priorities.

Ibrahima Soce Fall is director of WHO’s Department of Neglected Tropical Diseases. He says these vector-borne diseases are transmitted by insects in areas that lack safe water, sanitation, and access to health care. He says they also are spread via contaminated food and water.

Fall says they cause immense suffering because of their disfiguring and disabling impact.

“If you take diseases like onchocerciasis, you know, so-called river blindness because it can lead to blindness. The same for trachoma. So, these are so many diseases that are fatal and very debilitating,” he said.

Trachoma is an eye disease that can cause permanent blindness.

Fall says these diseases do not attract the amount of investment needed to access health services or develop new tools for diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines.

He notes some of these ailments have been around for a very long time. For instance, the biblical disease, leprosy, still exists in 139 countries and dengue, which has been around for 800 years, remains prevalent in 129 nations.

Despite the many challenges, progress is being made in the elimination of the NTDs. WHO reports the number of people requiring NTD interventions fell by 80 million between 2020 and 2021. It finds 47 countries have eliminated at least one NTD and more countries are in the process of achieving this target.

According to the Carter Center, there were only 13 human cases of Guinea worm disease last year, pushing the illness closer to eradication. The Atlanta-based center was co-founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter. When it began leading the international campaign to eradicate Guinea worm in 1986, there were an estimated 3.5 million cases in at least 21 countries in Africa and Asia.

WHO officials say the goal it has set to eliminate at least one neglected tropical disease in 100 countries by 2030 can be achieved. It says the scientific community has the tools and the know-how to save lives and prevent suffering. But WHO says nations need to act together and invest in helping get rid of this dreaded group of diseases.

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Asteroid’s Sudden Flyby Shows Blind Spot in Planetary Threat Detection

The discovery of an asteroid the size of a small shipping truck mere days before it passed Earth on Thursday, albeit one that posed no threat to humans, highlights a blind spot in our ability to predict those that could actually cause damage, astronomers say.

NASA for years has prioritized detecting asteroids much bigger and more existentially threatening than 2023 BU, the small space rock that streaked by 2,200 miles from the Earth’s surface, closer than some satellites. If bound for Earth, it would have been pulverized in the atmosphere, with only small fragments possibly reaching land.

But 2023 BU sits on the smaller end of a size group, asteroids 5-to-50 meters in diameter, that also includes those as big as an Olympic swimming pool. Objects that size are difficult to detect until they wander much closer to Earth, complicating any efforts to brace for one that could impact a populated area.

The probability of an Earth impact by a space rock, called a meteor when it enters the atmosphere, of that size range is fairly low, scaling according to the asteroid’s size: a 5-meter rock is estimated to target Earth once a year, and a 50-meter rock once every thousand years, according to NASA.

But with current capabilities, astronomers can’t see when such a rock targets Earth until days prior.

“We don’t know where most of the asteroids are that can cause local to regional devastation,” said Terik Daly, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

The roughly 20-meter meteor that exploded in 2013 over Chelyabinsk, Russia is a once-every-100-years event, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It created a shockwave that shattered tens of thousands of windows and caused $33 million in damage, and no one saw it coming before it entered Earth’s atmosphere.

Some astronomers consider relying only on statistical probabilities and estimates of asteroid populations an unnecessary risk, when improvements could be made to NASA’s ability to detect them.

“How many natural hazards are there that we could actually do something about and prevent for a billion dollars? There’s not many,” said Daly, whose work focuses on defending Earth from hazardous asteroids.

Avoiding a really bad day

One major upgrade to NASA’s detection arsenal will be NEO Surveyor, a $1.2 billion telescope under development that will launch nearly a million miles from Earth and surveil a wide field of asteroids. It promises a significant advantage over today’s ground-based telescopes that are hindered by daytime light and Earth’s atmosphere. 

That new telescope will help NASA meet a goal assigned by Congress in 2005: detect 90% of the total expected amount of asteroids bigger than 140 meters, or those big enough to destroy anything from a region to an entire continent.

“With Surveyor, we’re really focusing on finding the one asteroid that could cause a really bad day for a lot of people,” said Amy Mainzer, NEO Surveyor principal investigator. “But we’re also tasked with getting good statistics on the smaller objects, down to about the size of the Chelyabinsk object.”

NASA has fallen years behind on its congressional goal, which was ordered for completion by 2020. The agency proposed last year to cut the telescope’s 2023 budget by three quarters and a two-year launch delay to 2028 “to support higher-priority missions” elsewhere in NASA’s science portfolio.

Asteroid detection gained greater importance last year after NASA slammed a refrigerator-sized spacecraft into an asteroid to test its ability to knock a potentially hazardous space rock off a collision course with Earth.

The successful demonstration, called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), affirmed for the first time a method of planetary defense.

“NEO Surveyor is of the utmost importance, especially now that we know from DART that we really can do something about it,” Daly said.

“So by golly, we gotta find these asteroids.”

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Is Tipping Getting Out of Control? Many US Consumers Say Yes

Across the U.S., there’s a silent frustration brewing about an age-old practice that many say is getting out of hand: tipping.

Some fed-up consumers are posting rants on social media complaining about tip requests at drive-thrus, while others say they’re tired of being asked to leave a gratuity for a muffin or a simple cup of coffee at their neighborhood bakery. What’s next, they wonder — are we going to be tipping our doctors and dentists, too?

As more businesses adopt digital payment methods, customers are automatically being prompted to leave a gratuity — many times as high as 30% — at places they normally wouldn’t. And some say it has become more frustrating as the price of items has skyrocketed due to inflation, which eased to 6.5% in December but still remains painfully high.

“Suddenly, these screens are at every establishment we encounter. They’re popping up online as well for online orders. And I fear that there is no end,” said etiquette expert Thomas Farley, who considers the whole thing somewhat of “an invasion.”

Unlike tip jars that shoppers can easily ignore if they don’t have spare change, experts say the digital requests can produce social pressure and are more difficult to bypass. And your generosity, or lack thereof, can be laid bare for anyone close enough to glance at the screen — including the workers themselves.

Dylan Schenker is one of them. The 38-year-old earns about $400 a month in tips, which provides a helpful supplement to his $15 hourly wage as a barista at Philadelphia café located inside a restaurant. Most of those tips come from consumers who order coffee drinks or interact with the café for other things, such as carryout orders. The gratuity helps cover his monthly rent and eases some of his burdens while he attends graduate school and juggles his job.

Schenker says it’s hard to sympathize with consumers who are able to afford pricey coffee drinks but complain about tipping. And he often feels demoralized when people don’t leave behind anything extra — especially if they’re regulars.

“Tipping is about making sure the people who are performing that service for you are getting paid what they’re owed,” said Schenker, who’s been working in the service industry for roughly 18 years.

Traditionally, consumers have taken pride in being good tippers at places like restaurants, which typically pay their workers lower than the minimum wage in expectation they’ll make up the difference in tips. But academics who study the topic say many consumers are now feeling irritated by automatic tip requests at coffee shops and other counter service eateries where tipping has not typically been expected, workers make at least the minimum wage and service is usually limited.

“People do not like unsolicited advice,” said Ismail Karabas, a marketing professor at Murray State University who studies tipping. “They don’t like to be asked for things, especially at the wrong time.”

Some of the requests can also come from odd places. Clarissa Moore, a 35-year-old who works as a supervisor at a utility company in Pennsylvania, said even her mortgage company has been asking for tips lately. Typically, she’s happy to leave a gratuity at restaurants, and sometimes at coffee shops and other fast-food places when the service is good. But, Moore said she believes consumers shouldn’t be asked to tip nearly everywhere they go — and it shouldn’t be something that’s expected of them.

“It makes you feel bad. You feel like you have to do it because they’re asking you to do it,” she said. “But then you have to think about the position that puts people in. They’re paying for something that they really don’t want to pay for, or they’re tipping when they really don’t want to tip — or can’t afford to tip — because they don’t want to feel bad.”

In the book “Emily Post’s Etiquette,” authors Lizzie Post and Daniel Post Senning advise consumers to tip on ride-shares, like Uber and Lyft, as well as food and beverages, including alcohol. But they also write that it’s up to each person to choose how much to tip at a café or a take-out food service, and that consumers shouldn’t feel embarrassed about choosing the lowest suggested tip amount, and don’t have to explain themselves if they don’t tip.

Digital payment methods have been around for a number of years, though experts say the pandemic has accelerated the trend towards more tipping. Michael Lynn, a consumer behavior professor at Cornell University, said consumers were more generous with tips during the early days of the pandemic in an effort to show support for restaurants and other businesses that were hard hit by COVID-19. Many people genuinely wanted to help out and felt sympathetic to workers who held jobs that put them more at risk of catching the virus, Lynn said.

Tips at full-service restaurants grew by 25.3% in the third quarter of 2022, while gratuities at quick or counter service restaurants went up 16.7% compared to the same time in 2021, according to Square, one of the biggest companies operating digital payment methods. Data provided by the company shows continuous growth for the same period since 2019.

As tip requests have become more common, some businesses are advertising it in their job postings to lure in more workers even though the extra money isn’t always guaranteed.

In December, Starbucks rolled out a new tipping option on credit and debit card transactions at its stores, something a group organizing the company’s hourly workers had called for. Since then, a Starbucks spokesperson said nearly half of credit and debit card transactions have included a gratuity, which – along with tips received through cash and the Starbucks app – are distributed based on the number of hours a barista worked on the days the tips were received.

Karabas, the Murray State professor, says some customers, like those who’ve worked in the service industry in the past, want to tip workers at quick service businesses and wouldn’t be irritated by the automatic requests. But for others, research shows they might be less likely to come back to a particular business if they are feeling irritated by the requests, he said.

The final tab might also impact how customers react. Karabas said in the research he did with other academics, they manipulated the payment amounts and found that when the check was high, consumers no longer felt as irritated by the tip requests. That suggests the best time for a coffee shop to ask for that 20% tip, for example, might be on four or five orders of coffee, not a small cup that costs $4.

Some consumers might continue to shrug off the tip requests regardless of the amount.

“If you work for a company, it’s that company’s job to pay you for doing work for them,” said Mike Janavey, a footwear and clothing designer who lives in New York City. “They’re not supposed to be juicing consumers that are already spending money there to pay their employees.”

Schenker, the Philadelphia barista, agrees — to a certain extent.

“The onus should absolutely be on the owners, but that doesn’t change overnight,” he said. “And this is the best thing we have right now.”

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As Children in US Study Online, Apps Watch Their Every Move 

For New York teacher Michael Flanagan, the pandemic was a crash course in new technology — rushing out laptops to stay-at-home students and shifting hectic school life online.

Students are long back at school, but the technology has lived on, and with it has come a new generation of apps that monitor the pupils online, sometimes round the clock and even on down days shared with family and friends at home.

The programs scan students’ online activity, social media posts and more — aiming to keep them focused, detect mental health problems and flag up any potential for violence.

“You can’t unring the bell,” said Flanagan, who teaches social studies and economics. “Everybody has a device.”

The new trend for tracking, however, has raised fears that some of the apps may target minority pupils, while others have outed LGBT+ students without their consent, and many are used to instill discipline as much as deliver care.

So Flanagan has parted ways with many of his colleagues and won’t use such apps to monitor his students online.

He recalled seeing a demo of one such program, GoGuardian, in which a teacher showed — in real time — what one student was doing on his computer. The child was at home, on a day off.

Such scrutiny raised a big red flag for Flanagan.

“I have a school-issued device, and I know that there’s no expectation of privacy. But I’m a grown man — these kids don’t know that,” he said.

A New York City Department of Education spokesperson said that the use of GoGuardian Teacher “is only for teachers to see what’s on the student’s screen in the moment, provide refocusing prompts, and limit access to inappropriate content.”

Valued at more than $1 billion, GoGuardian — one of a handful of high-profile apps in the market — is now monitoring more than 22 million students, including in the New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles public systems.

Globally, the education technology sector is expected to grow by $133 billion from 2021 to 2026, market researcher Technavio said last year.

Parents expect schools to keep children safe in classrooms or on field trips, and schools also “have a responsibility to keep students safe in digital spaces and on school-issued devices,” GoGuardian said in a statement.

The company says it “provides educators with the ability to protect students from harmful or explicit content”.

Nowadays, online monitoring “is just part of the school environment,” said Jamie Gorosh, policy counsel with the Future of Privacy Forum, a watchdog group.

And even as schools move beyond the pandemic, “it doesn’t look like we’re going back,” she said.

Guns and depression

A key priority for monitoring is to keep students engaged in their academic work, but it also taps into fast-rising concerns over school violence and children’s mental health, which medical groups in 2021 termed a national emergency.

According to federal data released this month, 82% of schools now train staff on how to spot mental health problems, up from 60% in 2018; 65% have confidential threat-reporting systems, up 15% in the same period.

In a survey last year by the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), 89% of teachers reported their schools were monitoring student online activity.

Yet it is not clear that the software creates safer schools.

Gorosh cited May’s shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 dead in a school that had invested heavily in monitoring tech.

Some worry the tracking apps could actively cause harm.

The CDT report, for instance, found that while administrators overwhelmingly say the purpose of monitoring software is student safety, “it’s being used far more commonly for disciplinary purposes … and we’re seeing a discrepancy falling along racial lines,” said Elizabeth Laird, director of CDT’s Equity in Civic Technology program.

The programs’ use of artificial intelligence to scan for keywords has also outed LGBT+ students without their consent, she said, noting that 29% of students who identify as LGBT+ said they or someone they knew had experienced this.

And more than a third of teachers said their schools send alerts automatically to law enforcement outside school hours.

“The stated purpose is to keep students safe, and here we have set up a system that is routinizing law enforcement access to this information and finding reasons for them to go into students’ homes,” Laird said.

‘Preyed upon’

A report by federal lawmakers last year into four companies making student monitoring software found that none had made efforts to see if the programs disproportionately targeted marginalized students.

“Students should not be surveilled on the same platforms they use for their schooling,” Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, one of the report’s co-authors, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a statement.

“As school districts work to incorporate technology in the classroom, we must ensure children and teenagers are not preyed upon by a web of targeted advertising or intrusive monitoring of any kind.”

The Department of Education has committed to releasing guidelines around the use of AI early this year.

A spokesperson said the agency was “committed to protecting the civil rights of all students.”

Aside from the ethical questions around spying on children, many parents are frustrated by the lack of transparency.

“We need more clarity on whether data is being collected, especially sensitive data. You should have at least notification, and probably consent,” said Cassie Creswell, head of Illinois Families for Public Schools, an advocacy group.

Creswell, who has a daughter in a Chicago public school, said several parents have been sent alerts about their children’s online searches, despite not having been asked or told about the monitoring in the first place.

Another child had faced repeated warnings not to play a particular game — even though the student was playing it at home on the family computer, she said.

Creswell and others acknowledge that the issues monitoring aims to address — bullying, depression, violence — are real and need tackling, but question whether technology is the answer.

“If we’re talking about self-harm monitoring, is this the best way to approach the issue?” said Gorosh.

Pointing to evidence suggesting AI is imperfect in capturing the warning signs, she said increased funding for school counselors could be more narrowly tailored to the problem.

“There are huge concerns,” she said. “But maybe technology isn’t the first step to answer some of those issues.”

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New Zealand Roiled by Flash Floods, Landslides for Third Day

Heavy rainfall hit New Zealand’s north island again on Sunday, causing landslides, flash floods and knocking out roads, with the death toll rising to four after a person who had been missing was confirmed dead.

Battered by rain since Friday, Auckland — New Zealand’s largest city of 1.6 million people — remained under a state of emergency. The nation’s weather forecaster, MetService, warned of severe weather on Sunday and Monday for the north island. Intense rainfall could also cause surface and flash flooding, it said.

The focus of the emergency has since moved south, with Waitomo District, about 220 km from Auckland, declaring a state of emergency late on Saturday.

Police confirmed that a man missing after being swept away on Friday in Onewhero, a rural village about 70 km south of Auckland, had died.

“The most horrific part of it is that we’ve lost lives,” Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni told reporters in Auckland.

The culprit: Climate change

Climate change is causing episodes of heavy rainfall to become more common and more intense in New Zealand, though the impact varies by region. Climate Change Minister James Shaw noted the link to climate change on Saturday when he tweeted his support for those affected by flooding.

On Sunday, police said they were assisting with traffic management and road closures after heavy rainfall “caused numerous slips, flooding and damage to roads.”

In nearby Bay of Plenty there was also “widespread flooding,” police said, as well as a landslide that had knocked down a house and was threatening neighboring properties.

Thousands of properties remained without power, while hundreds were without water, authorities said on Sunday.

Airline back in service Sunday

But Air New Zealand said the airline’s international flights in and out of Auckland would resume starting Sunday noon, local time (2300 GMT on Saturday).

On Saturday, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, in office less than a week, flew by helicopter over Auckland before touring flood-hit homes. He described the flood impact in the city as “unprecedented” in recent memory.

People made more than 2,000 calls for assistance and 70 evacuations around Auckland because of the flooding, the New Zealand Herald reported Saturday.

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‘Whale Meat’ Vending Machines Push Sales in Japan

A Japanese whaling operator, after struggling for years to promote its products amid protests from conservationists, has found a new way to cultivate clientele and bolster sales: whale meat vending machines.

The Kujira (Whale) Store, an unmanned outlet that recently opened in the port town of Yokohama near Tokyo, houses three machines for whale sashimi, whale bacon, whale skin and whale steak, as well as canned whale meat. Prices range from 1,000 yen ($7.70) to 3,000 yen ($23).

The outlet features white vending machines decorated with cartoon whales and is the third location to launch in the Japanese capital region. It opened Tuesday after two others were introduced in Tokyo earlier this year as part of Kyodo Senpaku Co.’s new sales drive.

Whale meat has long been a source of controversy but sales in the new vending machines have quietly gotten off to a good start, the operator says. Anti-whaling protests have subsided since Japan in 2019 terminated its much-criticized research hunts in the Antarctic and resumed commercial whaling off the Japanese coasts.

Conservationists say they are worried the move could be a step toward expanded whaling.

“The issue is not the vending machines themselves but what they may lead to,” said Nanami Kurasawa, head of the Iruka & Kujira (Dolphin & Whale) Action Network.

Kurasawa noted the whaling operator is already asking for additional catches and to expand whaling outside of the designated waters.

Kyodo Senpaku hopes to set up vending machines at 100 locations nationwide in five years, company spokesperson Konomu Kubo told The Associated Press. A fourth is to open in Osaka next month.

The idea is to open vending machines near supermarkets, where whale meat is usually unavailable, to cultivate demand, a task crucial for the industry’s survival.

Major supermarket chains have largely stayed away from whale meat to avoid protests by anti-whaling groups and remain cautious even though harassment from activists has subsided, Kubo said.

“As a result, many consumers who want to eat it cannot find or buy whale meat. We launched vending machines at unmanned stores for those people,” he said.

Company officials say sales at the two Tokyo outlets have been significantly higher than expected, keeping staff busy replenishing products.

At the store in the Motomachi district of Yokohama, a posh shopping area near Chinatown, 61-year-old customer Mami Kashiwabara went straight for whale bacon, her father’s favorite. To her disappointment it was sold out, and she settled for frozen onomi, tail meat that is regarded as a rare delicacy.

Kashiwabara says she is aware of the whaling controversy, but that whale meat brings back her childhood memories of eating it at family dinners and school lunches.

“I don’t think it’s good to kill whales meaninglessly. But whale meat is part of Japanese food culture, and we can respect the lives of whales by appreciating their meat,” Kashiwabara said. “I would be happy if I can eat it.”

Kashiwabara said she planned to share her purchase of a 3,000 yen ($23) handy-size chunk, neatly wrapped in a freezer bag, with her husband over sake.

The meat mostly comes from whales caught off Japan’s northeastern coast.

Japan resumed commercial whaling in July 2019 after withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission, ending 30 years of what it called research whaling, which had been criticized by conservationists as a cover for commercial hunts banned by the IWC in 1988.

Under its commercial whaling in the Japanese exclusive economic zone, Japan last year caught 270 whales, less than 80% of the quota and fewer than the number it once hunted in the Antarctic and the northwestern Pacific in its research program.

The decline occurred because fewer minke whales were found along the coast. Kurasawa says the reason for the smaller catch should be examined to see if it is linked to overhunting or climate change.

While conservation groups condemned the resumption of commercial whaling, some see it as a way to let the government’s embattled and expensive whaling program adapt to changing times and tastes.

In a show of determination to keep the whaling industry alive in the coming decades, Kyodo Senpaku will construct a 6 billion yen ($46 million) new mother ship for launch next year to replace the aging Nisshin Maru.

But uncertainty remains.

Whaling is losing support in other whaling nations such as Iceland, where only one whaler remains.

Whales may also be moving away from the Japanese coasts due to a scarcity of saury, a staple of their diet, and other fish possibly due to the impact of climate change, Kubo said.

Whaling in Japan involves only a few hundred people and one operator and accounted for less than 0.1% of total meat consumption in recent years, according to Fisheries Agency data.

Still, conservative governing lawmakers staunchly support commercial whaling and consumption of the meat as part of Japan’s cultural tradition.

Conservationists say whale meat is no longer part of the daily diet in Japan, especially for younger generations.

Whale meat was an affordable source of protein during Japan’s undernourished years after World War II, with annual consumption peaking at 233,000 tons in 1962.

Whale was quickly replaced by other meats. The whale meat supply fell to 6,000 tons in 1986, the year before the moratorium on commercial whaling imposed by the IWC banned the hunting of several whale species.

Under the research whaling, criticized as a cover for commercial hunts because the meat was sold on the market, Japan caught as many as 1,200 whales annually. It has since drastically cut back its catch after international protests escalated and whale meat supply and consumption slumped at home.

Annual meat supply had fluctuated in a range of 3,000-5,000 tons, including imports from Norway and Iceland. The amount further fell in 2019 to 2,000 tons, or 20 grams (less than 1 ounce) of whale meat per person a year, the Fisheries Agency statistics show.

Whaling officials attributed the shrinking supply in the past three years to the absence of imports due to the pandemic, and plan to nearly double this year’s supply with imports of more than 2,500 tons from Iceland.

Japan managed to get Iceland’s only remaining whaler to hunt fin whales exclusively for shipment to Japan, whaling officials said. Iceland caught only one minke whale in the 2021 season, according to the IWC.

Criticizing Iceland’s export to Japan, the International Fund for Animal Welfare said it “opposes all commercial whaling as it is inherently cruel.”

With uncertain outlook for imports, Kyodo Senpaku wants the government to raise Japan’s annual catch quota to levels that can supply about 5,000 tons, which Kubo describes as the threshold to maintain the industry.

“From a long-term perspective, I think it would be difficult to sustain the industry at the current supply levels,” Kubo said. “We must expand both supply and demand, which have both shrunk.”

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