Measles Epidemic in Madagascar Kills More Than 900, Says WHO

The World Health Organization says that an epidemic of measles in Madagascar has caused more than 900 deaths.

According to WHO figures, there have been more than 68,000 cases of the disease in which 553 deaths were confirmed and another 373 suspected from measles since the outbreak began in September.

Those most at risk are infants from nine to 11 months old.

 

The epidemic is blamed on a low immunization rate for measles across the island nation over a period of many years, according to WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic. The vaccination rate is estimated to be less than 60 percent, according to figures from WHO and UNICEF figures, he said.

 

Madagascar has launched a nationwide campaign to try to bring the outbreak under control, through mass vaccination campaigns and surveillance.

From: MeNeedIt

Samsung’s Folding Phone Aims to Rejuvenate Smartphone Market

Ten years after launching its Galaxy line of smartphones, Samsung Electronics unveiled a new form of the ubiquitous device — a phone that seamlessly turns into a tablet — to create some new excitement in the sluggish global smartphone market.

At an event in San Francisco on Wednesday, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Fold, its long-awaited foldable smartphone. Only FlexPai, by Royale, a U.S.-based Chinese company, has anything like it on the market, but the FlexPai has garnered mixed reviews.

Samsung ignored the FlexPai’s existence and unveiled the Galaxy Fold as if it were the first of its kind.

“The size of our screens is still fundamentally limited by the size of our devices until now,” said Justin Denison, Samsung senior vice president of product marketing. “With the Galaxy Fold, we are creating a new dimension for your phone and your life. We are giving you a device that doesn’t just define category, it defies category.”

 

WATCH: Samsung Rolls Out New Smartphones

Three apps at once for multitasking

When closed, the Galaxy Fold is a smartphone. When opened, the Fold turns into an expansive tablet.

The device is for the impatient multitaskers because users can run three apps at the same time and continuously use the apps while moving from phone to tablet.

The Galaxy Fold is slated to go on sale in late April. It will cost nearly $2,000. That price tag caused sticker shock at the event, eliciting gasps and some grumbling among the audience.

But it appears the Galaxy Fold is in keeping with Samsung’s aim to generate buzz for the smartphone market, while also aiming for the market’s high end, where Apple and its iPhone dominate.

Slumping smartphone sales

The challenge smartphone makers have faced in recent years is that consumers hold on to the devices for longer and longer, seeing few reasons to upgrade.

The leader in worldwide smartphone sales, the South Korean electronics firm is hoping to give consumers a few reasons to trade in their older ones, and generate buzz about what smartphones can be in the future.

Samsung’s new line of Galaxy smartphone, the S10, comes in three models, S10e, S10 and the S10+. The S10 models have bigger screens, more battery life and more cameras packed in each device than earlier Galaxy lines.

​Ultrasound fingerprint scanner

The S10 has the world’s first “ultrasonic fingerprint scanner,” which uses sound waves that bounce from a user’s fingertip to unlock a device. It’s unclear if the fingerprint scanner will work through screen savers. And the S10 can act as a charger for other devices such as watches.

The S10 line, with a price starting at $749, will start shipping March 8.

Samsung executives say that with the firm’s foldable phone and new S10 line, it is ushering in the mobile era for the next decade.

“For those who say everything possible has already been done,” said DJ Koh, president and CEO of Samsung’s IT and mobile communications division. “I say open your mind and get ready for the dawn of a new mobile era.”

From: MeNeedIt

Students Build City of the Future

A future of rising oceans and stronger storms awaits the next generation as the climate warms. It will take talented engineers and city planners to tackle those challenges. The annual Future City competition aims to get middle school students excited about learning the skills they’ll need. More than 40,000 students from 1,500 schools participated this year. VOA’s Steve Baragona was at the finals in Washington.

From: MeNeedIt

Angry Basra Youth Find Outlet in Iraqi Rapper’s Music

A youth-led protest movement in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra, which saw riots last summer over failing services and soaring unemployment, has found an artistic outlet in the words and beats of homegrown rapper Ahmed Chayeb. 

The 22-year-old rapper, also known as Mr. Guti, says his generation is fed up with the false piety of politicians and religious authorities who preach about faith and duty but have let Basra fall apart. 

“We need to be critical of everything that’s not right,” Chayeb told The Associated Press in a recent interview in his home studio, where he recorded “This is Basra,” lashing out at the powerful Shiite religious establishment.

 

Mr. Guti’s expertly produced music videos have drawn tens of thousands of YouTube viewers but his new-found fame has also brought danger: threats from hard-liners are common and two of the city’s protest organizers have been killed in recent attacks. Their killers remain at large. 

​Basra rundown, violent

Basra, long known around the Persian Gulf for its drinking establishments and its maritime vibe, fell under conservative rule after Shiite clerics and militias took over the city in the vacuum caused by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. 

 

Once renowned for its canals and markets, Basra’s waterways today are clogged with waste, and its drinking water is filthy. The city erupted in violent unrest last summer that led to demonstrators burning down government and party-affiliated buildings.

Amid the revolt, rap offered Basra’s youth, tired of joblessness and failed services, an opportunity for lyrics blistering with criticism. 

 

In “This is Basra,” Chayeb raps against the backdrop of a march around the city’s burning municipal building during last summer’s protests, asking why his generation has been called on to fight a war for leaders who cannot secure water for the city. 

 

The conflict he refers to is the four-year war against the Islamic State group that the U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces ultimately won. Many young Shiites followed a call in June 2014 by Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for volunteers to fight against IS. Thousands died in that fight.

 

“We were martyred for this war, I fell, and the authority has forgotten my loyalty,” he raps.

 

“You’re not associated with Hussein,” he goes on, invoking the revered Shiite imam and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who died in the 7th century Battle of Karbala, and whose example Iraq’s leaders have asked their youth to follow. 

​Careful, not backing down

Chayeb, mindful of the dangers, is circumspect about where and when he performs. He says most of his concerts are arranged through private contacts; he stopped recording at a professional studio in 2016. He said he’s received death threats that have grown more intimidating in recent months.

But he won’t stop rapping.

“If we stay afraid, nothing will change,” he said. 

As a teenager, Chayeb watched U.S. and British rappers on YouTube, then got together with friends to perform his own rhymes. He also followed a string of Arab rappers and sees Klash, from the Saudi city of Jiddah, as one of his greatest influences.

 

“My aim is to explain what is happening to Basra because of the people who are corrupt,” he said, adding that rap is a way “to release my pain.”

 

Corrupt politicians and clerics should watch out, he says. 

 

“Beware of Basra,” he raps. “We won’t be quiet until our demands are met.”

From: MeNeedIt

US Trade Representative to Testify on China Next Week

 U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will testify next week at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on U.S.-China trade issues, a spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee said on Wednesday.

Lighthizer has been the lead negotiator in ongoing trade negotiations with Beijing as the world’s two largest economies seek to find agreement amid a bitter dispute that has seen both sides impose tariffs on imports.

In a statement, the committee said the hearing was scheduled for Feb. 27, just days ahead of President Donald Trump’s March 1 deadline that the Republican U.S. leader has said could slide.

China and the United States began their latest round of talks this week.

 

From: MeNeedIt

Putin Announces Social Handouts in Bid to Stop Opinion Poll Slide

A year ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin sailed to victory in what challengers dubbed a “filthy election.” Facing weak candidates — some likely encouraged to run by a Kremlin eager to give the poll a veneer of greater competitiveness — Putin basked in his re-election, promising a flag-waving rally of loyalists off Moscow’s Red Square that “success awaits us.”

But with less than a month to go before marking the anniversary of his re-election, Putin faces rising public frustration with his rule and unprecedented dips in his approval ratings. In a recent opinion poll, nearly half of those surveyed said the country is heading in the wrong direction.

Putin, who has held power since succeeding Boris Yeltsin in 1999, had always been guaranteed victory in an election timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the Russian annexation of Crimea. Many pro-Putin voters interviewed by VOA last year said they were backing him because he had restored Russian strength and transformed the country from a regional power to a global player.

The domestic political landscape has changed since then, and the spell of Russian foreign adventurism doesn’t have the pull it once had, say analysts. The 66-year-old Russian leader appeared to acknowledge that Wednesday in his first address to parliament since his re-election.

Shift in focus

He went much more lightly on foreign and military issues in contrast to his last annual address in which he saber-rattled and unveiled a raft of new missiles, bragging about their stealth and speed. This time, he focused more on domestic challenges.

 

In response to rising public anger at the country’s economic malaise, Putin pledged to increase spending on development and social benefits, announcing a jump in child benefits along with tax breaks for families. He also pledged to almost double disability support payments. Putin boasted that for the first time, the country’s currency reserves cover external debt obligations and said economic growth should exceed 3 percent by 2021.

“Thanks to many years of common work and the results achieved, we can now direct and concentrate enormous financial resources on our development goals for our country,” Putin said.

“Nobody gave these funds to us; we did not borrow them. These funds were earned by millions of our citizens, the whole country,” he added.

“In the near future, this year, people should feel real changes for the better,” Putin pledged.

A tough sell

Whether Putin can deliver and reverse his growing unpopularity waits to be seen.

Analysts say Russians are unlikely to be satisfied with just words when it comes to quality of life issues, including the delivery of public services, municipal amenities or, more often than not, their absence, and on health and safety issues. It is the everyday “parochial” issues that worry them, including the potentially deadly consequences of shoddy and unsafe municipal housing and the reckless discarding of trash as Russia runs out of landfill sites.

Last year, thousands protested when dozens of children, in the town of Volokolamsk near Moscow, were hospitalized with suspected poisoning, the result of noxious gases emanating from an overfull local landfill.

In the past, when his political star has waned, Putin has turned to adventurism abroad to shore up support, offering foreign policy triumphs to whip up his domestic standing. That is unlikely to work moving forward, say analysts such as Mikhail Dmitriev.

Urban-rural divide

Dmitriev says polling data suggest the Kremlin is heading for a rocky few months with signs that dissent is likely to mount, and not just among the usual middle-class Putin skeptics and critics in the Russian capital and St. Petersburg, but in non-metropolitan Russia, in the smaller towns and villages, which traditionally have been the backbone of his support.

Raising the retirement age last year triggered the slide in Putin’s popularity. Cuts to salaries and sluggish economic growth added to the drag on his approval ratings, pollsters say. Real incomes have fallen by more than 10 percent since 2014, and nearly 40 percent of Russians say their material well-being has worsened just in the last 12 months.

Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a research institution, noted in a commentary earlier this month that ordinary workers are becoming more vexed with the Kremlin’s failure to deliver higher standards of living, as Putin promised he would do during the election campaign.

“Increasingly he is getting into fights with real Russians who want to complain about government policies. Last September, when he visited the Zvezda shipyard in the Russian Far East, the president got into an argument with the workers there about their salaries. (The transcript of their conversation in which Putin massively overestimated what they were paid was subsequently removed from the Kremlin website),” according to Baunov.

Baunov says the Putin system is increasingly being found wanting and the Russian president will not be able to deliver on the growing demand for economic redistribution “at the expense of the country’s rich capitalists,” in effect the friends of Putin and businessmen close to the Kremlin.

 

From: MeNeedIt

Microsoft Detects Hacking Targeting Europe Democracy Groups

A hacking group has targeted European democratic institutions including think tanks and non-profit groups ahead of highly anticipated EU parliamentary elections in May, Microsoft said.

The company said Tuesday that a group called Strontium targeted email accounts for more than 100 people in six European countries working for the German Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institutes in Europe and the German Marshall Fund.

Microsoft said in a blog post that it is continuing to investigate but is confident many of the attacks originated from Strontium, a group that others call Fancy Bear or APT28. U.S. authorities have tied the group to Russia’s main intelligence agency, known as the GRU.

Microsoft said the attacks occurred from September to December, and that it notified the organizations after discovering they were targeted.

Tech companies have been accused of not doing enough to prevent hacking attacks and the spread of fake news, which some say influenced major elections like the U.S. presidential vote and the Brexit referendum.

Hundreds of millions of people are set to vote for more than 700 European Union parliamentary lawmakers in May, and the recent rise of populist parties has raised the prospect of euroskeptic politicians gaining more seats and potentially undermining the bloc.

The German Marshall Fund has done extensive work researching and documenting Russian attempts at interfering in elections as part of its broader efforts on democracy-building and trans-Atlantic cooperation.

In a statement, the German Marshall Fund president, Karen Donfried, said the attacks were unsurprising for an organization “dedicated to advancing and promoting democratic values.”

The organization said its systems did not appear to be compromised.

The German Council on Foreign Relations declined to offer details, citing the ongoing investigation. But a council spokeswoman, Eva-Maria McCormack, called for “strong political and public attention” to the issue of cyberattacks.

From: MeNeedIt

OK for Direct US Flights Moves Vietnam Into Economic Fast Lane

The U.S. decision last week to permit Vietnam to fly its commercial aircraft directly to American airports is seen as a continuation of improving relations and follows other signs of international recognition for Hanoi.

Observers say the breakthrough shows that major countries including the United States take Vietnam ever more seriously after more than three decades of brisk economic development and foreign policy that includes balancing relations with its communist neighbor China without worrying the West.

“It’s been a slow and progressive bringing back [of] Vietnam into the international community,” said Adam McCarty, chief economist with Mekong Economics in Hanoi. “It’s been this continual process from the Vietnamese side of being caught, as they have been historically for hundreds of years, between larger powers.”

The Federal Aviation Administration’s award of a “category 1” rating for Vietnam means the country meets international safety standards. Vietnamese airlines can get permits now from the administration to open flights to the United States and carry the codes of U.S. carriers, the FAA said in a statement February 14.

US officials see change

Vietnamese officials knew the significance of the U.S. market in 2012, when they started working toward the FAA category 1 rating, Communist Party news website Nhan Dah reported Monday. They set out to solve 49 safety problems that the FAA found a year later, the website added.

The FAA inspected Vietnam’s civil aviation schemes again last year and gave high marks in most areas. It found just 14 “individual and not systematic problems,” the report says.

Clinching category 1 status from the world’s largest economy follows other signs of growing recognition.

The U.S. ran a $29.3 billion trade deficit with Vietnam in the first nine months of last year, but Washington did not make it a big issue. China and the United States, however, have been locked in disputes for about the past year partly because of China’s trade surplus with the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who praised Vietnam’s economic momentum in 2017, is scheduled to visit Hanoi next week for his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Both sides picked Vietnam as host because it’s seen as geopolitically neutral.

Trump and his “hawkish colleagues” will see Vietnam as distinct from China in terms of trade, McCarty said.

“The degree of economic and trade closeness between Vietnam and the United States is always increasing,” said Tai Wan-ping, Vietnam-specialized international business professor at Cheng Shiu University in Taiwan. “Apart from Vietnam having trade deals, in substance the degree of progress is extremely high.”

Bigger economy, more fliers

Foreign investment in Vietnamese manufacturing is fueling economic growth of 6 to 7 percent since 2012. That trend is growing the middle class to about one-third of the 93 million population by next year, the Boston Consulting Group estimates.

Citizens are spending some of their new wealth on airfares.

The country saw 94 million passengers in 2017, including 13 million foreign nationals, up 16 percent over 2016. The domestic civil aviation industry has grown 17.4 percent over the past decade and the International Air Transport Association projects Vietnam will become the world’s fifth fastest growing aviation market by 2035.

Foreign investors are expected to keep flying in, too. In January Vietnam formally joined the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal encompassing about 13.5 percent of the world economy. The European Union expects to ratify its own trade pact with Vietnam.

As part of a 10-member bloc of Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam trades freely with China. But political scientists say Vietnam avoids favoritism toward China, despite its having a similar political system and its significance as a source of raw materials. Vietnam has vied with China over territory for centuries and prefers a multi-country foreign policy today.

Loads of returnees, fewer tourists

Vietnamese in the United States are likely to pack the eventual direct flights as relatively few American tourists visit Vietnam, compared to other sources, McCarty said. Some Vietnamese-Americans go back to visit; others to invest.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are about 1.3 million people of Vietnamese heritage live in the United States today, many relocated after the U.S.-backed former South Vietnam lost to the Communist north in the 1970s. Foreign tourism to Vietnam surged to 14.1 million in the first 11 months of last year, led by citizens from China and South Korea.

 

“There are residents in the U.S. itself, so that alone would be good enough for airline connections if they see fit to,” said Song Seng Wun, regional economist in the private banking unit of CIMB in Singapore,  “Every country on the planet has representation in the U.S. population in one way or another. Obviously therefore it makes economic sense, commercial sense to have connectivity.”

Passengers on the eventual direct flights would avoid today’s stopovers in places such as Hong Kong and Taipei, Tai said.

 

 

From: MeNeedIt

Ancient Art of Mongolian Mask Making

When Gankhuyag Natsag makes one of his famous masks, he spends a lot of time thinking.

“During that time I am thinking that it’s all based on Buddhist philosophy. It allows for meditation, inspiration and a peaceful life,” he says.

The renowned Mongolian mask maker, known as Ganna, makes the elaborate representations of characters that appear in traditional Buddhist temple dances.

It did not get to Mongolia until 1811 and there it flourished until the Soviets cracked down on religion in Mongolia in the 1930’s.

“They destroyed more than 800 temples, including many Buddhist objects. A lot of masks were destroyed during that time,” Ganna says.

Aterwards, only about 30 masks survived. Knowing that has contributed to Ganna’s devotion to the masks. Many of the ones he makes go directly to museums around the world. 

Over a ten-year period ending in 2007, Ganna lovingly made all 108 Khuree Tsam as the masks are called. 

“The last mask I made was the Red Makhagala, also named Jamsran. He is the protector,” Ganna displays his work with reverence. “The other mask was the blue, bull mask. We call him Damdinchoijoo, the god of death.” 

His favorite is still the first one he made, the Old White Man, Chaganb Ebugan. The Old White Man has a lot of wisdom to offer people. 

Ganna has performed the Old White Man in traditional dances with the music and dance ensemble he started called Khan Bogd. The group has performed in more than 50 countries at festivals, theaters and museums.

​“When I wear that mask, I become completely taken over by the role. I feel as if I am bringing people education and giving long life. In Mongolia, we respect the oldest. The oldest has to educate the younger generation.”

Inner peace, outer peace

Gankhuyag Natsag was born in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia and immigrated to the U.S in 2002.He now lives in Arlington, Virginia where there is a big Mongolian community.

He has been making Buddhist ritual dance masks for more than two decades. 

While Ganna recreated the masks, his family and friends helped him by reproducing the mask’s costumes and elaborate ornaments.

 “My mother was a famous seamstress and my father was also a very artistic person. I learned a lot from them. I also studied art in school,” he says.

It takes a month for him to actually create a mask using clay and layers of papier-mache.

As much as Ganna loves the process, he also has a greater goal in mind.

“I would like to introduce Mongolian culture all over the world, through my art and through my masks. That’s one of my biggest goals. We need to preserve our culture. That is very important.” 

Ganna has a dream project called the World Peace Pagoda. He hopes to build large scale peace education centers, one in Mongolia and another outside Washington.

“If people are peaceful and enjoyable on the inside, our outer world will directly be the same. Our world will be peaceful. That is based on the Buddhist philosophy,” Ganna maintains. “Our world is unique, it is our only home.”

From: MeNeedIt