World News

Katie Bouman: The woman behind the first black hole image

A 29-year-old computer scientist has earned plaudits worldwide for helping develop the algorithm that created the first-ever image of a black hole.

Katie Bouman led development of a computer program that made the breakthrough image possible.

The remarkable photo, showing a halo of dust and gas 500 million trillion km from Earth, was released on Wednesday.

For Dr Bouman, its creation was the realisation of an endeavour previously thought impossible.

Excitedly bracing herself for the groundbreaking moment, Dr Bouman was pictured loading the image on her laptop.

“Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed,” she wrote in the caption to the Facebook post.

She started making the algorithm three years ago while she was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

There, she led the project, assisted by a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the MIT Haystack Observatory.

The black hole image, captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) – a network of eight linked telescopes – was rendered by Dr Bouman’s algorithm.

“When we saw it for the first time, we were all in disbelief. It was quite spectacular,” she told BBC Radio 5 live.

“We got really lucky with the weather… We got lucky in so many ways.”

In the hours after the photo’s momentous release, Dr Bouman became an international sensation, with her name trending on Twitter.

Dr Bouman was also hailed by MIT and the Smithsonian on social media.

“3 years ago MIT grad student Katie Bouman led the creation of a new algorithm to produce the first-ever image of a black hole,” MIT’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab wrote. “Today, that image was released.”


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World News

US war veteran makes living from Facebook CEO Zuckerberg’s trash

The U.S. is home to seven of the top 10 richest people in the world – including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg – according to Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index. But it’s also home to over 550,000 homeless people, including trash pickers like Jake Orta.

Orta lives three blocks from Zuckerberg’s $10 million home in San Francisco, and he makes his living picking through the billionaire’s garbage, according to a story by British online newspaper the Independent.

Orta is a war veteran who became homeless but now lives in government-subsidized housing, making about $30 to $40 a week selling lightly used designer jeans, Nike running shoes or bicycles – whatever he can find in the trash discarded by the ultra-rich in Zuckerberg’s neighborhood.

The neighborhood is made up of homes worth at least $3 million, a sharp contrast to Orta’s single-window studio apartment nearby.

The 56-year-old considers himself a treasure-hunter, marveling at the costly items that get dumped in the trash bin.

“It just amazes me what people throw away. You never know what you will find,” he told a journalist from the Independent.

Last month, he found a discarded box of silver goblets, dishes and plates. Among other recent finds have been iPads, wristwatches, phones and marijuana – which he said he smoked.

Orta won’t sell his most prized find — an assemblage of newspapers from around the world recording the major events of World War II.

After saving trashed items from their fate in the landfill, Orta sells the goods at markets in the city. Men’s clothing sells the best, he said, as men seem to be less picky about where the clothes came from. Children’s toys are a hard sell, as parents are wary of toys that came from the garbage.

Trash picking is illegal in California, as the contents rolled out in trash bins belong to the garbage collection companies. But police rarely enforce this law.

While San Francisco has a thriving recycling program, the city also sees valuable goods regularly thrown in the trash by its burgeoning young, affluent population.

“We have a lot of trash of convenience,” Robert Reed, spokesman for Recology, told the Independent.

“You’ve got more and more tech people here, and this city is moving faster and faster. These people have short attention spans. Some discard items that ought to be repurposed through a thrift shop,” he said.

The trash picking profession exposes the extreme wealth gap in affluent U.S. cities, as the rich get richer and the poor take what they can get.

According to a new report by University of California at Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman, the top 0.1% of the U.S. population holds nearly 20% of the country’s wealth, while the top 10% owns more than 70% of the wealth.

In the past four decades, the share of the wealthiest 400 Americans has tripled, while the share of the bottom 60% has shrunk from 5.7% in 1987 to 2.1% in 2014, according to Fortune.

“The wealthy are becoming wealthier… and there’s good reason to think it’s happening at the expense of everyone else,” Christopher Ingraham from The Washington Post wrote in February.

World News

Albania airport heist: armed robbers steal €2.5m from Austrian Airlines plane

Albanian police have arrested four people and questioned 40 others after armed robbers stole millions of euros from an Austria Airlines aeroplane in a deadly heist.

Armed men broke onto the runway of Tirana airport on Tuesday and stole the money due to be transported to a bank in Vienna, police said.

Foreign banks operating in Albania send their hard currency to Vienna because Albania’s central bank does not accept such deposits.

The robbers entered the runway of the international Mother Teresa airport through a gate used by firefighters.
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Police said three armed robbers dressed in military fatigues showed up and threatened the employees handling luggage, eventually stealing the money.

One of the gunmen was killed in an exchange of fire with the police.

According to initial reports, the amount stolen was €2.5m ($2.8m), but local media claimed it could be a five times higher.

Austrian Airlines spokeswoman Tanja Gruber said the cash was being loaded when the robbery happened.

“Boarding had just taken place. There was never any danger for crew and passengers,” she said.

The plane’s departure was delayed by nearly three hours.

As a security measure, there will be no further cash transfers from Tirana to Vienna, she said.

Robbers have staged such heists at least two more times in last three years at the airport.

World News

An interview with Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellows, Emily Toner and Jen Guyton

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating members of the National Geographic community who are expanding the field for more women, like Explorers Emily Toner and Jen Guyton. While they’re both Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellows, they each take a different approach to storytelling: Emily is a writer focused on land (specifically, soil), while Jen is a photographer who works with wildlife. But when a travel snafu inspired Jen to visit Emily in Ireland, they stumbled into a story and knew they had to tell it together. We asked them to share their perspective on supporting each other in the field, including their advice for women pursuing a career in storytelling.

Tell us about your work!

Emily Toner:I explore the world with soil in mind, asking how soil has impacted culture and how communities are changing the land around them. Right now I am exploring Ireland with the question: How have bogs shaped Irish culture and how are the Irish impacting their bogs?

Jen Guyton: I’m a photographer, using my background in ecology to tell stories about the natural world and the people working to conserve it.

Since connecting through your fellowship, what have you been able to learn from each other?

Emily:I met Jen in July 2018 at our Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling fellowship orientation. Jen shares her experiences and knowledge in a way that allows others to benefit from what she has learned along the way. I also appreciate her focus and drive; Jen’s work ethic makes her a great collaborator.

Jen: I’ve learned so much from Emily about her current subject—peat bogs—but she’s taught me much more than just that. I love seeing the way Emily interacts with people and the way she approaches everything with curiosity and objectivity. Watching her at work has strengthened my own storytelling skills.

Further, as an early career storyteller who has mostly worked solo, it was enlightening for me to experience the power of working together with someone on a project. We were able to bring totally different skills and different perspectives to the work, which made the reporting so much stronger than it would have been if either of us had worked on it alone.

I’m really excited to continue collaborating on this project—and others—with Emily! I’m hugely grateful to her for opening up her story and her field site to me for this collaboration.

What inspired this collaboration?

Emily: Our shared curiosity to explore Ireland’s uniquely biodiverse and threatened landscape, the bog. One of the biggest things I learned from [working with Jen] is how much more can be accomplished working as a team as opposed to working alone, especially with motivated partners who have complimentary skills. I would go back out into the field with Jen anytime.

Jen: Both of us have an interest in the natural world, her through soil and me through wildlife. I was dying to know more about these peat bogs that Emily kept talking about, and I had some spare time thanks to visa delays in my host country. I decided to visit her, and maybe help out by providing some imagery that she could use for her stories. The exact story we ended up covering—snipe hawking, a form of falconry that takes place on the bogs—was total serendipity. We met one of Emily’s contacts for a rather uneventful walk on a bog, he asked if we wanted to come look at some falcons later that day, and that was that. We followed it where it took us, and spent the rest of the week working on that story. I wish we’d had much more time.
It’s so great to see two women supporting each other’s work. What challenges have you faced as a female in your field? What has helped you overcome those challenges?

Emily: Too often the leaders in a field of work, currently and historically, lack female representation. I have made a point to notice and engage with women in my areas of work, and to scrutinize where women aren’t represented, currently or historically. Role models have an important role all our lives, celebrating and learning from female role models, and realizing your own power to set an example, is important.

Jen: Science has shown that men are judged by their perceived potential, while women are judged by what they’ve already accomplished. We have to work harder to prove ourselves.

Overcoming that challenge requires acknowledging that reality, and then focusing on persevering at all costs. It’s not easy, but for me, failure doesn’t feel like an option—I can’t imagine being anything but a photographer.

What advice do you have for other women who are pursuing a career in storytelling?

Emily: Your perspective is valuable. If you are researching and telling a story where you feel at odds with the normal narrative, that does not mean you are out of place, it means your perspective is needed. Keep going, keep working hard, keep believing in yourself and support other women around you to do the same.

Jen: You have to develop a thick skin to break into this industry, no matter your gender. Don’t let rejection deter you. Have faith in yourself, cultivate fearlessness, and remember that a rejection is just one person’s opinion. Learn from it, and then move forward. When that feels difficult, reach out to other women in this industry—there’s a phenomenal support network among female storytellers.

Photo courtesy of Jen Guyton and Emily Toner.

World News

May’s position is looking shakier than ever as Brexit negotiations drag on

London (CNN)British Prime Minister Theresa May will face her fellow — for now — European Union leaders at a summit Wednesday with everyone around the table knowing she is running out of options on Brexit.
May was supposed to have come up with a credible alternative Brexit plan, that could be passed by her Parliament, to present at the summit in Brussels, yet talks with the UK opposition Labour Party on that new deal have failed to bear fruit.
It’s likely, then, that the summit will be difficult, but not a disaster for May. And yet even if she squeaks through it unscathed, the storm clouds are gathering back home.
Those talks with the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his allies are not just about window dressing, but a serious attempt by both parties to reach a consensus on Brexit. But they are in danger of coming to nothing because both sides remain far apart on issues like a permanent customs union between the UK and EU after Brexit.
The talks are scheduled to resume Thursday, but there is a sense in Westminster that because both parties remain far apart on the fundamentals the two sides are just going through the motions.
This sense is being picked up in Europe too, which is why EU leaders are pressing for a long delay to Brexit — of up to a year — because there is no quick deal in sight.

Party split

Of more urgent concern to May will be the mood of her Conservative Party.
There was a point, a week or so ago, when despite crushing parliamentary defeats on the prime minister’s original Brexit deal, Conservative Eurosceptic lawmakers were starting to weaken their opposition to May’s plan — in the interest of making sure Brexit happens and stopping Corbyn becoming prime minister.
Yet May’s decision to open up talks with the Labour leader have caused outrage inside her own government, ordinary Conservative lawmakers and grassroots activists. Now, the prospect of the EU imposing a lengthy delay to Brexit has only compounded that outrage.
Conservative lawmakers are starting to get restless, once again, about May’s ability to cling to power.
An ominous sign of this restlessness for the prime minister appeared in the House of Commons Tuesday, when more than half of Conservative members failed to support May on what should have been a straightforward vote to approve the PM’s request for a short extension to Brexit until June 30.
As May traveled to Berlin and Paris to appeal for support from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, 97 Conservative lawmakers voted against the short delay, and a further 80, including some ministers, abstained. The measure passed thanks to Labour support.
While May is protected from a vote of no confidence in her leadership by her own party until December — due to an official year-long period of grace following an unsuccessful bid to unseat her last Christmas — this is not stopping some Conservative Brexiteers from wanting her to renew their attempts to get rid of her and replace her with a tougher leader and prime minister who would be happy for the UK to leave the EU without a deal.

May to step down?

Last month, May signaled her intention to step down once Brexit takes place.
This position is too vague for the most rebellious of her own MPs. What’s more, May has already made clear she should not stay on as leader if Brexit slips beyond a June 30 timetable.
If EU leaders press for that longer delay, to the end of December or even March next year, the pressure on May to stand down will be immense.

First, she must get through this week’s summit. European Council president Donald Tusk, and a majority of EU leaders, are happy to give the UK its “flextension” — a flexible extension period which could be shortened if the Commons finally passes a deal.
A draft conclusion for EU leaders to back, circulated last night, states that the UK must act in a “constructive and responsible manner” during the delay period — in an attempt to prevent a more hardline future prime minister cutting up rough over Brexit.

But French President Macron is driving a harder bargain, insisting on tougher rules for the UK, including a review of its progress towards a Brexit deal every three months and relegating its membership status to “intermediate,” with few rights or influence.
May has a weak hand going into Wednesday’s summit — but every day longer the UK stays in the EU, the more unstable her position becomes back home.