The world’s top two economies together account for nearly half of the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.
The United States and China are “committed to cooperating” on the pressing issue of climate change, the two sides have said in a joint statement, following a visit to Shanghai by US climate envoy John Kerry.
“The United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,” said the statement from Kerry and China’s special envoy for climate change Xie Zhenhua.
Mr Kerry, the former US secretary of state, was the first official from President Joe Biden’s administration to visit China, signalling hopes the two sides could work together on the global challenge despite sky-high tensions on multiple other fronts.
The joint statement listed multiple avenues of cooperation between the United States and China, the world’s top two economies which together account for nearly half of the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.
It stressed “enhancing their respective actions and cooperating in multilateral processes, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement”.
Mr Biden has made climate a top priority, turning the page from his predecessor Donald Trump, who was closely aligned with the fossil fuel industry.
The US president has rejoined the 2015 Paris accord, which Mr Kerry negotiated when he was secretary of state and committed nations to taking action to keep temperature rises at no more than two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
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FILE PHOTO: U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price takes questions from reporters at the State Department in Washington, U.S., March 31, 2021. Carolyn Kaster/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
April 9, 2021
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department said on Friday it had issued new guidelines that will enable U.S. officials to meet more freely with officials from Taiwan.
“These new guidelines liberalize guidance on contacts with Taiwan, consistent with our unofficial relations,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in statement. The aim, he said, was “to encourage U.S. government engagement with Taiwan that reflects our deepening unofficial relationship.”
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Leslie Adler)
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We’ve all heard the adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” but new research from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh finds that it isn’t all about repetition. Rather, internal states like engagement can also have an impact on learning.
The collaborative research, published in Nature Neuroscience, examined how changes in internal states, such as arousal, attention, motivation, and engagement can affect the learning process using brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. Findings suggest that changes in internal states can systematically influence how behavior improves with learning, thus paving the way for more effective methods to teach people skills quickly, and to a higher level of proficiency.
Using a BCI learning paradigm, the researchers observed how neural activity changed, and the degree to which these changes were influenced by shifts in internal states, as subjects performed tasks by moving a cursor on a computer screen using only patterns of neural activity.
As the study unfolded, the team began to notice occasional large, abrupt fluctuations in neural population activity within the motor cortex. At first, they did not understand why this was happening, but over time, they came to realize that the fluctuations happened whenever the subject was surprised with a change in the task. (Changes ranged from brief pauses to perturbations of the BCI mapping.) At these moments, the subjects’ pupils dilated, suggesting that the abrupt fluctuation was the neural manifestation of an internal state, engagement.
“We weren’t looking for this particular effect in the neural data,” says Steve Chase, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon and the Neuroscience Institute. “The pupil diameter was tightly correlated with the engagement signal that we saw in the neural activity, and it seems to have a massive effect in the motor cortex.”
Ultimately, the research suggests that subjects’ level of engagement or attention can make things easier or harder to learn, depending on the context.
“You might have imagined that the brain would be set up with a clear segregation of functions, like motor areas to motor control, and emotional areas to emotional control, and sensory areas to sensory representation,” says Aaron Batista, professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. “What we’re finding is a serendipitous kind of intrusion of an internal state into a motor area. It could be that we can harness that signal to improve learning.”
The group’s work is ongoing and done in collaboration with the Center for Neural Basis of Cognition, a cross-university research and educational program between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh that leverages each institution’s strengths to investigate the cognitive and neural mechanisms that give rise to biological intelligence and behavior.
“One of the unique parts of our collaboration is how integrated we all have been throughout the entire project, from experimental design, to experimental conduction, to data analyses, and adopting; we’re all involved in all parts of that,” says Byron Yu, professor of biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon. “The findings here might one day help people learn everyday skills, such as math or dance, more quickly and to a higher level of proficiency.”
Materials provided by College of Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University. Original written by Sara Vaccar. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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IN THE PAST year pundits have closely tracked America’s “jobless claims” data, published every Thursday by the Department of Labour to show how many people are newly claiming unemployment insurance (UI). These data once provided invaluable insights: in 1995 Alan Greenspan, then chair of the Federal Reserve, personally intervened to ensure that they continued to be produced during a government shutdown. Yet in the current crisis more people are starting to realise their limitations.
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Somebody seeking UI benefits must file a claim with a state employment office. The claims data were useful early in the pandemic. They are published with a lag of only a few days, so gave an insight into the economic collapse of last March and April long before the monthly jobs report. In those two months claims data suggested that about 30m Americans had filed for UI—in line with later figures on job losses from the Bureau of Labour Statistics.
Yet in the past year more than 80m applications have been filed for state UI. Were all applications unique, the data would imply that 50% of American workers had lost their pre-pandemic job. Really? About 20m Americans remain on some form of UI, twice the number officially classified as unemployed. Initial claims for state UI have fallen from the heights of last spring, but even now over 700,000 claims are being filed each week, more than at the height of the financial crisis of 2007-09.
It is possible the claims data reveal that America’s labour market is doing far worse than other statistics show. More likely, the data themselves are flawed.
Why? Early in the crisis wonks warned that initial-claims data would run high long after actual job losses had fallen, because state UI offices were catching up on backlogged applications. A paper last year from the Federal Reserve said “errant claim duplication” may inflate official tallies. Some state offices have made it easier for people working reduced hours—rather than not at all—to claim UI. The government has also allowed more people, including the self-employed and gig-economy workers, to be eligible for payments. Another source of distortion could be widespread fraud.
No one knows the biggest reason why claims are so absurdly high. But this much is clear: to get the measure of America’s labour market, look elsewhere.
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Wild claims”
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J ONATHON ACOSTA wore a blazer with a guayabera, a traditional formal shirt in the Caribbean, on his first day as a senator in Rhode Island’s legislature. Since then he has worn informal attire, a better reflection, he says, of his mainly Latino constituents. He often wears knitted hats and cardigans. The only wardrobe rule said that people must be “properly dressed”. That changed on March 23rd, when the chamber passed a new dress code stipulating “proper and appropriate attire”, such as blouses and collared shirts with a jacket.
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Before the vote, during a lively debate last week in the Senate Rules Committee, Mr Acosta argued that the new rule “connotes white collar, white people”. He wasn’t elected to wear “a costume”, he was elected to legislate. Dominick Ruggerio, the Senate’s president, retorted that he found it offensive when people are not dressed appropriately. Cynthia Mendes, another senator, later observed that the new dress code appears at a moment when Rhode Island has more women and more minorities than ever.
Dress codes are often a reaction to diversity, says Richard Thompson Ford, author of “Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion made History”. Current trends are away from formality in the workplace; Mr Acosta’s wardrobe is similar to that of a Silicon Valley boss. At the same time, the number of dress codes adopted or enforced by schools has increased. Before the pandemic, reports of children being punished for their dreadlocks prompted Cory Booker, a black New Jersey senator, to introduce legislation banning race-based hair discrimination.
Not everyone sees the suit as oppressive. The Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee, a civil-rights group from the 1960s, wore their Sunday best for protests. It was a symbol of defiance. “The African-American in elegant attire was seen as a threat to white supremacy,” says Mr Thompson Ford.
Around two dozen other statehouses have some sort of dress code, as does Congress. Women have been told to cover up their bare arms in the chamber of the House. Some rules are unspoken. Sonia Sotomayor was reportedly advised to wear neutral nail polish to her confirmation hearings as a Supreme Court justice, to avoid scrutiny. After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore big gold hoops at her swearing-in ceremony to Congress in 2019, she tweeted: “Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a congresswoman.”
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “A coded message”
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IT HAS BEEN a bad year for government software. Early in the pandemic, unemployment-insurance systems failed, preventing many jobless from signing up for benefits. Glitchy vaccine-registration software in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida slowed roll-out. Deloitte, a consultancy, was paid more than $40m by the Centres for Disease Control to produce a buggy vaccine-data system. In February whistleblowers reported that prison-administration software was keeping inmates in Arizona locked up past their release dates.
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It is not simply that the pandemic has put a strain on harried government boffins: an oft-cited report by Standish Group, an advisory firm, found that only 13% of large government software projects succeed. The roll-out of America’s online health-care marketplace became a national joke. Hackers stole the records of more than 20m federal personnel. A pricey intelligence system was so awful that paratroopers in Afghanistan begged higher-ups to switch. Such foul-ups are the rule.
Procurement is the first problem. The way government agencies buy things is so complicated that only a few big companies understand the process. Some firms continue to get state and federal contracts even after delivering error-prone systems at fantastic cost. New York chose Xerox to modernise its Medicaid-claims system even though the company had already been sued by Alaska and Texas for allegedly botching similar efforts.
Poorly written contract solicitations make things worse. Requirements are often so restrictive that many eligible firms are instantly disqualified. Contracts may contain no provision for testing. Deloitte’s vaccine-management system might have benefited from more testing: it doesn’t work on some web browsers, and important buttons are hidden on a smartphone.
Many agencies lack the expertise to ensure that complex software projects run smoothly. A government report found that an opaque, drawn-out hiring process was a significant barrier to getting tech talent. Agencies can be penny-wise and pound-foolish, allocating plenty of money for tech contracts but not enough for the staff required to ensure projects are a success.
Bureaucracy doesn’t help. Staffers may want to take advantage of modern technology, but fear falling foul of old rules. During the pandemic, unemployment-insurance and vaccine-registration systems were crushed under the weight of traffic that would have been easily handled by cloud-computing infrastructure. Little thought goes into user experience. In 2018 the poor design of a software interface led a state employee to press the wrong button, issuing a warning that a ballistic missile was incoming to Hawaii residents, who scrambled to text goodbyes to loved ones.
Change is under way. After the failed roll-out of Healthcare.gov, the American government set up 18F, an internal technology consultancy that has created sleek new digital tools, and the US Digital Service (USDS), which deploys tech whizzes to multi-year “tours” in government. Technology Transformation Services, a unit dedicated to improving government tech, has created digital.gov, which provides resources to improve tech literacy across the government. USDS has pioneered SME-QA, a promising new way to hire software developers and other experts.
Mark Lerner, a civic-tech expert, advocates modular contracting—short, bite-sized contracts that are easy to replicate. Spreading tech know-how among contracting officers can stop government from buying lemons. “We need to be building systems”, says Amanda Miklik, a former USDS director of design, “to support contracting officers in being able to sniff out bullshit.” And civic-tech experts agree that government must take user research seriously: the goals of new software must be well defined before contracts are awarded.
A new opportunity arose on March 10th, when the House passed a $1.9trn stimulus package. The bill includes $1bn for the Technology Modernisation Fund (TMF), a vehicle intended to improve federal tech. The hefty sum, a 40-fold increase over TMF’s 2020 figure, is a signal that Congress and the Biden administration take IT modernisation seriously. But unless the government improves its ways, the money could all too easily be wasted. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Trying to get the hang of IT”
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PASTOR JOHN SMITH presides at the Olivet Baptist church, a towering and handsome structure in Bronzeville, on Chicago’s South Side. He tells a cracking tale of the 170-year history of the city’s oldest black Baptist church. Before the civil war it was part of the Underground Railroad, helping to smuggle escaped slaves to safety. In the Great Migration, a century ago, Olivet helped to attract and settle black families from the South who forged new lives in northern cities.
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The newly arrived routinely made their first stop at Olivet to collect food and clothes, and to learn about finding homes and jobs. The church bloomed as “the place you could go” to meet practical and social needs, not only spiritual ones. In effect it became America’s first megachurch by the late 1920s, with some 15,000 members.
Those new arrivals were registered as voters and African-Americans emerged as an influential bloc in city politics. “We have always been engaged in the struggle for the liberation of black people,” says Pastor Smith. His church still promotes a “social gospel”, seeking a real-world impact.
Olivet’s story reflects that of the black church as a whole. In a PBS television series devoted to the story of the church nationally, broadcast in February, Henry Louis Gates junior, a prominent intellectual, called it “the seminal force in shaping the history of African-Americans”. It did the most to spread literacy among black Americans, even during slavery. The first schools and universities for African-Americans in the South, which have since grown into the historically black colleges, were founded inside churches.
One of America’s first black congressmen, Richard Cain, was a minister in South Carolina, elected in 1872. Black consciousness grew in churches during the Jim Crow era, as ministers in Georgia in the 1890s declared God to be black. Many such churches were part of the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Raphael Warnock, who was elected in January in Georgia as the first black Democratic senator from the South, is the latest incarnation of a reverend-politician. His victory was aided heavily by church activists, especially women.
Yet the power of the church is waning. In the face of Black Lives Matter protests, it has floundered. Pastor Smith concedes he is still unsure how to respond to the street activists. Young African-Americans infuriated by police violence did not wait for a charismatic leader to come from a church, says Shayla Harris, a film-maker. Instead, “they take it on themselves”.
At Olivet interest in the church has been falling for years. Today Pastor Smith counts just 250 people as members, most of them elderly. And though he has taken to live-streaming services and has ginned up Olivet’s website and Facebook pages, he says that his church suffered “because it lost the young generation”.
This is true across much of the black church. The PBS series dwelt on a glorious history, but touched only briefly on the church’s more recent troubles. “The real question is does the church have a central role now?” says Ms Harris, who co-directed the documentary. She notes how the institution is increasingly fragmenting, it is “not a monolith”, and may better be talked about as a collection of many churches. Too many of these have failed women, who cannot “shatter the stained-glass ceiling”. They still fill pews and raise funds, but it is almost always “men in their 50s” who preside, complains Terri Laws, a scholar of the black church, based in Detroit.
A Pew Research Centre survey, published in February, found younger African-Americans ever less involved in churches. One in three black millennials (or younger) say they are not affiliated to any church, and around half of all black youngsters attend one rarely or never; among the oldest, only a quarter skip church. As for youngsters who still attend one, they are keener than their elders on multiracial congregations, not exclusively black ones. In time, even the idea of a black church may fade.
Ryan Burge, at Eastern Illinois University, tracks trends among atheists and the non-affiliated in “The Nones”, a new book. He says black millennials are following a path that white and other Americans already trod, but “there is more stigma for the black community in moving away.” Among young adults of all races, only 11% shunned church in the early 1980s; today the rate is nearly three times higher. Walter Fluker, at Emory University in Atlanta, says many black churches “have become haunted houses”, with leaders who are far too slow to respond to matters such as police violence or debates on gay rights.
The pandemic, Mr Fluker says, brought a moment for black churches to make themselves relevant again. Conservative church leaders badly failed to respond to the AIDS crisis from the 1980s onwards, which especially afflicted African-Americans. This time round the church has seen coronavirus especially hurt black people, who have been infected, hospitalised and killed at unusually high rates.
Some churches have taken again to the idea of a social gospel. “Covid created a wonderful opportunity,” says Pastor Smith, noting how Olivet tries to ease fear of vaccines by getting nurses to speak to his members. Church leaders, such as Al Sharpton, have lauded the safety of the vaccines in an effort—one that looks broadly successful—to reduce vaccine hesitancy among African-Americans. More such efforts to improve the lives of their followers would be a reminder that the churches are still a force to be reckoned with. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Haunted houses”
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Two people were tied up, tortured for hours, then locked inside a 2-metre metal toolbox, before being plunged into the depths of a murky Logan dam, south of Brisbane — where they would remain for 18 days.
The pair screamed and begged for their lives until they finally died in a “cold watery grave”.
This week, after five years, two full trials, and several other lengthy court proceedings, everyone who played a role in the murders of Iuliana Triscaru and Cory Breton, learned their punishment.
In 2016, desperate relatives of Ms Triscaru, 31, and Mr Breton, 28, made an appeal to the public, pleading for help to find their loved ones who had not been seen since January 24.
Less than a week later, police divers found their decomposing bodies inside a locked toolbox in Scrubby Creek.
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SC on Friday sought to know from a petitioner whether the state legislatures have the right to express their opinion or not on central laws
New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday sought to know from a petitioner-NGO whether the state legislatures have the right to express their opinion or not on central laws and asked it to do some more research on the subject.
The top court was hearing a PIL filed by an NGO challenging legislative competence of different State Assemblies in passing resolutions against central laws like the Citizenship Amendments Act (CAA) and the three farm laws saying it falls under the Union List of the Seventh Schedule.
The NGO has made the Centre and the Speakers of the Legislative Assemblies of Punjab, Rajasthan, Kerala and West Bengal party in the petition, saying the apex court is already seized of multiple petitions challenging these laws passed by Parliament.
A bench of Chief Justice Bobde and Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubr-amanian adjourned the hearing on the PIL after four weeks while observing, “We don’t want to create more problems than resolving the issue. We will see.”
During the hearing, senior advocate Soumya Chakraborty, appearing for NGO Samata Andolan Samiti said that the state Assemblies are incompetent to pass such resolutions against the central legislations.
The bench asked the council to show the resolutions he was objecting to.
Referring to CAA law and the Kerala Assembly resolution, Chakraborty said the state legislature said that central law was against the basic structure of the Constitution. “This is the opinion of majority of Kerala Assem-bly and this may not have the force of law. This is just an opinion. They have simply requested the Centre and sought repeal of the law. Do they have no right to express their opinion? They have not asked the people to disobey the Central law,” the bench observed.
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AS AN INDISPENSABLE fan of George W. Bush’s approach to India, Joe Biden, the then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said his “dream” was that by “2020 the two closest nations in the world will be India and United States.” For much of the intervening time they have looked more like two English-speaking nations separated by a strategic partnership.
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Mr Bush’s approach to India, which involved bringing its nuclear industry into the global fold, among other opportunities for co-operation, was based on its future potential to balance China, not its feebler present. Yet he often seemed to confuse the two. “The classic opportunity for our American farmers and entrepreneurs and small businesses…is there is a 300m-person market of middle-class citizens here in India!” he marvelled. It is a sentence that, 16 years on, still exaggerates the number of Indian consumers and their government’s willingness to let foreign firms near them.
Indian reticence has been a more serious speed-brake. Politically fractious and preternaturally suspicious of self-interested foreigners, India does not want to be part of anyone’s strategic calculations. It took Mr Bush’s counterpart, Manmohan Singh, a year and a confidence vote to get the nuclear component—a geopolitical gift-horse—through parliament. The last of four “foundational” defence agreements, precursors to the enhanced military and intelligence ties Mr Bush envisaged, was signed last October.
Yet notwithstanding the hobbling effects of these differences, rising concern about China on both sides has driven pretty steady progress. Barack Obama set aside concerns about Narendra Modi’s association with communal bloodshed to work with him on climate change, while dismantling barriers to military and other technology transfer. Donald Trump set the relationship into reverse on trade, immigration and education ties, yet pushed defence and intelligence ties even harder. India’s increasingly public receptiveness to that approach was apparent after America provided it with intelligence and cold-weather gear during clashes between Indian and Chinese border guards last year.
America has done less for some of its allies, a status India still recoils from, yet increasingly enjoys the benefits of. The inaugural summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a grouping of America, Australia, India and Japan, held on March 12th, illustrated this. It also highlighted the opportunity Mr Biden will have to deepen the relationship, and how he means to try.
Formed in 2004 to manage disaster relief after a tsunami, the “Quad” was repurposed by Dick Cheney as a military club, then abandoned in 2010 because Australia and India considered it too antagonistic to China. After years of creeping Chinese aggression, that is less of a worry in both countries, hence the Trump administration—to its credit—revived the group in 2017. It has since held ministerial meetings, and a joint naval exercise in 2020, before last week’s meeting signalled Mr Biden’s bigger plans for it.
The Trump administration toyed with an idea that the Quad might develop into an Asian NATO, underlining its emphasis upon security co-operation. By contrast, reviving American outreach on trade, immigration, public health, climate change and so forth is Mr Biden’s goal. The fact that the Quad summit concluded with the adoption of the group’s most concrete agenda since the tsunami, a plan to boost vaccine production and supplies for the region, was indicative of that. The idea is for America, Japan and Australia to provide cash to help India, which already makes 60% of the world’s vaccines, amp up production.
How much this might bother China, which once criticised the group as mere “sea-froth”, is open to question. Yet it suggests the Biden administration is serious about its stated intention to counter China through alliances, based on shared values, and that it sees the Quad and India as central to that. The group’s loose, voluntary design and adoption of an agenda that downplays China, while promoting Indian capability, also looks well-designed to bind India in. It caters to the country’s past insecurities and current ambitions, a useful combination.
The administration has similar plans for the bilateral relationship. It means to sustain the momentum its predecessor set on security: Lloyd Austin, the defence secretary, will visit Delhi this week. And it believes the Trump administration’s neglect of other sorts of co-operation provides a chance to make eye-catching progress. Mr Biden has already scrapped a Trump effort to restrict the number of foreign—including Indian—students.
This will not all go smoothly: the broadening of the relationship will uncover as much residual tension as opportunity. India is unlikely to become less protectionist even if America does. The recent defence co-operation is belied by India’s unimpressive efforts to modernise its antiquated forces and attachment to cheap Russian kit. Its scheduled receipt of a Russian air-defence system later this year, for which it will be liable for American sanctions, is already causing headaches. A new report by the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, suggests such frictions could induce an American rethink: “A chorus of voices in Washington…have begun more vocally expressing anxieties about whether the value and sustainability of US engagement with India has been oversold.”
Sino the times
There is little doubt that the relationship has been oversold in the past—including by Mr Biden. Yet his administration’s early work on it has provided a context in which the inevitable frictions should be understood. In Tony Blinken at the State Department and Jake Sullivan at the National Security Council, as well as Mr Biden himself, the administration already has more experience of dealing with India than any of its predecessors. And it has made elevating US-India relations central to its plans. As China looms ever larger for both countries, the relationship has never looked more important or robust. ■
See also: We are tracking the Biden administration’s progress in its first 100 days
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Joe Biden’s passage to India”
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