Solar Impulse 2 plane lands in Dayton

WASHINGTON (AFP): A solar-powered plane landed in Dayton, Ohio Saturday on the latest leg of a record-breaking trip to circle the globe without consuming a drop of fuel. Solar Impulse 2, piloted by Swiss businessman Andre Borschberg, arrived at 9:56 pm (0156 GMT Sunday) at Dayton International Airport after a flight from Tulsa, Oklahoma that lasted a 16 hours and 34 minutes, a live video feed showed. “Amazing to have landed in #Dayton after being in the sky for 17 hours!” Borschberg tweeted. The slow-moving, single-seat plane with the wingspan of a Boeing 747 cuts a flimsy figure, but it has traversed much of the globe in stages since taking off March 9, 2015 from Abu Dhabi. The project aims to promote renewable energy.

The aircraft - clad in thousands of solar cells, the sole source of energy for the flight - reached its destination more than an hour ahead of schedule.

Still, traveling at average speeds of only 30 miles (48 kilometers) per hour, it took Solar Impulse 2 longer to reach Dayton than a car - the typical road trip from Tulsa is around 12 hours.

The flight to Dayton was the 12th leg of Solar Impulse’s projected 16-leg east-west circumnavigation, with Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard alternating as pilots. Piccard, a Swiss psychiatrist and balloonist, initiated the project.

“The flight is part of the attempt to achieve the first ever Round-The-World Solar Flight, the goal of which is to demonstrate how modern clean technologies can achieve the impossible,” Piccard and Borschberg said in a statement.

Dayton is significant to aviation buffs because it is the home of Orville and Wilbur Wright, brothers who developed the world’s first successful powered aircraft heavier than air.

Solar Impulse 2 departed from Tulsa International Airport at 4:22 am (0922 GMT). It may next fly to Pennsylvania as early as Tuesday, the team said. Its final destination in the United States is New York.

Thanks to an inflatable mobile hangar, which can be packed up quickly and transported, the plane can be sheltered at a variety of locations. The aircraft was grounded in July when its batteries were damaged halfway through its 21,700-mile (35,000-kilometer) circumnavigation of the globe.

The crew took several months to repair the damage caused by high tropical temperatures during a 4,000-mile flight between Nagoya, Japan and Hawaii.

The plane was flown on that stage by Borschberg, whose 118-hour journey smashed the previous record of 76 hours and 45 minutes set by US adventurer Steve Fossett in 2006. He took 20-minute catnaps to maintain control of the pioneering plane during the flight from Japan, in what his team described as “difficult” conditions.

The Solar Impulse 2, which weighs roughly the same as a family car, contains 17,000 solar cells that power the aircraft’s propellers and charge batteries. At night, it runs on stored energy.

The plane’s typical flight speed can increase to double that when exposed to full sunlight.

After crossing the United States, the pilots are set to make a transatlantic flight to Europe, from where they plan to make their way back to their point of departure in Abu Dhabi.

Piccard, a doctor by training, completed the first non-stop balloon flight around the world in 1999. His teammate Borschberg is no stranger to adventure - 15 years ago he narrowly escaped an avalanche, and in 2013 he survived a helicopter crash with just minor injuries.




Mysterious roar and light in the sky wake Mexican city

PUEBLA, Mexico (AFP): Residents in a Mexican city woke in fright before dawn on Saturday to bright light in the sky and then a thunderous noise, fearing a nearby volcano had suddenly erupted. But officials said Popocatepetl volcano had not stirred and no earthquake had registered. Instead, the phenomena witnessed by the inhabitants of Puebla de Zaragoza, a city of three million people 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Mexico City, was “most likely a meteor,” the local Astronomic Society tweeted. The rock from space probably burned up in the atmosphere and no impact was detected, it explained. “It was horrible, we thought it was the volcano, but it wasn’t,” said one resident, Emma Chavez.

 “There was a light that shone for a couple of seconds like it was daytime and then there was tremendous thunder.”

Another resident, Alvaro Morales, said: “It was really strong. Windows were shaking. We thought it was an earthquake, but it wasn’t. There was a sound like an explosion. We were truly terrified.”



Chile zoo kills lions to protect suicidal

man in their cage

SANTIAGO (AFP): A zoo in Chile’s capital said it was forced to kill two lions to protect a suicidal man who had entered their cage in front of aghast visitors. Security protocols kicked in immediately when staff saw the man climb down with a rope into the African lions’ enclosure, the head of Santiago Zoo, Alejandra Montalva, told television network TVN. The carnivorous felines, a male and a female, instinctively attacked and had to be put down. Anesthetic darts would not have stopped the attack in time, she explained. “We’re shaken by this because the animals in the zoo are part of our family,” Montalva said. “These were lions that had been with us for more than 20 years.”

 The man, in his 20s or 30s, was taken to a hospital with critical injuries.



Apple, Google locked in battle for supremacy

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP): At the top of the corporate world, Apple and Google are in a back-and-forth battle to be number one. It’s not clear which of the two Silicon Valley giants will emerge on top in a contest which highlights the contrast of very different business models. For a brief time early this year, Google parent Alphabet overtook Apple as the world’s largest company by market value. Apple then regained, lost and recovered the leader position in May in a battle that appears set to continue for some time. At the close Friday, Apple was worth some $522 billion, to $496 billion for Alphabet. The two companies have both been hugely profitable in recent years, for different reasons.

Apple has delivered a line of must-have iPhones and other gadgets that have set trends around the world but now “appears to be a little bit immobile,” says Roger Kay, analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates.

Apple shares have slumped some 30 percent over the past 12 months over concerns that its stunning growth pace is slowing and that the iPhone won’t be able to rake in profits as it has up to now.

Kay said Apple may be losing the position of innovation leader it achieved after the iPhone, with no new major hit products coming.

“They haven’t really changed the nature of the game,” Kay said.

“The (Apple) Watch came in, it was kind of interesting, people liked it... but developers are still searching for exactly how to use it.”

Google, meanwhile, been evolving from a pure search engine to a leader in mobile with its Android operating system.

And it has at the same time been investing in “moonshots” - grand ventures that may have potential such as self-driving cars, fiber networks and Internet balloons.

Google “has positioned itself well, through organic investments and acquisitions, for most of the major trends in consumer Internet: mobile, video, local,” said RBC Capital Markets analyst Mark Mahaney in a research note.

Kay said the Android system which powers some 80 percent of mobile handsets is a valuable franchise that helps Google’s mobile advertising efforts.

“The narrative that has boosted Google is the one about technology innovation and being at the wellhead of various important technologies,” Kay said.

“That may or may not finally pay off. But they’re looking. They’re using their money to try to find innovative things to make the next big thing, whatever it is.”

For Apple, a key moment will come later this year with the expected unveiling of its iPhone 7, a test on whether it can keep up its innovation and entice consumers to trade up.

The two companies have a virtual duopoly on the smartphone market, but Apple makes its own hardware and software while Google provides only the free Android software for handsets, including many made by low-cost manufacturers.

Google has been taking pains to show off its software and artificial intelligence.

At its just-concluded developer conference, Google unveiled a virtual home assistant as well as an upgraded messaging platform.

Google claims it is ahead of its rivals in artificial intelligence, and cites as proof its victory in the ancient game of Go by its supercomputer AlphaGo.

And Google also has shown its interest in virtual reality, adapting its upcoming version of Android to deliver more lifelike images, which could help in its battle against Apple.

But few are ready to count out Apple, which is known for keeping its research efforts secret, and which has a massive cash stockpile of some $233 billion.

Apple is widely believed to be working on some automobile project, and recently announced a $1 billion investment in Chinese ride hailing app Didi Chuxing, the bitter rival of US-based Uber.

Apple also moved to expand its global footprint by announcing plans for a development office in Hyderabad, India and a new app design center in Bangalore.

Even with Apple’s share price in a slump, billionaire Warren Buffett disclosed he had taken a $1 billion stake, suggesting the shrewd investor sees Apple as undervalued.

The research firm Trefis said the latest Apple investment in Didi “signals that the company could get more creative” in using its vast financial resources.



New York subway on the brink

NEW YORK (AFP): The New York subway is the seventh busiest in the world and has its highest ridership in 70 years, increasing delays and forcing management to formulate a plan of salvation. The morning commuter crush in Brooklyn, the city’s most populated borough, can be overwhelming. Tempers can fray. Sometimes commuters have to wait for at least one, if not two trains to go by before they can board. “I saw two women pulling each other’s hair because they had bumped into each other,” said commuter Ana Fernandez, although such behavior is rare. Kevin Ortiz, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) that operates the subway, said: “We are a victim of our own success.” In 2015, New Yorkers clocked up 1.76 billion journeys on the subway, the highest number since 1948 and an increase of 61 percent in 20 years.

The city’s population has grown by nearly a million since 1994 and crime in the subway, at an all-time high in the early 1990s, has drastically fallen.

Since 1981, $115 billion has been invested in what is one of the oldest subway networks in the world, which Ortiz described as having been in a “state of decay and disrepair” in the early 1980s.

Today, it is considered the quickest and cheapest mode of transport around the city and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

David King, assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University, said the transit system is largely in good repair.

“Crowding issues are likely a larger source of troubles,” he said. “The trains are safe and clean, and breakdowns are rare.”

A looming closure of the tunnel that connects the ultra-hip Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg to Manhattan, for possibly 18 months of repair work, is likely to make overcrowding even worse.

The 4, 5 and 6 lines that ply much of the same route from Brooklyn, up the eastern side of Manhattan to the Bronx have more passengers than the entire subway systems in Boston, Chicago and Washington put together.

“I go early, before the rush,” said Fernandez, who commutes on the 6 line.

A recent report from the New York state comptroller has highlighted an increase in delays, which the MTA attributes largely to the need to do maintenance work while ensuring that the subway operates 24 hours a day.

“It is certainly a challenge to meet that increased demand,” said Ortiz, who outlined various steps that the MTA is taking in the short and the long-term.

All trains are currently being used but the plan is to upgrade existing equipment. The MTA has ordered a new type of train that has no separation between carriages and would increase capacity.

MTA is also rolling out advanced signaling, the Communications-Based Train Control, which pinpoints the precise location of each train, allowing operators to run trains closer together to provide more service.

In the longer term, New York plans to extend the Q line to help relieve pressure on the 4, 5 and 6 lines, billed as the first major expansion of the subway system in more than 50 years.

Beyond the scope of the MTA, some blame exponential growth of parts of Brooklyn, where high-rise towers are being built in the place of older, smaller buildings.

“They’re overdeveloping when it comes to real estate with absolutely no plans for infrastructure - transportation, schools, everything,” said David Dobosz, a retired teacher from Brooklyn.

“There needs to be a thorough and robust conversation with the city as they move forward with development plans,” recognized Ortiz. “There needs to be more of a robust collaboration between us and the city.”

But the situation is not unique to New York. Chicago, San Francisco and Washington have also all launched large-scale projects to upgrade their subways.



Australia legalises medical cannabis

NIMBIN, Australia (AFP): Jai Whitelaw was 10 when he first took medical cannabis, given to him by his mother in a bid to treat the debilitating epilepsy that saw him endure up to 500 seizures a day. Faced with the stark choice of breaking the law in the hope of soothing his chronic pain, or denying him possible relief, Michelle Whitelaw reached breaking point. “I literally sat on (the) couch for two days, thinking ‘Do I end his life and mine? Or do I risk helping him’,” she told AFP. She picked the latter, risking criminal charges. Now, almost two years on, things are set to change as Australia brings in new laws allowing the drug to be used for medical purposes. “If it didn’t work, I wouldn’t be here and Jai wouldn’t be here,” Whitelaw said at the Mardi Grass festival, an annual celebration of marijuana in Nimbin in Australia’s east. At his lowest point Jai had to be resuscitated, was unable to write or read at school or even play outdoors as he struggled with fits and the side-effects of pharmaceutical medications. In the 15 months since he began medicinal cannabis, which he takes in liquid form, he has had only four seizures. In Nimbin, he seemed like any other youngster enjoying the annual party.

- Dope or medicine? -

While recreational cannabis is drawn from the whole plant, therapeutic forms are derived from extracting particular types of cannabinoids - molecules that are found in cannabis - from the plant.

“What we are starting to understand now is that different types of cannabinoids work differently for different kinds of health problems,” Nicholas Lintzeris, the clinical director at the University of Sydney’s Lambert Initiative, told AFP.

“You extract the cannabinoids from the plants and then you put them together again according to the specific profile you want,” he added.

Therapeutic use is legal in several US states and other nations including Canada, Israel and the Netherlands.

Support for the practice has grown in Australia in recent years, with 91 percent in favour of legalising it for the seriously ill, according to a 2015 Roy Morgan poll.

The national government has listened. While recreational use remains illegal, laws were passed in February permitting it for medical purposes, in a move Health Minister Sussan Ley said meant “genuine patients are no longer treated as criminals”.

In response, New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria states are changing their regulations and trialling the drug on severely ill patients, with two states setting up cannabis farms.

The legislative shift is a vindication for people such as Aboriginal Australian Tony Bower, who has long given cannabis in oil and alcohol forms for free to parents of ill children after working out how to develop non-psychotropic medication from the plant.

“You can’t refuse people. I’m an indigenous Australian, it’s not in our culture,” Bower told AFP of why he continued to supply families despite the legal risks, which once saw him spend six weeks in jail.

Some 150 children are regular patients of Bower, and his drug is set to reach more people after Anthony Coffey’s Australian Organic Therapeutic firm obtained rights to it.

Coffey plans to sell the medicine at Aus$60 (US$44) per patient per month.

The budding industry has benefits beyond the medicinal, with hopes it could fuel “hemployment” in rural regions where jobless rates are higher, Nimbin-based HEMP (Help End Marijuana Prohibition) Party president Michael Balderstone said.

Coffey said his company has already attracted investment from China and the Middle East. Others are also looking to cash in on legal crops, with the University of Sydney estimating initial demand in Australia at more than Aus$100 million annually.

High-profile physician and drug reform advocate Alex Wodak told AFP there is growing evidence medicinal cannabis use can relieve symptoms in some severe cases such as the side-effects of cancer chemotherapy and chronic nerve damage pain.

A key factor slowing the pace of the so-called “green rush” is minimal trial data and the medical profession’s limited experience with a banned drug.

As such, side-effects and the long-term impact of therapeutic use are not fully known, with some doctors cautioning against making the herb legally available without completed trials and high quality control standards.

Many caregivers fear a legalised drug may arrive too late for their sick family members.

Cheri O’Connell, whose epileptic daughter and son are experiencing a new lease on life since taking medicinal cannabis, is calling for an amnesty from prosecution for all current users.

She is also worried government trials are being limited to certain types of cannabinoids that leave other products - such as the one her children use - outside the law.

“We’ve got something that works,” O’Connell told AFP. “Just because it’s cannabis doesn’t mean it’s all the same, there’s huge differences.”