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Update  September, 2019

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Science & Technology

India loses touch with lander on its final approach to moon


Live pictures of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) scientists reacting are displayed on a big screen at their Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

Aijaz Rahi & Sheikh Saaliq

Bangalore, India (AP) — India’s space agency said it lost touch with its Vikram lunar lander on Saturday, Sept. 7, as it made its final approach to the moon’s South Pole to deploy a rover to search for signs of water.

The fate of the lander — whether it crashed or landed — wasn’t immediately known. A successful landing would have made India just the fourth country to land a vessel on the lunar surface, and only the third to operate a robotic rover there.

The space agency said the lander’s descent was normal until 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the lunar surface.

“Let us hope for the best,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was at Mission Control in the southern city of Bangalore.

Trajectory graphics of India’s unmanned spacecraft are displayed on a big screen at a media center set up at Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network facility in Bangalore, India, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

The entire control center was jubilant during the first 10 minutes of the lander’s descent, with scientists breaking out in occasional cheers. The mood suddenly turned somber and then dejected when the lander stopped sending data during its final minutes of descent.

“I can understand the sadness in your face,” Modi later told gathered scientists after being briefed by the space agency’s chairman. “I have lived the moment with you when communication with the spacecraft was lost.”

K. Sivan, the agency chairman, said the data was being analyzed to find out what happened.

The roughly $140 million mission, known as Chandrayaan-2, was intended to study permanently shadowed moon craters that are thought to contain water deposits that were confirmed by the Chan­drayaan-1 mission in 2008.

India’s achievements in space have been hailed by Modi as a symbol of the country’s rising ambition as a global power.

Even after communication was lost, scientists at mission control chanted “Victory for Mother India” in response to Modi’s speech.

The space agency’s chairman had earlier called Chandrayaan-2 the “most complex mission ever” undertaken by the agency.

The mission lifted off on July 22 from the Satish Dhawan space center in Sriharikota, an island off the coast of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

After its launch, Chan­drayaan-2 spent several weeks making its way toward the moon, ultimately entering lunar orbit on Aug. 20.

On Sept. 2, Vikram separated from the mission’s orbiter, and the lander began a series of braking maneuvers to lower its orbit and ready itself for landing.

Only three nations — the United States, the former Soviet Union and China — have landed a spacecraft on the moon.

Last January, China achieved the first landing on the far side of the moon. In April, an Israeli spacecraft attempting to land crashed moments before touchdown.

Apple apologizes for use of contractors to eavesdrop on Siri

Michael Liedtke

San Francisco (AP) — Apple is apologizing for allowing outsiders to listen to snippets of people’s recorded conversations with its digital assistant Siri, a practice that undermined its attempts to position itself as a trusted steward of privacy.

As part of the apology posted Wednesday, Apple reiterated an earlier pledge to stop keeping audio recorded through Siri unless consumers give their permission.

When permission is granted, Apple said only its own employees will be allowed to review audio to help improve the service. Previously, the company hired contractors to listen to some recordings.

“We realize we haven’t been fully living up to our high ideals, and for that we apologize,” Apple said.

Apple would not say how it will seek permission. In the past, the Cupertino, California, company has typically requested permissions through prompts during software update installations.

In recent months, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple have all acknowledged that people have been reviewing users’ interactions with artificial intelligence assistants in order to improve the services. But users aren’t typically aware that humans and not just computers are reviewing audio.

The use of humans to listen to audio recordings is particularly troubling to privacy experts because it increases the chances that a rogue employee or contractor could leak details of what is being said, including parts of sensitive conversations.

The backlash to the industry practice prompted Facebook and Google to stop relying on people to transcribe recorded conversations. Amazon is continuing the practice unless users of its digital assistant Alexa explicitly demand that humans be blocked from listening. Microsoft also is still doing it, too, contending it has adequate privacy safeguards in place for the Cortana digital assistant.

Apple intends to continue to rely upon computer-generated transcripts of what’s being said to Siri as part of effort to improve services, even if a user hasn’t explicitly granted permission, or opted in.

Unlike Facebook, Google and Amazon, which track what people are doing and where they are going to sell ads and merchandise, Apple has conspicuously emphasized that that it has no interest in peering into its customers’ lives.

CEO Tim Cook repeatedly has declared the company’s belief that “privacy is a fundamental human right,” a phrase that cropped up again in Apple’s apology.

Sharks to saiga, nations up support for endangered wildlife

Baby elephants rub their trunks against a tree at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya Wednesday, Aug. 28. Countries that are part of an international agreement on trade in endangered species agreed to limit the sale of wild elephants, delighting conservationists but dismaying some of the African countries involved. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)

Jamey Keaten

Geneva (AP) — From towering giraffes to bottom-feeding sharks and many species in between, endangered species got new protections under an agreement finalized Wednesday by most of the world’s countries at a conference on saving plants and animals from the ravages of international trade.

The 11-day World Wildlife Conference on updating a convention known as CITES, which aims to ensure that trade doesn’t threaten the survival of endangered fauna and flora, adopted an array of measures and decisions about elephants, otters, star tortoises, saiga antelope, and rosewood — a cherished material for guitar makers — among many others.

The conference occurs every three years and took on added importance this year following a U.N. report on biodiversity in May warning that extinction looms for over 1 million species of plants and animals.

Thomas Jemmi, CITES Cop18 Chair, Ivonne Higuero, CITES Secretary-General (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), Rod Hay, Chair Committe I, Craig Hoover, Chair Committe II, from left, speak during a press conference for the closing session of the World Wildlife Conference - CITES CoP18, in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, August 28. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

There are growing concerns that policymakers aren’t acting quickly enough to stop it.

Attendees agreed on protections for 18 more shark species that, while stopping short of a full ban, requires any trade in them to be sustainable.

Nations did ban trade of two types of otters, which are coveted as pets in places like Japan, and the popular Indian star tortoise — one of the most heavily trafficked illegally of all the tortoises for pet trade.

Rod Hay, chairman of a committee that handles new listing proposals, said that “we had a large number of reptile proposals and quite a significant number of reptiles and amphibians that were added to the list of CITES.”

“That’s a reflection of pressure, particularly in pet trade, on strange and interesting reptiles,” he said, alluding to efforts by non-governmental organizations, animal-rights groups and conservationists.

Controversy erupted over interpretation about science — the supposed guidepost for decision-makers — amid emotional and political pleas put forward by some NGOs and animal rights activists as well as cash-strapped African governments.

Frustrations emerged among countries like Zimbabwe, which denounced international mandates about its 84,000-strong African elephant population without enough help from abroad in managing it, and Japan, which argued that mako sharks are only facing declining populations in the North Sea and not near the seafaring Pacific archipelago.

“There are a lot of controversies — particularly around the elephant,” said Susan Lieberman of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “The populations are in better shape and are well-managed in southern Africa. Those countries would like to trade ivory. But CITES parties have decided that countries should close their ivory markets and efforts here to open the ivory trade were rejected.”

The fallout was continuing from a measure, spearheaded by the European Union, passed Tuesday to restrict exports of wild-caught African elephants beyond their home countries or natural habitats — with a few exceptions.

“We would have liked a near-total ban on the export of wild baby elephants, but the proposal that was put through, with the eventual backing of the EU is much better than the status quo,” said Kirsty Smith, administrator at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi. “It is much better than nothing and we are very excited. It is a fantastic win.”

Israel withdrew a proposal to list the woolly mammoth in CITES conventions after countries like Russia and Canada, which have many remains of the long-extinct animals, aired reservations about the unprecedented idea. Israel had argued that elephant tusk, which faces trade restrictions, can be too easily confused with mammoth tusk, which can be traded legally. The issue remains unresolved.

Eco search engine sees surge in downloads as Amazon burns


A tree stump glows with fire amid smoke along the road to Jacunda National Forest, near the city of Porto Velho in the Vila Nova Samuel region which is part of Brazil’s Amazon, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. Can you save the rainforest from your desk? A spike in downloads for a search engine that’s contributing profits to planting trees shows people are looking for ways to help as fires rage across the Brazilian Amazon. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

Mae Anderson

New York (AP) — Can you save the rainforest from your desk? A spike in downloads for a search engine that’s contributing profits to planting trees shows people are looking for ways to help as fires rage across the Brazilian Amazon.

But experts say that while such efforts won’t hurt, there are better ways to contribute.

Ecosia, a search engine founded in 2009, works with about 20 tree-planting organizations around the world in hopes of planting a billion trees by 2020. The Berlin-based company has pledged to plant an additional 2 million trees in Brazil in response to the fires.

Ecosia uses Microsoft Bing’s search engine technology and sells ads just like many other tech companies. But instead of rewarding mostly shareholders, the company said it is contributing 80% of its profits to tree-planting efforts and keeping just a small amount for itself. The company estimates it can plant one tree for every 45 searches that people do.

Other companies and even celebrities are also taking action in response to the fires. Apple, for example, has pledged aid, though it has not given many details. Leonardo DiCaprio’s foundation has pledged $5 million.

Can a typical person help the rainforest by simply changing search engines or supporting certain companies?

While switching to Ecosia requires little effort and “might make a difference,” the best way to respond is to give directly to a charity that specializes in a cause and spends donations wisely, said Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University.

Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, said disaster relief tends to be reactive and driven by the news cycle. He said charitable organizations can capitalize on that by making it easy to give money.

“Generally speaking, doing something is better than doing nothing,” said Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas. “We tend to do things that are easy.”

A nonprofit called B Lab has certified Ecosia as a for-profit company with a social mission. Ecosia’s bigger goal is to combat climate change. It works with such nonprofit groups as The Nature Conservancy and the Eden Reforestation Projects.

Although it’s possible to use Ecosia from a standard web browser, people can download an “extension” tool to make it the default search engine on traditional personal computers. Ecosia also has an app for iPhones, iPads and Android devices.

Since the fires began, Ecosia has seen downloads of the apps and extensions spike 10-fold, to about 250,000 a day, much for it from the U.S., Brazil, Latin America, Canada and Europe. Ecosia has also gotten 100 million searches a week, which the company says is a “huge increase,” though it isn’t saying by how much. The company said the spike has come through word of mouth via social media and media reports.

“We’re very sad about what’s happening, but at the same time we’re really overwhelmed by all of the positive energy from people coming our way who want to do something,” Ecosia founder Christian Kroll said..


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

India loses touch with lander on its final approach to moon

Apple apologizes for use of contractors to eavesdrop on Siri

Sharks to saiga, nations up support for endangered wildlife

Eco search engine sees surge in downloads as Amazon burns