US Military Veterans Trying to ‘Cultivate Peace’ in Afghanistan, Where They Served

Saffron has long been one of the world’s most expensive spices. The saffron crocus that produces the spice grows mostly in parts of Europe, Iran and India. Now, a U.S. company seeking to “cultivate peace” is attracting attention to this historic spice and trying to develop new markets for saffron grown in Afghanistan. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more from Chicago.

From: MeNeedIt

Report: Trump Tells ‘Confidants’ US Will Leave Paris Climate Deal

U.S. President Donald Trump has told “confidants,” including the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, that he plans to leave a landmark international agreement on climate change, the Axios news website reported Saturday, citing three sources with direct knowledge.

On Saturday, Trump said in a Twitter post he would decide whether to support the Paris climate deal next week.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A source who has been in contact with people involved in the decision told Reuters that a couple of meetings were planned with chief executives of energy companies and big corporations and others about the climate agreement ahead of Trump’s expected announcement later in the week. It was unclear whether those meetings would still take place.

“I will make my final decision on the Paris Accord next week!” Trump tweeted on the final day of a Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Italy at which he refused to bow to pressure from allies to back the 2015 agreement.

Six against one

The summit of G-7 wealthy nations pitted Trump against the leaders of Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada and Japan on several issues, with European diplomats frustrated at having to revisit questions they had hoped were long settled.

Trump, who has previously called global warming a hoax, came under concerted pressure from the other leaders to honor the 2015 Paris Agreement on curbing carbon emissions.

Although he tweeted that he would make a decision next week, his apparent reluctance to embrace the first legally binding global climate deal, signed by 195 countries, clearly annoyed German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“The entire discussion about climate was very difficult, if not to say very dissatisfying,” she told reporters. “There are no indications whether the United States will stay in the Paris Agreement or not.”

From: MeNeedIt

Long Shunned By Foreigners, Iran Looks to Tourism to Boost Ailing Economy 

Iran’s potential as a holiday destination is vast, with its stunning landscapes and numerous World Heritage sites, but foreign tourists have largely avoided the country ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The reasons are numerous. The visa process can be lengthy and complex. Some female visitors object to customary restrictions on dress. Alcohol consumption is heavily restricted. And, fears of detention and political upheaval enter the minds of many foreigners considering holidays in the Islamic republic.

Under President Hassan Rohani, a relative moderate who won a second term in office with a convincing first-round victory in Iran’s May 19 presidential election, the country has welcomed foreigners as part of an effort to improve its international image and boost an economy battered by low oil prices and years of crippling international sanctions imposed over Iran’s nuclear program.

Since the signing of a nuclear deal with world powers in 2015 that was the crowning achievement of Rohani’s first term, tour companies have launched holiday packages and major European airlines have resumed regular flights to Iran.

The number of foreign tourists has increased accordingly, and the cash-strapped government is planning to build on its tourism revival by easing visa restrictions and spending heavily to spruce up tourist accommodations and shabby transportation networks.

‘Tsunami of tourists’

In 2015, Masoud Soltanifar, the head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, said he was expecting a “tsunami of tourists” once sanctions were lifted following the deal under which Iran’s nuclear program would be curbed in return for the lifting of sanctions.

The World Bank said the number of visitors to Iran increased from 2.2 million in 2009 to 5.2 million in 2015, and Iranian officials expect that trend to continue.

The influx of tourists has brought the country billions of dollars in revenue and created badly needed jobs. In 2015, Iran earned $7.5 billion in tourism revenue; the government hopes to attract 20 million foreign tourists by 2025 and gross $30 billion.

Business Insider and Bloomberg have named Iran among the top destinations to visit in 2017 because of security and the country’s ancient architecture, famous bazaars, and natural beauty.

To put Iran on the map for tourism in the region, authorities have announced sweeping plans that include easing visa restrictions.

Issuing visas on arrival at the airport for nationals of 190 countries as well as issuing electronic visas are among the initiatives being considered by Iranian officials. Citizens from the United States, Canada and Britain would still only be allowed to travel on escorted tours.

The government has also announced plans to create sufficient accommodation and transportation for the growing number of tourists. There is a plan to increase the number of higher-end hotels from 130 to more than 1,000 in 10 years.

Iran also plans to add 400 new passenger planes to its domestic fleet to compensate for shortages due to international sanctions over the past three decades.

The plan is to make Iran a hot spot that would rival regional destinations. Like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, Iran is blessed with natural wonders.

The Islamic Republic has a sun-baked coast with hundreds of kilometers of beaches. Iran is also a haven for culture buffs, with 19 World Heritage sites, including the ancient desert city of Bam and the ruins of Persepolis.

Tourist hub

Key to the government’s plans to boost tourist numbers is Kish Island, one of a handful of free-trade zones in Iran. The southern island in the Persian Gulf is known for its newly built, multistory malls; sparkling jewelry stores; and swanky, five-star hotels hugging the coast.

The island is a tourist hot spot that attracts an estimated 1 million people every year, mostly Iranians. But Tehran is stepping up its efforts to make the island, located 16 kilometers from the mainland, a destination for foreign visitors as well.

Iran’s first cruise ship since 1979 made its maiden voyage on April 13, docking at another Iranian Gulf resort island, Qeshm, with more than 200 passengers on board.

The seven-floor, Swedish-built cruise liner, named Sunny, is equipped with two cinemas, restaurants, a swimming pool and a conference hall. With the capacity to carry up to 1,600 passengers and 200 vehicles between the two islands, the ship is intended to help launch a “boom [in] marine tourism,” according to Iran’s state IRNA news agency.

Luxurious spot

Kish Island is known as an oasis of luxury and relative freedom in the otherwise conservative Islamic republic.

Women can be seen dipping their bare legs in the warm sea, alcohol is easier to come by, and even prostitutes can be seen on the promenades. It is a world away from the mainland, where a strict ban on alcohol and prostitution is enforced and women must be covered.

Visitors to Kish are attracted by the duty-free shops, resort hotels, water sports and an opportunity to escape the strict social norms on the mainland. A small number of foreigners are also going to Kish, where they do not need a visa and where they can mingle freely in foreigners-only parts of the island.

Authorities occasionally crack down on cinemas playing Western films, shops displaying mannequins that are deemed too exposed, and restaurants selling alcohol, but that is the exception.

Mina, a 21-year-old Iranian student who has visited Kish Island twice, says Iranians go there to escape the social restrictions on the mainland. But she added, “I saw more foreigners coming to Kish, and as long the infrastructure improves, more will come.”

From: MeNeedIt

Gregg Allman, Star of Southern Rock, Dies at Age 69

Southern rock legend Gregg Allman has died in Savannah, Georgia, at age 69, according to his family.

Allman, whose blues guitar and vocals became representative of an entire genre of country-and-blues-tinged rock music, had been in poor health. He announced in March 2017 that he was canceling all performances for the rest of the year.

The family said in a statement that Allman “passed away peacefully” in his home near the southeastern U.S. coast Saturday.

The Nashville-born musician, known for his long, blond hair, originally began playing music with his brother, Duane, when the two were teenagers. Legend has it that the two boys, close in age, initially shared a guitar bought at Sears.

After years of playing together in various groups, the self-titled Allman Brothers Band had just begun to achieve mainstream success in 1971 when Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident at age 24.

Gregg Allman carried on with the Allman Brothers Band for decades afterward, releasing such famous Southern rock tunes as “Whipping Post,” “Ramblin’ Man” and “Midnight Rider,” and influencing untold numbers of Southern songwriters who followed.

In 1995, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It won a Grammy for the instrumental “Jessica” the following year.

Allman abused drugs and alcohol until the mid-1990s. While he spent the final two decades of his life sober, his health was affected by the excess of his earlier years. He underwent a liver transplant in 2010.

Music was essential

Throughout his recovery and later health problems, Allman maintained that playing music was essential to his survival. The year after his liver transplant, he released a solo album called “Low Country Blues.”

During his  five-decade career Allman worked with many of the greats of American blues and rock ‘n’ roll, including Wilson Pickett, Neil Young, Clarence Carter, Eric Clapton and T-Bone Burnett. The band established a tradition of playing a multinight residency at New York City’s Beacon Theater once a year for most of two decades. Their final residency at the Beacon ended in October 2014.

He was married several times, including one famous but brief pairing with pop superstar Cher. He had five children.

Allman was the most famous face of a band that saw more than its share of tragedy.

In addition to the death of brother Duane, the Allman Brothers Band lost its bassist, Berry Oakley, to a motorcycle accident in 1972. In January of this year, another founding member of the band, Butch Trucks, committed suicide. Like Allman, he was 69.

From: MeNeedIt

From Bitcoin to Big Business, Blockchain Technology Goes Mainstream

The technology behind bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is being looked at by more conventional companies and businesses.

Known as blockchain, it is a public digital ledger that keeps a running tally of all cryptocurrency transactions within a distributed network of computers. Once they are recorded, transactions cannot be edited or removed, thus adding to the “chain.”

“It’s kind of like if you share an Excel file with a group of your employees at the office, but you don’t know exactly who updated it,” explained Hudson Jameson, chief operating officer and blockchain lead at Oaken Innovations. “Every time that you update the file, it gets updated on every other computer.”

Cut out the middle man

Blockchains eliminate the need for intermediary parties, by relying on a decentralized network of computers, or nodes, to verify all transactions. Bitcoin uses blockchain technology to enable anonymous, peer-to-peer payments, which is why the digital currency is often associated with illicit activity.

But developers are realizing blockchain technology can be equally useful in traditional, commercial applications.

“There’s this whole trend of enterprise blockchains, which is essentially using certain aspects of blockchain technology, like this global shared ledger, but without native cryptocurrency, so a way to represent their actual balance sheets and just kind of transact them more efficiently with their peers,” said Alex Sunnarborg, research analyst at Coindesk.

“More people are using these networks and the space has really just boomed,” Sunnarborg added.

Competition from startups

Bitcoin’s blockchain protocol is also seeing competition from startups like Ethereum, which issues ether, a competing digital currency. Like bitcoin, the Ethereum protocol is open-source. Users can not only conduct transactions with ether, but interested developers can program and build applications that run on the same blockchain protocol and use ether as a form of payment.

Jameson’s startup developed a hardware and software platform for cars based on the Ethereum blockchain.

“We put an Ethereum node on a Tesla, and whenever it would go through a toll bridge, the Ethereum node … would interact with the toll bridge and autonomously pay the toll bridge,” Jameson said. “If you think about what a toll bridge does today, you go through the toll bridge and you have to pay a credit card transaction fee. There [are] these systems in the toll bridge that work with multiple companies … but with our system, it’s literally machine-to-machine.”

This machine-to-machine communication allows direct access to the digital currency stored in one’s digital wallet. Transactions are processed on the spot without going outside of the network.

“Automakers are now starting to get interested in blockchain, they’re seeing what it can do for … the future for autonomous cars and some data-sharing applications … and blockchain’s going to be integral to that,” Jameson said.

Corporations explore its uses

Companies like Toyota, UnitedHealth Group and Fidelity are exploring blockchain technologies as a way to streamline operations and cut costs. In doing so, they are also lending legitimacy to the space.

“It’s no longer just bitcoin … it really started as currency, but this whole, decentralized peer-to-peer technology thing really kicked off a whole trend of much more than just money,” Sunnarborg said.

Only time will tell whether blockchain can set off a chain reaction.

“How it evolves into government frameworks is yet to be seen,” added Sunnarborg. “But it’s really hard to stop it at this point, it’s like once the cat’s out of the bag with this new technology it’s out there, and people are going to continue to transact.”

From: MeNeedIt

Students Tackle Tough US Defense Problems

In their Hacking for Defense class, students at Stanford University in California don’t hit the books or work on problem sets in the library. They go out into the field, tackling real world problems given to them by the Department of Defense and the U.S. military. The unusual 10-week course is an eye opener for the students who learn up close the challenges facing national security. VOA’s Michelle Quinn checked it out.

From: MeNeedIt

New Book Helps Teach Teens About Islam

In a new book, “Amina’s Voice,” a Pakistani Muslim pre-teen girl deals with middle school and Islamophobia. VOA’s Yahya Albarznji spoke with young American students, teachers and the award-winning author about this book and the hope that it will help people understand Islam.

From: MeNeedIt

New Book Helps Teach Teens About Islam

In a new book, “Amina’s Voice,” a Pakistani Muslim pre-teen girl deals with middle school and Islamophobia. VOA’s Yahya Albarznji spoke with young American students, teachers and the award-winning author about this book and the hope that it will help people understand Islam.

From: MeNeedIt

Study Finds Mixed News About Bee Populations

There’s a glimmer of hope for the American bee population. But, according to a new study, the outlook for this critical insect is mostly grim. Researchers report a slowing of the rate of decline in the bee population over the past year, dropping to its lowest since 2011-2012.

But, both commercial and small-scale beekeepers lost 33 percent of their honey bee colonies between April 2016 and April 2017.

“While it is encouraging that losses are lower than in the past, I would stop short of calling this ‘good’ news,” said Dennis van Engelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and project director for the Bee Informed Partnership, in a summary of the study.

“Colony loss of more than 30 percent over the entire year is high,” he added. “It’s hard to imagine any other agricultural sector being able to stay in business with such consistently high losses.”

Researchers point to many causes for the drop in bee populations, with parasites, particularly the varroa mite, and other diseases as the main culprits. Pesticides are also a factor, according to the study, particularly among commercial beekeepers. The researchers describes like a kind of synergy among all the causes that amount to worsening each individual problem.

“This is a complex problem,” said Kelly Kulhanek, a graduate student in the UMD Department of Entomology who helped with the survey. “Lower losses are a great start, but it’s important to remember that 33 percent is still much higher than beekeepers deem acceptable. There is still much work to do.”

The annual survey, which has been conducted for 11 years, aims to find why bee colonies are suffering, a problem that can have big consequences for human beings, given that honey bees pollinate $15 billion worth of U.S. agriculture annually. Almonds, researchers say are a perfect example: their growth is entirely dependent on bees for pollination.

“Bees are good indicators of the health of the landscape as a whole,” said Nathalie Steinhauer, a graduate student in the UMD Department of Entomology who leads the data collection efforts for the annual survey. “Honey bees are strongly affected by the quality of their environment, including flower diversity, contaminants and pests….Honey bee health is a community matter.”

From: MeNeedIt