‘Cranky Uncle’ Game Offers a Vaccination Against Climate Disinformation

When it comes to climate change, deciding what facts you can trust and what’s fake news can be a challenge, particularly in an era of sophisticated misinformation campaigns and complex scientific data.But an ally is at hand: ‘Cranky Uncle,’ a gruff cartoon character and denier of climate change facts who, in a new game, helps you master the art of creating global warming disinformation — and makes you better at identifying it in the real world.From the use of fake experts to cherry-picking data, “you learn the techniques and then you’re able to spot them yourself,” said John Cook, an assistant professor at Virginia’s George Mason University and one of the creators of the online game.In one scenario, for instance, Cranky Uncle is falling, unconcerned, from a tall building while a white-coat-clad scientist leans out a window, warning he’ll hit the ground in 12 to 15 seconds.”Get back to me when you have more certainty!” Cranky Uncle demands.Such “impossible expectations” for predictions are one way of trying to undermine scientific data, the game notes, alongside techniques such as logical fallacies.In one of those, Cranky Uncle insists that a boat he’s in can’t be sinking — despite the stern being underwater — because the prow, where he’s standing, is still rising out of the water as the vessel, Titanic-style, becomes vertical.’Inoculate’ game playersThe idea, Cook said, is essentially to “inoculate” users against climate change disinformation and misinformation they might encounter by purposely exposing them to a small dose of it.”It basically stops misinformation from spreading, from people passing it on,” said Cook, a climate change communications expert born in Australia and now working in the United States.Both countries, he said, are widely seen as strongholds of climate denialism — alongside Canada and the United Kingdom — despite evidence of worsening droughts, wildfires, floods and storms.The idea for the game — currently still a prototype — comes from work by Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge, who in 2018 created Bad News, a game designed to help players identify fake news by learning how to create it.Game played in 15 languagesThat online game, so far played by about a million people in 15 languages, “is non-political and non-judgmental. It gives people an environment to learn about these techniques regardless of what your prior views are,” van der Linden said.Now ‘Cranky Uncle’ “is using the same techniques that worked for us. It’s kind of silly and people can relate to it.”Cook, who has a background in drawing cartoons, said one of the appeals of Cranky Uncle is that most people have run into a character like him.That’s particularly true in the United States where just under 10% of the people say they are sure climate change is not happening and actively oppose action to reduce emissions, according to research published by Yale University.”Just about everybody says, ‘I’ve got an uncle just like this.’ I think it’s almost a universal human condition,” Cook said.Crowdfunding leads to prototypeHe hopes to raise $15,000, in part through crowdfunding, to turn the prototype — tested in university classes on the U.S. East Coast — into a phone app and launch it mid-2020.He said initial reactions from students have been largely positive, with many saying they had fun, and felt they could now better see through attempts to mislead them — and not just about climate change.”We found that playing this game about climate disinformation inoculated them against any kind of misinformation,” he said.

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‘Mighty Mice’ Possible Key to Maintaining Muscle Mass

Scientists launched genetically modified mice into space December 5 as part of a study to find ways to help maintain the health of astronauts in space They have twice the muscle mass of their “ordinary” counterparts. As VOA’s Arash Arabasadi reports, the research could provide insight into muscular degeneration in older populations and those with muscle-wasting conditions. 

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Phone-in-Cheek: Spike Seen in Cellphone-Linked Face Injuries

Add facial cuts, bruises and fractures to the risks from cellphones and carelessly using them.
                   
That’s according to a study published Thursday that found a spike in U.S. emergency room treatment for these mostly minor injuries.
                   
The research was led by a facial plastic surgeon whose patients include a woman who broke her nose when she dropped her phone on her face. Dr. Boris Paskhover of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School said his experience treating patients with cellphone injuries prompted him to look into the problem.
                   
Paskhover and others analyzed 20 years of emergency room data and found an increase in cellphone injuries starting after 2006, around the time when the first smartphones were introduced.
                   
Some injuries were caused by phones themselves, including people getting hit by a thrown phone. But Paskhover said many were caused by distracted use including texting while walking, tripping and landing face-down on the sidewalk.
                   
Most patients in the study weren’t hospitalized, but the researchers said the problem should be taken seriously.
                   
The study involved cases in a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission database that collects emergency room visit information from about 100 hospitals. The researchers tallied 2,500 patients with cellphone-related head and neck injuries from 1998 through 2017.
                   
The study was published in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology.
                   
Nationwide, they estimated there were about 76,000 people injured during that time. Annual cases totaled fewer than 2,000 until 2006, but increased steeply after that. About 40% of those injured were ages 13 to 29, and many were hurt while walking, texting or driving.
                   
Cellphone use also has been linked with repetitive strain injuries in the hands and neck, and injuries to other parts of the body caused by distracted use.
                   
“I love my smartphone,” Paskhover said, but he added that it’s easy to get too absorbed and avoiding injury requires common sense.
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“People wouldn’t walk around reading a magazine,” he said. “Be careful.”
 

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New Biogen Data Showed no Major Safety Issues for its Alzheimer’s Drug

Biogen Inc on Thursday presented new data on its experimental Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab that eased concerns raised by some experts but still left many questions unanswered as the company made its case about why it plans to seek U.S. approval after declaring the drug a failure in March.Experts had been watching closely for any statistical abnormalities or excess safety issues that would affect how the drug is reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), likely in the second half of 2020.It has been at least 15 years since the FDA has reviewed an application for a new Alzheimer’s treatment, and an agent that can slow progression of the mind-wasting disease is desperately needed.Alzheimer’s experts on a panel organized by the company, who had seen the data previously, expressed confidence that the complicated study did show that the drug was able to slow progression of the disease.“All of the data suggests this is a disease modification. That means the impact of the treatment will continue to accrue with time,” said Dr. Paul Aisen, an Alzheimer’s expert from the University of Southern California.Dr. Ronald Petersen, an Alzheimer’s expert from Mayo Clinic who moderated the panel and has been a paid adviser for Biogen, said while one of the two studies, known as Emerge, was “overwhelmingly positive,” the twin study known as Engage, was not. “Overall, I think it’s more positive than negative,” he said of the results.Petersen was not too worried about the rates of a brain swelling side effect, known as ARIA-E, which occurred in 33-35 percent of patients in the high-dose groups.“The side effects are there. They’re not zero. They’re to be expected. But I think they’re manageable.”Others, however, acknowledged that the affected sample size was small and the trials were cut short early. Only one of the two phase 3 trials showed a statistically significant benefit.“This reinforces what I thought before. That we need a third study. The data are encouraging, but there are still questions about whether the drug has a clinical effect,” said Dr. Howard Fillit, chief science officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, who was at the meeting.Fillit said the company only measured one timepoint – 78 weeks after treatment. “It still remains to be seen if this effect is sustained. It could be an anomaly.”Dr. Eric Siemers, a former Alzheimer’s researcher for Eli Lilly and a consultant on drugs for neurodegenerative disease who was not involved with the study, said based on his read of the data, the patient responses are not happening by chance.“The regulators will have a very difficult job. Do you look at the totality of the data, or require more study, which would be years away,” he said.Stifel analyst Paul Matteis said in a note to clients that he saw aspects that were both “incrementally better and worse than expected,” and puts the probability of the drug winning approval at less than 50%.Biogen’s shares had been halted prior to the presentation at a Alzheimer’s meeting, reopened lower, and then rose as investors tried to parse the meeting from the complicated study.Biogen has partnered with Japan’s Eisai Co Ltd to develop aducanumab as well as BAN2401, which works in a similar way.

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UN Climate Talks Aim to Pave Way for Global Carbon Market

On a cold afternoon in late November, Jan Gerrit Otterpohl eyes the chimneys of Berlin’s Heizkraftwerk Mitte, a state-of-the-art power plant that supplies the city with heat and electricity. It’s not the billowing steam he’s interested in, but the largely invisible carbon dioxide that the power station exhales as it burns natural gas.Under European Union rules, the plant’s operator, Vattenfall, needs a permit for each ton of carbon dioxide it emits. Otterpohl’s job is to keep costs low by making sure the company buys only as many permits as necessary, at the current market price.Economists say that carbon markets like the one Otterpohl uses can become a powerful tool in the fight against climate change, by giving emitters a financial incentive to reduce greenhouse gases. But despite making progress in other areas, governments have for years been unable to agree on the rules that would allow truly global trade in carbon permits to flourish.Negotiators at a U.N. meeting in Madrid this month are aiming to finally tackle the issue, after last year agreeing on almost all other parts of the rulebook governing the 2015 Paris climate accord.“There are reasons to be optimistic and to think that there could be some progress because of the political attention that it’s getting,” said Alex Hanafi, a lead counsel at the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund.Many governments are struggling to make the emissions cuts necessary to meet the Paris accord’s goal of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.The hope is that putting a price on carbon will unlock billions of dollars in investments as countries and companies seek the most cost-effective way to cut emissions. By capping the number of permits in the market and reducing it steadily, the incentive to save on emissions would grow over time.“There is tremendous potential for carbon markets to contribute to the achievement of the Paris agreement goals,” said Hanafi.But he warned that a bad deal on carbon markets, known in climate diplomacy parlance as ‘Article 6,’ would be “worse than no deal at all.”That would be the case, for example, if airlines find it cheaper to offset their emissions than reduce them; or if countries protect large areas of carbon-absorbing forests, sell the resulting permits to other nations and simultaneously count them toward their own emissions-reduction efforts.Brazil has long pushed back against some of the stricter accounting rules demanded by the EU and the United States. The Latin American nation, criticized by environmentalists for failing to properly protect the Amazon rainforest, also insists that it should be allowed to keep vast amounts of carbon credits amassed under a now-discredited system, a stance shared by China and India.“It’s very important to really avoid these kind of negative impacts,” said Claudia Kemfert, a senior energy expert at the German Institute for Economic Research.Kemfert noted that it took more than a decade to tweak the emissions trading system that so far only covers the power and heavy industry sectors in 27 European Union countries— all, except Britain — plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein — a region with well-functioning markets and low levels of corruption.Otterpohl, who oversees emissions at Vattenfall’s Berlin power plant, agreed.“As far as the EU (emissions trading system) is concerned, there’s now a mature and functioning market in the areas it covers.”Expanding that market to cover other sectors in the EU, such as transportation and home heating, or linking it up with other existing emissions trading systems in China, California and elsewhere should be possible, said Daniel Wragge, the director of political and regulatory affairs at the European Energy Exchange in Leipzig, Germany.“Technically speaking, it’s not a challenge,” said Wragge, whose company manages the marketplace for European emissions, where a ton of carbon dioxide is currently traded for about 25 euros ($27.70). “But, of course, there are certain conditions and the key is, of course, that the certificates are mutually recognized.”Kemfert cautioned that putting a price on emissions alone won’t stop climate change.“What we need are many, many activities to reduce emissions,” she said. “If we reach a carbon market, that’s fine. But we should go for other solutions very urgently.”

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Apple Buys First-ever Carbon-free Aluminum From Alcoa-Rio Tinto Venture

Apple Inc on Thursday said it has bought the first-ever commercial batch of carbon-free aluminum from a joint venture between two of the world’s biggest aluminum suppliers.The metal is being made by Elysis, a Montreal-based joint venture of Alcoa Corp and Rio Tinto announced last year with $144 million in funding from the two companies, Apple and the governments of Canada and Quebec.The aluminum will be shipped this month from an Alcoa research facility in Pittsburgh and used in Apple products, although the technology company did not say which ones.Aluminum is carbon-intensive to produce. The smelting process involves passing electrical current through a large block of carbon called an anode, which burns off during the process and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.The carbon-free move is a response to consumer, activist and investor demand that miners and manufacturers show they are working to lessen their impact on climate change.“For more than 130 years, aluminum – a material common to so many products consumers use daily – has been produced the same way. That’s about to change,” Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, said in a statement.Apple uses aluminum housings for many of its electronics, including iPhones, Apple Watches and Mac computers. Apple last year introduced Mac models that use recycled aluminum.The Alcoa-Rio joint venture wants to commercialize a technology by 2024 that uses a ceramic anode to make aluminum and emits only oxygen, eliminating direct greenhouse gas emissions from the smelting process.Alcoa has already produced test metal with the process and joined with Rio Tinto to bring it up to commercial scale. Elysis plans to license the technology and says that existing smelting facilities can be retrofitted to use it.The first batch was made in Pittsburgh, but Elysis also plans to manufacture it at a $50 million CAD research facility being built in Saguenay, Quebec, and that is expected to come online in the second half of 2020.Apple and Elysis would not disclose the size or cost of the first purchase. They described it as a “commercial batch,” and Elysis said the process is expected to have lower operating costs than traditional aluminum smelting.

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US, UK Officials Announce Charges Against 2 Russian Hackers

U.S. and British law enforcement officials announced criminal charges against a notorious Russian hacker on Wednesday, accusing him of a decade-long cybercrime spree that resulted in tens of millions of dollars in losses to victims around the world.Maksim Yakubets, 32, who used the online moniker “aqua,” was charged in connection with two separate international computer hacking and bank fraud schemes from May 2009 to the present.  In the first conspiracy, Yakubets faces charges in London for involvement in a long running conspiracy to employ widespread computer intrusions using the “Zeus” malware and stealing millions of dollars from banks in the United States and elsewhere.In the seecond scheme, Yakubets along with a second Russian national, Igor Turashev, 37, was charged in the Western district of Pennsylvania with distributing the “Bugat” malware to steal banking credentials and other personal information from infected computers.Both men remain at large.The U.S. State Department announced a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Yakubets.“These two cases demonstrate our commitment to unmasking the perpetrators behind the world’s most egregious cyberattacks,” said assistant attorney general Brian A. Benczkowski. 

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