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Instagram blurring nudity in messages to protect teens, fight sexual extortion

LONDON — Instagram says it’s deploying new tools to protect young people and combat sexual extortion, including a feature that will automatically blur nudity in direct messages.

The social media platform said in a blog post Thursday that it’s testing out the features as part of its campaign to fight sexual scams and other forms of “image abuse,” and to make it tougher for criminals to contact teens.

Sexual extortion, or sextortion, involves persuading a person to send explicit photos online and then threatening to make the images public unless the victim pays money or engages in sexual favors. Recent high-profile cases include two Nigerian brothers who pleaded guilty to sexually extorting teen boys and young men in Michigan, including one who took his own life, and a Virginia sheriff’s deputy who sexually extorted and kidnapped a 15-year-old girl.

Instagram and other social media companies have faced growing criticism for not doing enough to protect young people. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Instagram’s owner Meta Platforms, apologized to the parents of victims of such abuse during a Senate hearing earlier this year.

Meta, which is based in Menlo Park, California, also owns Facebook and WhatsApp but the nudity blur feature won’t be added to messages sent on those platforms.

Instagram said scammers often use direct messages to ask for “intimate images.” To counter this, it will soon start testing out a nudity-protection feature for direct messages that blurs any images with nudity “and encourages people to think twice before sending nude images.”

“The feature is designed not only to protect people from seeing unwanted nudity in their DMs, but also to protect them from scammers who may send nude images to trick people into sending their own images in return,” Instagram said.

The feature will be turned on by default globally for teens under 18. Adult users will get a notification encouraging them to activate it.

Images with nudity will be blurred with a warning, giving users the option to view it. They’ll also get an option to block the sender and report the chat.

For people sending direct messages with nudity, they will get a message reminding them to be cautious when sending “sensitive photos.” They’ll also be informed that they can unsend the photos if they change their mind, but that there’s a chance others may have already seen them.

As with many of Meta’s tools and policies around child safety, critics saw the move as a positive step, but one that does not go far enough.

“I think the tools announced can protect senders, and that is welcome. But what about recipients?” said Arturo Béjar, former engineering director at the social media giant who is known for his expertise in curbing online harassment. He said 1 in 8 teens receives an unwanted advance on Instagram every seven days, citing internal research he compiled while at Meta that he presented in November testimony before Congress. “What tools do they get? What can they do if they get an unwanted nude?”

Béjar said “things won’t meaningfully change” until there is a way for a teen to say they’ve received an unwanted advance, and there is transparency about it.

Instagram said it’s working on technology to help identify accounts that could be potentially be engaging in sexual extortion scams, “based on a range of signals that could indicate sextortion behavior.”

To stop criminals from connecting with young people, it’s also taking measures including not showing the “message” button on a teen’s profile to potential sextortion accounts, even if they already follow each other, and testing new ways to hide teens from these accounts.

In January, the FBI warned of a “huge increase” in sextortion cases targeting children — including financial sextortion, where someone threatens to release compromising images unless the victim pays. The targeted victims are primarily boys between the ages of 14 to 17, but the FBI said any child can become a victim. In the six-month period from October 2022 to March 2023, the FBI saw a more than 20% increase in reporting of financially motivated sextortion cases involving minor victims compared to the same period in the previous year.

Study: Mexico produces tons of illicit fentanyl, can’t get enough for medical use

MEXICO CITY — A report released by the Mexican government Friday says the country is facing a dire shortage of fentanyl for medical use, even as Mexican cartels pump out tons of the illicit narcotic.

The paradox was reported in a study by Mexico’s National Commission on Mental Health and Addictions. The study did not give a reason for the shortage of the synthetic opioid, which is needed for anesthesia in hospitals, but claimed it was a worldwide problem.

The commission said fentanyl had to be imported, and that imports fell by more than 50% between 2022 and 2023.

Nonetheless, Mexican cartels appear to be having no problem importing tons of precursor chemicals and making their own fentanyl, which they smuggle into the United States. The report says Mexican seizures of illicit fentanyl rose 1.24 tons in 2020 to 1.85 tons in 2023.

Some of that is now spilling back across the border, with an increase in illicit fentanyl addiction reported in some Mexican border regions — a problem Mexico paradoxically blamed on the United States.

“Despite the limitations of availability in pharmaceutical fentanyl in our country, the excessive use of opiates in recent decades in the United States has had important repercussions on consumption and supply in Mexico,” the report states.

The report said that requests for addiction treatment in Mexico increased from 72 cases in 2020, to 430 cases in 2023. That sounds like a tiny number compared to the estimated 70,000 annual overdose deaths in the United States in recent years related to synthetic opioids. But in fact, the Mexican government does very little to offer addiction treatment, so the numbers probably don’t reflect the real scope of the problem.

The shortage of medical anesthetic drugs has caused some real problems in Mexico.

Local problems with the availability of morphine and fentanyl have led anesthesiologists to acquire their own supplies, carry the vials around with them, and administer multiple doses from a single vial to conserve their supply.

In 2022, anesthetics contaminated by those practices caused a meningitis outbreak in the northern state of Durango that killed about three dozen people, many of whom were pregnant women given epidurals. Several Americans died because of a similar outbreak after having surgery at clinics in the Mexican border city of Matamoros in 2023.

The response by the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to those twin problems — not enough legal fentanyl, and too much of the illicit stuff — has been contradictory.

In 2023, López Obrador briefly proposed banning fentanyl even for medical use but has not mentioned that idea lately after it drew a wave of criticism from doctors.

Meanwhile, the president has steadfastly denied that Mexican cartels produce the drug, despite overwhelming evidence that they import precursor chemicals from Asia and carry out the chemical processes to make fentanyl. López Obrador claims they only press the drug into pill form.

Poliovirus resurgence sparks concerns in Pakistan

Islamabad — The recent detection of poliovirus in sewage water samples collected across 30 districts in Pakistan has reignited concerns about a potential surge in polio cases.

Among those deeply troubled is Musal Khan, a polio survivor who navigates life in a wheelchair. Having represented Pakistan in wheelchair cricket at the global level, Musal Khan doesn’t want others to endure the same hardships he has faced.

Reflecting on his own experience, Khan, who contracted polio at age 2, told VOA, “My father didn’t permit polio vaccination for me, leading to a lifetime confined to a wheelchair.”

Khan urges all parents to give polio drops to their children and protect them from lifelong disabilities.

His father, Awal Khan, carries a heavy burden of guilt for his son’s condition. He joins Musal in urging parents not to obstruct polio workers and health officials from administering the vaccine to their children.

Polio, a highly contagious viral illness primarily affecting children under 5, spreads through feces, oral transmission or contaminated food and water. While incurable, it can be prevented through vaccination. Health experts warn that the poliovirus is a persistent presence in Pakistan, particularly in urban centers such as Karachi, Quetta and Peshawar.

Plan to eradicate polio

Shahzad Baig, the coordinator of the National Emergency Operations Center, has outlined Pakistan’s goal of eradicating imported strains of the poliovirus, particularly those originating from neighboring Afghanistan, by the end of 2024.

To achieve this, he announced the implementation of eight comprehensive polio vaccination campaigns scheduled throughout the year.

Despite concerted efforts, the recent emergence of two polio cases in Chaman and Dera Bugti underscored the challenges facing Pakistan. Moreover, alarming findings from the analysis of more than 83 sewage water samples collected across 30 districts have revealed the presence of the virus.

Baig emphasized the importance of vaccination efforts considering these findings. He noted that even in areas where polio drops are administered, children remain susceptible to the virus due to deficiencies in the drainage infrastructure. Broken sewer lines contribute to the contamination of drinking water sources, facilitating the transmission of polio.

Baig stressed the urgent need for comprehensive measures to address not only vaccination coverage but also the improvement of sanitation infrastructure to prevent the spread of poliovirus.

This story originated in VOA’s Urdu Service.

Swarms of drones can be managed by a single person

The U.S. military says large groups of drones and ground robots can be managed by just one person without added stress to the operator. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports, the technologies may be beneficial for civilian uses, too. VOA footage by Adam Greenbaum.

Indiana aspires to become next great tech center

indianapolis, indiana — Semiconductors, or microchips, are critical to almost everything electronic used in the modern world. In 1990, the United States produced about 40% of the world’s semiconductors. As manufacturing migrated to Asia, U.S. production fell to about 12%.  

“During COVID, we got a wake-up call. It was like [a] Sputnik moment,” explained Mark Lundstrom, an engineer who has worked with microchips much of his life. 

The 2020 global coronavirus pandemic slowed production in Asia, creating a ripple through the global supply chain and leading to shortages of everything from phones to vehicles. Lundstrom said increasing U.S. reliance on foreign chip manufacturers exposed a major weakness. 

“We know that AI is going to transform society in the next several years, it requires extremely powerful chips. The most powerful leading-edge chips.” 

Today, Lundstrom is the acting dean of engineering at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, a leader in cutting-edge semiconductor development, which has new importance amid the emerging field of artificial intelligence. 

“If we fall behind in AI, the consequences are enormous for the defense of our country, for our economic future,” Lundstrom told VOA. 

Amid the buzz of activity in a laboratory on Purdue’s campus, visitors can get a vision of what the future might look like in microchip technology. 

“The key metrics of the performance of the chips actually are the size of the transistors, the devices, which is the building block of the computer chips,” said Zhihong Chen, director of Purdue’s Birck Nanotechnology Center, where engineers work around the clock to push microchip technology into the future. 

“We are talking about a few atoms in each silicon transistor these days. And this is what this whole facility is about,” Chen said. “We are trying to make the next generation transistors better devices than current technologies. More powerful and more energy-efficient computer chips of the future.” 

Not just RVs anymore

Because of Purdue’s efforts, along with those on other university campuses in the state, Indiana believes it’s an attractive location for manufacturers looking to build new microchip facilities. 

“Purdue University alone, a top four-ranked engineering school, offers more engineers every year than the next top three,” said Eric Holcomb, Indiana’s Republican governor. “When you have access to that kind of talent, when you have access to the cost of doing business in the state of Indiana, that’s why people are increasingly saying, Indiana.” 

Holcomb is in the final year of his eight-year tenure in the state’s top position. He wants to transform Indiana beyond the recreational vehicle, or “RV capital” of the country.  

“We produce about plus-80% of all the RV production in North America in one state,” he told VOA. “We are not just living up to our reputation as being the number one manufacturing state per capita in America, but we are increasingly embracing the future of mobility in America.” 

Holcomb is spearheading an effort to make Indiana the next great technology center as the U.S. ramps up investment in domestic microchip development and manufacturing.  “If we want to compete globally, we have to get smarter and healthier and more equipped, and we have to continue to invest in our quality of place,” Holcomb told VOA in an interview. 

His vision is shared by other lawmakers, including U.S. Senator Todd Young of Indiana, who co-sponsored the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, which commits more than $50 billion in federal funding for domestic microchip development. 

‘We are committed’

Indiana is now home to one of 31 designated U.S. technology and innovation hubs, helping it qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in grants designed to attract technology-driven businesses. 

“The signal that it sends to the rest of the world [is] that we are in it, we are committed, and we are focused,” said Holcomb. “We understand that economic development, economic security and national security complement one another.” 

Indiana’s efforts are paying off. 

In April, South Korean microchip manufacturer SK Hynix announced it was planning to build a $4 billion facility near Purdue University that would produce next-generation, high-bandwidth memory, or HBM chips, critical for artificial intelligence applications.  

The facility, slated to start operating in 2028, could create more than 1,000 new jobs. While U.S. chip manufacturer SkyWater also plans to invest nearly $2 billion in Indiana’s new LEAP Innovation District near Purdue, the state recently lost bidding to host chipmaker Intel, which selected Ohio for two new factories. 

“Companies tend to like to go to locations where there is already that infrastructure, where that supply chain is in place,” Purdue’s Lundstrom said. “That’s a challenge for us, because this is a new industry for us. So, we have a chicken-and- egg problem that we have to address, and we are beginning to address that.” 

Lundstrom said the CHIPS and Science Act and the federal money that comes with it are helping Indiana ramp up to compete with other U.S. locations already known for microchip development, such as Silicon Valley in California and Arizona. 

What could help Indiana gain an edge is its natural resources — plenty of land and water, and regular weather patterns, all crucial for the sensitive processes needed to manufacture microchips at large manufacturing centers. 

Trump says Arizona abortion ban goes too far

Reproductive rights are again at the forefront of the U.S. presidential campaign, as Republican candidate Donald Trump distances himself from an Arizona Supreme Court decision to ban most abortions in the state. VOA’s Scott Stearns has the story.

Indiana aspires to become next great tech hub

The Midwestern state of Indiana aspires to become the next great technology center as the United States ramps up investment in domestic microchip development and manufacturing. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more from Indianapolis. Videographer: Kane Farabaugh, Adam Greenbaum

Scientists struggle to protect infant corals from hungry fish

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — South Florida researchers trying to prevent predatory fish from devouring laboratory-grown coral are grasping at biodegradable straws in an effort to restore what some call the rainforest of the sea.

Scientists around the world have been working for years to address the decline of coral reef populations. Just last summer, reef rescue groups in South Florida and the Florida Keys were trying to save coral from rising ocean temperatures. Besides working to keep existing coral alive, researchers have also been growing new coral in labs and then placing them in the ocean.

But protecting the underwater ecosystem that maintains more than 25% of all marine species is not easy. Even more challenging is making sure that coral grown in a laboratory and placed into the ocean doesn’t become expensive fish food.

Marine researcher Kyle Pisano said one problem is that predators like parrot fish attempt to bite and destroy the newly transplanted coral in areas like South Florida, leaving them with less than a 40% survival rate. With projects calling for thousands of coral to be planted over the next year and tens of thousands of coral to be planted over the next decade, the losses add up when coral pieces can cost more than $100 each.

Pisano and his partner, Kirk Dotson, have developed the Coral Fort, claiming the small biodegradable cage that’s made in part with drinking straws boosts the survival rate of transplanted coral to over 90%.

“Parrot fish on the reef really, really enjoy biting a newly transplanted coral,” Pisano said. “They treat it kind of like popcorn.”

Fortunately the fish eventually lose interest in the coral as it matures, but scientists need to protect the coral in the meantime. Stainless steel and PVC pipe barriers have been set up around transplanted coral in the past, but those barriers needed to be cleaned of algae growth and eventually removed.

Pisano had the idea of creating a protective barrier that would eventually dissolve, eliminating the need to maintain or remove it. He began conducting offshore experiments with biodegradable coral cages as part of a master’s degree program at Nova Southeastern University. He used a substance called polyhydroxyalkanoate, a biopolymer derived from the fermentation of canola oil. PHA biodegrades in ocean, leaving only water and carbon dioxide. His findings were published last year.

The coral cage consists of a limestone disc surrounded by eight vertical phade brand drinking straws, made by Atlanta-based WinCup Inc. The device doesn’t have a top, Pisano said, because the juvenile coral needs sunlight and the parrot fish don’t generally want to position themselves facing downward to eat.

Dotson, a retired aerospace engineer, met Pisano through his professor at Nova Southeastern, and the two formed Reef Fortify Inc. to further develop and market the patent-pending Coral Fort. The first batch of cages were priced at $12 each, but Pisano and Dotson believe that could change as production scales up.

Early prototypes of the cage made from phade’s standard drinking straws were able to protect the coral for about two months before dissolving in the ocean, but that wasn’t quite long enough to outlast the interest of parrot fish. When Pisano and Dotson reached out to phade for help, the company assured them that it could make virtually any custom shape from its biodegradable PHA material.

“But it’s turning out that the boba straws, straight out of the box, work just fine,” Dotson said.

Boba straws are wider and thicker than normal drinking straws. They’re used for a tea-based drink that includes tapioca balls at the bottom of the cup. For Pisano and Dotson, that extra thickness means the straws last just long enough to protect the growing coral before harmlessly disappearing.

Reef Fortify is hoping to work with reef restoration projects all over the world. The Coral Forts already already being used by researchers at Nova Southeastern and the University of Miami, as well as Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources.

Rich Karp, a coral researcher at the University of Miami, said they’ve been using the Coral Forts for about a month. He pointed out that doing any work underwater takes a great deal of time and effort, so having a protective cage that dissolves when it’s no longer needed basically cuts their work in half.

“Simply caging corals and then removing the cages later, that’s two times the amount of work, two times the amount of bottom time,” Karp said. “And it’s not really scalable.”

Experts say coral reefs are a significant part of the oceanic ecosystem. They occupy less than 1% of the ocean worldwide but provide food and shelter to nearly 25 percent of sea life. Coral reefs also help to protect humans and their homes along the coastline from storm surges during hurricanes.

Ukrainian civilians help build up their country’s drone fleet

Inexpensive first-person view – or radio controlled – drones have become a powerful weapon in Ukraine’s war against Russian invaders. As the country presses the West for more military aid, many Ukrainian civilians are stepping in to help by making homemade attack drones. Lesia Bakalets has the story from Kyiv.

Peter Higgs, physicist who proposed the existence of the ‘God particle,’ dies at 94

LONDON — Nobel prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed the existence of the so-called “God particle” that helped explain how matter formed after the Big Bang, has died at age 94, the University of Edinburgh said Tuesday.

The university, where Higgs was emeritus professor, said he died Monday following a short illness.

Higgs predicted the existence of a new particle, which came to be known as the Higgs boson, in 1964. He theorized there must be a subatomic particle of certain dimension that would explain how other particles — and therefore all the stars and planets in the universe — acquired mass. Without something like this particle, the set of equations physicists use to describe the world, known as the standard model, would not hold together.

Higgs’ work helps scientists understand one of the most fundamental riddles of the universe: how the Big Bang created something out of nothing 13.8 billion years ago. Without mass from the Higgs, particles could not clump together into the matter we interact with every day.

But it would be almost 50 years before the particle’s existence could be confirmed. In 2012, in one of the biggest breakthroughs in physics in decades, scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced that they had finally found a Higgs boson using the Large Hardron Collider, the $10 billion atom smasher in a 17-mile (27-kilometer) tunnel under the Swiss-French border.

The collider was designed in large part to find Higgs’ particle. It produces collisions with extraordinarily high energies in order to mimic some of the conditions that were present in the trillionths of seconds after the Big Bang.

Higgs won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work, alongside Francois Englert of Belgium, who independently came up with the same theory.

Edinburgh University Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson said Higgs, who was born in Newcastle, was “a remarkable individual – a truly gifted scientist whose vision and imagination have enriched our knowledge of the world that surrounds us.”

“His pioneering work has motivated thousands of scientists, and his legacy will continue to inspire many more for generations to come.”

Born in Newcastle, northeast England, on May 29, 1929, Higgs studied at King’s College, University of London, and was awarded a doctorate in 1954. He spent much of his career at Edinburgh, becoming the Personal Chair of Theoretical Physics at the Scottish university in 1980. He retired in 1996.

One highlight of Higgs’ career came in the 2013 presentation at CERN in Geneva where scientists presented in complex terms — based on statistical analysis unfathomable to most laypeople — that the boson had been confirmed. He broke into tears, wiping down his glasses in the stands of a CERN lecture hall.

“There was an emotion — a kind of vibration — going around in the auditorium,” Fabiola Gianotti, the CERN director-general told The Associated Press. “That was just a unique moment, a unique experience in a professional life.”

“Peter was a very touching person. He was so sweet, so warm at the same time. And so always interested in what other people had to say,” she said. “Able to listen to other people … open, and interesting, and interested.”

Joel Goldstein, of the School of Physics at the University of Bristol, said: “Peter Higgs was a quiet and modest man, who never seemed comfortable with the fame he achieved even though this work underpins the entire modern theoretical framework of particle physics.”

Gianotti recalled how Higgs often bristled at the term “God particle” for his discovery: “I don’t think he liked this kind of definition,” she said. “It was not in his style.”

Cameroonian School Teaches Manufacture of Plant-based Meat

A government-run school in Cameroon’s capital is teaching students how to manufacture plant-based meat, an innovation which the school’s director hopes will contribute to the fight against climate change. Anne Nzouankeu has more from Yaoundé in this report narrated by Moki Edwin Kindzeka.

Kim Wall grantee to report on climate change, marginalized groups

WASHINGTON — Audrey Gray was at a national task force in New Orleans when a colorful zine caught the climate journalist’s eye.

Produced by Imagine Water Works, the zine — A Queer/Trans Guide to Storms — took the form of “love notes” to the southeast Louisiana LGBTQ+ community, alongside practical storm preparation tips.

As a climate change journalist from Los Angeles, Gray had been reporting on similar content, with an emphasis on how communities adapt to change and protect themselves from extreme weather.

The magazine, she said, had useful practical information.

“Say you’re going through a transition right there: how to deal with your medication, what to take in your evacuation bag, how to plug into resources that will help you,” Gray told VOA.

Gray studied at Columbia Journalism School with the intention of being a climate journalist. Since graduating in 2019, her focus has been writing stories that would make people “feel something” about the issue.

“I had been freaked out by climate change really early,” Gray said. Her first stories focused on carbon emissions, but slowly she shifted to covering solutions rather than just the problems.

“I really wanted to try to advance the narrative in a way that focused on courage and acts of protection,” said Gray.

As a freelancer, Gray’s work has appeared in media outlets including Mother Jones and Wired. Now, as one of the three 2024 grantees for the Kim Wall Memorial Fund, Gray plans to expand her coverage.

Established by the International Women’s Media Foundation, or IWMF, the fund commemorates Kim Wall, a Swedish journalist killed off the coast of Denmark in 2017 by a man she was interviewing.

Each year, the IWMF awards grants to female or nonbinary journalists who focus on lesser-known stories that reflect Wall’s ideals.

Alongside Gray, this year’s grantees are the Netherlands-based documentary filmmaker Zhaoyin Feng and the U.K.-based freelancer Isobel Thompson.

Taylor Moore, an associate program manager at the IWMF, is part of the selection panel. She described Gray as “curious” and “excitable,” much like Wall had been.

“She’s able to distill the science in a way that’s understandable for the lay person and really shows the human impacts of climate change,” Moore said.

Noting that Gray is one of the few American journalists awarded a grant, Moore told VOA, “We thought this was a story that deserved equal prominence among the international stories we fund.”

Gray credits much inspiration to Wall, a journalist who she says was “ahead of her time.”

Wall was 30 when she was killed. But she had already made strides in media, traveling the world and writing about marginalized communities. Her work, Gray said, is what she admires about the young reporter.

“[Wall] would write stories about people, and climate change wasn’t necessarily the headline, but it’s all there,” said Gray. “She was really skillful at getting herself to a place and then pitching all kinds of stories from that place to different publications.”

Gray plans to use her grant to expand reporting on her most recent project: a feature on an emergency management network set up in Maricopa County in the southwestern state of Arizona. Around 500 people died of extreme heat in that region during the summer of 2022.

Set up in a historically Black Methodist church, the center helped the community cope with the deadly temperatures outside.

“It was only open six hours a day on the weekdays, but all the regulars would go in, and they would get a short break from the worst heat of the day,” said Gray.

With a growth in emergency centers following the pandemic and natural disasters, Gray is interested in expanding her coverage of aid efforts in the LGBTQ community.

She plans to look at what resources are available to marginalized groups.

One focus is emergency shelters in Arizona, a state that has extreme weather and where authorities are proposing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

“Usually, the first shelters that are set up are placed often in churches,” said Gray. But, she said, many of her sources describe having negative experiences in religious establishments, including rejection or abuse.

Other people she has interviewed described experiencing violence at emergency shelters and encountering people there who are uncomfortable with them.

Gray plans to feature organizations such as QReady, a group focused on emergency management and “amplifying” a sense of agency for the queer community.

“I’m not reporting on victims here at all,” she said. “I’m reporting on a community that is taking action to protect itself, and there’s this real spirit of ‘We can protect each other, we can create safety.’”

The IWMF selected Gray from 141 submissions sent in from more than 50 countries. It was the largest number of applications the foundation has received.

As the only journalist based in the U.S. to be selected, Gray says the grant is “so much more meaningful.”

The journalist says she has a “deep sense of resonance with [Wall] and a hope that more people will learn from her and put some of her good practices to work.”

For Gray, that will include continuing to highlight the stories of people persisting against climate change and protecting their community. “I feel like that’s why I’m here,” she said.

Massive crowds watch total solar eclipse over US

Millions of people in the United States from Texas to Maine looked to the sky to witness a rare total solar eclipse. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh attended a viewing event hosted by NASA and Purdue University at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and has more.

Broken record: March is 10th straight month to be hottest on record, scientists say

WASHINGTON — For the 10th consecutive month, Earth in March set a new monthly record for global heat — with both air temperatures and the world’s oceans hitting an all-time high for the month, the European Union climate agency Copernicus said.

March 2024 averaged 14.14 degrees Celsius (57.9 degrees Fahrenheit), exceeding the previous record from 2016 by a tenth of a degree, according to Copernicus data. And it was 1.68 degrees C (3 degrees F) warmer than in the late 1800s, the base used for temperatures before the burning of fossil fuels began growing rapidly.

Since last June, the globe has broken heat records each month, with marine heat waves across large areas of the globe’s oceans contributing.

Scientists say the record-breaking heat during this time wasn’t entirely surprising due to a strong El Nino, a climatic condition that warms the central Pacific and changes global weather patterns.

“But its combination with the non-natural marine heat waves made these records so breathtaking,” said Woodwell Climate Research Center scientist Jennifer Francis.

With El Nino waning, the margins by which global average temperatures are surpassed each month should go down, Francis said.

Climate scientists attribute most of the record heat to human-caused climate change from carbon dioxide and methane emissions produced by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas.

“The trajectory will not change until concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop rising,” Francis said, “which means we must stop burning fossil fuels, stop deforestation, and grow our food more sustainably as quickly as possible.”

Until then, expect more broken records, she said.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world set a goal to keep warming at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times. Copernicus’ temperature data is monthly and uses a slightly different measurement system than the Paris threshold, which is averaged over two or three decades.

Samantha Burgess, deputy director of Copernicus, said March’s record-breaking temperature wasn’t as exceptional as some other months in the past year that broke records by wider margins.

“We’ve had record-breaking months that have been even more unusual,” Burgess said, pointing to February 2024 and September 2023. But the “trajectory is not in the right direction,” she added.

The globe has now experienced 12 months with average monthly temperatures 1.58 degrees Celsius (2.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above the Paris threshold, according to Copernicus data.

In March, global sea surface temperature averaged 21.07 degrees Celsius (69.93 degrees Fahrenheit), the highest monthly value on record and slightly higher than what was recorded in February.

“We need more ambitious global action to ensure that we can get to net zero as soon as possible,” Burgess said.

With $6.6B to Arizona hub, Biden touts big steps in US chipmaking

Washington; Flagstaff, Arizona — President Joe Biden on Monday announced a $6.6 billion grant to Taiwan’s top chip manufacturer to produce semiconductors in the southwestern U.S. state of Arizona, which includes a third facility that will bring the foreign tech giant’s investment in the state to $65 billion.

Biden said the move aims to perk up a decades-old slump in American chip manufacturing. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which is based in the Chinese-claimed island, claims more than half of the global market share in chip manufacturing.

The new facility, Biden said, will put the U.S. on track to produce 20% of the world’s leading-edge semiconductors by 2030.

“I was determined to turn that around, and thanks to my CHIPS and Science Act — a key part of my Investing in America agenda — semiconductor manufacturing and jobs are making a comeback,” Biden said in a statement.

U.S. production of this American-born technology has fallen steeply in recent decades, said Andy Wang, dean of engineering at Northern Arizona University.

“As a nation, we used to produce 40% of microchips for the whole world,” he told VOA. “Now, we produce less than 10%.”

A single semiconductor transistor is smaller than a grain of sand. But billions of them, packed neatly together, can connect the world through a mobile phone, control sophisticated weapons of war and satellites that orbit the Earth, and someday may even drive a car.

The immense value of these tiny chips has fueled fierce competition between the U.S. and China.

The U.S. Department of Commerce has taken several steps to hamper China’s efforts to build its own chip industry. Those include export controls and new rules to prevent “foreign countries of concern” — which it said includes China, Iran, North Korea and Russia — from benefiting from funding from the CHIPS and Science Act.

While analysts are divided over whether Taiwan’s dominance of this critical industry makes it more or less vulnerable to Chinese aggression, they agree it confers the island significant global status.

“It is debatable what, if any, role Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing prowess plays in deterrence,” said David Sacks, an analyst who focuses on U.S.-China relations at the Council on Foreign Relations. “What is not debatable is how devastating an attack on Taiwan would be for the global economy.”

Biden did not mention U.S. adversaries in his statement, but he noted the impact of Monday’s announcement, saying it “represent(s) a broader story for semiconductor manufacturing that’s made in America and with the strong support of America’s leading technology firms to build the products we rely on every day.”

VOA met with engineers in the new technological hub state, who said the legislation addresses a key weakness in American chip manufacturing.

“We’ve just gotten in the cycle of the last 15 to 20 years, where innovation has slowed down,” said Todd Achilles, who teaches innovation, strategy and policy analysis at the University of California-Berkeley. “It’s all about financial results, investor payouts and stock buybacks. And we’ve lost that innovation muscle. And the CHIPS Act — pulling that together with the CHIPS Act — is the perfect opportunity to restore that.”

The White House says this new investment could create 25,000 construction and manufacturing jobs. Academics say they’re churning out workers at a rapid pace, but that still, America lacks talent.

“Our engineering college is the largest in the country, with over 33,000 enrolled students, and still we’re hearing from companies across the semiconductor industry that they’re not able to get the talent they need in time,” Zachary Holman, vice dean for research and innovation at Arizona State University, told VOA.

And as the American industry stretches to keep pace, it races a technical trend known as t: that the number of transistors in a computer chip doubles about every two years. As a result, cutting-edge chips get ever smaller as they grow in computing power.

TSMC in 2022 broke ground on a facility that makes the smallest chip currently available, coming in at 3 nanometers — that’s just wider than a strand of DNA.

Reporter Levi Stallings contributed to this report from Flagstaff, Arizona.

With $6.6B to Arizona hub, Biden touts big steps in US chipmaking

President Joe Biden on Monday announced a $6.6 billion grant to Taiwan’s top chip manufacturer for semiconductor manufacturing in Arizona, which includes a third facility that will bring the tech giant’s investment in the state to $65 billion. VOA’s White House correspondent Anita Powell reports from Washington, with reporter Levi Stallings in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Anti-polio gains threatened by returning migrants, 200,000 unvaccinated children in Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD — The World Health Organization said Monday that the recent return of about 600,000 undocumented migrants from Pakistan to Afghanistan and an estimated 200,000 unvaccinated children in southern Afghan regions are a threat to regional gains against polio.   

In its latest assessment of the disease’s international spread, WHO said that both neighboring countries had made significant progress in interrupting the transmission of the two surviving genetic clusters of wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) in the region.  

Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last two nations where the crippling virus is still found, have reported two and zero cases of polio infections, respectively, this year.  

However, the WHO assessment said that the recent large-scale displacement of undocumented Afghans from Pakistan had “increased the risk of cross-border poliovirus spread, as well as [the] spread within both countries.” It cautioned that “any setback in Afghanistan poses a risk to the [polio] program in Pakistan due to high population movement.” 

The report stated that coordinated efforts were being made to “manage and mitigate” the risk through vaccination at border crossing points between the two countries.  

 

WHO said vaccination coverage in southern Afghan provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul and Nimruz has improved “but remains suboptimal, with an estimated 200,000 children who remain unreached.” The large pool of unvaccinated children “constitutes a major risk,” it said. 

The report stressed that house-to-house immunizations of children are comparatively effective, but some parts of Afghanistan “still only allow site-to-site or mosque-to-mosque vaccinations.” 

It appreciated the Taliban government’s commitment to the global goal of eradicating polio in Afghanistan. WHO noted and praised the increased use of Afghan female health care workers in campaigns and strongly encouraged the implementation of house-to-house campaigns where feasible. 

The fundamentalist Taliban have banned women from many public and private sector workplaces, but the health sector is mostly exempted from the restrictions.

Experts fear Cambodian cybercrime law could aid crackdown

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — The Cambodian government is pushing ahead with a cybercrime law experts say could be wielded to further curtail freedom of speech amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent. 

The cybercrime draft is the third controversial internet law authorities have pursued in the past year as the government, led by new Prime Minister Hun Manet, seeks greater oversight of internet activities. 

Obtained by VOA in both English and Khmer language versions, the latest draft of the cybercrime law is marked “confidential” and contains 55 articles. It lays out various offenses punishable by fines and jail time, including defamation, using “insulting, derogatory or rude language,” and sharing “false information” that could harm Cambodia’s public order and “traditional culture.”  

The law would also allow authorities to collect and record internet traffic data, in real time, of people under investigation for crimes, and would criminalize online material that “depicts any act or activity … intended to stimulate sexual desire” as pornography. 

Digital rights and legal experts who reviewed the law told VOA that its vague language, wide-ranging categories of prosecutable speech and lack of protections for citizens fall short of international standards, instead providing the government more tools to jail dissenters, opposition members, women and LGBTQ+ people. 

Although in the works since 2016, earlier drafts of the law, which sparked similar criticism, have not leaked since 2020 and 2021. Authorities hope to enact the law by the end of the year. 

“This cybercrime bill offers the government even more power to go after people expressing dissent,” Kian Vesteinsson, a senior research analyst for technology at the human rights organization Freedom House, told VOA.  

“These vague provisions around defamation, insults and disinformation are ripe for abuse, and we know that Cambodian authorities have deployed similarly vague criminal provisions in other contexts,” Vesteinsson said. 

Cambodian law already considers defamation a criminal offense, but the cybercrime draft would make it punishable by jail time up to six months, plus a fine of up to $5,000. The “false information” clause — defined as sharing information that “intentionally harms national defense, national security, relations with other countries, economy, public order, or causes discrimination, or affects traditional culture” — carries a three- to five-year sentence and fine of up to $25,000. 

Daron Tan, associate international legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists, told VOA the defamation and false information articles do not comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party, and that the United Nations Human Rights Committee is “very clear that imprisonment is never the appropriate penalty for defamation.” 

“It’s a step very much in the wrong direction,” Tan said. “We are very worried that this would expand the laws that the government can use against its critics.” 

Chea Pov, the deputy head of Cambodia’s National Police and former director of the Ministry of Interior’s Anti-Cybercrime Department that is overseeing the drafting process, told VOA the law “doesn’t restrict your rights” and claimed the U.S. companies which reviewed it “didn’t raise concerns.”  

Google, Meta and Amazon, which the government has said were involved in drafting the law, did not respond to requests for comment. 

“If you say something based on evidence, there is no problem,” Pov said. “But if there is no evidence, [you] defame others, which is also stated in the criminal law … we don’t regard this as a restriction.”  

The law also makes it illegal to use technology to display, trade, produce or disseminate pornography, or to advertise a “product or service mixed with pornography” online. Pornography is defined as anything that “describes a genital or depicts any act or activity involving a sexual organ or any part of the human body, animal, or object … or other similar pornography that is intended to stimulate sexual desire or cause sexual excitement.” 

Experts say this broad category is likely to be disproportionately deployed against women and LGBTQ+ people. 

Cambodian authorities have often rebuked or arrested women for dressing “too sexily” on social media, singing sexual songs or using suggestive speech. In 2020, an online clothes and cosmetics seller received a six-month suspended sentence after posting provocative photos; in another incident, a policewoman was forced to publicly apologize for posting photos of herself breastfeeding. 

Naly Pilorge, outreach director at Cambodian human rights organization Licadho, told VOA the draft law “could lead to more rights violations against women in the country.” 

“This vague definition of ‘pornography’ poses a serious threat to any woman whose online activity the government decides may ‘cause sexual excitement,’” Pilorge said. “The draft law does not acknowledge any legitimate artistic or educational purposes to depict or describe sexual organs, posing another threat to freedom of expression.” 

In March, authorities said they hosted civil society organizations to revisit the draft. They plan to complete the drafting process and send the law to Parliament for passage before the end of the year, according to Pov, the deputy head of police. 

Soeung Saroeun, executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, told VOA “there was no consultation on each article” at the recent meeting. 

“The NGO representatives were unable to analyze and present their inputs,” said Saroeun, echoing concerns about its contents. “How is it [possible]? We need to debate on this.” 

The cybercrime law has resurfaced as the government works to complete two other draft internet laws, one covering cybersecurity and the other personal data protection. Experts have critiqued the drafts as providing expanded police powers to seize computer systems and making citizens’ data vulnerable to hacking and surveillance. 

Authorities have also sought to create a national internet gateway that would require traffic to run through centralized government servers, though the status of that project has been unclear since early 2022 when the government said it faced delays. 

Biden administration announces $6.6 billion to ensure leading-edge microchips are built in US 

WILMINGTON, Del. — The Biden administration pledged on Monday to provide up to $6.6 billion so that a Taiwanese semiconductor giant can expand the facilities it is already building in Arizona and better ensure that the most-advanced microchips are produced domestically for the first time. 

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the funding for Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. means the company can expand on its existing plans for two facilities in Phoenix and add a third, newly announced production hub. 

“These are the chips that underpin all artificial intelligence, and they are the chips that are the necessary components for the technologies that we need to underpin our economy,” Raimondo said on a call with reporters, adding that they were vital to the “21st century military and national security apparatus.” 

The funding is tied to a sweeping 2022 law that President Joe Biden has celebrated and which is designed to revive U.S. semiconductor manufacturing. Known as the CHIPS and Science Act, the $280 billion package is aimed at sharpening the U.S. edge in military technology and manufacturing while minimizing the kinds of supply disruptions that occurred in 2021, after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when a shortage of chips stalled factory assembly lines and fueled inflation. 

The Biden administration has promised tens of billions of dollars to support construction of U.S. chip foundries and reduce reliance on Asian suppliers, which Washington sees as a security weakness. 

“Semiconductors – those tiny chips smaller than the tip of your finger – power everything from smartphones to cars to satellites and weapons systems,” Biden said in a statement. “TSMC’s renewed commitment to the United States, and its investment in Arizona represent a broader story for semiconductor manufacturing that’s made in America and with the strong support of America’s leading technology firms to build the products we rely on every day.” 

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. produces nearly all of the leading-edge microchips in the world and plans to eventually do so in the U.S. 

It began construction of its first facility in Phoenix in 2021, and started work on a second hub last year, with the company increasing its total investment in both projects to $40 billion. The third facility should be producing microchips by the end of the decade and will see the company’s commitment increase to a total of $65 billion, Raimondo said. 

The investments would put the U.S. on track to produce roughly 20% of the world’s leading-edge chips by 2030, and Raimondo said they should help create 6,000 manufacturing jobs and 20,000 construction jobs, as well as thousands of new positions more indirectly tied to assorted suppliers in chip-related industries tied to Arizona projects. 

The potential incentives announced Monday include $50 million to help train the workforce in Arizona to be better equipped to work in the new facilities. Additionally, approximately $5 billion of proposed loans would be available through the CHIPS and Science Act. 

“TSMC’s commitment to manufacture leading-edge chips in Arizona marks a new chapter for America’s semiconductor industry,” Lael Brainard, director of the White House National Economic Council, told reporters. 

The announcement came as U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is traveling in China. Senior administration officials were asked on the call with reporters if the Biden administration gave China a head’s up on the coming investment, given the delicate geopolitics surrounding Taiwan. The officials said only that their focus in making Monday’s announcement was solely on advancing U.S. manufacturing. 

“We are thrilled by the progress of our Arizona site to date,” C.C. Wei, CEO of TSMC, said in a statement, “And are committed to its long-term success.” 

Huge crowds await a total solar eclipse in North America

MESQUITE, Texas — Millions of spectators along a narrow corridor stretching from Mexico to the U.S. to Canada eagerly awaited Monday’s celestial sensation — a total eclipse of the sun — even as forecasters called for clouds.

The best weather was expected at the tail end of the eclipse in Vermont and Maine, as well as New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

It promised to be North America’s biggest eclipse crowd ever, thanks to the densely populated path and the lure of more than four minutes of midday darkness in Texas and other choice spots. Almost everyone in North America was guaranteed at least a partial eclipse, weather permitting.

“Cloud cover is one of the trickier things to forecast,” National Weather Service meteorologist Alexa Maines explained at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Science Center on Sunday. “At the very least, it won’t snow.”

The cliff-hanging uncertainty added to the drama. Rain or shine, “it’s just about sharing the experience with other people,” said Chris Lomas from Gotham, England, who was staying at a sold-out trailer resort outside Dallas, the biggest city in totality’s path.

For Monday’s full eclipse, the moon was due to slip right in front of the sun, entirely blocking it. The resulting twilight, with only the sun’s outer atmosphere or corona visible, would be long enough for birds and other animals to fall silent, and for planets, stars and maybe even a comet to pop out.

The out-of-sync darkness lasts up to 4 minutes, 28 seconds. That’s almost twice as long as it was during the U.S. coast-to-coast eclipse seven years ago because the moon is closer to Earth. It will be another 21 years before the U.S. sees another total solar eclipse on this scale.

Extending five hours from the first bite out of the sun to the last, Monday’s eclipse begins in the Pacific and makes landfall at Mazatlan, Mexico, before moving into Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and 12 other U.S. states in the Midwest, Middle Atlantic and New England, and then Canada. Last stop: Newfoundland, with the eclipse ending in the North Atlantic.

It will take just 1 hour, 40 minutes for the moon’s shadow to race more than 4,000 miles (6,500 kilometers) across the continent.

Eye protection is needed with proper eclipse glasses and filters to look at the sun, except when it ducks completely out of sight during an eclipse.

The path of totality — approximately 115 miles (185 kilometers) wide — encompasses several major cities this time, including Dallas, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Buffalo, New York and Montreal. An estimated 44 million people live within the track, with a couple hundred million more within 200 miles (320 kilometers). Add in all the eclipse chasers, amateur astronomers, scientists and just plain curious, and it’s no wonder the hotels and flights are sold out and the roads jammed.

Experts from NASA and scores of universities are posted along the route, poised to launch research rockets and weather balloons, and conduct experiments. The International Space Station’s seven astronauts also will be on the lookout, 270 miles (435 kilometers) up.