Grocery Store Using Unmanned Vehicles for Delivery
U.S. supermarket chain Kroger Co said on Tuesday it has started using unmanned autonomous vehicles to deliver groceries Scottsdale, Arizona in partnership with Silicon Valley startup Nuro.
The delivery service follows a pilot program started by the companies in Scottsdale in August and involved Nuro’s R1, a custom unmanned vehicle.
The R1 uses public roads and has no driver and is used to only transport goods.
Kroger’s deal with Nuro underscores the stiff competition in the U.S. grocery delivery market with supermarket chains angling for a bigger share of consumer spending.
Peers Walmart Inc and Amazon.com Inc have also invested heavily in their delivery operations by expanding their offerings and shortening delivery times.
Walmart, Ford Motor Co and delivery service Postmates Inc said last month they would collaborate to deliver groceries and other goods to Walmart customers and that could someday use autonomous vehicles.
Kroger said the service would be available in Scottsdale at its unit Fry’s Food Stores for $5.95 with no minimum order requirement for same-day or next-day deliveries.
Russia Rejects Reports Alleging Extensive US Election Meddling
The size and scope of Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was far more extensive and thorough than previously understood, according to two newly released reports.
The reports that emerged this week support conclusions by the U.S. intelligence community — and published in an unclassified January 2017 report — that the goal of all of Russia’s meddling in the months leading up to the 2016 elections was to get their preferred candidate elected president of the United States.
“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party and specifically Donald Trump,” according to the report by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and network analysis firm Graphika.
Russia on Tuesday rejected the allegations in the two reports. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the accusations baseless.
The findings, as first reported by The Washington Post, said Russians working for a group called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) began experimenting with social media to influence local elections in 2009 and expanded its operations to U.S. elections in 2013 using Twitter.
It gradually added other popular social media sites to its campaign, including YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, using race and social issues such as gun rights, immigration and police brutality, to sow division and discontent.
“Conservative and right-wing voters were actively encouraged to get behind Trump’s campaign,” according to the report by Oxford and Graphika. “Other voters were encouraged to boycott the election, abstain from voting for Clinton, or to spread cynicism about participating in the election in general.”
Russia’s IRA activity also sought out African-American voters in particular with advertising on Facebook and Instagram and with video content on YouTube.
“Most of the interest-based targeting focused on African-American communities and interests,” the second report by the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge showed.
“Messaging to African-Americans sought to divert their political energy away from established political institutions by preying on anger with structural inequalities faced by African-Americans, including police violence, poverty and disproportionate levels of incarceration,” the Oxford University-Graphika report added. “These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African-American community was to boycott the election and focus on other issues instead.”
Other groups such as liberals, women, Muslims, Latinos and veterans were also targeted with similar messages either appealing to their politics or trying to discourage them from voting.
This newly released data demonstrates how aggressively Russia sought to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology, and how the IRA actively worked to erode trust in our democratic institutions,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican, said in a statement Monday. “Most troublingly, it shows that these activities have not stopped.”
“This should stand as a wake-up call,” added Senate Intelligence Committee vice chair, Democrat Mark Warner, who has been critical of social media companies and the way they have handled Russia’s online influence campaigns.
“It is time to get serious in addressing this challenge,” Warner said. “That is going to require some much-needed and long-overdue guardrails when it comes to social media.”
The Oxford-Graphika report said it is clear the response by social media companies has been lacking.
“We clearly observe a belated and uncoordinated response from the platforms that provided the data,” the report said. “In some cases, activity on one platform was detected and suspended months before similar action was taken against related activity on another platform.”
In a statement Monday, Facebook said it continues to “fully cooperate with officials investigating the IRA’s activity on Facebook and Instagram around the 2016 election.”
“We’ve made progress in helping prevent interference on our platforms during elections, strengthened our policies against voter suppression ahead of the 2018 midterms, and funded independent research on the impact of social media on democracy,” the statement said, adding the company believes Congress and intelligence officials “are best placed to use the information we and others provide.”
“Our singular focus is to improve the health of the public conversation on our platform,” Twitter said in a statement of its own. “We’ve made significant strides since 2016 to counter manipulation of our service, including our release of additional data in October related to previously disclosed activities to enable further independent academic research and investigation.”
The reports, though, indicate the measures that have been taken may not be enough, as Russia and others continue to make use of social media platforms.
The Oxford-Graphika report said Russia’s use of social media did not peak until after the election, with the IRA buying the most ad volume on Facebook in April 2017, shortly after the U.S. airstrikes against chemical weapon sites in Syria.
And U.S. intelligence and military officials have told VOA that Russia continued to target segments of U.S. society, including ongoing efforts to influence U.S. military personnel and their families in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections.
The United States has already leveled criminal charges against IRA for interfering in the 2016 campaign.
Current and former intelligence officials also warn that it would be a mistake to focus only on Russia’s use of social media, pointing to last week’s guilty plea by Russian spy Maria Butina, who admitted to using the National Rifle Association to get close to key conservative politicians.
“It illustrates … the astute understanding the Russians have of our political ecosystem,” James Clapper, former director of National Intelligence, told VOA.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election and whether the president has tried to obstruct justice by trying to undermine the probe.
Trump denies there was any collusion and calls the Mueller probe a “witch hunt.”
Budget Stalemate Pushes US Closer to Partial Government Shutdown
There is little public indication of progress in resolving the stalemate over U.S. government spending, which could bring a partial shutdown of federal agencies at midnight Friday.
At the center of the dispute is President Donald Trump’s insistence that Congress approves $5 billion in spending for his desired wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats and some Republicans oppose that plan, and Democratic leaders have offered $1.3 billion in other border security funding.
Trump used Twitter to attack the Democrats on Monday as the two sides came no closer to an agreement.
“Anytime you hear a Democrat saying that you can have good Border Security without a Wall, write them off as just another politician following the party line,” the U.S. leader said on Twitter. “Time for us to save billions of dollars a year and have, at the same time, far greater safety and control!”
The top Democrat in the Senate Chuck Schumer said there is not enough support in Congress for Trump’s wall, and that “no threat or temper tantrum” will change that.
“If President Trump decides to shut down the government, there is no end game in which President Trump gets the wall,” Schumer said. “There is no end game for Republicans in which they can avoid their share of responsibility — overwhelming share — for a shutdown. The time to solve this problem is now.”
In a meeting last week at the White House, Trump told Schumer and House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi that he would be happy to take responsibility for a government shutdown rather than give up any ground on the border wall issue.
But to avert a Friday shutdown Democrats and Republicans could reach agreement on some kind of stopgap spending plan to carry all government operations through the end of this year and into 2019.
Spending for three-fourths of the government has already been approved through next September, but the remaining bills include 2019 funding for the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Department of Justice, and the Interior Department.
Generally, agencies or offices funded by service fees, such as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, can continue their work, so the shutdown would not affect naturalization interviews or citizenship ceremonies.
Overseas, U.S. embassies have “essential” staff members who will continue to perform basic duties. Whether locally employed staff will be able to work is dependent on the labor laws in each individual country. In past shutdowns, individual embassies have posted on social media about any adjustments to their services and largely functioned as normal.
The State Department told VOA that information on how embassies would be affected by this shutdown is not yet available.
Experts say the Internal Revenue Service may not be able to process tax refunds. Health safety inspections could be stalled. Most employees at the U.S. space agency NASA would likely be furloughed and might not get paid for that time, although Congress usually grants pay retroactively after a shutdown is over.
Voice of America continues to broadcast, and air traffic controllers are usually expected to keep working – along with FBI agents, members of the Transportation Security Administration, and the Secret Service agents that protect the president. Like the furloughed workers, they may not see any pay until after the shutdown concludes.
In a new shutdown, about 380,000 federal workers could be furloughed, and 420,000 deemed “essential” are expected to remain on the job.
Flynn’s Former Partner Charged With Secret Lobbying for Turkey
An ex-business partner of Michael Flynn, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, was charged with undisclosed lobbying aimed at ensuring the extradition to Turkey of a Muslim cleric living in the United States.
Flynn’s former partner, Bijan Rafiekian, was indicted on two criminal counts in the Eastern District of Virginia, including conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government, according to an indictment unsealed on Monday.
Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish businessman, was also charged in the indictment for allegedly plotting to discredit and cause the extradition of Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen who lives in exile in the United States.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has blamed Gulen for stoking a failed coup against him in 2016. Gulen denies that.
A representative for Alptekin, 41, who was charged with six criminal counts, said she did not immediately have a comment.
A lawyer for Rafiekian, 66, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The defendants sought to discredit and delegitimize the Turkish citizen in the eyes of politicians and the public, and ultimately to secure the Turkish citizen’s extradition,” attorneys for the Eastern District of Virginia said in the indictment.
While the Turkish citizen was not named, the person fits the description of Gulen, a one-time ally of Erdogan who lives in a compound in rural Pennsylvania.
Turkey’s foreign minister said on Sunday U.S. President Donald Trump has told Erdogan that Washington was working on extraditing Gulen.
The probe into Flynn and his now defunct lobbying and consulting business had been handled previously by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Earlier this year the probe was handed off to the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia to handle.
Flynn, who was only national security adviser for less than a month at the start of Trump’s presidency, has been cooperating with Mueller’s probe.
Boeing Buying Stake in Brazil’s Embraer for $4.2 Billion
Boeing is buying a majority stake in Embraer’s commercial aircraft and services operations for $4.2 billion.
The joint venture, announced Monday, gives Boeing 80 percent ownership of those operations, with Embraer owning the remaining stake.
Boeing will have operational and management control of the company. Embraer will keep consent rights for some decisions, such as the transfer of operations from Brazil.
The deal still needs approval from the Brazilian government, as well as shareholders and regulators.
The companies also agreed to another joint venture to promote and develop new markets for the multi-mission medium airlift KC-390. Embraer will own a 51 percent stake in the joint venture, with Boeing owning the remaining 49 percent. The transaction is targeted to close by the end of next year.
Most Teen Drug Use Down, but Vaping Is Booming
Twice as many high school students used nicotine-tinged electronic cigarettes this year compared with last year, an unprecedented jump in a large annual survey of teen smoking, drinking and drug use.
It was the largest single-year increase in the survey’s 44-year history, far surpassing a mid-1970s surge in marijuana smoking.
The findings, released Monday, echo those of a government survey earlier this year. That survey also found a dramatic rise in vaping among children and prompted federal regulators to press for measures that make it harder for kids to get them.
Experts attribute the jump to newer versions of e-cigarettes, like those by Juul Labs Inc. that resemble computer flash drives and can be used discreetly.
Trina Hale, a junior at South Charleston High School in West Virginia, said vaping — specifically Juul — exploded at her school this year.
“They can put it in their sleeve or their pocket. They can do it wherever, whenever. They can do it in class if they’re sneaky about it,” she said.
Olivia Turman, a freshman at Cabell Midland High School in Ona, West Virginia, said she too has seen kids “hit their vape in class.”
The federally funded survey released Monday is conducted by University of Michigan researchers and has been operating since 1975. This year’s findings are based on responses from about 45,000 students in grades 8, 10 and 12 in schools across the country. It found 1 in 5 high school seniors reported having vaped nicotine in the previous month.
After vaping and alcohol, the most common thing teens use is marijuana, the survey found. About 1 in 4 students said they’d used marijuana at least once in the past year. It was more common in older kids — about 1 in 17 high school seniors said they use marijuana every day.
Overall, marijuana smoking is about the same level as it was the past few years. Vaping of marijuana rose, however.
More teens, however, are saying no to lots of other substances. Usage of alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, heroin and opioid pills all declined.
Experts say it’s not clear what’s behind those trends, especially since the nation is in the midst of the deadliest drug overdose epidemic ever.
“What is it that we’re doing right with teenagers that we’re not doing with adults?” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal agency that funds the Michigan study.
One leading theory is that kids today are staying home and communicating on smartphones rather than hanging out and smoking, drinking or trying drugs.
“Drug experimentation is a group activity,” Volkow said.
What about vaping? “Vaping mostly is an individual activity,” said David Jernigan, a Boston University researcher who tracks alcohol use.
The vaping explosion is a big worry, however. Health officials say nicotine is harmful to developing brains. Some researchers also believe vaping will make kids more likely to take up cigarettes, and perhaps later try other drugs.
So far that hasn’t happened, surveys show. But the Juul phenomenon is recent, noted Richard Miech, who oversees the Michigan survey.
If vaping does lead to cigarette use among teens, that may start to show up in the survey as early as next year, he added.
Ottawa’s Ambassador Meets with 2nd Canadian Citizen Arrested in China
China has allowed the Canadian ambassador to meet with a second Canadian citizen detained for reasons that are still unclear, the foreign ministry in Ottawa said.
Ambassador John McCallum spoke with Canadian business executive Michael Spavor on Sunday — two days after he met with another Canadian detainee, former diplomat Michael Kovrig.
A foreign ministry statement said Sunday the ambassador will continue providing consular services to Spavor and will seek further access to him.
China detained both men after Canadian police arrested senior Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou earlier this month in Vancouver on a U.S. warrant.
Meng is out on bail awaiting possible extradition to the United States on charges of evading U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Canada denies Meng’s arrest was a political move. It says it was purely a judicial matter and a case of Canada living up to its treaty obligations to the United States.
“We are being absolutely clear on standing up for our citizens who have been detained, trying to figure out why, trying to work with China to demonstrate that this is not acceptable,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said late last week.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also calls the arrests in China unacceptable.
Ottawa has declined to say why it believes the two Canadians were arrested. But China’s state-run Beijing News newspaper says the two are suspected of activities that endanger Chinese national security.
Washington Reacts after Obamacare Struck Down
The future of health care in America is murkier than ever after a federal judge ruled that former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law is unconstitutional. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports that the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is still in effect pending appeals that could reach the U.S. Supreme Court.