Uphill Battle with Plastic Trash in Oceans

India is the global host of the 2018 World Environment Day. Highlighting its theme “Beat Plastic Pollution,” environmentalists will urge everyone, from those in government, industry as well as ordinary citizens, to reject the so-called ‘single-use plastic’ items which are slowly choking the planet’s waters and the animals that live in them. VOA’s George Putic reports.

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Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schultz Steps Down

Starbucks Corp, the world’s biggest coffee chain, said on Monday Executive Chairman Howard Schultz is stepping down, effective June 26.

Schultz, who has been with Starbucks for nearly four decades, is credited with turning the company into a popular household name and growing it from 11 stores to more than 28,000 in 77 countries.

Last year, Schultz stepped down as chief executive officer to become executive chairman, handing the top job to Kevin Johnson.

Most recently, he was involved in steering the company through an anti-bias training program that was kickstarted after a Philadelphia cafe manager’s call to police resulted in the arrests of two black men who were waiting for a friend.

Starbucks’ board named Myron Ullman, who was previously chairman and CEO of struggling retailer J.C. Penney Co, as its new chair and Mellody Hobson vice chair effective upon Schultz’s retirement.

Schultz will also resign from Starbucks’ board and will be named chairman emeritus, the company said in a statement.

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Microsoft Confirms It is Acquiring GitHub for $7.5 Billion

Microsoft on Monday said it will buy software development platform GitHub, in a deal worth $7.5 billion which will blend two opposite corporate cultures.

The tech giant, based in Washington state, is a heavyweight in terms of software whose source codes are not openly available or modifiable, exactly the counter of GitHub’s philosophy.

Created in 2008, GitHub allows developers to cooperatively manage software and has more than 28 million users around the world.

“Microsoft is a developer-first company, and by joining forces with GitHub we strengthen our commitment to developer freedom, openness and innovation,” Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella said in a statement.

“We recognize the community responsibility we take on with this agreement and will do our best work to empower every developer to build, innovate and solve the world’s most pressing challenges.”

The veteran tech firm said it “will acquire GitHub for $7.5 billion in Microsoft stock.”

Subject to customary closing conditions and regulatory review, the deal is expected to be finalized by the end of the year, Microsoft said in a statement on its website.

“GitHub will retain its developer-first ethos and will operate independently to provide an open platform for all developers in all industries,” Microsoft said.

“Developers will continue to be able to use the programing languages, tools and operating systems of their choice for their projects — and will still be able to deploy their code to any operating system, any cloud and any device.”

Microsoft has begun moving towards an open source software culture, proposing for example Linux on its Windows Azure cloud service. It also started a training program with Linux and others.

Microsoft Corporate Vice President Nat Friedman, founder of Xamarin and an open source veteran, will become GitHub CEO.

GitHub’s current chief executive, Chris Wanstrath, will move to Microsoft as a technical fellow to work on strategic software initiatives.

Writing on The GitHub Blog, Wanstrath said that he “could have never imagined” news of such a merger, when open source and business were considered as different “as oil and water” a decade ago.

But he said Microsoft and GitHub have already collaborated on projects, and “their vision for the future closely matches our own.”

He said “both believe that software development needs to become easier, more accessible, more intelligent, and more open, so more people can become developers and existing developers can spend more time focusing on the unique problems they’re trying to solve.”

In April, Microsoft reported that its earnings rose 35 percent to $7.4 billion in the fiscal third quarter, with revenue up 16 percent to $26.8 billion.

Earnings were lifted by gains in its core cloud computing operations for business.

Microsoft said the GitHub acquisition is expected to have a negative impact on 2019 earnings but positive beginning in 2020.

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Facebook Under Scrutiny Over Data Sharing After NYT Report

Facebook is pushing back against a media report saying that it provided extensive information about its users and their friends to third parties like phone makers.

 

The New York Times reported Sunday that Facebook struck data-sharing deals with at least 60 device makers, including Apple and Amazon, raising more concerns about what users give up when they use Facebook.

 

Facebook says it disagrees with reporting by the paper regarding software it rolled out 10 years ago that helped get Facebook on to devices like iPhones. Ime Archibong, vice president of product partnerships, said in blog post that Facebook has maintained tight control over the technology, known as application programming interfaces, or APIs, and that it is not aware of any abuse by the companies that it teamed with.

 

The Times report says Facebook allowed the companies access to the data of friends of the user without their explicit consent, a practice that landed the company in the crosshairs of Congress during the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

 

Some device makers, according to The Times, could get personal information from those friends even though they were under the impression that they had barred any sharing if their data.

 

Archibong said that the companies it partnered with had signed agreements that prevented people’s Facebook information from being used for any purpose other than to recreate Facebook-like experiences. And friends’ information was only accessible on devices when people made a decision to share their information with those friends, he said.

 

The APIs now in question, according to Archibong, are very different from those used by Cambridge Analytica. Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica in light of allegations that it had improperly harvested personal data from as many as 87 million Facebook accounts and used the material in Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign. Cambridge Analytica has since been dissolved.

 

Facebook announced in April that it was winding down access to the device-integrated APIs because fewer people rely on them today. To date, Facebook has ended 22 such partnerships with technology companies.

 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress in April to answer questions about data the company provided to third parties about their users. Late last month, he testified before European Union lawmakers, where he apologized for the way the social network has been used to produce fake news, interfere in elections and sweep up people’s personal data.

 

Shares slipped less than 1 percent at the opening bell Monday.

 

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Bayer to Ditch Monsanto Name After Mega-Merger

German chemicals and pharmaceuticals giant Bayer will discard the name Monsanto when it takes over the controversial US seeds and pesticides producer this week, it said Monday.

But Bayer executives insisted Monsanto practices rejected by many environmentalists, including genetic modification of seeds and deployment of “crop protection” technologies like pesticides, were vital to help feed a growing world population.

“The company name is and will remain Bayer. Monsanto will no longer be a company name,” chief executive Werner Baumann told journalists during a telephone conference.

Bayer’s $63 billion (54 billion euro) buyout of Monsanto — one of the largest in German corporate history — is set to close Thursday, birthing a global giant with 115,000 employees and revenues of some 45 billion euros.

Bosses plan to name the merged agrichemical division Bayer Crop Science once the merger is complete, German business newspaper Handelsblatt reported, citing “industry sources”.

The Monsanto brand “was an issue for some time for Monsanto management,” noted Liam Condon, president of Bayer’s crop science division, adding that the US firm’s employees were “not fixated on the Monsanto brand” but “proud of what they’ve achieved.”

Weedkiller arms race

Producing high-tech genetically modified seeds, many designed to grow crops resistant to its proprietary pesticides, Monsanto has been a target for environmentalist protests and lawsuits over harm to health and the environment for decades.

“It’s understandable that Bayer wants to avoid having bought Monsanto’s negative image with the billions it has spent on the firm,” said Greenpeace campaigner Dirk Zimmermann.

“More important than giving up the Monsanto name would be a fundamental transformation in the new mega-company’s policies,” he added, accusing Bayer of having “no interest in developing future-proof, sustainable solutions for agriculture.”

Activists fear the firm’s addition to Bayer will further reduce competition in the hotly-contested agrichemical sector, limiting farmers’ and consumers’ choices if they want to avoid GM and chemically treated crops.

What’s more, in recent years weeds have begun to emerge that are resistant to products like Monsanto staple glyphosate, marketed as Roundup alongside “Roundup-ready” seeds beginning in the 1990s.

As agrichemical firms scramble to respond with new pesticides and resistant seeds, there are fears of an arms race with ever-more-potent weedkillers.

Some scientists already suspect glyphosate could cause cancer, with a 2015 World Health Organization study determining it was “probably carcinogenic” — although Bayer and other defenders of the chemical have contested the research.

In 2017, attempts to block the European Union’s five-year renewal of its approval for the weedkiller were unsuccessful.

But activists are lobbying governments and France has vowed to outlaw the substance within three years.

When launching the Monsanto takeover bid, Bayer also promised it would not introduce genetically modified crops in Europe.

“We will listen to our critics and work together where we find common ground,” Baumann said, but added that “agriculture is too important to allow ideological differences to bring progress to a standstill”.

With the world population set to reach almost 10 billion people by 2050, Bayer argues its products and methods are needed to meet demand for food.

‘Number one in seeds’

Bayer has put massive resources behind the deal, raising $57 billion in financing including a new share issue worth six billion euros announced Sunday.

It will also sell large parts of its existing agrichemical and crop seeds business to BASF in concessions to competition authorities on both sides of the Atlantic.

Once the buyout and the sales to BASF are completed, Leverkusen-based Bayer’s crop science business plus Monsanto will account for around half its turnover, with the remainder coming from pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter health products.

At around 19.7 billion euros in 2017, Monsanto and Bayer’s combined agriculture sales outweighed those of competitors ChemChina, DowDuPont and BASF, according to figures provided by Bayer.

“We estimate that Bayer will become number one in seeds and number two in crop protection globally” following the merger, analysts at Standard and Poor’s wrote Monday.

Nevertheless, the ratings agency downgraded its score for Bayer’s debt from “A-” to “BBB,” while upgrading the outlook to “stable”.

“Bayer’s stronger business position in agriculture products… does not fully offset the increased debt in its capital structure,” the analysts wrote.

 

 

 

 

 

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Big Investors Urge G7 to Step Up Climate Action, Shift From Coal

Institutional investors with $26 trillion in assets under management called on Group of Seven leaders on Monday to phase out the use of coal in power generation to help limit climate change, despite strong opposition from Washington.

Government plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions were too weak to limit warming as agreed by world leaders at a Paris summit in 2015, they wrote. U.S. President Donald Trump announced a year ago that he was pulling out of the pact.

“The global shift to clean energy is under way, but much more needs to be done by governments,” the group of 288 investors wrote in a statement before the G7 summit in Canada on June 8-9.

Signatories included Allianz Global Investors, Aviva Investors, DWS, HSBC Global Asset Management, Nomura Asset Management, Australian Super, HESTA and some major U.S. pension funds including CalPERS, it said.

As part of action to slow climate change, the investors called on governments to “phase out thermal coal power worldwide by set deadlines,” to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and to “put a meaningful price on carbon.”

The investors also urged governments to strengthen national plans for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and to ensure that companies improve climate-related financial reporting.

Stephanie Pfeifer, CEO of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGC), said it was the first time that such a broad group of investors had called for a phase-out of thermal coal, used in power generation.

“There is a lot more momentum in the investor community” to put pressure on governments, she told Reuters. The IIGC was among backers of the statement, delivered to G7 governments and to the United Nations.

G7 nations Canada, Britain, France and Italy are members of a “Powering Past Coal” alliance of almost 30 nations set up last year and which seeks to halt use of coal power by 2030. Japan, Germany and the United States are not members.

The investors wrote that countries and companies that implement the Paris climate agreement “will see significant economic benefits and attract increased investment.” U.S. gross domestic product was $18.6 trillion in 2016, World Bank data show.

Trump doubts scientific findings that heatwaves, downpours and rising sea levels are linked to man-made greenhouse gas emissions and wants to bolster the U.S. fossil fuel industry.

Worldwide, coal is now used to generate almost 40 percent of electricity.

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3 Astronauts Return Safely From Space Station

Three astronauts from the International Space Station have safely returned to Earth after completing a five-month mission. 

American Scott Tingle, Russian Anton Shkaplerov and Japan’s Norishige Kanai touched down at 12:39 UTC Sunday in Kazakhstan.

Shkaplerov, who was the first to be helped out of the Russian Soyuz space capsule, said, “We are a bit tired but happy with what we have accomplished and happy to be back on Earth. We are glad the weather is sunny.”

The trio will undergo medical tests in the Kazakh city of Karaganda before flying on to Moscow or Houston. 

Shkaplerov will return to Moscow with a football he brought back from the space station. He and another cosmonaut were filmed practicing with the ball aboard the ISS. The Russian news agency Tass reported that the ball will be used in the opening game of the World Cup later this month. 

Three astronauts, Americans Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold and Russian Oleg Artemyev, remain on the ISS. They will be joined by three others who will take off Wednesday from the Baikonur complex in Kazakhstan.

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Advances in Exoskeleton Technology Could Help Some Walk Again

An accident, a stroke, or a disease can leave someone paralyzed and unable to walk. That happens to more than 15 million people around the world each year.

But new technological advances and physical therapy could help some of them walk again.  

Among the most promising is the use of robotic exoskeletons, like one made by Ekso Bionics. It looks a bit like a backpack that straps on the user’s back and around the midsection. Robotic ‘legs’ complete with foot panels extend from either side of the pack and wrap around the patient’s legs. A video game-style controller attaches to the pack with a long cord.

“I’m going to be a robot!”

Lindsey Stoefen has been doing physical therapy with the exoskeleton for an hour a day, as she works to recover from the rare disorder that put her in a wheelchair in October.

The 17-year-old athlete climbed into a specially designed exoskeleton for the first time in late April, after becoming an in-patient at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Chicago.

She recalls being nervous. “I was like ‘Dang, I’m going to be a robot!’ I was scared at first.  I was like, ‘Am I going to like it?  Will I be okay?’  And once I got into it, I loved it.”

Lauren Bularzik, Lindsey’s physical therapist, says the exo robots help to accelerate the rehabilitation process. “For someone who takes a lot of energy to only walk a few feet, exo can get them up, can get them moving, it can supplement their movements, get that reciprocal pattern, encourage the correct motor planning.”

Beside speeding up recovery times, these robotic skeletons are especially helpful for those with paralysis, from spinal cord injuries and strokes. Using the machine can help some patients rewire their brains to use secondary muscles, so they can eventually walk again – without the device.

The downside

 

Scientists at the University of Notre Dame are leading the way with their work on wearable robots that allow patients to regain some or all of their mobility.  But Patrick Wensing, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, says exoskeletons have one big drawback.

 

“While existing exoskeletons are very powerful, they don’t understand what the user wants to do. So in order to transition between activities in daily life, you often have to press a button interface to tell the exoskeleton ‘I would like to stand up now.’”

 

Wensing and his team are collaborating with Ekso Bionics, a leading developer of wearable robots, to create a machine that can understand what its user wants to do without implanted sensors and complicated control panels.

 

The new three-year project funded by The National Science Foundation’s robotic initiative, hopes to achieve a more fluid, intuitive system.

 

Taylor Gambon has spent the last year analyzing data from exoskeleton users and comparing them to models of everyday walking. “What we’re seeing is that slow walking in general, whether in the exoskeleton or just the human, is much different from walking at a speed that you would choose naturally.”

 

Later this year, the team will travel to Ekso Bionics’ California headquarters, where they will work directly with exoskeletons to design programs that interact with users of various disabilities, so that more people like Lindsey Stoefen can get back on their feet again.

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Developing an Intuitive Exoskeleton

Every year more than 15 million people worldwide suffer injuries and illnesses that leave them unable to walk according to the World Health Organization. But new technological advances and physical therapy could help some of them walk again. Among the most promising – is the use of robotic exoskeletons. As Erika Celeste reports, scientists at the University of Notre Dame are leading the way with their work on wearable robots that allow patients to regain some or all of their mobility.

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Trump-Mueller Interview Remains Unlikely, Giuliani Says

U.S. President Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani says it is an “open question” whether Trump will answer questions from investigators probing Russian meddling in the 2016 election, but that his legal team is leaning to not allowing him to be interviewed.

Trump has long said he wants to answer questions from special counsel Robert Mueller, but on Sunday Giuliani told ABC News, “It’s beginning to get resolved” to not permitting the U.S. leader to sit for questioning. Giuliani has suggested Trump could be caught in a perjury trap, and charged with lying under oath, a criminal offense.

Giuliani, a former New York City mayor, said Trump’s legal team might allow an interview if it is “brief, to the point,” but are “leaning to not.”

Trump lawyers contended in a 20-page letter to Mueller in January, before Giuliani joined the president’s legal team, that he cannot be compelled to testify through a subpoena and argued he could not have obstructed justice by firing FBI director James Comey when he was leading the Russia investigation because as president he has unlimited power to terminate the investigation.

Giuliani called the letter, first disclosed Saturday by The New York Times, “very, very persuasive,” but said Trump’s lawyers would contest in court any attempt to subpoena Trump to answer questions.

Giuliani said Trump’s lawyers would tell Mueller’s team that “you’ve got everything you need, 1.4 million documents, 28 witnesses” to conclude its investigation.

“So we’ll say, ‘Come on, own up and make your decision,” Giuliani said. Adding, Trump “believes he’s telling the truth. He is telling the truth” that there was no collusion with Russia to help him win and that he did not obstruct justice.

The Trump lawyer said “at best there was ambiguity” whether Trump obstructed justice in his dismissal of Comey in May 2017, which then led Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, over Trump’s objections, to name Mueller to lead the probe.

Within days of ousting Comey, Trump said that when he dismissed him he was thinking of “this Russia thing,” because he thought it was a made-up excuse by Democrats looking for a reason for Trump’s upset win over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Last week, Trump said that was not the reason, but offered no other explanation.

Giuliani said Trump, who has pardoned notable conservative figures who have been convicted of crimes, has “no intention of pardoning himself,” but added that “it would be an open question” whether he could do so, acknowledging there would be a political firestorm in the United States if he did.

Giuliani said he believes Mueller will conclude the investigation by September 1, “so we can get this long nightmare over for the American people.”

Long-standing Justice Department rules have concluded that a sitting president cannot be indicted for criminal wrongdoing. But Mueller could lay out his findings in a report that could eventually be turned over to Congress, where lawmakers could, if they decided there was wrongdoing by Trump, pursue his impeachment.

Trump in recent days has contended that the Federal Bureau of Investigation planted a “spy” in his campaign, although there is no evidence that the investigative agency embedded anyone in the Trump operations ahead of the November 2016 vote. But an FBI informant, Stefan Halper, an American-born professor at Britain’s University of Cambridge, reported to the FBI about conversations he had with three Trump campaign officials as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the election.

A leading Republican lawmaker, Congressman Trey Gowdy, said last week the FBI did nothing wrong, but Giuliani said he has “tremendous suspicion” that the operation was meant to spy on the Trump campaign.

Trump on Sunday offered three more Twitter comments on the election and Mueller investigation.

He quoted conservative Fox News analyst Jesse Watters as saying, “The only thing Trump obstructed was Hillary getting to the White House.” So true!”

Trump also complained about Mueller’s indictment of Paul Manafort, for three months his campaign manager in mid-2016, who was charged with criminal offenses linked to his lobbying efforts for Ukraine that predated his involvement with the Trump operations.

“As one of two people left who could become President, why wouldn’t the FBI or Department of “Justice” have told me that they were secretly investigating Paul Manafort (on charges that were 10 years old and had been previously dropped) during my campaign? Should have told me!” Trump said.

“Paul Manafort came into the campaign very late and was with us for a short period of time (he represented Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole & many others over the years), but we should have been told that Comey and the boys were doing a number on him, and he wouldn’t have been hired!” Trump concluded.

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