US Central Bank Slightly Bumps Up Interest Rate

Top officials of the U.S. central bank raised the key interest rate slightly Wednesday, amid strong job gains and moderate economic growth. 

The rate is one-quarter of a percentage point higher, putting it in a range between 1.5 and 1.75 percent. 

Federal Reserve officials said that is still “accommodative,” meaning it is still fairly low, compared to the average rate during the past few decades. Fed officials said they will probably raise interest rates a few more times this year if the economy continues along its current path.

The Federal Reserve tries to manage the economy to maximize employment and keep prices stable. 

The bank slashed interest rates nearly to zero during the financial crisis in 2008 to stimulate economic growth. However, economists say keeping rates too low for too long could push inflation up fast enough to damage the economy. 

While inflation is below the 2 percent rate the Fed thinks is best for the economy, the bank said inflation seems likely to rise a bit.  

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Record-Size US Offshore Oil Lease Sale Draws Modest Bidding

The largest lease sale in American history in the offshore Gulf of Mexico yielded $124.76 million in winning bids Wednesday, a modest response to the Trump administration’s effort to pump up investment in the region.

The Interior Department had offered up more than 77 million acres (31.2 million hectares), an area twice the size of Florida, as part of a broader effort by President Donald Trump’s administration to ramp up U.S. fossil fuels output.

Companies bid on just 1 percent of that acreage, and won those tracts with bids averaging $153 an acre — 35 percent below average winning bids at a similar auction last year, and a fraction of the level paid in the region in 2013 when oil prices were much higher, according to a Reuters review of the data.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which administered the auction, characterized the results as robust.

“I think we’re seeing continued consistent investment in the Gulf of Mexico,” BOEM spokesman Mike Celata said in a conference call with reporters.

He said 33 companies, including majors Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Total SA, had placed 159 bids on 148 blocks.

But critics of the administration have called the unusually large lease sale ill-timed. U.S. crude oil and natural gas output is already smashing records thanks to improved drilling technology that has opened up cheaper onshore reservoirs, and Brazil and Mexico are competing for drilling investment in their own deep-water acreage.

“Offering a nearly unrestricted supply in a low demand market with a cut-rate royalty and almost no competition is bad policy and an inexcusable waste of taxpayer resources,” the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning policy think tank, said in a statement.

The United States produces about 1.5 million barrels of oil per day from the Gulf of Mexico, about 15 percent of the national total, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The U.S. government offers Gulf of Mexico leases annually, but usually in smaller regional batches. An auction in March 2017, for example, offered up 48 million acres in the Central Gulf of Mexico planning region.

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EXCLUSIVE: Kaspersky Lab Plans Swiss Data Center to Combat Spying Allegations: Documents

Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab plans to open a data center in Switzerland to address Western government concerns that Russia exploits its anti-virus software to spy on customers, according to internal documents seen by Reuters.

Kaspersky is setting up the center in response to actions in the United States, Britain and Lithuania last year to stop using the company’s products, according to the documents, which were confirmed by a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

The action is the latest effort by Kaspersky, a global leader in anti-virus software, to parry accusations by the U.S. government and others that the company spies on customers at the behest of Russian intelligence. The U.S. last year ordered civilian government agencies to remove the Kaspersky software from their networks.

Kaspersky has strongly rejected the accusations and filed a lawsuit against the U.S. ban.

The U.S. allegations were the “trigger” for setting up the Swiss data center, said the person familiar with Kapersky’s Switzerland plans, but not the only factor.

“The world is changing,” they said, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing internal company business. “There is more balkanisation and protectionism.”

The person declined to provide further details on the new project, but added: “This is not just a PR stunt. We are really changing our R&D infrastructure.”

A Kaspersky spokeswoman declined to comment on the documents reviewed by Reuters.

In a statement, Kaspersky Lab said: “To further deliver on the promises of our Global Transparency Initiative, we are finalizing plans for the opening of the company’s first transparency center this year, which will be located in Europe.”

“We understand that during a time of geopolitical tension, mirrored by an increasingly complex cyber-threat landscape, people may have questions and we want to address them.”

Kaspersky Lab launched a campaign in October to dispel concerns about possible collusion with the Russian government by promising to let independent experts scrutinize its software for security vulnerabilities and “back doors” that governments could exploit to spy on its customers.

The company also said at the time that it would open “transparency centers” in Asia, Europe and the United States but did not provide details. The new Swiss facility is dubbed the Swiss Transparency Centre, according to the documents.

Data review

Work in Switzerland is due to begin “within weeks” and be completed by early 2020, said the person with knowledge of the matter.

The plans have been approved by Kaspersky Lab CEO and founder Eugene Kaspersky, who owns a majority of the privately held company, and will be announced publicly in the coming months, according to the source.

“Eugene is upset. He would rather spend the money elsewhere. But he knows this is necessary,” the person said.

It is possible the move could be derailed by the Russian security services, who might resist moving the data center outside of their jurisdiction, people familiar with Kaspersky and its relations with the government said.

Western security officials said Russia’s FSB Federal Security Service, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, exerts influence over Kaspersky management decisions, though the company has repeatedly denied those allegations.

The Swiss center will collect and analyze files identified as suspicious on the computers of tens of millions of Kaspersky customers in the United States and European Union, according to the documents reviewed by Reuters. Data from other customers will continue to be sent to a Moscow data center for review and analysis.

Files would only be transmitted from Switzerland to Moscow in cases when anomalies are detected that require manual review, the person said, adding that about 99.6 percent of such samples do not currently undergo this process.

A third party will review the center’s operations to make sure that all requests for such files are properly signed, stored and available for review by outsiders including foreign governments, the person said.

Moving operations to Switzerland will address concerns about laws that enable Russian security services to monitor data transmissions inside Russia and force companies to assist law enforcement agencies, according to the documents describing the plan.

The company will also move the department which builds its anti-virus software using code written in Moscow to Switzerland, the documents showed.

Kaspersky has received “solid support” from the Swiss government, said the source, who did not identify specific officials who have endorsed the plan.

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New Technology Being Developed for Pacemakers

When you are watching a television show and see someone get their heart shocked back into a rhythm, you will see their entire body rise up in the air. That’s what happens when a defibrillator is used, because the shock is that powerful. As VOA’s Carol Pearson reports, scientists are now working on better, more effective, and less-shocking ways to get a heart to start beating once again.

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In Lab, 3-D Printing Cuts Costs, Manufacturing Time of Heat Exchangers

Heat exchangers are some of the most widely used energy-transfer devices, helping cool everything from car engines to power plants.

At the recent ARPA-e conference, organized by the U.S. Department of Energy, scientists from the University of Maryland showcased an advanced 3-D printer that, combined with a wire-laying head, cuts in half the time needed to manufacture heat exchangers.

David Hymas, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland, said that in most cases in a heat exchanger, the heat is transferred by forcing air over pipes or tubes with circulating water, which is often pumped from a nearby river or lake.

Reduce water use

“Currently power plants draw about 40 percent of all the freshwater supply in the United States,” Hymas said. Water consumption, he added, could be cut in half if lightweight air-cooled heat exchangers were created in 3-D printers.

“The water would flow in through one manifold entering these water tubes, right here, and then flow out through the other manifold. Air would blow across it, cooling these fins,” he said.

Printing a heat exchanger

At the school’s Advanced Heat Exchangers and Process Intensification Laboratory, Hymas showed off a heat exchanger manufactured in a lab-size 3-D printer that includes a wire-laying device. The first head in the machine builds up layers of polymer tubes, while another head lays copper or aluminum wire across them.

The printer used for testing the idea took almost 24 hours to create a shoebox-size heat exchanger, but research associate Farah Singer says the industrial-scale prototype machine proved to be much faster.

“It has 10 polymer heads and it is capable of printing, of laying at the same time, 45 fibers, 45 metal fibers, so we are talking about a full layer,” she said. “This machine is capable of printing in eight hours a 1 meter square heat exchanger. We are talking almost 20 kilowatts or 30 kilowatt heat exchanger.”

Reduction in weight and cost for 3-D-printed heat exchangers reaches 50 percent, depending on the application, which can range from power plants to air conditioning to cooling electronic devices.

“For the electronic cooling, for example, so far our experimental results have shown that we could have up to 52 percent reduction in cost while we have 26 percent increase in performance,” Singer said.

An added advantage is that 3-D printers allow creating very complex geometries, with the resolution between the cooling wires as low as 100 microns. The project was partially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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China Tests Unmanned Tanks in Modernization Push

China is testing unmanned tanks that could be equipped with artificial intelligence, a state-run newspaper said Wednesday, as the country continues with its military modernization program.

State television showed images this week of the unmanned tanks undergoing testing, the Global Times newspaper reported.

Footage showed a Type 59 tank being driven by remote control, in what the paper said was the first time a Chinese-made unmanned tank has been shown in a public forum.

The Type 59 tank is based on an old Soviet model first used in China in the 1950s and has been produced in large numbers and has a long service life, it said.

“A large number of due-to-retire Type 59 tanks can be converted into unmanned vehicles if equipped with artificial intelligence,” Liu Qingshan, the chief editor of Tank and Armored Vehicle, told the newspaper.

Unmanned tanks will be able to work on other unmanned equipment, integrate information from satellites, aircraft or submarines, the report added.

China is in the middle of a modernization program for its armed forces, including building stealth fighters and new aircraft carriers, as President Xi Jinping looks to assert the country’s growing power.

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Peter Peterson, Billionaire and Philanthropist, Dies at 91

Peter G. Peterson, a billionaire and business executive who became one of the most prominent voices to argue for entitlement reform and reducing the U.S. national debt, died of natural causes early Tuesday, his family said. He was 91.

Born in the small town of Kearney, Nebraska, to Greek immigrants, Peterson was CEO of two major U.S. companies and co-founded one of the world’s largest private-equity firms.

He was a national figure in business by the early 1960s, serving as chairman and CEO of Bell and Howell, one of the largest manufacturers of movie cameras at the time.


He left Bell and Howell to work for the Nixon administration in the early 1970s, eventually serving as secretary of commerce from 1972 to 1973.

Lehman Brothers 

He took over as chief executive of the investment bank Lehman Brothers in 1973 after leaving the Nixon administration. In 1985, he co-founded the private-equity firm Blackstone Group with Stephen Schwarzman.

“His intelligence, wit and vision made him an inspirational leader who brought people together from the White House to Wall Street,” his family said in a statement.

Blackstone went on to become one of biggest private-equity firms in the world, with $434 billion in assets under management at the end of last year. When the firm went public in 2007, Peterson’s stake in the company made him a billionaire. His wealth was estimated at $2 billion, according to Forbes Magazine.

Fiscal challenges

Peterson dedicated the rest of his life to what he called “key fiscal challenges threatening America’s future,” donating $1 billion to create the Peter G. Peterson Foundation in 2007.

He never publicly endorsed the fiscal ideals of the Tea Party. However, his ideas did give him some common ground with them.


He long argued that the United States’ entitlement programs, principally Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, had to be restructured or benefits cut back to avoid bankrupting the government. Through his foundation, he disseminated his ideas among the public and politicians.

“The fact he was able to start a serious debate about the future of Social Security and other entitlement programs was a huge accomplishment,” said Fred Bergsten, founder of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who worked with Peterson in various capacities going back to the 1970s.

Raising taxes

Peterson was not considered ideological when it came to dealing with Social Security and Medicare. A life-long Republican, he still believed that raising taxes should be considered as part of any major restructuring of the U.S. budget, Bergsten said.

The foundation quickly became a major voice on all budget-related matters, repeatedly quoted in national media outlets. In 2008, his organization helped bankroll the documentary “I.O.U.S.A,” with the goal of making the federal government’s ballooning national debt, then around $10 trillion, a central campaign issue.


“What is most significant is most of our challenges are not really being discussed,” Peterson told The Associated Press in 2008 when he created his foundation. “I’ve been a very lucky beneficiary of the American dream as the son of immigrants. And, the more I look at some of these problems, the more persuaded I am they will pose a serious threat to this country.”

Peterson is survived by his wife, Joan Ganz Cooney, who co-founded the Children’s Television Workshop, and children John Peterson, Jim Peterson, David Peterson, Holly Peterson and Michael Peterson, and nine grandchildren.

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Can Self-Driving Cars Withstand First Fatality?

The deadly collision between an Uber autonomous vehicle and a pedestrian near Phoenix is bringing calls for tougher self-driving regulations, but advocates for a hands-off approach say big changes aren’t needed.

Police in Tempe, Arizona, say the female pedestrian walked in front of the Uber SUV in the dark of night, and neither the automated system nor the human backup driver stopped in time. Local authorities haven’t determined fault, and federal transportation authorities say they won’t release any findings on the crash until their investigation is complete.

Current federal regulations have few requirements specifically for self-driving vehicles, leaving it for states to handle. Many, such as Arizona, Nevada and Michigan, cede key decisions to companies as they compete for investment that will come with the technology.

No matter whether police find Uber or the pedestrian at fault in the Sunday crash, many federal and state officials say their regulations are sufficient to keep people safe while allowing the potentially lifesaving technology to grow. Others, however, argue the regulations don’t go far enough.

“I don’t think we need to jump to conclusions and make changes to our business,” said Michigan state Senator Jim Ananich, the chamber’s minority leader. He and other Democrats joined Republicans to pass a bill last year that doesn’t require human backup drivers and allows companies wide latitude to conduct tests.

Ananich called the death of Elaine Herzberg, 49, a tragedy and said companies need to continue refining their systems. “I want that work to happen here, because we have a 100-year history of making the best cars on the planet,” he said. “It’s not perfect by any means, and we are just going to have to keep working until it is.”

Proponents of light regulations, including the Trump administration’s Transportation Department, say the technology could reduce the 40,000 traffic deaths that happen annually in the U.S. The government says 94 percent of crashes are caused by human error that automated systems can reduce because they don’t get drunk, sleepy or inattentive.

U.S. Representative Bob Latta, an Ohio Republican who chairs a House subcommittee that passed an autonomous vehicle bill, said the measure has sufficient provisions to ensure the cars operate safely. It requires the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to develop safety standards and allows the agency to update outdated regulations. It also prohibits states from regulating autonomous driving systems to avoid a patchwork of rules, Latta said.

The bill has passed the House. The Senate is considering a similar measure.

About 6,000 pedestrians were killed last year in crashes that involved cars driven by humans, he said. “What we want to do is see that stop or try to get it preventable,” he said.

But safety advocates and others say companies are moving too quickly, and they fear others will die as road testing finds gaps that automated systems can’t handle.

Jason Levine, executive director for the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, said without proper regulations, more crashes will happen. “There’s no guardrails on the technology when it’s being tested without any sense of how safe it is before you put it on the road,” he said.

Others say that the laser and radar sensors on the SUV involved in the Tempe accident should have spotted Herzberg in the darkness and braked or swerved to avoid her. Development should be slowed, with standards set for how far sensors must see and how quickly vehicles should react, they said.

Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst for Navigant Research, expects the Arizona crash to slow research. “Responsible companies will take this opportunity to go back and look at their test procedures,” he said.

Toyota already is taking a step back, pausing its fully autonomous testing with human backups for a few days to let drivers process the Arizona crash and “help them do their jobs with less concern,” the company said. The company says it constantly refines its procedures.

Without standards for software coding quality and cybersecurity, there will be more deaths as autonomous vehicles are tested on public roads, said Lee McKnight, associate professor of information studies at Syracuse University.

“We can say eventually they’ll learn not to kill us,” McKnight said. “In the meantime, they will be killing more people.”

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Report: Women Short-Changed on Commercial Land Deals in Africa

Women are often short-changed compared to men when communities are compensated or resettled during commercial land deals in Africa, and governments should take action to rectify that, researchers said Tuesday.

The World Resources Institute’s (WRI) research showed men had received up to six times as much for their land. And although women usually had smaller land parcels, they also lost access to resources such as rivers, forests and social networks.

Among other measures, the U.S.-based WRI said governments should enact laws ensuring women receive an equitable share of compensation payments made to households.

“There is usually a power asymmetry between the community and the investor. These deals are presented to the community as almost-done deals with women getting the short-end,” said WRI associate researcher Celine Salcedo-La Vina.

“Most of the time the expected benefits are not legally binding,” she told Reuters by Skype.

WRI focused on Tanzania and Mozambique, which are among the places where major commercial deals in agribusiness, tourism and mining have displaced thousands over the last decade, she said.

Land in Africa is often communally held, with fathers assumed to be the rightful owners who usually pass it on to their sons. That makes it hard for women to own land except through their husbands or by buying it, the World Bank has said.

Women are usually not compensated for lost farms because they are not deemed to own the fields they cultivate, and often grow subsistence crops. Men, on the other hand, typically plant cash crops whose value is easy to determine, WRI said.

Changing land laws

Some African governments, including Tanzania and Mozambique, have enacted new laws to address how investors engage communities during land deals to reduce inequality, WRI said.

But these changes have done little to address how women are compensated or resettled during commercial deals, because most of the laws use “gender-neutral language.”

“When applied in patriarchal contexts [these laws] result in women’s marginalization,” the report said.

Tanzania and Mozambique are working to change their land laws to bring in more rights for women during commercial land deals. However, those would first have to tackle the cultural norms of how women come to own land, Salcedo-La Vina said.

“We have seen where we have men and women working together during land deals, it usually strengthens community rights,” she said.

WRI also recommended that women’s land uses and contributions as heads of households be taken into account, that land titles be in both spouses’ names, and that intangible assets be included when determining compensation.

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Breaking Up With Facebook Harder Than It Looks

Facebook’s latest privacy scandal, involving Trump campaign consultants who allegedly stole data on tens of millions of users in order to influence elections, has some people reconsidering their relationship status with the social network.

There’s just one problem: There isn’t much of anywhere else to go.

Facebook has weathered many such blow-ups before and is used to apologizing and moving on. But the stakes are bigger this time.

Regulatory authorities are starting to focus on the data misappropriation, triggering a 9 percent decline in Facebook’s normally high-flying stock since Monday. Some of that reflects fear that changes in Facebook’s business will hurt profits or that advertisers and users will sour on the social network.

The furor over Cambridge Analytica, the data mining firm accused of stealing Facebook data, followed a bad year in which Facebook acknowledged helping spread fake news and propaganda from Russian agents. It also came less than three months after CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the world that he would devote the year to fixing Facebook. Instead, things seem to be getting worse.

“It’s more serious economically, politically, financially, and will require a more robust response in order to regain users’ trust,” said Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Not so easy

Yet leaving Facebook isn’t simple for some people.

Arvind Rajan, a tech executive from San Francisco who deactivated his account on Monday, suddenly discovered he needs to create new usernames and passwords for a variety of apps and websites. That’s because he had previously logged in with his Facebook ID.

It’s a pain, he said, “but not the end of the world.” And because he is bothered by Facebook’s “ham-handed” response to recent problems, the inconvenience is worth it.

For other users looking to leave, it can feel as if there are no real alternatives. Twitter? Too flighty, too public. Instagram? Whoops, owned by Facebook. Snapchat? Please, unless you’re under 25 — in which case you’re probably not on Facebook to begin with.

Facebook connects 2.2 billion users and a host of communities that have sprung up on its network. No other company can match the breadth or depth of these connections — thanks in part to Facebook’s proclivity for squashing or swallowing up its competition.

What about your photos? 

But it is precisely in Facebook’s interest to make users feel Facebook is the only place to connect with others. Where else will grandmothers see photos of their far-flung grandkids? How will new mothers connect to other parents also up at 4 a.m. with a newborn?

“My only hesitation is that there are hundreds of pictures posted over 13 years of my life that I do not want to lose access to. If there was a way to recover these photos, I would deactivate immediately,” Daniel Schwartz, who lives in Atlanta, said in an email. 

People eager to delete their profiles may find unexpected problems that point to how integral Facebook is to many activities, said Ifeoma Ajunwa, a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University.

“It is getting more and more difficult for people to delete Facebook, since it’s not just as a social media platform but also almost like a meeting square,” she said.

Parents could soon realize that their child’s soccer schedule with games and pickup times is only on a Facebook page, for example. Many businesses also schedule meetings via Facebook.

“It’s more and more difficult for people to feel plugged in if you’re not on Facebook,” Ajunwa said.

Exit can take 90 days

Not surprisingly, Facebook doesn’t make it easy to leave. To permanently delete your account, you need to make a request to the company. The process can take several days, and if you log in during this time, your request will be canceled. It can take up to 90 days to delete everything.

There’s a less permanent way to leave — deactivation — which hides your profile from everyone but lets you return if you change your mind.

Lili Orozco, 28, an office manager for her family’s heating and cooling company in Watkinsville, Georgia, deleted her account in December. She was upset that every new app she downloaded would ask for her Facebook contacts.

And while she liked staying in touch with people, she was irritated by the conspiracy stories her high school friends would share.

“Falsehoods spread faster on Facebook than the truth does,” she said. She now gets her news from Twitter and shares pictures with friends through Instagram.

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