Images suggest Iran launched satellite despite US criticism
By JON GAMBRELL
Thursday, February 7
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran appears to have attempted a second satellite launch despite U.S. criticism that its space program helps the country develop ballistic missiles, satellite images released Thursday suggest. Iran did not immediately acknowledge conducting such a launch.
Images released by the Colorado-based company DigitalGlobe show a rocket at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran’s Semnan province on Tuesday. Images from Wednesday show the rocket was gone with what appears to be burn marks on its launch pad.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the satellite, if launched, made it into orbit.
In the images, words written in Farsi in large characters on the launch pad appeared to say in part “40 years” and “Iranian made,” in different sections. That is likely in reference to the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, which authorities have been celebrating this month.
Iranian state media did not immediately report on the rocket launch, though such delays have happened in previous launches.
Iran has said it would launch its Doosti, or “friendship,” satellite. A launch in January failed to put another satellite, Payam or “message,” into orbit after successfully launching it from the same space center.
DigitalGlobe analysts said the images from Tuesday suggest Iran used a Safir, or “ambassador,” rocket in the launch. In the January launch, engineers used a Simorgh, or “phoenix,” rocket. It wasn’t immediately clear what prompted the rocket choice.
The Doosti, a remote-sensing satellite developed by engineers at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology, was to be launched into a low orbit.
The U.S. alleges such launches defy a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component. Tehran also says they don’t violate a United Nations resolution that only “called upon” it not to conduct such tests.
Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.
Iran usually displays space achievements in February during the anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution. This year’s 40th anniversary comes amid Iran facing increasing pressure from the U.S. under the administration of President Donald Trump.
The likely launch also comes after a Iran’s Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi reportedly said Sunday that three researchers died “because of a fire in one of the buildings of the Space Research Center,” without elaborating.
Venezuela’s political fight could snarl rush to ship aid in
By JOSHUA GOODMAN and CHRISTINE ARMARIO
Thursday, February 7
CUCUTA, Colombia (AP) — For Anahis Alvarado, whose battle with kidney failure has become more desperate as Venezuela sinks deeper into crisis, the prospect of bringing in emergency medical and food supplies can’t come soon enough.
She’s watched five fellow patients in her dialysis group die over the past few years due to inadequate care. Only a quarter of the dialysis machines where she receives treatment at a government-run clinic in Caracas still work.
And last week she had to spend almost a third of her family’s monthly income buying basic supplies like surgical gloves and syringes that President Nicolas Maduro’s bankrupt government is no longer able to provide.
“We’re losing time,” the 32-year-old Alvarado said.
She hopes relief will soon be on its way.
Some 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) away, in the Colombian border city of Cucuta, opponents of Maduro are hastily putting together plans with U.S. officials to open a “humanitarian corridor” to deliver badly needed food and medicine.
The aid convoy is seen as a key test for Juan Guaido after the opposition leader declared himself interim president in a high-risk challenge to Maduro’s authority — a move that has the backing of almost 40 countries around the world.
But getting the food into Venezuela is no easy task.
On Wednesday, a large tanker, mangled fencing and a shipping container were scattered across a bridge connecting the two countries, a makeshift barricade reflecting Maduro’s longstanding rejection of outside assistance.
“We aren’t beggars,” the embattled socialist said Monday in a speech to troops.
The standoff has troubled international relief organizations, many who say the issue of humanitarian aid is being used as a political weapon by both sides.
Maduro’s government has steadfastly denied the existence of a humanitarian crisis that has forced some 3 million Venezuelans to flee in recent years, even while handing out heavily subsidized food staples to rally support among the poor, especially ahead of elections.
Meanwhile, the opposition is vowing to proceed with its aid plan at all costs in an effort to break the military’s strong support for Maduro.
“You have a clear choice,” Miguel Pizarro, a lawmaker coordinating the relief effort, said in pointed remarks Tuesday to members of the armed forces. “Either you are part of the problem, or you put yourself on the side of the people who are in need.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross is among groups that have warned about the fast-escalating rhetoric. On Tuesday, it repeated an offer to distribute humanitarian assistance but only if authorities agree to guarantee the aid safely reaches those in need and isn’t politicized.
“Right now, both sides are comparing muscles to see who is stronger,” said Daniel Almeida, an advocacy adviser for the Switzerland-based humanitarian agency CARE. “But for the person who really needs the assistance, they don’t care where it comes from.”
The Trump administration has pledged $20 million in humanitarian assistance to Guaido’s government in addition to the more than $140 million it has already made available to South American countries absorbing the exodus of Venezuelan migrants. Canada has pledged another $53 million to Guaido.
National Security Adviser John Bolton last week tweeted a picture of hundreds of boxes of ready-to-use meals for “malnourished children,” each printed with an American flag, that he said were ready to be delivered.
The show of bravado alarmed some international relief organizations, which worry the real intention is to lay bare Maduro’s obstinacy and build the case for military intervention on humanitarian grounds — a worst-case scenario that would pile on even more hardships.
Bolton said he was responding to a request from Guaido, who announced at a rally last weekend that he was setting up three collection points — in Cucuta, as well as others in Brazil and the Caribbean — to receive the aid.
The 30 to 40 tons of aid includes baby formula and high-protein biscuits, according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the plans.
Cucuta has become the top destination for Venezuelans who travel long distances to the city in a desperate search for food and medicine.
Alvarado said if it wasn’t for a friend who made the trek for her last week she wouldn’t have the antibiotic she needs for an infection. She paid for the medicine with money from an aunt in Argentina because her once middle-class family struggles to survive on her mother’s meager retirement pension of $8 a month.
During dialysis sessions dangerously shortened by an hour to cope with the lack of machines and supplies, Alvarado keeps herself busy by writing poetry. Her latest poem, written the day Venezuelans poured into the street in support of Guaido, is an ode to a Venezuela she dreams of one day being replenished with “pharmacies full of medicine.”
“I want to get better so that I can begin to help others,” she said. “All of us are victims and all of us need to work hard so Venezuela can resurge.”
In Cucuta, volunteers have been on standby for days to help with the aid’s arrival but have been given no indication of how it will get into Venezuela.
“It’s creating huge expectations,” said Francisco Valencia, a director of CODEVIDA, a coalition of Venezuelan health advocacy groups. “If the transition doesn’t take place soon, we’re not going to receive the real humanitarian aid we need.”
Caritas, a charity run by the Roman Catholic Church, estimates that child malnutrition more than doubled last year, while 48 percent of pregnant women in low-income neighborhoods are underfed.
Among those waiting in limbo is Aminta Villamizar, a retired cleaning woman, who lost her right leg and two toes on her left leg because she can’t find enough insulin to treat her diabetes.
Lying in bed in her Caracas apartment building, she waits as her grandson, Antonio, measures her blood sugar levels. Although it’s above normal, she resists the offer of a shot, preferring to safeguard her scarce supplies and instead pray to an icon of Dr. Jose Greogrio Hernandez, a 19th-century Venezuelan doctor who treated the poor and is revered throughout the country as a saint.
“I was a person who worked my entire life, but this sickness destroyed me,” she said.
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman reported this story from Caracas, Venezuela, and AP writer Christine Armario reported in Cucuta, Colombia.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjoshgoodman
I fight anti-GMO fears in Africa to combat hunger
February 7, 2019
Author: Walter Suza, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Agronomy, Iowa State University
Disclosure statement: Walter Suza receives funding from. Gates Foundation USAID
Partners: Iowa State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
As a child, I remember feeling hungry most of the time. Growing up in rural Tanzania, I walked to school barefoot and most of the time had one meal a day. After school, I helped my mother with various farming chores, including feeding the animals, weeding, harvesting and planting. I often heard my mother express concerns about the lack of ways to protect our crops from drought, pests and diseases. I wanted to help my mother but was too young to understand what the solution might be.
In my undergraduate genetics class, I completed a term paper on the domestication of maize. I was surprised to discover that ancestral maize did not produce the type of kernels we consume today. It took humans thousands of years of deliberate selection to breed a maize plant capable of producing edible seeds. Subsequently, more work by plant breeders helped improve the genetics of maize for higher yield and tolerance to environmental stresses. This was fascinating to me, because when plant breeders interbreed plants, large sections of parental genetic material pass on to new varieties, but the function of many genes that end up in the crops we grow and consume remain unknown.
I am a plant physiologist at Iowa State University and director of the Plant Breeding Education in Africa Program. I believe that Africa deserves cutting-edge technologies, including genetic engineering to develop stress-tolerant crop varieties and more nutritious staple crops to improve human health. However, the anti-GMO news and campaign across the globe make me wonder whether improved crop varieties would ever reach small stakeholder farmers like my mother.
Humanitarian work in Africa
When I was working for UNICEF in Zimbabwe from 1999-2000, I met a young single mother with several children. Her village was in an area of the country that was facing a devastating drought and many families needed food. The purpose of my meeting with the woman was to assess her food security situation and whether she qualified for food aid.
Near the conclusion of my visit, I saw her little girl, probably 3 or 4 years old, sitting on the ground, eating porridge, probably the only meal she would have that day. The little girl did not appear too bothered by my presence, nor the flies that swarmed her plate. I was surprised she seemed happy. It was overwhelming for me to think that there were thousands of children in the area facing a similar situation. That day I dedicated my life to fight hunger and poverty.
Graduate education and research
My doctoral training helped me understand the scientific process and biotechnology techniques for inserting new genes more precisely into plants. My research on plant insect defense genes involved gene cloning and creation of genetically modified plants. During my time in the laboratory, I often thought of my mother and the crop production challenges she faced. I felt that genetic engineering crops to increase resistance to insects could benefit small stakeholder farmers. I was hopeful that my research could benefit Africa.
Scientific research suggests that climate change will have a negative effect on yields, especially in Africa. In addition, millions in Africa rely on starchy crops as their staple foods and are more prone to mineral and protein deficiencies.
Scientists debunk GMO myths
In my opinion, scientists need to share more of the scientific facts about GMOs and debunk the myths. In many African countries, the root cause for resistance to GMO crops is lack of public awareness of the scientific principles and benefits of biotechnology.
To help increase awareness, my team analyzed dozens of research articles on risk assessment of transgenic maize containing the Bt insect resistance gene. Bt maize is a transgenic crop that contains the Bt gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. The Bt gene helps maize fight off insect pests such as the fall armyworm, Spodoptera frugiperda.
This work, recently published in Global Food Security, compared the risk assessment process for Bt maize with risk assessment in other fields such medicine and engineering. Risk can be defined as the likelihood of harm that happens from a set of specific conditions. Risk assessment uses fact-based information to define the effect of exposure to such harm on a given population. My team hopes that policymakers and leaders would read this article to help them appreciate that risk assessment for GM crops is similar to the other kinds of risk assessments.
For instance, the maintenance of bridges uses risk assessment studies. Potential hazards with bridges include natural hazards, errors in design and traffic overload. These regular risks assessments determine the probability of bridge collapse to ensure public safety.
Risk assessments are also done to quantify the dangers of exposure to radon, a known carcinogen and significant health hazard recognized by many international environmental and health organizations. Radon gas is naturally present in homes and risk assessment studies have enabled recommendations on safe levels of radon above which mitigation efforts might be required. Subsequently, in the United States, during sales of new homes, the seller is obliged to divulge their home’s radon value to the buyer.
For both the bridge and radon examples, the public is willing to trust the analysis by experts in these fields. But when the same kind of analysis is done for GM crops – like Bt maize – these expert risk assessments are considered less trustworthy than those for radon or bridges.
Educating future hunger fighters
Through the analysis of numerous research articles, my team agrees with experts in risk assessment that no significant impacts on human health or the environment have been found with Bt maize. However, not using Bt maize to block the rapid spread of fall armyworm, which has destroyed maize and other crops across Africa, poses a risk to human health if other control measures such as pesticides are used in large quantities.
Looking to the future, I believe there needs to be more investment in education and outreach concerning biotechnology and its applications in agriculture. Importantly, sustainable use of biotechnology in African agriculture depends on educating the youth. Educational programs such as Plant Breeding E-Learning in Africa are an excellent platform to deliver educational biotechnology content to the next generation of African scientists.
My travels back to Africa from Ames, Iowa, bring back many memories. During daytime flights out of African cities, I look through the window to see the beautiful blue sea or vegetation, and hundreds of brown corrugated iron rooftops. The sheer density of tiny homes with rusty rooftops reminds me of the challenges ahead – the urgent need for agricultural revolution in the face of a population explosion in Africa.
With the little girl I met during work with UNICEF and my mother in mind, I listen to a whisper in my ears – “all people at all times have the right to sufficient and nutritious food for a happy, productive and active life.” This is an important reminder to continue spreading knowledge and awareness to improve food security in Africa.
Jon Richfield, logged in via Facebook: More strength to your elbow Walter, and may you and those like you succeed in overcoming the self-confident ignorance of the Dunning-Kruger types that oppose whatever they cannot understand, but that they love to bash because they have been sucker-baited by equally ignorant, equally irresponsible likes of Rifkin and the like.
They generally have never shared your knowledge of hunger and certainly not your knowledge and understanding of biology in general, or of genetic breeding or selection or agronomy in particular. Of such is the kingdom of the antivaxers and organic quacks.
You will need all your strength and courage. And patience. Good luck.
Unhappily, I leave you with the words of a certain wise American, no longer with us:
In combat everything that wears a sword has a chance — even the right. History does not forbid us to hope. But it forbids us to rely upon numbers; they will be against us. If history teaches anything worth learning it teaches that the majority of mankind is neither good nor wise. When government is founded upon the public conscience and the public intelligence the stability of states is a dream. — Ambrose Bierce
Stephen Reiss, logged in via Facebook: Thank you. The conversation about GMOs too often takes place among those too privileged to to understand the need for food security. The same people who (rightfully) decry climate deniers seemingly have no problem denying the science behind GMOs. We need a modern day Norman Borlaug to save the world. This time not just from tall wheat, but from Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. So much is just outside of our grasp, with science denial strangling the pathways to hope.
Is your VPN secure?
February 4, 2019
Mohammad Taha Khan, Ph.D. Candidate in Computer Science, University of Illinois at Chicago
Narseo Vallina-Rodriguez, Research Assistant Professor, IMDEA Networks Institute, Madrid, Spain; Research Scientist, Networking and Security, International Computer Science Institute based at, University of California, Berkeley
Disclosure statement: Mohammad Taha Khan is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinous at Chicago. This research was made possible by funding provided by the National Science Foundation and the Open Technology Fund. Also, a special thanks to the International Computer Science Insititue at Berkeley for supporting the initial phases of the project.
Narseo Vallina-Rodriguez recibe fondos de National Science Foundation de USA, el Ministerio de Economia de España, y la Comision Europea.
Partners: University of California provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
About a quarter of internet users use a virtual private network, a software setup that creates a secure, encrypted data connection between their own computer and another one elsewhere on the internet. Many people use them to protect their privacy when using Wi-Fi hotspots, or to connect securely to workplace networks while traveling. Other users are concerned about surveillance from governments and internet providers.
Many VPN companies promise to use strong encryption to secure data, and say they protect users’ privacy by not storing records of where people access the service or what they do while connected. If everything worked the way it was supposed to, someone snooping on the person’s computer would not see all their internet activity – just an unintelligible connection to that one computer. Any companies, governments or hackers spying on overall internet traffic could still spot a computer transmitting sensitive information or browsing Facebook at the office – but would think that activity was happening on a different computer than the one the person is really using.
However, most people – including VPN customers – don’t have the skills to double-check that they’re getting what they paid for. A group of researchers I was part of do have those skills, and our examination of the services provided by 200 VPN companies found that many of them mislead customers about key aspects of their user protections.
Consumers are in the dark
Our research found that it is very hard for VPN customers to get unbiased information. Many VPN providers pay third-party review sites and blogs to promote their services by writing positive reviews and ranking them highly in industry surveys. These amount to advertisements to people considering purchasing VPN services, rather than independent and unbiased reviews. We studied 26 review websites; 24 of them were getting some form of kickback payment for positive reviews.
A typical example was a site listing hundreds of VPN companies that rated more than 90 percent of them as 4 out of 5 or higher. This is not illegal, but it skews evaluations that could be independent. It also makes competition much more difficult for newer and smaller VPN providers that may have better service but lower budgets to pay for good publicity.
Vague on data privacy
The companies that did post privacy policies varied widely in their descriptions of how they handle users’ data. Some policies were as short as 75 words, a far cry from the multi-page legal documents standard on banking and social media sites. Others did not formally confirm what their advertisements suggested, leaving room to spy on users even after promising not to.
Leaking or monitoring traffic
Much of the security of a VPN depends on ensuring that all the user’s internet traffic goes through an encrypted connection between the user’s computer and the VPN server. But the software is written by humans, and humans make mistakes. When we tested 61 VPN systems, we found programming and configuration errors in 13 of them that allowed internet traffic to travel outside the encrypted connection – defeating the purpose of using a VPN and leaving the user’s online activity exposed to outside spies and observers.
Also, because VPN companies can, if they choose, monitor all online activity their users engage in, we checked to see if any were doing that. We found six of the 200 VPN services we studied actually did monitor users’ traffic themselves. This is different from accidental leaking, because it involves actively looking at users’ activity – and possibly retaining data about what users are doing.
Encouraged by ads that focus on privacy, users trust these companies not to do this, and not to share what they find with data brokers, advertising companies and police or other government agencies. Yet these six VPN companies don’t legally commit to protecting users, regardless of their promises.
Lying about locations
A huge selling point for many VPNs is that they claim to allow customers to connect to the internet as if they were in countries other than where they really are. Some users do this to avoid copyright restrictions, either illegally or quasi-legally, like watching U.S. Netflix shows while on vacation in Europe. Others do this to avoid censorship or other national rules governing internet activities.
We found, though, that those claims of international presence aren’t always true. Our suspicions were first raised when we saw VPNs claiming to let people use the internet as if they were in Iran, North Korea and smaller island territories like Barbados, Bermuda and Cape Verde – places where it’s very difficult to get internet access, if not impossible for foreign companies.
When we investigated, we found some VPNs that claim to have large numbers of diverse internet connections really only have a few servers clustered in a couple of countries. Our study found they manipulate internet routing records so they appear to provide service in other locations. We found at least six VPN services that claim to route their traffic through one country but really convey it through another. Depending on the user’s activity and the country’s laws, this could be illegal or even life-threatening – but at the very least it’s misleading.
Guidelines for VPN users
Technically minded customers who are still interested in VPNs might consider setting up their own servers, either using cloud computing services or their home internet connection. People with a bit less technical comfort might consider using the Tor browser, a network of internet-connected computers that help guard its users’ privacy.