NASA Schedules Its First All-Female Spacewalk

The U.S. space agency NASA has confirmed that it has scheduled a spacewalk by two female astronauts for the first time.

A NASA spokeswoman told CNN Wednesday, “As currently scheduled, the March 29 spacewalk will be the first with only women.”

The spacewalk, staffed by astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch will be the second spacewalk of three during Expedition 59, which launches March 14.

Koch is a member of Expedition 59, while McClain is currently part of the three-person crew of the International Space Station.

In addition to the two women in space, another woman, Canadian Space Agency flight controller Kristen Facciol, is expected to be on the console at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, providing support on the seven-hour spacewalk.

Male astronauts Nick Hague and David Saint-Jacques will participate in the first and third spacewalks.

It is unclear yet what is to be accomplished on the spacewalk. NASA says spacewalks are conducted for repairs, testing equipment and conducting experiments.

Microsoft: Businesses Targeted by Iran-Linked Hackers

Microsoft has detected cyberattacks linked to Iranian hackers that targeted thousands of people at more than 200 companies over the past two years.

That’s according to a Wall Street Journal report Wednesday that the hacking campaign stole corporate secrets and wiped data from computers.

Microsoft told the Journal the cyberattacks affected oil-and-gas companies and makers of heavy machinery in several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Germany, the United Kingdom, India and the U.S., and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

Microsoft attributed the attacks to a group it calls Holmium, and which other security researchers call APT33. Microsoft says it detected Holmium targeting more than 2,200 people with phishing emails that can install malicious code.

A call seeking comment from Iran’s mission to the United Nations wasn’t immediately returned Wednesday.

Zuckerberg Promises Privacy-Friendly Facebook, Sort of

Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook will start to emphasize new privacy-shielding messaging services, a shift apparently intended to blunt both criticism of the company’s data handling and potential antitrust action.

In effect, the Facebook co-founder and CEO promised to transform a service known for devouring the personal information shared by its users. Going forward, he said, it will emphasize giving people more ways to communicate in truly private fashion, with their intimate thoughts and pictures shielded by encryption in ways that Facebook itself can’t read.

But Zuckerberg didn’t suggest any changes to Facebook’s core newsfeed-and-groups-based service, or to Instagram’s social network, currently the fastest growing part of the company. Facebook pulls in gargantuan profits by selling ads targeted with the information it amasses on its users and others they know.

“It’s not that I think the more public tools will go away,” Zuckerberg said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. “All indications that Facebook and Instagram will continue growing and be increasingly important.”

Critics aren’t convinced Zuckerberg is truly committed to meaningful change.

“This does nothing to address the ad targeting and information collection about individuals,” said Jen King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. “It’s great for your relationship with other people. It doesn’t do anything for your relationship with Facebook itself.”

Zuckerberg laid out his vision in a Wednesday blog post , following a rocky two-year battering over revelations about its leaky privacy controls. That included the sharing of personal information from as many as 87 million users with a political data-mining firm that worked for the 2016 Trump campaign.

Since the 2016 election, Facebook has also taken flak for the way Russian agents used its service to target U.S. voters with divisive messages and being a conduit for political misinformation. Zuckerberg faced two days of congressional interrogation over these and other subjects last April; he acknowledged and apologized for Facebook’s privacy breakdowns in the past.

Since then, Facebook has suffered other privacy lapses that have amplified the calls for regulations that would hold companies more accountable when they improperly expose their users’ information.

As part of his effort to make amends, Zuckerberg plans to stitch together its Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram messaging services so users will be able to contact each other across all of the apps.

The multiyear plan calls for all of these apps to be encrypted so no one but senders and recipients can see the contents of messages. WhatsApp already has that security feature, but Facebook’s other messaging apps don’t.

Zuckerberg likened it to being able to be in a living room behind a closed front door, and not having to worry about anyone eavesdropping. Meanwhile, Facebook and the Instagram photo app would still operate more like a town square where people can openly share whatever they want.

While Zuckerberg positions the messaging integration as a privacy move, Facebook also sees commercial opportunity in the shift. “If you think about your life, you probably spend more time communicating privately than publicly,” he told the AP. “The overall opportunity here is a lot larger than what we have built in terms of Facebook and Instagram.”

Critics have raised another possible motive _ the threat of antitrust crackdowns. Integration could make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to later separate out and spin off Instagram and WhatsApp as separate companies.

“I see that as the goal of this entire thing,” said Blake Reid, a University of Colorado law professor who specializes in technology and policy. He said Facebook could tell antitrust authorities that WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger are tied so tightly together that it couldn’t unwind them.

Combining the three services also lets Facebook build more complete data profiles on all of its users. Already, businesses can already target Facebook and Instagram users with the same ad campaign, and ads are likely coming to WhatsApp eventually.

And users are more likely to stay within Facebook’s properties if they can easily message their friends across different services, rather than having to switch between Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram. That could help Facebook compete with messaging services from Apple, Google and others.

As part of the process, Zuckerberg said Facebook will meet with privacy experts, law enforcement officials concerned about the new encryption making it impossible to uncover illegal activity being discussed on the messaging service and government officials.

Creating more ways for Facebook’s more than 2 billion users to keep things private could undermine the company’s business model, which depends on the ability to learn about the things people like and then sell ads tied to those interests.

In his interview with the AP, Zuckerberg said he isn’t currently worried about denting Facebook’s profits with the increased emphasis on privacy.

“How this affects the business down the line, we’ll see,” Zuckerberg said. “But if we do a good job in serving the need that people have, then there will certainly be an opportunity” to make even money.

How You Hold Your Phone Helps Merchants Uncover Fraud

Can the way you hold your phone help fight identity theft and fraud? Security experts think so. Biometric security measures like fingerprint readers have become more common in fighting fraud, but another layer of defense involves passive biometrics like the angle at which a smartphone is held. Tina Trinh reports.

Jerry Merryman, ‘Brilliant’ Man Who Invented Calculator, Dies

Jerry Merryman, one of the inventors of the handheld electronic calculator who is described by those who knew him as not only brilliant but also kind with a good sense of humor, has died. He was 86.

Merryman died Feb. 27 at a Dallas hospital from complications of heart and kidney failure, said his stepdaughter, Kim Ikovic. She said he’d been hospitalized since late December after experiencing complications during surgery to install a pacemaker. 

He’s one of the three men credited with inventing the handheld calculator while working at Dallas-based Texas Instruments. The team was led by Jack Kilby, who made way for today’s computers with the invention of the integrated circuit and won the Nobel Prize, and also included James Van Tassel. The prototype they built is at the Smithsonian Institution. 

“I have a Ph.D. in material science and I’ve known hundreds of scientists, professors, Nobel prize-winners and so on. Jerry Merryman was the most brilliant man that I’ve ever met. Period. Absolutely, outstandingly brilliant,” said Vernon Porter, a former TI colleague and friend. “He had an incredible memory and he had an ability to pull up formulas, information, on almost any subject.”

‘Electronic revolution’

Another former TI colleague and friend, Ed Millis, said, “Jerry did the circuit design on this thing in three days, and if he was ever around, he’d lean over and say, `and nights.”‘ 

Merryman told NPR’s “All Things Considered” in 2013, “It was late 1965 and Jack Kilby, my boss, presented the idea of a calculator. He called some people in his office. He says, we’d like to have some sort of computing device, perhaps to replace the slide ruler. It would be nice if it were as small as this little book that I have in my hand.”

Merryman added, “Silly me, I thought we were just making a calculator, but we were creating an electronic revolution.”

The Smithsonian says that the three had made enough progress by September 1967 to apply for a patent, which was subsequently revised before the final application in June 1974.

Born in Texas

Merryman was born near the small city of Hearne in Central Texas on June 17, 1932. By the age of 11 or so he’d become the radio repairman for the town.

“He’d scrap together a few cents to go to the movies in the afternoons and evenings and the police would come get him out … because their radios would break and he had to fix them,” said Merryman’s wife, Phyllis Merryman.

He went to Texas A&M University in College Station but didn’t finish. Instead, he went to work in the university’s department of oceanography and meteorology and before long was on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico measuring the force of hurricane winds. He started at Texas Instruments in 1963, at the age of 30.

Telescope motor

His friends and family say he was always creating something. His daughter Melissa Merryman recalls him making his own tuner for their piano. Friend and former colleague Gaynel Lockhart remembers a telescope in concrete at his home with a motor attached that would allow it to follow a planet throughout the night.

Despite his accomplishments, he was humble. “He wouldn’t ever boast or brag about himself, not ever,” said Melissa Merryman, who became stepsisters with her friend Kim Ikovic when they set up their parents, who got married in 1993.

Jerry Merryman retired from TI in January 1994, the company said.

“He always said that he didn’t care anything about being famous, if his friends thought he did a good job, he was happy,” Phyllis Merryman said. 

Going TikTok: Indians Get Hooked on Chinese Video App Ahead of Election

A video clip shot on a sparse rooftop of what looks like a low-rise apartment block shows a young Indian man swaying while lip-syncing a song praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Describing himself as a proud Indian with the online identity “garrytomar”, he is wearing ear-studs and shows a beaded necklace under a partly unbuttoned shirt in the 15-second clip.

“Modi has single-handedly trounced everyone … Modi is a storm, you all now know,” goes the Hindi song, posted on Chinese video mobile application TikTok, the latest digital platform to grip India’s small towns and villages ahead of a general election due by May.

Created by Beijing Bytedance Technology, one of the world’s most valuable start-ups potentially worth more than $75 billion, TikTok allows users to create and share short videos with various special effects. It is becoming hugely popular in rural India, home to most of the country’s 1.3 billion people.

Social media platforms such as Facebook, its unit WhatsApp and Twitter are extensively being used by Indian politicians for campaigning ahead of the election: Facebook’s 300 million users and WhatsApp’s 200 million have made India their largest market in the world, while Twitter too has millions of users.

TikTok is fast catching up: it has been downloaded more than 240 million times in India so far, according to app analytics firm Sensor Tower. More than 30 million users in India installed it last month, 12 times more than in January 2018.

“Most urban elites haven’t heard of TikTok and those who have, tend to view it as a platform for trivial content. In reality, it hosts diverse content including a fair share of political speech,” said Kailas Karthikeyan, a New Delhi-based technology analyst who has tracked TikTok for nine months.

TikTok’s video-only interface makes it less elaborate and easier to use compared to platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, making it a bigger attraction in rural India, he added.

Political interest

While Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress party have not officially joined TikTok, videos tagged #narendramodi have received more than 30 million views and those about Congress chief Rahul Gandhi (#rahulgandhi) have got nearly 13 million hits. Total views for political videos is far higher.

Amit Malviya, the BJP’s chief of information technology, said the party was tracking TikTok conversations and it was “abrilliant medium for creative expression”. The party, however, has no plans as of now to officially join the platform, he said.

A Congress source said the party was exploring joining TikTok and assessing how it could be used to better reach out to people in rural areas in the run-up to the election.

Not all political videos on TikTok seek votes. Some videos show people waving the Congress flag on Indian streets. Another clip shows Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on a stage, with a Hindi-language rustic voiceover of her saying she will marry the Indian leader.

“I would die with him and live with him,” the Merkel voice impersonator declares in the video.

In another TikTok post, Modi fan Yogesh Saini says the prime minister is his world, moments before opening his jacket toreveal a video of Modi on his chest.

Saini, 23, isn’t affiliated to any political party, but says: “It’s my job to support Modi-ji, so I’m doing that,” using the honorific Indian suffix. He spoke to Reuters from the small town of Sawai Madhopur in the desert state of Rajasthan.

Scrutiny, backlash

Jokes, dance clips and videos related to India’s thriving movie industry dominate the platform. #Bollywood tagged videos have nearly 13 billion views and the app is also flooded with memes, as well as videos on cooking.

TikTok, though, is facing opposition from some quarters.

The information technology minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, M. Manikandan, said he will urge the federal government to ban the app as some content was “very unbearable.”

“Young girls and everybody is behaving very badly. Sometimes the body language is very bad, and (people are) doing mimicry of political leaders very badly,” Manikandan told Reuters.

A Hindu nationalist group close to Modi’s BJP too has called for a ban on TikTok.

TikTok said it respects local laws and there was “no basis” for the concerns. Promoting a safe and positive in-app environment was its “top priority,” it said.

The backlash comes as social media companies face increased scrutiny from authorities over fake news and undesirable content ahead of the polls. A federal proposal will mandate them to swiftly remove “unlawful” content when asked.

A senior government official in New Delhi said the government wants TikTok to comply with the new Indian regulations as and when they kick in, but there wasn’t any immediate concern on content.

Still, the government has asked the Chinese company to have better checks in place to ensure its users are aged above 12, which is recommended by the app itself, the official said.

 

Facebook Prohibits Foreign-funded Ads for Indonesia Election

Facebook says it will not allow foreign-funded advertisements for an upcoming presidential election in Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, hoping to allay concerns that its platform is being used to manipulate voting behavior.

 

The announcement on Facebook’s website said the restriction in Indonesia took effect Monday morning and is part of “safeguarding election integrity on our platform.”

 

Facebook and other internet companies are facing increased scrutiny over how they handle private user data and have been lambasted for not doing enough to stop misuse of their platforms by groups trying to sway elections. Critics say foreign interests, and Russia in particular, used Facebook to harvest private data and disseminate paid ads that may have influenced the outcomes of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the U.K. referendum on leaving the European Union.

 

Indonesia votes for president on April 17. The campaign pits incumbent leader Joko Widodo against ultranationalist former Gen. Prabowo Subianto, who was narrowly defeated by Widodo in 2014.

 

The social media company, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp and has about 2.3 billion users for its Facebook site alone, said it’s using a mix of automated and human intervention to identify foreign-funded election ads.

 

It said the restriction applies to any ads coming from an advertiser based outside of the country “if it references politicians or political parties or attempts to encourage or suppress voting.”

 

The company said it had also prohibited foreign-funded advertisements for Nigeria’s elections in February and for Ukraine’s elections later this month.

 

For upcoming elections for the European Parliament and India, it has said advertisers will need to be authorized to buy political ads and a new tool will provide information about an ad’s budget, the number of people it reached and demographics about who saw the ad, including age, gender and location.

China Launches Tech Hub Megalopolis to Rival Silicon Valley

As the global race to gain the lead in next generation tech heats up, China is stepping up its efforts, recently announcing a long-awaited plan to link up its southern Pearl River Delta into a massive hub of technology, research finance and innovation.

The possibilities and challenges of the project are both equally challenging and promising, analysts say.

Some describe the plan as an attempt to create a mega-city to rival Silicon Valley, the U.S. technology powerhouse that is home to companies such as Google, Facebook, and Apple.

But while Silicon Valley has a population of 3.1 million and covers an area 121.4 square kilometers, the Greater Bay Area will link up nine cities together with Hong Kong and Macau and cover an area of 56,000 square kilometers. The area will have a population of about 70 million and the economic heft, state media argues, to drive the Chinese economy, let alone the world.

According to the plan, which was announced recently and is expected to be a prominent topic during high-level political meetings this month in Beijing, each city will focus on an area of strength. For example, Hong Kong will focus on finance, Macau tourism, Shenzhen, innovation and technology, Guangzhou will be a gateway and logistic hub and so on.

The plan is not necessarily new. China’s opening up to the world more than four decades ago began in the south and the Pearl River Delta has long been home to some of the country’s leading companies from telecommunications – such as Huawei to Internet giant Tencent and host of other technology and manufacturing enterprises.

“It’s (the plan) a natural evolution of economic growth and the growth engine,” said Adam Xu, partner at OC&C Strategy Consultants. “If you really look at history in China, a lot of top down plans always have some bottom up support. A lot of economic activity has already happened there, then you have a grand plan to first officially recognize, then to promote and to further accelerate.”

Xu said that as labor costs rise in China, the country is looking to move up the industrial value chain and the program seeks to do just that to push the region on to the next wave, be it the manufacturing of electric cars, financial services or telecommunications.

It also aims to drive investment to the area at a time when foreign funds flowing into the country are sagging.

Challenges

One key challenge, Xu adds, will be execution. The plan will tie together three different legal jurisdictions and that makes the plan unique compared to the two other major mega-city projects in China – the Beijing, Hebei, Tianjin merger and the Yangtze River Delta integration plan near Shanghai.

“We don’t know how effective the top down grand plan will (be in) guiding the many independent growing forces at the city level to coordinate and be successful,” Xu said. “This part will be quite an important challenge.”

China has long had deep pockets when it comes to making investments that push forward technological advances. In many cases, however, that has led to overlaps in development and spending on technology and in turn oversupply.

“Looking at the grand scheme each city doesn’t have anything new,” said C.Y. Huang, partner of FCC Partners. “The biggest challenge and the biggest beauty – if they can pull it off – will be linking all of these together. 

One way the plan could do that is not just by lifting physical barriers, but the flow of people, information and money.

China has already taken major strides to overcome some of the physical obstacles such as linking Hong Kong with Guangzhou and Shenzhou by high-speed rail and its recent opening of the 55-kilometer Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge. 

But other barriers may prove to be a bigger challenge.

“I think it is really the barriers in systems that is the challenge. If they can really pull that off that will be a tremendous benefit and synergy in the long term,” Huang said.

At the same time, he added, we shouldn’t underestimate the social and political aspect of the challenges because we are talking about people.

“One is a communist country, and the other is a free society. Although they talk about one country two systems, still it is different,” Huang said.

New Lab Gives Biomechanical Students Real-Life Experience

Studying engineering isn’t just about learning, it’s about using skills in the real world. But for biomechanical engineering students, it can be hard to get that real-world experience. However, students at the University of the District of Columbia are able to see how their schoolwork translates to helping people. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

Space X Crew Capsule Reaches Space Station

The first American commercially built-and-operated crew spacecraft in eight years docked successfully Sunday at the International Space Station.

There was, however, no crew aboard the spacecraft, just a test dummy named Ripley, in a nod to the lead character in the Alien movies.

The docking was carried out autonomously by the Crew Dragon capsule, as the three astronauts on board the International Space Station watched.

The Space X Crew Dragon capsule lifted off atop a Falcon 9 rocket early Saturday from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

The Dragon brought supplies and test equipment to the space station where it will spend five days as astronauts conduct tests and inspect the Dragon’s cabin.

NASA has awarded millions of dollars to Space X and Boeing to design and operate a capsule to launch astronauts into orbit from American soil some time this year.

It is not immediately clear whether that goal will be reached.

Space X is entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company. Musk is also the CEO of electric carmaker Tesla.

Currently, America relies on Russia to launch astronauts to the space station.

Russia charges about $80 million per ticket.