These Burgers Are Better for the Planet, but You’d Never Know It

As the world’s population heads toward 10 billion by midcentury, experts are wrestling with how to feed the world without wrecking the planet. It’s not easy to find foods with lower environmental impact that still taste as good as the ones they are intended to replace. But chefs and environmentalists are both cheering one new menu item: the mushroom-blended burger. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.

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NY’s Immigrant Taxi Drivers Despair as Taxi Industry Slumps

A financially distraught yellow cab driver from Romania recently hanged himself in his New York garage, marking the fourth suicide among city taxi drivers in as many months. In the tragedy’s aftermath, members of New York’s taxicab drivers union are renewing their calls for a cap on the number of app-based for-hire vehicles, such as Uber and Lyft, which they say are driving workers of a once-thriving industry into the ground. VOA’s Ramon Taylor reports.

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Could Enemies Target Undersea Cables That Link the World?

Russian ships are skulking around underwater communications cables, causing the U.S. and its allies to worry the Kremlin might be taking information warfare to new depths.

Is Moscow interested in cutting or tapping the cables? Does it want the West to worry it might? Is there a more innocent explanation? Unsurprisingly, Russia isn’t saying.

But whatever Moscow’s intentions, U.S. and Western officials are increasingly troubled by their rival’s interest in the 400 fiber-optic cables that carry most of world’s calls, emails and texts, as well as $10 trillion worth of daily financial transactions.

“We’ve seen activity in the Russian navy, and particularly undersea in their submarine activity, that we haven’t seen since the ’80s,” General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S. European Command, told Congress this month.

Without undersea cables, a bank in Asian countries couldn’t send money to Saudi Arabia to pay for oil. U.S. military leaders would struggle to communicate with troops fighting extremists in Afghanistan and the Middle East. A student in Europe wouldn’t be able to Skype his parents in the United States.

Small passageways

All this information is transmitted along tiny glass fibers encased in undersea cables that, in some cases, are little bigger than a garden hose. All told, there are 620,000 miles of fiber-optic cable running under the sea, enough to loop around Earth nearly 25 times.

Most lines are owned by private telecommunications companies, including giants like Google and Microsoft. Their locations are easily identified on public maps, with swirling lines that look like spaghetti. While cutting one cable might have limited impact, severing several simultaneously or at choke points could cause a major outage.

The Russians “are doing their homework and, in the event of a crisis or conflict with them, they might do rotten things to us,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at nonprofit research group CNA Corp.

It’s not Moscow’s warships and submarines that are making NATO and U.S. officials uneasy. It’s Russia’s Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research, whose specialized surface ships, submarines, underwater drones and minisubs conduct reconnaissance, underwater salvage and other work.

One ship run by the directorate is the Yantar. It’s a modest, 354-foot oceanographic vessel that holds a crew of about 60. It most recently was off South America’s coast helping Argentina search for a lost submarine.

Parlamentskaya Gazeta, the Russian parliament’s publication, last October said the Yantar has equipment “designed for deep-sea tracking” and “connecting to top-secret communication cables.” The publication said that in September 2015, the Yantar was near Kings Bay, Georgia, home to a U.S. submarine base, “collecting information about the equipment on American submarines, including underwater sensors and the unified [U.S. military] information network.” Rossiya, a Russian state TV network, has said the Yantar not only can connect to top-secret cables but also can cut them and “jam underwater sensors with a special system.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Preparing for sabotage

There is no hard evidence that the ship is engaged in nefarious activity, said Steffan Watkins, an information technology security consultant in Canada tracking the ship. But he wonders what the ship is doing when it’s stopped over critical cables or when its Automatic Identification System tracking transponder isn’t on.

Of the Yantar’s crew, he said: “I don’t think these are the actual guys who are doing any sabotage. I think they’re laying the groundwork for future operations.”

Members of Congress are wondering, too. 

Representative Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat on a House subcommittee on sea power, said of the Russians, “The mere fact that they are clearly tracking the cables and prowling around the cables shows that they are doing something.”

Democratic Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, an Armed Services Committee member, said Moscow’s goal appears to be to “disrupt the normal channels of communication and create an environment of misinformation and distrust.”

The Yantar’s movements have previously raised eyebrows.

On October 18, 2016, a Syrian telecom company ordered emergency maintenance to repair a cable in the Mediterranean that provides internet connectivity to several countries, including Syria, Libya and Lebanon. The Yantar arrived in the area the day before the four-day maintenance began. It left two days before the maintenance ended. It’s unknown what work it did while there.

Watkins described another episode on November 5, 2016, when a submarine cable linking Persian Gulf nations experienced outages in Iran. Hours later, the Yantar left Oman and headed to an area about 60 miles west of the Iranian port city of Bushehr, where the cable runs ashore. Connectivity was restored just hours before the Yantar arrived on November 9. The boat stayed stationary over the site for several more days.

Undersea cables have been targets before.

At the beginning of World War I, Britain cut a handful of German underwater communications cables and tapped the rerouted traffic for intelligence. In the Cold War, the U.S. Navy sent American divers deep into the Sea of Okhotsk off the Russian coast to install a device to record Soviet communications, hoping to learn more about the U.S.S.R.’s submarine-launched nuclear capability.

Eavesdropping by spies

More recently, British and American intelligence agencies have eavesdropped on fiber-optic cables, according to documents released by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor.

In 2007, Vietnamese authorities confiscated ships carrying miles of fiber-optic cable that thieves salvaged from the sea for profit. The heist disrupted service for several months. And in 2013, Egyptian officials arrested three scuba divers off Alexandria for attempting to cut a cable stretching from France to Singapore. Five years on, questions remain about the attack on a cable responsible for about a third of all internet traffic between Egypt and Europe.

Despite the relatively few publicly known incidents of sabotage, most outages are due to accidents.

Two hundred or so cable-related outages take place each year. Most occur when ship anchors snap cables or commercial fishing equipment snags the lines. Others break during tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

But even accidental cuts can harm U.S. military operations. 

In 2008 in Iraq, unmanned U.S. surveillance flights nearly screeched to a halt one day at Balad Air Base, not because of enemy mortar attacks or dusty winds. An anchor had snagged a cable hundreds of miles away from the base, situated in the “Sunni Triangle” northwest of Baghdad.

The severed cable had linked controllers based in the United States with unmanned aircraft flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions for coalition forces in the skies over Iraq, said retired Air Force Colonel Dave Lujan of Hampton, Virginia.

“Say you’re operating a remote-controlled car and all of a sudden you can’t control it,” said Lujan, who was deputy commander of the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group at the base when the little-publicized outage lasted for two to three days. “That’s a big impact,” he said, describing how U.S. pilots had to fly the missions instead.

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Trump EPA Expected to Roll Back Auto Gas Mileage Standards 

The Trump administration is expected to announce that it will roll back automobile gas mileage and pollution standards that were a pillar in the Obama administration’s plans to combat climate change. 

It’s not clear whether the announcement will include a specific number, but current regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency require the fleet of new vehicles to get 36 miles per gallon in real-world driving by 2025. That’s about 10 mpg over the existing standard. 

Environmental groups, who predict increased greenhouse gas emissions and more gasoline consumption if the standards are relaxed, say the announcement could come Tuesday at a Virginia car dealership. EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in an email Friday that the standards are still being reviewed.

Legal showdown

Any change is likely to set up a lengthy legal showdown with California, which currently has the power to set its own pollution and gas mileage standards and doesn’t want them to change. About a dozen other states follow California’s rules, and together they account for more than one-third of the vehicles sold in the US. Currently the federal and California standards are the same. 

Automakers have lobbied to revisit the requirements, saying they’ll have trouble reaching them because people are buying bigger vehicles due to low gas prices. They say the standards will cost the industry billions of dollars and raise vehicle prices due to the cost of developing technology needed to raise mileage. 

When the standards were first proposed, the government predicted that two-thirds of new vehicles sold would be cars, with the rest trucks and SUVs, said Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Now the reverse is true, she said.

Still, environmental groups say the standards save money at the pump, and the technology is available for the industry to comply. 

Health risk

They also say burning more gasoline will put people’s health at risk. 

“The American public overwhelmingly supports strong vehicle standards because they cut the cost of driving, reduce air pollution, and combat climate change,” said Luke Tonachel, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean Vehicles and Fuels Project. 

The EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are involved in setting the standards, which would cover the years 2022 through 2025. 

Some conservative groups are pressing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to revoke a waiver that allows California to set its own rules. They say California shouldn’t be allowed to set policy for the rest of the nation. Pruitt has publicly questioned the veracity of evidence complied by climate scientists, including those in his own agency, that global warming is overwhelmingly caused by man-made carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.

If the waiver is revoked, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra says the state will resist. “What we’re doing to protect California’s environment isn’t just good for our communities — it’s good for the country,” he said in a statement. “We’re not looking to pick a fight with the Trump administration, but when they threaten our values, we’re ready.” 

Huge dilemma

Getting rid of the waiver or having two gas mileage and pollution requirements presents a huge dilemma for automakers: while they would like to avoid fines for failing to meet the standards, they also want the expense of building two versions of cars and trucks, one for the California-led states and another for the rest of the country.

Mark Reuss, a General Motors’ product development chief, said in a recent interview that he would rather have a single nationwide standard, even if it stays the same. He called two standards “just waste,” because they would require different vehicle equipment and costly additional engineering. “I want one good one,” he said. “I could focus all my engineers on one.”

Automakers agreed to the standards in 2012, but lobbied for and received a midterm review in 2018 to account for changes in market conditions. In the waning days of the Obama presidency, the EPA did the review and proclaimed that the standards have enough flexibility and the technology is available to meet them.

Changes would be years away

Janet McCabe, who was acting assistant EPA administrator under Obama when the review was done, said Friday it will take a couple years for the EPA to propose new rules, gather public comment and finalize any changes. Any rollback would likely bring legal challenges, forcing Pruitt’s EPA to defend the science behind the changes. 

“This would all take a long time,” said McCabe, now a senior fellow at the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

In the meantime, automakers have to proceed with plans for new cars and trucks under the current gas mileage requirements because it takes years to develop vehicles.

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Facebook ‘Ugly Truth’ Memo Triggers New Firestorm Over Ethics

Was a leaked internal Facebook memo aimed at justifying the social network’s growth-at-any-cost strategy? Or simply a way to open debate on difficult questions over new technologies?

The extraordinarily blunt memo by a high-ranking executive — leaked this week and quickly repudiated by the author and by Facebook — warned that the social network’s goal of connecting the world might have negative consequences, but that these were outweighed by the positives.

“Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies,” the 2016 memo by top executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth said. “Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.”

While Bosworth and Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg said the memo was only a way to provoke debate, it created a new firestorm for the social network mired in controversy over the hijacking of personal data by a political consulting firm linked to Donald Trump.

David Carroll, a professor of media design at the New School Parsons, tweeted that the memo highlighted a “reckless hubristic attitude” by the world’s biggest social network.

“What is so striking is that an executive chose to have this conversation on a Facebook wall,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University professor who studies social networks. “He showed poor judgment and poor business communication skills. It speaks to Facebook’s culture.”

Grygiel said these kinds of issues require “thoughtful discussion” and should take place within a context of protecting users. “When these companies build new products and services, their job is to evaluate the risks, and not just know about them, but ensure public safety.”

Bosworth, considered part of chief executive Zuckerberg’s inner circle, wrote: “The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is ‘de facto’ good.”

On Thursday, he said he merely wanted to open a discussion and added that “I don’t agree with the post today and I didn’t agree with it even when I wrote it.”

Zuckerberg responded that he and many others at Facebook “strongly disagreed” with the points raised.

‘Offloading’ ethical questions

Jim Malazita, a professor of science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said it was not surprising to see the memo in an industry whose work culture is highly compartmentalized.

Malazita said the memo frames the discussion with the assumption that technology and connecting people is always positive.

“By the assumptions built into that framework they are already shutting down a whole bunch of conversations,” he said.

Malazita added that most people who learn computer science are taught to make these technologies work as well as possible, while “offloading” the question of moral responsibility.

“It’s not that they don’t care, but even when they care about the social impact, there’s a limit to how much they practice that care.”

Joshua Benton, director of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, said it may be too easy to blame Facebook for misuse of the platform.

“I’m rarely in a position to defend Facebook,” he said, but the view that a technology is worth spreading even though some people will use it for terrible ends “is something you could have believed about the telegraph, the telephone, email, SMS, the iPhone, etc,” Benton tweeted.

Doing the right thing

Patrick Lin, director of the ethics and emerging sciences group at California Polytechnic State University, said he sees “no evidence that Facebook’s culture is unethical, though just one senior executive in the right place can poison the well.”

“I’d guess that most Facebook employees want to do the right thing and are increasingly uncomfortable with how the proverbial sausage is made,” Lin added.

Copies of internal responses at Facebook published by The Verge website showed many employees were angry or upset over the Bosworth memo but that some defended the executive.

Others said the leaks may suggest Facebook is being targeted by spies or “bad actors” trying to embarrass the company.

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Пенсійна реформа вивела з тіні 400 тисяч українців – міністр

Близько 400 тисяч українців завдяки пенсійній реформі додалися до числа платників єдиного соціального внеску (ЄСВ). Про це заявив міністр соціальної політики Андрій Рева в програмі «Свобода в деталях» (спільний проект Радіо Свобода та Радіо НВ), повна версія якої вийде на Радіо НВ 1 квітня о 19:04.

«Після проведеної реформи з’явилося близько 400 тисяч нових платників єдиного соціального внеску, які почали платити. Зараз питання, яке ставлять люди, коли влаштовуються на роботу – навіть не «яка заробітна плата?», а «чи буду я отримувати її легально?» Люди починають розуміти, що це важлива річ», – вказав міністр.

Він відзначив, що нині в Україні «співвідношення тих, хто платить ЄСВ і тих, хто отримує пенсію один до одного, але якщо ви візьмете працездатне населення, яке б могло платити», то на одного пенсіонера припадає двоє працездатних – «26 мільйонів працездатних людей і 12 мільйонів пенсіонерів».

«З 26 мільйонів офіційно зайнятих 16 мільйонів, ЄСВ платять 12 мільйонів, 4 мільйони абсолютно легально не платять ЄСВ. Далі за методикою МОП врахуємо 1 мільйон 800 тисяч безробітних… Тобто додаємо ще 2 мільйони до 16 і отримуємо 18 мільйонів, а де ще 8 мільйонів? В тіні, за кордоном і так далі», – додав Андрій Рева.

Раніше Радіо Свобода повідомило, що близько 100 тисяч громадян України пенсійного віку не отримують пенсію зараз і не отримуватимуть її надалі.

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