IT40 News for 02/05/2019


#1 Does the State of the Union mean anything at all?

Even before Donald Trump became president, the annual State of the Union ritual had grown tiresome to those who considered it outdated kabuki theater, just as party conventions have become little more than an extended TV commercial.

Then Trump arrived in the White House. His willingness to say one thing one day and another the next threw Washington into a bizarre reality where what Trump says next, on Twitter, matters more than what he has said before.

In the Trump era, there is no pretending that the State of the Union speech involves a serious political dialogue between the president and the legislative branch. It has descended into political theater, posturing and play-acting.

Ahead of Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Trump has created suspense over whether he’ll use the speech to announce that he will use national emergency powers to obtain funding to build a wall along much of the U.S.-Mexico border.

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#2 Sanders on Trump inaugural committee subpoena: ‘This has nothing to do with the White House’

© Evan Vucci
Press secretary Sarah Sanders speaks with reporters outside the White House on Feb. 5, 2019,

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sought Tuesday to distance the White House from allegations of misusing money from President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, though she did not explicitly deny that any illegal activity might have taken place.

Trump’s inaugural committee, which is just one more extension of the Trump universe under scrutiny from federal prosecutors, was hit with a subpoena on Monday for documents reportedly related to the nonprofit committee’s donors and whether they received any benefits for their contribution. Prosecutors also sought information about attendees at Trump’s 2017 swearing-in and whether any donations were made on behalf of foreign nationals.

Asked in an interview on CNN’s “New Day” if she was “confident” no illegal activity took place on the committee, Sanders responded that “I'm reading the same reports you are this morning, gathering the information.”

She deferred specific questions to the president’s inaugural committee, which is a separate entity from the White House. But she said that “what I do know at this point is this has nothing to do with the White House.”

Sanders has similarly deflected blame when members of the president’s inner circle, most recently his longtime political adviser Roger Stone, have been wrapped up in probes to examine Russian interference in the 2016 election.

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#3 ‘Medicare For All’ Is Turning Into A 2020 Litmus Test For Democrats

Sherrod Brown has been calling for universal health care since 1992. That’s when he first ran for a U.S. House seat in Ohio, vowing to decline the federally subsidized insurance for members of Congress until his constituents could get similar coverage. He won that race and he kept that pledge, buying policies on his own until 2011, after the Affordable Care Act became law.

He was a senator by that point, and like every other Democrat in the chamber, he voted for President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. But before Brown did that, he promoted a series of proposals designed to make the program more generous and comprehensive. One of them was a last-minute amendment that would have replaced Obamacare’s intricate scheme for competing private insurers with a “Medicare for all” program, under which everybody would enroll in a government-run insurance plan.

Nobody seriously thought Democrats were about to scrap legislation they had spent nearly a year writing. By supporting the amendment, Brown was mostly trying to demonstrate his commitment to improving the Affordable Care Act, if not before it became law, then afterward. It was a symbolic act, but a conspicuous one, with only one other senator co-sponsoring it.

The amendment’s author was Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the most visible champion of “Medicare for all.” In 2016 he made the idea a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, and a year later, he introduced a new version of “Medicare for all” legislation ― this time, with 16 co-sponsors, proving just how popular the idea had become in the interim.

But this time Brown declined to join them, explaining in a prepared statement that while he remained “supportive of ‘Medicare for all,’” he preferred to focus on more incremental, potentially bipartisan measures, like allowing people to buy into Medicare as early as their 50s.

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#4 Madonna Will Receive Prestigious GLAAD Honor For Her LGBTQ Community Support

Through her music and performances, Madonna has been making LGBTQ causes a massive part of her artistic platform for more than 35 years ― and now, the community is set to recognize that contribution in a very big way. 

The Queen of Pop will be presented with the Advocate for Change Award at the 2019 GLAAD Media Awards in New York on May 4. She becomes the second person and first woman in the organization’s history to receive the honor, given to those who “changed the game for LGBTQ people around the world” through their work. 

“Madonna always has and always will be the LGBTQ community’s greatest ally and it is only fitting to honor and celebrate our biggest advocate at GLAAD’s biggest event ever,” Kate Ellis, GLAAD president and CEO, said Tuesday in a statement to HuffPost. “From the HIV crisis to international LGBTQ issues, she fearlessly pushes for a world where LGBTQ people are accepted. Her music and art have been life-saving outlets for LGBTQ people over the years and her affirming words and actions have changed countless hearts and minds.”

The inaugural Advocate for Change Award was given to former President Bill Clinton in 2013. That same year, Madonna presented Anderson Cooper with the Vito Russo Award at the GLAAD Media Awards in New York. True to form, the superstar arrived at the ceremony dressed as a Boy Scout in protest of the Boy Scouts of America’s since-revoked ban on gay members and leaders. (Check out Madonna’s speech from that event above.) 

News of the honor comes weeks after Madonna made a surprise appearance at New York’s Stonewall Inn on New Year’s Eve. Accompanied by her 13-year-old son, David, the seven-time Grammy winner entertained the crowd with acoustic renditions of her 1989 classic, “Like a Prayer,” and a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

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#5 Hate Groups Showed Up At Canada’s Oldest Mosque, Reigniting Familiar Fears

Members of far-right hate groups recently entered the Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, Canada, and gathered outside to harass worshippers on their way to Friday prayers.

The incident evoked memories of the shooting, two years ago almost to the day, that left six people dead and 19 injured at a Quebec City mosque. It also served as yet another illustration of growing anti-Muslim bigotry in the country.

“Over the last three years we’ve seen a rise in two far-right movements in Canada, and those are the anti-Muslim and the alt-right neo-Nazi groups, which sometimes overlap but are two distinct things,” said Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “We have had regular anti-Muslim demonstrations in cities across Canada, mostly in our largest cities, at least every month going back at least two years. This isn’t just an isolated incident. It’s just constant.”

On Jan. 25, two men ― at least one of them wearing clothing embroidered with the Arabic word “kafir,” which translates to “nonbelievers” ― were seen entering the Al Rashid Mosque in “what seemed like an attempt to scout the property and provoke our community,” according to the mosque’s Facebook page. The men entered the women’s section of Al Rashid, mosque communications director Noor Al Henedy told HuffPost, despite signs indicating men are prohibited from that area.

The two men — who were reportedly members of anti-Muslim groups called the Clann and Canadian Infidels — then joined a number of individuals affiliated with far-right groups outside the mosque, where they confronted worshippers. Some of the exchanges were broadcast live on Facebook by Tyson Hunt, the former leader of the Edmonton chapter of the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-Muslim neo-Nazi group.

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#6 More rain? Storm brings mudflows, rock slides, a blizzard to Southern California

Rams fans won't have Southern California's blue skies and sunshine to comfort them after the team's 13-3 Super Bowl loss to New England on Sunday.

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Scattered showers and snow in the mountains are expected throughout the Southland through Tuesday night as back-to-back cold troughs of low pressure move over the area, according to the National Weather Service.

By noon, the heaviest rains had passed through Ventura and Los Angeles counties and a flash flood warning issued from Thousand Oaks and Agoura Hills to Pacific Coast Highway had been lifted.

PCH was closed for several hours in both directions from Broad Beach Road to Las Posas Road in Ventura County because of debris flowing into the roadway, according to the city of Malibu. The road reopened about 1:30 p.m.

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#7 WorldJuan Guaido’s taxi driver father reveals son turned to activism after floods devastated his home townDemocratic Women in Spotlight to Counter TrumpAttorney: Fake university sting by ICE was entrapmentLiam Neeson clarifies controversial revenge remarks: ‘I’m not a racist’Trump guests include freed drug offender, bullied studentTrail runner kills attacking mountain lion ‘in self-defense,’ authorities say

When Juan Guaido was 15 years old, a devastating flash flood hit his home province of Vargas.

It was then, his father told The Telegraph in an exclusive interview, that the man anointed Venezuela’s interim president first showed the leadership qualities that have driven his quest to topple Nicolas Maduro.

“He organised everyone and kept the family calm and they all escaped,” said Wilmer Guaido, a 60-year-old taxi driver who fled his homeland for Tenerife in 2003.

Around 20,000 people died in the 1999 flood and the tragedy shaped Juan, his father believes.

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#9 What Mines Mean for South Africa Communities: Violence, Sickness

(Bloomberg) -- Mines in South Africa, which has the world’s fifth-biggest mining sector, are seen as a benefit by only 13 percent of people who live in their proximity, a report on the industry’s social impact said.

Four out of five people see no positive impact at all and 8 percent said mines brought “sickness, dispossessions and damages,” ActionAid said in a report released Tuesday.

South Africa’s economy during apartheid was built on mining and the exploitation of cheap black labor, and the sector still accounts for about half the nation’s exports. Mining communities often complain about people being pushed off their land, pollution and the violence and sexually transmitted diseases associated with the influx of migrant workers.

People who live close to mines “have remained largely excluded from participating in the development of policies and legislation that directly affects them,” ActionAid said. The advocacy group based the report on surveys of communities near mines owned by Anglo American Platinum Ltd., Exxaro Resources Ltd. and Harmony Gold Mining Co., among others, in seven of South Africa’s nine provinces.

The government took 205 billion rand ($15.3 billion) in tax and royalties from mining companies in the 10 years to 2018, ActionAid said, citing a PwC report. That represents 24 percent of “value” generated by the companies, while employees took 47 percent and shareholders 29 percent. Communities received only 7.5 billion rand, or 0.9 percent of the value.

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#10 U.S. sends food, medical supplies to Colombia-Venezuela border

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is sending food and medical supplies to Colombia's border with Venezuela where it will be stockpiled until it can be delivered to the economically shattered nation, U.S. officials with knowledge of the plan said on Tuesday.

One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the aid would be prepositioned at the main Colombian-Venezuelan border crossing at Cucuta.

It is unclear how the aid will get to Venezuela without the blessing of President Nicolas Maduro and cooperation of the Venezuelan military, which has remained loyal to the socialist leader and is stationed on the Venezuelan side of the border.

The U.S. officials said trucks carrying the humanitarian aid were headed to Cucuta at the request of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who last month declared himself to be the South American nation's interim president.

Pressure is growing on Maduro to step down after more than a dozen European Union nations, including Britain, Germany and France, on Monday joined the United States, Canada and a group of Latin American countries in recognizing Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader.

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#11 Taliban demand new constitution for Afghanistan at rare talks

The Taliban demanded a new constitution for Afghanistan and promised an "inclusive Islamic system" to govern the war-torn country at a rare gathering with senior Afghan politicians in Russia Tuesday that excluded the Kabul government.

The insurgents' manifesto, outlined in Moscow before some of Afghanistan's most influential leaders, comes a week after the Taliban held unprecedented six-day talks with US negotiators in Doha about ending the 17-year war.

The Doha and Moscow discussions, though entirely separate, both excluded the government in Kabul, where President Ashraf Ghani is seen as increasingly sidelined from key negotiations for peace in his country.

The Moscow meeting -- the Taliban's most significant with Afghan politicians in recent memory -- saw the insurgents praying together with sworn enemies including former president Hamid Karzai as they discussed their vision for the future.

"The Kabul government constitution is invalid. It has been imported from the West and is an obstacle to peace," Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who headed the Taliban delegation, told attendees at a central Moscow hotel.

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#12 How hunger is fueling Venezuela’s fast-rising opposition

Caracas -- Venezuela's embattled president is under new pressure after more of America's European allies called for Nicolás Maduro to be replaced. At least 38 countries now support opposition leader Juan Guaidó. China and Russia are Maduro's main supporters. On Tuesday morning, Russia's foreign minister called for talks between the government and the opposition. 

CBS News' Elizabeth Palmer reports from Venezuela, where Roman Catholic leaders are helping Maduro's opponents -- and others who just want to survive.

Mass in La Vega, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Caracas, not only fills the church, it draws an overflow crowd. Father Alfredo Infanta's spiritual message carries a strong political subtext, though he says it's not directly anti-Maduro, as people must decide for themselves. The Church, however, has called Maduro's presidency unconstitutional. His parishioners might call it something else: a disaster.

Father Infanta took Palmer deeper into La Vega, where there's been no running water for four months and where, if not for a free lunch program offering potatoes, cheese and a dose of vitamins, some kids wouldn't eat at all.

Average inflation last year reached a surreal 80,000 percent. Almost no one in La Vega -- or anywhere in Venezuela -- can survive on what they make from work. The economy is so broken that an average teacher's salary, about $6 a month, will only buy a few dozen eggs. Almost half the population of Venezuela would go hungry without charity or food handouts.

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#13 Asia welcomes Year of the Pig with banquets, temple visits

Photo gallery by Reuters

BEIJING — Asia welcomed the lunar Year of the Pig on Tuesday with visits to temples, family banquets and the world's biggest travel spree.

Celebrations took place throughout the region, from Beijing and Seoul to Hanoi and Singapore.

The streets of Beijing and other major Chinese cities were quiet and empty after millions of people left to visit relatives or travel abroad during the year's biggest family holiday.

Families gathered at home for multigenerational banquets. Companies, shops and government offices closed for official holidays that ranged from two days in South Korea to a week in China.

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#14 PoliticsNobel winner Murad, Guaido envoy invited to Trump’s State of UnionArmada of tankers with Venezuelan oil forms in U.S. Gulf: sourcesAP Explains: Cucuta, Colombia _ The gateway into Venezuela

Washington (AFP) - Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido's envoy to Washington are among the top guests invited to attend US President Donald Trump's State of the Union address, lawmakers announced Monday.

In keeping with tradition, the 535 members of the US Congress may invite someone to accompany them to the annual speech, to be held Tuesday, where the president is expected to tout his accomplishments and outlines his vision for the future.

It's an occasion for the Democrats, Republicans and independents of the 100-member Senate and 435-member House of Representatives to bring guests who symbolize policy goals and bring attention to the causes they hold dear.

Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi woman who escaped the clutches of the Islamic State group to become a leading campaigner against sexual violence in war, and Carlos Vecchio, whom the US has recognized as Venezuela's top diplomat in Washington, are among the high-profile guests this year.

Murad was invited by Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican congressman for Nebraska, who said the 26-year-old's tale "is a story the world needs to hear."

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#15 WorldWe are not a ‘political tool’: Afghan women on Taliban talksWorldIsrael’s Uphill Battle with Iran in SyriaBusinessBud Light Super Bowl commercial: Farmer tips beer away in protest amid anger over corn syrup advert

Women who lived under the harsh rule of the Taliban urged senior Afghan politicians to ensure their hard-won freedoms are not bargained away when they talk peace with the insurgents on Tuesday.

The Afghan Women's Network said their rights should not be used as a "political tool" in dealings with the Taliban, who barred women from schools and jobs and drastically curtailed their personal liberties when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

Their appeal comes as the Taliban meets with a high-ranking Afghan delegation in Moscow, and a week after the insurgents held unprecedented talks with United States negotiators.

The Taliban said the Moscow meeting -- their most significant with Afghan politicians in recent memory -- would discuss the withdrawal of foreign troops, peace terms and its vision for governance.

The two-day gathering is separate from the US-Taliban negotiations in Doha in January, that ended with both sides touting "progress" and a draft framework which could pave the way for peace talks.

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#16 Death, dogs and a missing $190 million: The strange case of crypto exchange QuadrigaCX

Customers of a Canadian cryptocurrency exchange are reportedly unable to access $190 million of funds after the company’s founder died with the passwords needed to access the money.

A major Canadian cryptocurrency exchange is in the spotlight following the sudden death of its founder, which has left customers unable to access $190 million in funds.

Gerald Cotten, the 30-year-old founder of QuadrigaCX, died in India on Dec. 9, 2018, due to complications from Crohn’s disease, according to a sworn affidavit by his wife, Jennifer Robertson. At the time of his death, Cotten was the only person with the password to access the customer funds.

Robertson says that she has received online threats as a result of the bizarre deadlock.


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#17 Cuomo blames federal tax law for $2.3 billion New York state budget deficit

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday that the state is facing a $2.3 billion budget deficit 
(AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

New York state is facing a $2.3 billion budget deficit, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo believes it's largely due to the Trump administration's tax reforms which, on the "flip side," have taxed the rich are encouraging wealthy residents to leave.

President Trump's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which takes effect for the 2018 tax year, places a cap on the state and local tax deduction (known as SALT) that Americans can take. Residents of largely blue states with relatively high state and local taxes are adversely affected, Cuomo says, by the new cap of a $10,000 deduction. New York state's average SALT deduction was around $22,000 before the law changed.

"We've set up reserves, but this is worse than we had anticipated," Cuomo said at a state Capitol news conference in Albany on Monday after referring to the fiscal situation as being "as serious as a heart attack."


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#18 Kimmel, Fallon avoid Ralph Northam controversy in late-night monologues; both have histories using blackface in skits

Despite the controversy surrounding Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam dominating the news cycle for days, late-night hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon avoided the subject in their monologues on Monday night.

On Friday, Northam’s yearbook page from the East Virginia Medical school in 1984 went viral because it included an image of someone in blackface and another in a KKK robe. After apologizing and taking responsibility that night, Northam changed course the following morning, claiming he wasn’t either of the two people in the photo. He did, however, admit to wearing blackface when entering a dance competition as Michael Jackson that same year.

While Northam’s racist yearbook page and bizarre press conference led national news and were mocked by several late-night hosts, they were left unmentioned by Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, both who have worn blackface on comedy skits.

Kimmel wore blackface on numerous occasions, impersonating NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone as well as former daytime talk show host Oprah Winfrey in his Comedy Central series “The Man Show.”

Fallon also appeared in blackface during his days on “Saturday Night Live,” impersonating Chris Rock in a sketch. (The sketch was not available on the "SNL" site but some snippets have been used in various related parody sketches like the one below.)

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#19 Tennessee man died of meth overdose before being eaten by bear at national park: autopsy

A man whose body was discovered partially eaten by a bear in Great Smoky Mountains National Park last year actually died of a meth overdose, according to an autopsy released on Monday.

A man whose body was discovered partially eaten by a bear in Great Smoky Mountains National Park last year died of a meth overdose before the bear ever got to him, according to an autopsy released on Monday.

The remains of William Lee Hill Jr., 30, of Louisville, Tenn. were discovered in the national park in September when officials encountered a bear feeding on the body in an area off a trail.

Without knowing the exact cause of death, park officials and wildlife professionals decided to euthanize the bear a few days later for "public safety reasons."

But on Monday, the Knox County Regional Forensic Center revealed Hill died of "accidental methamphetamine intoxication," WATE reported.

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#20 Online retailer’s high-cut ‘front thong’ bodysuit gets backlash: ‘Crime against humanity’

Women are voicing their disgust with a new front thong bodysuit. Some claiming it’s the world’s worst front wedgie and a crime against humanity.

A clothing retailer based in the U.K. is getting some flak over a controversial garment that one woman could only imagine giving her “the world’s worst front wedgie.”

The item, advertised as a “Basic V Neck Ruched Front Thong Bodysuit” and available at, was brought to the attention of the online mommy forum Mumsnet on Sunday, after one member claimed to have seen it pop up as an ad on her Facebook.

“I understand the [bodysuit] trends but surely this would result in being split entirely in two, or the world’s worst front wedgie,” wrote the woman, who shared the post to Mumsnet.


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#21 Canadian serial killer Bruce McArthur dressed corpses up for series of morbid photographs, prosecutors reveal

McArthur has pleaded guilty to killing eight men in the Toronto area.

The Canadian serial killer responsible for murdering eight men in the Toronto area dressed his deceased victims in fur coats and placed cigars in their mouths for a series of morbid, staged photographs, a prosecutor has revealed as his sentencing hearing resumes Tuesday.

Bruce McArthur, arrested in early 2018, pleaded guilty last week to eight counts of first-degree murder after sexually assaulting, killing and dismembering men he met in Toronto's Gay Village district over seven years. Their bodies, prosecutors say, were then hidden in large planters at a home that McArthur used for his landscaping business. A sentence is expected to be announced this week and McArthur could face life in prison with no chance for parole for 25 years or more.

"Victims were posed naked, with cigars in their mouth, shaved, and/or made to wear a fur coat and hat," prosecutor Michael Cantlon told a court on Monday during the first day of the hearing.

The prosecution did not display the images found on McArthur's electronic devices during the session, but said they included after-death photos of six of the eight victims. Cantlon added that McArthur would later access some of the photos long after the killings.

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#22 Earth Movers Poised To Erect Border Barrier At National Butterfly Center Refuge In Texas

Construction equipment has moved into place to erect a looming border barrier in southern Texas in the middle of a butterfly refuge, whose operators are furious that their land has been seized and environmental regulations ignored.

The  barrier is being erected along a levee of the Rio Grande in the border town of Mission.

The 18 feet of steel bollards on top of an 18-foot concrete wall will cut off 70 percent of the 100-acre National Butterfly Center closest to the river, refuge executive director Marianna Trevino-Wright told HuffPost. The barrier will be two miles from the actual border, so gates will be built to allow Texans access from one part of America to another, she said.

“This has nothing to do with a levee, nothing to do with the environment,” Wright said. “This is tactical. It’s going to be guarded by paramilitary personnel.”

Some 35,000 people a year visit the butterfly center, which has as many as 200 species of butterflies in a wildlife area that will be devastated by bulldozing and disrupted by vehicle traffic, bright lights, garbage and increased human activity, Wright complained. The wall will trap some animals on the river side during floods, and those on the other side away from water they need to survive.

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#23 NewsAs U.S. withdraws, top general warns on Islamic State threat in Syria

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. general warned on Tuesday that Islamic State would pose an enduring threat following a planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria, saying the militant group retained leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources that will fuel a menacing insurgency.

The remarks by U.S. General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. military's Central Command, represent the latest warning by current and former U.S. officials about the risk of a resurgence by Islamic State following a planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria ordered in December by President Donald Trump.

"We do have to keep pressure on this network. ... They have the ability of coming back together if we don't," Votel told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. He added that territory under Islamic State's control had been reduced to less than 20 square miles (5,180 hectares) and would be recaptured by U.S.-backed forces prior to the U.S. withdrawal, which he said would be carried out in a "deliberate and coordinated manner."

Votel told the Senate hearing he was not consulted ahead of Trump's surprise decision to withdraw America's more than 2,000 troops from Syria, which helped trigger the resignation of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis.

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#24 NewsFor political stars like Beto and Stacey, powerful brands outshine lossesNewsFor political stars like Beto and Stacey, powerful brands outshine lossesNewsUS, Russia back off nuclear treaty. Is arms control coming to an end?

They’re two of the biggest stars of the 2018 midterms, making their first major public appearances since November on the exact same night. And in a sign of the political times, both have retained their star power – despite losing their respective bids for office. 

Stacey Abrams will be delivering the Democratic rebuttal to President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday – a historic role usually extended to sitting members of Congress or governors. Meanwhile, Beto O’Rourke will be in Times Square for a live interview with Oprah Winfrey, part of a celebrity-studded lineup that includes Bradley Cooper and Melissa Gates.

Ms. Abrams, a former Georgia state representative, and Mr. O’Rourke, a former US congressman from Texas, drew national attention during the 2018 midterms, electrifying Democratic voters in their respective Southern states. Abrams became the first black woman to be a major-party nominee for governor. O’Rourke broke fundraising records even as he pledged not to take money from political action committees (PACs) in his bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz.

Recommended: Ocasio-Cortez gains instant stature in Congress, and social media is a key

Both narrowly lost their races. 

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#25 NewsUS, Russia back off nuclear treaty. Is arms control coming to an end?NewsUS, Russia back off nuclear treaty. Is arms control coming to an end?NewsWhy the pope was in Islam’s heartland

When the United States informed Russia Saturday that it was formally suspending a landmark nuclear arms control treaty that had been a centerpiece of European security for three decades, it was more than just the demise of a cold war-era accord.

The US pullout from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 was also a sign of the waning interest of the world’s two nuclear superpowers in arms-control agreements more broadly.

The Russia of Vladimir Putin had done little in recent years to address US concerns, first aired by the Obama administration, over its deployment of a new ground-launched cruise missile that the US said left it in noncompliance with the INF Treaty.

Recommended: A critical moment in the global effort to contain nuclear weapons

Indeed, Mr. Putin wasted no time in informing the US Saturday that, in response to the US action, Russia too would suspend its participation in the treaty.

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#26 NewsWhy the pope was in Islam’s heartlandNewsWhy the pope was in Islam’s heartlandNewsThe team everyone loves to hate, Patriots in fact offer much to emulate

This week’s visit of Pope Francis to the Arabian peninsula, the birthplace of Islam, is certainly a historic first. It symbolizes two faiths, Christian and Muslim, trying to build bridges. Yet the trip was far more than symbolic.

The pope was just one of many at the largest and most diverse gathering ever in the Arab world of religious leaders, including Jewish and Hindu clergy. At the top of the agenda for the confab in the United Arab Emirates was a demand for a new listening rather than a rehash of old debates.

The UAE, along with Jordan and Morocco, have been leaders since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in creating forums for interfaith dialogue. This latest gathering, called the Global Conference on Human Fraternity, builds on 17 years of hard work since 2001 to find a commonality in different theologies that can counter extremist violence and protect religious minorities. As the pope said before his trip, “Faith in God unites and does not divide, it draws us closer despite differences, it distances us from hostilities and aversion.”

Recommended: Tiny Jordan's outsize role fostering interfaith understanding

Jordan, for example, which is a model of relative harmony in a religiously diverse society, found some success in 2007. It won global support from Christian and Muslim leaders for a statement on common values, such as “love of God” and “love thy neighbor.”

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#27 NewsThe team everyone loves to hate, Patriots in fact offer much to emulateNewsThe team everyone loves to hate, Patriots in fact offer much to emulateNewsThe Latest: Valero stops importing Venezuela crude oil

This is a gloat-free zone. I promise.

Super Bowl LIII was a tad anti-climactic (boring, even) after all the hype – and for most of the nation, a huge disappointment. Jared Goff, the Los Angeles Rams’ young quarterback, and Sean McVay, the youngest head coach in the National Football League, were no match for the seasoned savants of New England, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

At 13-3, the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history, at least it wasn’t a blowout. But there’s no denying the other records: Now with six Super Bowl rings, Patriots quarterback Brady needs both hands to display them all. And Coach Belichick, who already held the record for most Super Bowl victories as a head coach before Sunday, is now tied at six with George Halas and Curly Lambeau for all NFL championships, including those before the advent of the Super Bowl.

Recommended: For young Native Americans, running is a lesson in their own history

Again, I’m not gloating, just setting the stage. Here’s the real point: Don’t hate, emulate. Don’t waste all that time and mental energy wishing curses upon the Patriots. Study their work ethic, their ability to bounce back after a bad play or a loss, their success working as a team.

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#28 NewsJury enters second day of deliberations in ‘El Chapo’ trialNewsThe Latest: Valero stops importing Venezuela crude oilNewsTehran bats away EU criticism of Iranian missile tests

By Brendan Pierson and Gabriella Borter

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jurors in the U.S. trial of accused Mexican drug cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman began their second day of deliberations in a federal court in Brooklyn on Tuesday.

Guzman, 61, is accused of leading Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, which became one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in the world. He twice escaped from prison in Mexico, and will face the possibility of life in a U.S. prison if convicted.

The 11-week trial, which featured testimony from more than 50 witnesses, offered the public an unprecedented look into the inner workings of the cartel, named for the state in northwest Mexico where Guzman was born in a poor mountain village.

Prosecutors said he trafficked tons of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States over more than two decades, consolidating his power in Mexico through murders and wars with rival cartels.

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#29 NewsTop Asian News 4:45 p.m. GMTNewsIn event of no-deal Brexit, Britain to give EU truckers access without permitsNewsTop Asian News 4:45 p.m. GMT

BEIJING (AP) — Asia welcomed the lunar Year of the Pig on Tuesday with visits to temples, family banquets and the world's biggest travel spree. Celebrations took place throughout the region, from Beijing and Seoul to Hanoi and Singapore. The streets of Beijing and other major Chinese cities were quiet and empty after millions of people left to visit relatives or travel abroad during the year's biggest family holiday. Families gathered at home for multigenerational banquets. Companies, shops and government offices closed for official holidays that ranged from two days in South Korea to a week in China. ___ Worshippers stood in line for hours at Hong Kong's Wong Tai Sin Temple to welcome the new year by lighting incense.

From the dragon dancers parading through Yangon to the fire-eaters entertaining crowds in Manila, millions of people across Asia are ringing in the Lunar New Year. The Lunar New Year is celebrated across the continent, from Vietnam, where it is known as Tet, to South Korea, where it is called Seollal. Celebrants take part in religious rituals, community events and family reunions. People flock to temples to light incense sticks to pray for good fortune and health. Everywhere, the color red dominates — on lanterns, clothing and signs. At a temple in China, performers dress in elaborate costumes from the Qing Dynasty.

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban launched a pre-dawn attack on an army base in northern Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing 26 members of the security forces, a provincial official said, the latest brazen assault by insurgents amid stepped-up efforts to resolve the country's protracted war. The raid on the base in northern Kunduz province came as representatives of the Taliban were to hold meetings in Moscow with prominent Afghan figures, including former President Hamid Karzai, opposition leaders and tribal elders — but not Kabul government officials. The insurgents have refused to negotiate with Ghani's government, calling it a U.S. puppet. The Taliban have been staging near-daily attacks, inflicting heavy casualties on the embattled Afghan army and security forces.

COX'S BAZAR,Bangladesh (AP) — Angelina Jolie on Tuesday urged Myanmar to show a genuine commitment to ending violence and displacement in its Rakhine state, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled to neighboring Bangladesh for safety. Jolie, a special envoy for the U.N.'s refugee agency, spoke as she visited sprawling camps in Bangladesh that are home to 1 million Rohingya refugees. More than 700,000 have arrived since August 2017, when Myanmar's army led a violent crackdown following attacks on security posts by a Rohingya insurgent group. Jolie is visiting for three days before launching a global appeal for $920 million, chiefly to support the refugees' needs for 2019.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — As she pursued her dream of becoming a fashion model, veering for years between extreme dieting and overeating, Park I Seul realized she had a problem: She was not tall and skinny, like typical runway models, nor was she big enough to be a plus-size model. She also realized that the only way to meet South Korea's lofty beauty standards was for her to continuously deny who she truly is. So Park, 25, began calling herself a "natural size model" — a nearly unheard of term in South Korea — which she defines as someone with the same kind of body you see in daily life, as opposed to a difficult-to-attain ideal.

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#30 NewsJolie urges Myanmar to end violence against Rohingya MuslimsNewsJolie urges Myanmar to end violence against Rohingya MuslimsNewsLithuania fears Russia will attempt to sway its elections

COX'S BAZAR,Bangladesh (AP) — Angelina Jolie on Tuesday urged Myanmar to show a genuine commitment to ending violence and displacement in its Rakhine state, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled to neighboring Bangladesh for safety.

Jolie, a special envoy for the U.N.'s refugee agency, spoke as she visited sprawling camps in Bangladesh that are home to 1 million Rohingya refugees. More than 700,000 have arrived since August 2017, when Myanmar's army led a violent crackdown following attacks on security posts by a Rohingya insurgent group.

Jolie is visiting for three days before launching a global appeal for $920 million, chiefly to support the refugees' needs for 2019. She met and talked with refugees, including children and rape victims.

"It was deeply upsetting to meet the families who have only known persecution and statelessness their whole lives, who speak of being treated like cattle," she told reporters at the Kutupalong refugee camp.

Jolie added: "They have been denied their most basic human right: citizenship in their country of birth. And some still won't even call the Rohingya by their rightful name."

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#31 NewsWhat is the EU Venezuela contact group and what does it hope to achieve?NewsLithuania fears Russia will attempt to sway its electionsNewsThe Latest: May says she won’t completely remove backstop

Brussels (AFP) - European and Latin American envoys will gather in Montevideo on Thursday for the first meeting of an international contact group aimed at charting a peaceful end to Venezuela's political crisis.

Around 20 EU countries have joined the US and key regional powers in recognising opposition chief Juan Guaido as interim leader, adding to the pressure on President Nicolas Maduro, who has presided over his oil-rich country's collapse into economic ruin and political turmoil.

While maintaining pressure on the Maduro regime through diplomacy and targeted sanctions, the European Union sees the contact group as a way of starting work on a process to help Venezuela find a way out of the chaos.

- Who is taking part?

Eight European countries have confirmed -- Spain, France, Britain, Germany, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden -- along with Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia and Costa Rica from Latin America. Mexico has been invited but not yet confirmed.

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#32 NewsC.Africa government inks peace deal with militiasNewsC.Africa government inks peace deal with militiasNewsApple reaches 500-mln-euro tax settlement with France

Khartoum (AFP) - The government of the Central African Republic and 14 armed groups on Tuesday inked a new peace accord seeking to end years of fighting that have left thousands of people dead.

The accord was initialled by President Faustin-Archange Touadera for the CAR government and representatives of militias which control most of the chronically-troubled country.

It will be formally signed in the CAR capital of Bangui "in the coming days," Touadera's office said, without announcing a date.

"The Khartoum Agreement opens the door for peace to return to our homeland," Touadera declared at the ceremony. "It is now time to open a new page for Central Africa. Let's go together to Bangui to build our country together."

The agreement, brokered by the African Union after 18 months of exploratory work and sponsored by the UN, is the eighth attempt in almost six years to forge peace in a country stricken by turmoil and poverty.

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#33 Facebook targets ‘dangerous’ armed groups in latest Myanmar bans

YANGON, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Facebook has banned four insurgent groups fighting against Myanmar's military from its social network, the company said on Tuesday, saying it wanted to prevent offline harm by removing groups it branded "dangerous organisations".

The U.S.-based social media giant says it has removed hundreds of accounts, pages and groups for links to Myanmar's military, or misrepresentation, since last August.

The action came after Facebook was criticized for not doing enough to prevent violent and hate-filled content spreading on its platform, which grew hugely popular in Myanmar just as conflicts in the country escalated.

The Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Kachin Independence Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army were banned, Facebook said in a statement on Tuesday, adding it would remove "praise, support and representation" of the groups.

"In an effort to prevent and disrupt offline harm, we do not allow organizations or individuals that proclaim a violent mission or engage in violence to have a presence on Facebook," the company said.

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#34 In just two years, 9,000 of these cameras were installed to spy on your car

The surveillance state is no longer limited to the state.

For years, police departments have been tracking people’s cars with cameras that capture the license plate number of every vehicle that passes by. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital privacy nonprofit, has described the technology as “a form of mass surveillance.”

Now, a new generation of tech firms has made it possible for private citizens to use the devices, known as automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs—without the strict oversight that governs this type of data collection by law enforcement.

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Putting ALPR into civilian hands allows for a broad range of new applications, including customer service and school security. But it also raises untold numbers of new legal and ethical issues, few of which have yet been tested in the courts, experts warn.

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#35 Apple’s new Safari privacy settings threaten web-based VR and AR

Apple’s Safari browser will soon stop websites from using your phone’s motion data by default, potentially breaking web-based AR and VR experiences that rely on this functionality, reports DigiDay. With iOS 12.2, the company is introducing a new privacy setting called “Motion and Orientation Access” into version 12.1 of its browser, which will be disabled by default.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but DigiDay speculates that a report from Wired last year is to blame for the changes. The report raised concerns that thousands of sites used scripts that pull data from a phone’s motion-sensors without the user’s consent. Many of these sites then used this data for tracking, analytics-gathering, and audience recognition. 

Multiple VR and AR developers spoken to by DigiDay said that they expected the changes to break aspects of their sites’ functionality. It could affect web-based experiences such as promotional sites for Sony’s First Man, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and the “Samsung Within” site, for example.

The report noted that access to other data from a phone — such as location data — is preceded by a pop-up asking for user permission, but it’s currently unclear whether sites will be able to generate a similar notification to ask for access to motion data. DigiDay speculates that an affected website could detect when Safari is being used to access it, and could direct a user to the relevant settings page to give their consent.

Even if this is possible, it could still be a problem for developers. The attraction of web-based AR and VR content is its low barrier to entry compared with alternatives that require a dedicated app or headset. However, requiring people to open their settings menu introduces a barrier — albeit a small one — that could be the difference between someone trying a VR experience for the first time, or giving it a pass.

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#36 Account linking could make Instagram the heir to Facebook Login

Teens' aversion to Facebook jeopardizes not only the company's feed ad revenue, but its dominance as an identity provider. The Facebook Login platform keeps people tied to the social network in order to easily access other apps without a separate username and password. But for younger users who ditch or neglect Facebook in favor of Instagram, the tech giant stands to lose one of its most powerful wedges into our lives. Meanwhile, Instagram loyalists are forced to juggle multiple sets of login credentials to manage their personal, Finsta, and business accounts.

But a new feature in development could make it easy to operate multiple Instagram handles while poising the app as a successor to Facebook Login. Instagram has prototyped "Main Account" feature that would let users set one of their profiles as a primary account and then link their others to it. Logging into the main account would instantly log them in to the rest as well. From then on, users would only need to remember a single email/username and password combo. Simpler login could get people switching accounts, posting, and engaging more with Instagram.

Account linking could also power up Instagram's existing login platform. Currently, third-party apps use it to let you compose feed posts and Stories and then share them to Instagram, or to measure the activity and mentions of business accounts. But Instagram could potentially expand the login platform to let you bring more of your identity or profile info to other apps similar to Facebook Login. That might work better if you could log in through your main Instagram account and then choose which profile you wanted to use or share back to from another app.

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#37 How to save and store your photos before Flickr deletes them

Starting tomorrow, Flickr will be limiting its free account users to 1,000 photos. And it’s not messing around: It will delete the rest unless you pay the $50 annually for a pro account, so if you don’t plan on paying, now is the time to download your stuff and evaluate where you plan to stash your images.

Downloading your photos

If you want to grab all your stuff, you’ll have to request a dump of your data from Flickr directly. You can do that by going into your settings, and hitting the “Your Flickr Data” section of the page in the bottom right. There, you can click the link to request your data.

If you use the service with any regularity, your Flickr haul is likely a ton of data. I have roughly 43,000 photos, many of which I’ve exported from Lightroom and uploaded, but also thousands that landed there from the Flickr iPhone app’s ability to automatically upload my photos in the background.

My data took a few hours to prepare and showed up as a total of 88 zip files, each clocking in around 2 GB. Once you request a data download, you have a few weeks to download everything. I requested my info on Friday, February 1st, and my link is active until February 19th.

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#38 Google hired microworkers to train its controversial Project Maven AI

According to a new report from The Intercept, Google hired gig economy workers to help build out a controversial artificial intelligence program that the company had paired with the Pentagon to build.

The workers were hired through a crowdsourcing gig company outfit called Figure Eight, which pays as little at $1 an hour for people to perform short, seemingly mindless tasks. Whether the individuals were identifying objects in CAPTCHA-like images, or other simple tasks, the workers were helping to train Google’s AI that was created as part of a Defense Department initiative known as Project Maven.

Project Maven is a Pentagon project intended to use machine learning and artificial intelligence in order to differentiate people and objects in thousands of hours of drone footage. By employing these crowdsourced microworkers, Google was able to use them to teach the algorithms it was running how to distinguish between human targets and surrounding objects.

According to The Intercept, these workers had no idea who their work was benefitting or what they were building.

Last June, Google said that it had decided not to renew its contract with the Defense Department as it involved Project Maven after over 3,000 employees signed a petition in protest of the company’s involvement in the initiative. The deal is set to end in March 2019.

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#39 Google adds two impressive features to Android phones for people with hearing loss

Google is starting to roll out two new features for Android phones today that are meant to help the some 900 million people around the world who the World Health Organization says will be suffering from hearing loss by the year 2055. The features are actually two apps for Android called Live Transcribe and Sound Amplifier, both of which do exactly what the names imply.

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The Live Transcribe app, for example, takes real-world speech and turns it into real-time captions using the phone’s microphone, while Sound Amplifier helps filter, augment and amplify sounds in the environment around the user. It increases quiet sounds while not over-boosting loud sounds, and it can also be customized, with sliders and toggles that can be used for noise reduction to minimize distractions in the background.

Sound Amplifier will be in the Play Store today for Android users, while Google says Live Transcribe will start rolling out in a limited beta today via the Play Store. It will also come pre-installed on Pixel 3 devices, and you can sign up here to be notified when it’s more widely available. Sound Amplifier will likewise come pre-installed on Pixel 3’s.

In a company blog post today, Google shows how the apps can be used by spotlighting the work of Dimitri Kanevsky, a research scientist at the company who’s worked on speech recognition and communications technology for 30 years. “Through his work, Dimitri — who has been deaf since early childhood — has helped shape the accessibility technologies he relies on. One of them is CART: A service where a captioner virtually joins a meeting to listen and create a transcription of spoken dialogue, which then displays on a computer screen. Dimitri’s teammate, Chet Gnegy, saw the challenges Dimitri faced using CART: He always carried multiple devices, it was costly and each meeting required a lot of preparation. This meant Dimitri could only use CART for formal business meetings or events, and not everyday conversations.”

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#40 Harvard’s top astronomer says an alien ship may be among us — and he doesn’t care what his colleagues think

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. —Before he started the whole alien spaceship thing last year, the chairman of Harvard University's astronomy department was known for public lectures on modesty. Personal modesty, which Avi Loeb said he learned growing up on a farm. And what Loeb calls "cosmic modesty" — the idea that it's arrogant to assume we are alone in the universe, or even a particularly special species.

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You can find a poster for one of these lectures in Loeb's office today, though it's a bit lost among the clutter: photos of Loeb posing under the dome of Harvard's enormous 19th-century telescope; thank-you notes from elementary-school children; a framed interview he gave the New York Times in 2014; his books on the formation of galaxies; his face, again and again — a bespectacled man in his mid-50s with a perpetually satisfied smile.

Loeb stands beside his desk on the first morning of spring courses in a creaseless suit, stapling syllabi for his afternoon class. He points visitors to this and that on the wall. He mentions that four TV crews were in this office on the day in the fall when his spaceship theory went viral, and now five film companies are interested in making a movie about his life.

A neatly handwritten page of equations sits on the desk, on the edge closest to the guest chairs.

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IT40 People in the Media for 02/05/2019

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