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 Matthew 24:42  “Therefore be on alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming!"

 

 

China Passes Sweeping Hong Kong Security Law, Heralding Authoritarian Era

Beijing on Tuesday unveiled new national security laws for Hong Kong that will punish crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, heralding a more authoritarian era for China's freest city. As the law came into force, authorities were set to throw a security blanket across the heart of the city's financial centre on Wednesday after activists vowed to defy a police ban and rally against the measures.

 

Local media said up to 4,000 officers would be deployed to stamp out any protests. China's parliament passed the detailed legislation earlier on Tuesday, giving Beijing sweeping powers and setting the stage for radical changes to the global financial hub's way of life. Beijing had kept full details shrouded in secrecy, giving Hong Kong's 7.5 million people no time to digest the complex legislation before it entered into force at 11 p.m. (1500 GMT) on June 30. The timing was seen as a symbolic humiliation for Britain, coming just an hour before the 23rd anniversary of when Hong Kong's last colonial governor, Chris Patten, a staunch critic of the law, tearfully handed back Hong Kong to Chinese rule.

 

Amid fears the law will crush the city's freedoms, prominent activist Joshua Wong's Demosisto and other pro-democracy groups said they would dissolve. "The punitive elements of the law are stupefying," Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong's law school and a barrister, told Reuters.

"Let us hope no one tries to test this law, for the consequences to the individual and the legal system will be irreparable." The legislation pushes Beijing further along a collision course with the United States, Britain and other Western governments, which have said it erodes the high degree of autonomy the city was granted at its July 1, 1997, handover.

 

Britain and some two dozen Western countries urged China to reconsider the law, saying Beijing must preserve the right to assembly and free press. "The United States will not stand idly by while China swallows Hong Kong into its authoritarian maw," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

He said the United States would stand with the people of Hong Kong and "respond to Beijing's attacks on freedoms of speech, the press, and assembly, as well as the rule of law."

 

Washington, already in dispute with China over trade, the South China Sea and the coronavirus, began eliminating Hong Kong's special status under U.S. law on Monday, halting defence exports and restricting technology access. China, which has rejected criticism of the law by Britain, the European Union, Japan, Taiwan and others, said it would retaliate.

 

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, in a video message to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, urged the international community to "respect our country's right to safeguard national security".

She said the law would not undermine the city's autonomy or its independent judiciary.

Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a few "troublemakers" and will not affect rights and freedoms, nor investor interests.

 

As the law was passed in Beijing, the Chinese People's Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong held a drill which included exercises to stop suspicious vessels and arrest fugitives, according to the Weibo social media account of state-run CCTV's military channel.

From "Reuters"

 

 

 

 

Europe Should Brace For a Reality in Which U.S. Is No Longer a World Power

The US may voluntarily relinquish its status as a world power and Europeans must brace themselves for such a contingency, including by boosting their militaries, the German chancellor has warned.

 

European nations need "to carry more of the burden than during the cold war" in terms of defense spending, Merkel said, because they cannot assume that the US will be there to protect them.

 

"We grew up in the certain knowledge that the United States wanted to be a world power. Should the US now wish to withdraw from that role of its own free will, we would have to reflect on that very deeply," she said, in an interview published in six European newspapers.

 

The German leader stopped short of advocating a joint EU military force, the idea favored by French President Emmanuel Macron. She said she saw the value of NATO capabilities, including the shared nuclear umbrella, in a world of the rising Asian powers China and India.

 

The French leader has a much more skeptical attitude towards the transatlantic defense bloc. Last year he said NATO was "brain dead."

 

Merkel lamented the increasing selfishness of nations today, which, she said, contrasts with the unified multilateral response to the 2008 financial crisis. "These days, we have to do all we can to stop ourselves collapsing into protectionism," she said.

 

Protectionist approaches are at the core of the Trump administration's foreign policy. Under Trump, Washington pushed for the renegotiation of trade deals that the US president saw as unfavorable to his country. He also dialed up to 11 the criticism of European NATO members like Germany, which fail to meet their military spending obligations, calling them freeloaders. And his administration has made confrontation with China on all fronts a priority, ramping up the pressure on third nations to scare them away from cooperating with Beijing.

 

Speaking about China, Merkel said its rise "shows that even an undemocratic state can be economically successful, which is a major challenge for our liberal democracies." This example and other post-cold war developments, from the emergence of the Islamist terrorist threat to the disappointing results of the Arab Spring, are a matter of grave concern for believers in liberal causes like herself.

 

But Merkel seems reluctant to join the US and go for a major confrontation with China, saying Beijing's new-found power is a reality that other nations have to learn to live with.

 

"China has become a global player. That makes us partners in economic cooperation and combating climate change, but also competitors with very different political systems," she said.

 

The same is true for Russia, the country that the US sees as its other strategic rival. Berlin needs to remain engaged with Moscow despite all issues in their bilateral relations.

"In countries like Syria and Libya, countries in Europe's immediate neighbourhood, Russia's strategic influence is great," Merkel explained.

"I will therefore continue to strive for cooperation."

 


From "Russia Today"

Fed Puts Restrictions on Bank Dividends After Test Finds Some Banks Could Be Stressed in Pandemic

The Federal Reserve put new restrictions on the U.S. banking industry Thursday after its annual stress test found that several banks could get uncomfortably close to minimum capital levels in scenarios tied to the coronavirus pandemic. The Fed said in a release that big banks will be required to suspend share buybacks and cap dividend payments at their current level for the third quarter of this year. The regulator also said that it would only allow dividends to be paid based on a formula tied to a bank's recent earnings.

Furthermore, the industry will be subject to ongoing scrutiny: For the first time in the decade-long history of the stress test, banks will have to resubmit their payout plans again later this year, and restrictions on payouts could remain in effect. They may have to repeat this cycle every quarter, the regulator said. Bank stocks slumped after the close of regular trading in New York. Shares of Wells Fargo, which had climbed during the day, gave back some of those gains, falling 3.3%. Goldman Sachs slumped 3.9%. JPMorgan Chase dropped 1.9%. 

"While I expect banks will continue to manage their capital actions and liquidity risk prudently, and in support of the real economy, there is material uncertainty about the trajectory for the economic recovery," Fed Vice Chair Randall Quarles said in a statement. "As a result, the Board is taking action to assess banks' conditions more intensively and to require the largest banks to adopt prudent measures to preserve capital in the coming months." The move signals that the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus pandemic, and the difficulty in forecasting what the future holds for banks, is making the Fed cautious. Regulators and the industry are keen to avoid the mistakes of the previous crisis, where firms made billions of dollars in payouts only to have to raise capital later. The biggest U.S. banks already said in March that they would voluntarily suspend share repurchases, which make up roughly 70% of capital payouts for the industry.

What remained were the dividends, which bank analysts have mostly assumed would remain at their current levels - with the exception of Wells Fargo, which is struggling to restore profits after its fake accounts scandal. Still, options market traders have bet that banks would be forced to cut dividends, even at JPMorgan, the biggest and most profitable of the megabanks. "These companies are effectively nationalized," David Ellison, a portfolio manager at Hennessy Funds, said in a CNBC interview. "It sounds like buybacks aren't going to come back for a long time, and the dividends are going to be subject to what the Fed believes the economy looks like." The banks are expected to disclose their capital plans, and whether they actually maintain their current dividend payouts, on Monday, June 29.

Still, it appears that the industry dodged a bullet: Fed Governor Lael Brainard said in a separate statement that she supported a blanket suspension of all payouts for the industry. Doing so would "create a level playing field and allow all banks to preserve capital without suffering a competitive disadvantage relative to their peers," she said. On top of the Fed's typical test, which examines how lenders fare during a severe economic downturn, the regulator looked at three scenarios tied to the current pandemic: A V-shaped recession and recovery, a slower U-shaped outlook, and a W-shaped scenario that would include a double-dip recession. Since the real economic fallout from the pandemic already exceeds the typical severe economic downturn from previous exams, it is these three scenarios that garner the most interest from bank analysts and investors. While the Fed was careful to say that the scenarios are not predictions of what will actually happen, they do hew closely to what bank executives have said could be the course of the economy: Unemployment would peak at up to 19.5%.

From "CNBC"

 

The Decline of the U.S. Dollar Could Happen at ‘Warp Speed' in the Era of Coronavirus, Warns Prominent Economist Stephen Roach

Stephen Roach, a Yale University senior fellow and former Morgan Stanley Asia chairman, tells MarketWatch that his forecast for a sharp deterioration of the U.S. dollar could be a very near-term phenomenon, not an event that looms off in the distance. "I do think it's something that happens sooner rather than later," the economist told MarketWatch during a Monday-afternoon interview. His comments come as the financial expert has been warning for weeks of an epic downturn of the buck that could signal the end of the hegemony of the greenback as a reserve currency - an event that would ripple through global financial markets.

"In a COVID era everything unfolds at warp speed," Roach told MarketWatch on Monday. He pointed to the contraction of the U.S. economy from an employment rate that was hovering around a 50-year low at around 3.5% near the start of 2020 to one that shows some 49 million people unemployed since the pandemic took hold in March. He also noted the rapid and unprecedented fiscal and monetary response that has ballooned the Federal Reserve's balance sheet to more than $7.2 trillion from $4 trillion at the start of the year as examples of the celerity at which the currency market could change.

Roach is calling for the dollar to soon decline 35% against its major rivals, citing increases in the nation's deficit and dwindling savings. "This massive shift to fiscal stimulus is going to blow out the national savings rates and the current-account deficit," he told MarketWatch, reiterating comments he has previously made in interviews and in an op-ed that published by Bloomberg News on June 14.

Last week, the U.S. current-account deficit, a measure of the nation's debt to other countries, slipped 0.1% in the first quarter, falling to $104.2 billion from a revised $104.3 billion in the 2019 fourth quarter. The current account reveals if a country is a net lender or debtor. Roach said that his recent warnings about the dollar have garnered intense and emotional responses from readers and critics, because he believes that the U.S. is at a particularly sensitive time in history.

He said the racial upheaval - sparked by the death of George Floyd - the pandemic and the intensity of the presidential election have combined to elicit powerful responses from readers that he hasn't gotten since his days writing financial commentary at Morgan Stanley. He said during this time you're going to get "hair-trigger responses" from people. "We're at a critical point in the political cycle and the dollar is a relative price, so you're making a comparison to the United States and other countries and there are just really strong views against the analysts that" call into question U.S. dominance, he explained.

Asked if investors should be fearful of a downturn of the dollar, Roach said that this wouldn't be the first time the dollar has slumped meaningfully, and that "fear is a question of context." Fear may be justified "if they are unprepared and not hedged and have not thought about what some of the options are take advantage," he said, pointing to the euro as a possible alternative to dollars for currency buyers. In the past, he has said that China's yuan USDCNY, +0.00% CNHUSD, -0.06 may be viewed as increasingly appealing to investors, but that view is contingent on China following through with structural reforms the country is undergoing from a manufacturing-heavy economy to one focused more on services. 

From "MarketWatch"

Kim Jong Un Has Quietly Built a 7,000 Man Cyber Army That Gives North Korea An Edge Nuclear Weapons Don't

North Korea's state-sponsored hack of Sony Pictures in 2014 over the movie "The Interview" was highly embarrassing for Sony. But it was just the tip of the iceberg, according to Daniel Russel, vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute. Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, spoke with Insider recently about the threat of North Korea's hacker army, how it supports North Korea's nuclear program, and what the future holds if the US doesn't take this threat seriously.

North Korea has been cultivating and has been investing in an elite cyber force under the control of its military, the Korean People's Army and the Reconnaissance General Bureau - Kim Jong Un's clandestine security apparatus. It's estimated to comprise about 7,000 people who are trained pretty extensively, both in specialized domestic programs in North Korea, including in parts of their universities. In other cases, they then seem to receive training in China or in Russia. Quite a few of them are dispersed through China, Russia, and some in India. They use other countries as a platform and for conducting their various cyber activities because North Korea has pretty much air-gapped its own internal internet or intranet system, both to prevent North Koreans accessing information from the rest of the world, but more importantly to prevent the rest of the world from getting in.

That makes it very hard to get a definitive attribution that the attack originated in North Korea and raises the risk that China or Russia will get the blame. It also makes it harder for services in countries like the US to retaliate because you're running the risk of retaliating against China or Russia for something that's actually masterminded and executed by the North Koreans. These companies issue an annual worldwide cyber-threat report. They track all of these various major hacking operations and rank them. They call them advanced persistent threats, APT. North Korea is the host of something they call APT38 - or the Lazarus Group, Guardians of Peace, or Hidden Cobra. These are sort of code names. APT38 is number one on their list of worldwide cyber threats.

In some cases North Korea directly claimed credit for a cyberattack. Beyond that, Kim Jong Un and the Korean Workers' Party have been speaking increasingly in a very open and direct way about its cyber capability. They use the same vocabulary now for cyber as for their nuclear weapons. They call it "an all-purpose sword that guarantees our capability to strike relentlessly."

One important use of cyber for North Korea is to steal secrets. CrowdStrike has done a lot of documenting this, but it's the US government and foreign governments that are paying super-close attention to this. In 2016, APT38 stole about 40,000 defense documents from South Korean contractors with information on F-16 fighters and drones. North Korea is also believed to have stolen a PowerPoint summary of the US military's top-secret operation plan, called Op Plan 5027, which is the war plan for the United States.

Second is the cyber theft category. In March, the Department of Justice unsealed indictments accusing some Chinese and North Korean nationals of laundering $100 million for North Korean nuclear activities. This indictment makes clear that the money these people laundered was part of a $250 million theft by North Korea in a cyberattack on a global cryptocurrency exchange. So this isn't just imaginary stuff.

From "Business Insider"

  

Land of the Worried: 83% of Americans Very Stressed Over Nation's Future

The year 2020 feels like a crossroads for the United States. With a pivotal election just around the corner, protests in the streets, and a deadly virus that refuses to disappear, our nation hasn't felt this vulnerable and divided in ages. You don't have to be genius or a scientist to guess that Americans are probably feeling on edge these days. The results of a new piece of research from the American Psychological Association reveals the shocking extent of that stress.

Across two polls, more than 5,000 adult U.S. residents were recently surveyed on the state of America right now. A staggering 83% say that worrying about the future of the United States is a big source of personal stress. Also, 72% believe this is the lowest point in the country's history that they've ever been alive to see.

"We are experiencing the collision of three national crises - the COVID-19 pandemic, economic turmoil and recent, traumatic events related to systemic racism. As a result, the collective mental health of the American public has endured one devastating blow after another, the long-term effects of which many people will struggle with for years to come," says Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, APA's chief executive officer, in a release. "We don't have to be passive players in mitigating the rapidly increasing stress Americans are facing and its consequences on our health."


From "Study Finds"

Fear, Isolation, Depression:  The Mental Health Fallout of a Worldwide Pandemic

At Provident Behavioral Health in St. Louis, people who called the helpline at the beginning of the pandemic were fearful, even panicked. "Nearly everyone expressed fear. Fear of catching the virus, fear of the future, fear of the unknown and fear of not knowing how to cope with their feelings," said Jessica Vance, who manages the Disaster Distress Helpline at Provident. Now people's calls and texts, which have leveled off in the past couple of weeks, are more about their isolation and depression.

Nationwide, mental health call and text centers, the first lines of defense for many people feeling jittery during a crisis, offer an early picture of how Americans are coping with the coronavirus pandemic. Many crisis centers are reporting 30% to 40% increases in the number of people seeking help. The helpline at Provident is experiencing a tenfold increase compared with this time last year, when no national disaster was occurring. So far, the nation's most heavily used helpline, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, has not seen a spike in call volume. 

But mental health experts predict an avalanche of mental health needs as the pandemic progresses. Ultimately, the psychological impact of the pandemic will harm far more people than the virus itself. And the widespread emotional trauma it's evoking will be long lasting, experts say. Already, more than 4 in 10 Americans say that stress related to the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health, according to an April poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. "There's no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic will be the most psychologically toxic disaster in anyone's lifetime," said George Everly, who teaches disaster mental health and human resilience at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "This pandemic is a disaster of uncertainty," he explained, "and the greater the uncertainty surrounding a disaster, the greater the psychological casualties."

From Pew Trust.org

As Many As 25,000 U.S. Stores May Close in 2020, Mostly in Malls

As many as 25,000 U.S. stores could close permanently this year after the coronavirus pandemic devastated an industry where many mall-based retailers were already struggling. The number would shatter the record set in 2019, when more than 9,800 stores closed their doors for good, according to a report from retail and tech data firm Coresight Research.

Most of the closures are expected to occur in malls, with department stores and clothing shops predicted to be among the hardest hit. "If the anchor tenants close stores in the mall, other tenants are likely to follow suit," Coresight Chief Executive Officer Deborah Weinswig said in the report, which put the expected range at 20,000 to 25,000. "Department and large apparel-chain store closures in malls will therefore create a ripple effect that spells bad news for malls."

The U.S. has the most retail selling space per capita of any country and the lowest sales per square feet, according to commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield. Most retailers have been reluctant to shrink their store networks, but the pandemic has forced many to rewrite their playbooks.

American retailers went dark in mid-March in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, and -- even though states are now beginning to ease restrictions -- many shops are still shuttered or only providing limited service. As of June 5, retailers have planned about 4,000 permanent store closures, including hundreds by J.C. Penney, Victoria's Secret and Pier 1 Imports. In March, before the extent and duration of the virus lockdown was clear, Coresight estimated that about 15,000 stores would shutter in 2020.

Alongside the closures, the firm expects to see another spate of bankruptcies as debt-laden retailers are pushed over the edge. Fifteen major retailers have already filed this year.

From "Bloomberg"

Political Polarization Peaking in America? Voters Embrace ‘All or Nothing' Mentality Along Party Lines

You don't need a study or headline to know that America feels incredibly divided right now. That being said, a new study from Penn State suggests that U.S. political polarization isn't just getting stronger or more intense; it's also spreading and encompassing more seemingly unconnected issues, and some topics that aren't even political.

Essentially, party lines and stances on one issue are becoming increasingly correlated. For example, a few years ago two people may have disagreed on abortion rights, but would have found common ground regarding taxes or gun laws. Now, however, politics have turned into much more of an "all or nothing" game. If two people can't agree on one issue, they've never been more likely to disagree on all issues.

"This study represents a different structural element of polarization, which is how different opinions and beliefs are related to one another in the population at large," says study author Daniel DellaPosta, assistant professor of sociology and social data analytics at PSU, in a release." This builds on a long line of work, often called opinion alignment."

DellaPosta's analysis of a national opinion survey also revealed that less and less Americans hold opinions that both liberals and conservatives can conceivably agree on. Everyone is moving toward the more extreme ends of the political spectrum; there is less room for compromise.

 

 

"People who have studied polarization in the past have often concluded that polarization has increased in some ways, but it is not occurring in the opinions in the population as a whole - and that's been a somewhat comforting thought," he explains. "In a sense, this study provides a less hopeful conclusion because it suggests that it's not just that, for example, political parties have become more extreme, but that polarization has happened in the population itself."

All in all, the study's authors say their results paint a picture of a nation falling further and further into political division. "Political divisions have become broader and it seems that these divisions have come to incorporate much more and include opinions that were once not involved," DellaPosta adds.

Dellaposta uses the analogy of a fence versus an oil spill to articulate the difference between what's happening today and polarization in the past. Years ago, people may be on "different sides of the fence" when it comes to a political issue, but now all the issues are seeping into one another and becoming interconnected.

"I think of that average opinion alignment as a fence - the divisions are there, but they're not moving," he says. "In an oil spill division, it's not just that the previously existing division is getting stronger, it's that other opinions that weren't even part of those division to begin with are getting drawn in."This is perhaps most obvious when we observe how completely non-political subjects and topics have taken on a partisan slant.

"You may have heard politicians referring to ‘latte-drinking liberals,' for example, which captures the idea of the oil spill," DellaPosta notes. "Why should something like drinking a latte become associated with your political ideology? Or, if someone goes to a football game and sees a bunch of trucks in the parking lot with U.S. President Donald Trump bumper stickers and that becomes internalized to suggest that liking football means fans support Trump. That's another way that things that previously weren't political suddenly get sucked into this matrix of political identity."

Researchers used data originally collected by the University of Chicago between 1972 and 2016 to conduct this study. Using all that information a network model was created similar to how sociologists track social networks and connections between people. Nearly 15,000 pairs of opinions were included.

The study is published in the American Sociological Review.

From "Study Finds"

 

A Crash in the Dollar Is Coming


Already stressed by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, U.S. living standards are about to be squeezed as never before. At the same time, the world is having serious doubts about the once widely accepted presumption of American exceptionalism. Currencies set the equilibrium between these two forces - domestic economic fundamentals and foreign perceptions of a nation's strength or weakness. The balance is shifting, and a crash in the dollar could well be in the offing.


From "Yahoo/Bloomberg"

Global Experts Go Head-To-Head Over Claims the Coronavirus ‘ No Longer Exists Clinically'

A very public dispute has broken out between some of Italy's, and the world's, most high-profile doctors after one expert claimed the coronavirus "no longer exists clinically." Dr. Alberto Zangrillo, the head of intensive care at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan in Lombardy (the epicenter of Italy's coronavirus outbreak), caused a stir on Sunday by telling Italian media that a study by his colleague had shown that the virus was losing its potency. Zangrillo, who is well-known for being the personal doctor of Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said the study showed the virus was weakening and that, "in reality, from the clinical point of view, the virus no longer exists." "The swabs that were performed over the last 10 days showed a viral load in quantitative terms that was absolutely infinitesimal compared to the ones carried out on patients a month or two ago," he told RAI television Sunday, citing a study from Massimo Clementi, director of the Microbiology and Virology Laboratory at the San Raffaele hospital, that is reportedly due to be published shortly. The comments prompted a swift rebuke from Franco Locatelli, the head of Italy's top health advisory body, the supreme health council.

"I can only express great surprise and absolute bewilderment for the statements made by Professor Zangrillo. Just look at the number of new cases confirmed every day to have evidence of the persistent circulation of the virus in Italy," Italian news agency ANSA reported Monday. The controversy over the comments comes at a delicate time for Italy, where Europe's coronavirus outbreak was first detected back in February. Lockdown measures are being lifted throughout the country with much of public life reopened. On Wednesday, inter-regional travel will be allowed to resume. To date, Italy has reported 233,197 confirmed cases of the virus and 33,475 deaths. Globally, the virus has infected more than 6.2 million people and at least 375,000 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The government waded in to the argument on Monday, with one official stating that Zangrillo's comments were dangerous at a time when caution is crucial. "Pending scientific evidence to support the thesis that the virus has disappeared ... I would invite those who say they are sure of it not to confuse Italians," Sandra Zampa, an undersecretary at the health ministry, said in a statement, Reuters reported. "When we are about to open travel between regions and return to a life as normal as possible ... we must invite the Italians to be extremely careful," she said.

The World Health Organization also warned Monday that the virus had not suddenly become less lethal. "This is still a killer virus," Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO's health emergencies program, told a virtual press briefing on Monday. "We need to be exceptionally careful not to create a sense that, all of a sudden, the virus, by its own volition, has now decided to be less pathogenic. That is not the case at all." Ryan said the WHO would need to look at the findings in more detail and said the results, and severity of illness, could be determined by an individual's level of exposure to the virus. "It may not be the case that the virus is becoming less potent, it may be the case that we are, as a community and as a globe, are successfully reducing the number, intensity and frequency of exposure to that virus, which then on the face of it, then looks weaker." Zangrillo is not the only doctor to believe that the virus is weakening, however.

Matteo Bassetti, the director of the infectious diseases clinic of the San Martino hospital in Genoa also said Monday that the virus is no longer the same, based on his experience. The virus "may now be different: the firepower it had two months ago is not the same firepower it has today," he said, ANSA reported.

"Currently the new coronavirus is circulating less, that is, the viral load in circulation among the population has diminished and this is the effect of both the lockdown and the measures still in place such as use of the masks and distancing."

 

More Than 50 Secret Service Agents Are Injured in Clashes Outside the White House

Chaos has continued to unfold in cities across America with more than 50 Secret Service agents injured in clashes with protesters in Washington DC, police charging into demonstrators in New York City and lootings continuing to unfold in major cities like California, Philadelphia and Boston. Demonstrations from Washington DC to Los Angeles swelled from peaceful protests - sparked by the death of a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis police custody last Monday - into scenes of violence that drew National Guard troops in at least 15 states and Washington. 

More than 4,100 people were arrested this weekend alone as the violence continued to escalate and cities enacted strict curfews. The threat of heavy officer presence didn't deter protesters from lighting fires just mere feet from the White House, crowds raiding high-end stores in New York and San Francisco or hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at police in Philadelphia. Police fired tear gas and stun grenades outside the White House late Sunday as fires were set in the historic St. John's Episcopal Church and Lafayette Park in front of the White House. In some cities, thieves smashed their way into stores and ran off with as much as they could carry, leaving shop owners, many of them just ramping up their business again after coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, to clean up their shattered storefronts. 

Protests have unfolded in at least 145 cities across the country over the past week as people gather in outrage over the horrifying death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed while in the custody of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Memorial Day. The demonstrations have marked unparalleled civil unrest in the US that hasn't been seen since the 1968 assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Donald Trump spent Sunday berating his enemies on Twitter and demanding 'law and order' in Democratic-run cities but did not appear in public and opted against making a televised address to calm tensions. It has since emerged that Trump was rushed by Secret Service agents to a White House bunker on Friday night as hundreds of protesters gathered outside. At least 40 cities have imposed curfews - the most since the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968 - in light of the riots and violence and National Guard members have been activated in 15 states and Washington, DC. Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said on Monday that some of the protesters that terrorized the city overnight had come prepared with tools and supplies. She said they set fires to try and draw police away. 'We recognize that people are frustrated and mad but tearing up our beautiful city is not the way to bring attention to what is a righteous cause,' Bowser told NBC's Today. She said the city was 'prepared for multiple days of demonstration' and officials were working with intelligence to determine who was coming. 

In Washington DC, fury erupted even as the hour of an 11pm curfew neared and as police fired tear gas and pepper spray amid blazes in the capital. On Sunday alone more than 50 Secret Service officers were injured so far, a senior official said to Fox News, after rioters threw bottles and Molotov cocktails at them. People were seen throwing branches and fireworks into the fires as police advanced forward in a line in a bid to push back the crowds to send people home. Before the blaze at St John's Episcopal Church broke out, church officials said they were thankful that the church wasn't hit by protests the day before. The fire was set shortly after 11pm. 'We are fortunate that the damage to the buildings is limited,' Rev. Rob Fischer, the rector of the church, said earlier on Sunday. He said that that same morning church officials had secured its valuables.

Deepfakes Are To Going To Wreak Havoc On Society. We Are Not Prepared

 Last month during ESPN's hit documentary series The Last Dance, State Farm debuted a TV commercial that has become one of the most widely discussed ads in recent memory. It appeared to show footage from 1998 of an ESPN analyst making shockingly accurate predictions about the year 2020. As it turned out, the clip was not genuine: it was generated using cutting-edge AI. The commercial surprised, amused and delighted viewers. What viewers should have felt, though, was deep concern. The State Farm ad was a benign example of an important and dangerous new phenomenon in AI: deepfakes. Deepfake technology enables anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to create realistic-looking photos and videos of people saying and doing things that they did not actually say or do.

A combination of the phrases "deep learning" and "fake", deepfakes first emerged on the Internet in late 2017, powered by an innovative new deep learning method known as generative adversarial networks (GANs).Several deepfake videos have gone viral recently, giving millions around the world their first taste of this new technology: President Obama using an expletive to describe President Trump, Mark Zuckerberg admitting that Facebook's true goal is to manipulate and exploit its users, Bill Hader morphing into Al Pacino on a late-night talk show. The amount of deepfake content online is growing at a rapid rate. At the beginning of 2019 there were 7,964 deepfake videos online, according to a report from startup Deeptrace; just nine months later, that figure had jumped to 14,678. It has no doubt continued to balloon since then.

While impressive, today's deepfake technology is still not quite to parity with authentic video footage-by looking closely, it is typically possible to tell that a video is a deepfake. But the technology is improving at a breathtaking pace. Experts predict that deepfakes will be indistinguishable from real images before long. "In January 2019, deep fakes were buggy and flickery," said Hany Farid, a UC Berkeley professor and deepfake expert. "Nine months later, I've never seen anything like how fast they're going. This is the tip of the iceberg." Today we stand at an inflection point. In the months and years ahead, deepfakes threaten to grow from an Internet oddity to a widely destructive political and social force. Society needs to act now to prepare itself.

The first use case to which deepfake technology has been widely applied-as is often the case with new technologies-is pornography. As of September 2019, 96% of deepfake videos online were pornographic, according to the Deeptrace report. A handful of websites dedicated specifically to deepfake pornography have emerged, collectively garnering hundreds of millions of views over the past two years. Deepfake pornography is almost always non-consensual, involving the artificial synthesis of explicit videos that feature famous celebrities or personal contacts. From these dark corners of the web, the use of deepfakes has begun to spread to the political sphere, where the potential for mayhem is even greater. It does not require much imagination to grasp the harm that could be done if entire populations can be shown fabricated videos that they believe are real. Imagine deepfake footage of a politician engaging in bribery or sexual assault right before an election; or of U.S. soldiers committing atrocities against civilians overseas; or of President Trump declaring the launch of nuclear weapons against North Korea. In a world where even some uncertainty exists as to whether such clips are authentic, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Because of the technology's widespread accessibility, such footage could be created by anyone: state-sponsored actors, political groups, lone individuals. In a recent report, The Brookings Institution grimly summed up the range of political and social dangers that deepfakes pose: "distorting democratic discourse; manipulating elections; eroding trust in institutions; weakening journalism; exacerbating social divisions; undermining public safety; and inflicting hard-to-repair damage on the reputation of prominent individuals, including elected officials and candidates for office." Given the stakes, U.S. lawmakers have begun to pay attention. "In the old days, if you wanted to threaten the United States, you needed 10 aircraft carriers, and nuclear weapons, and long-range missiles," U.S. Senator Marco Rubio said recently. "Today....all you need is the ability to produce a very realistic fake video that could undermine our elections, that could throw our country into tremendous crisis internally and weaken us deeply."

Technologists agree. In the words of Hani Farid, one of the world's leading experts on deepfakes: "If we can't believe the videos, the audios, the image, the information that is gleaned from around the world, that is a serious national security risk." This risk is no longer just hypothetical: there are early examples of deepfakes influencing politics in the real world. Experts warn that these incidents are canaries in a coal mine.

Last month, a political group in Belgium released a deepfake video of the Belgian prime minister giving a speech that linked the COVID-19 outbreak to environmental damage and called for drastic action on climate change. At least some viewers believed the speech was real. Even more insidiously, the mere possibility that a video could be a deepfake can stir confusion and facilitate political deception regardless of whether deepfake technology has actually been used. The most dramatic example of this comes from Gabon, a small country in central Africa. In late 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had not been seen in public for months. Rumors were swirling that he was no longer healthy enough for office or even that he had died. In an attempt to allay these concerns and reassert Bongo's leadership over the country, his administration announced that he would give a nationwide televised address on New Years Day.

In the video address (which is worth examining firsthand yourself), Bongo appears stiff and stilted, with unnatural speech and facial mannerisms. The video immediately inflamed suspicions that the government was concealing something from the public. Bongo's political opponents declared that the footage was a deepfake and that the president was incapacitated or dead. Rumors of a deepfake conspiracy spread quickly on social media. The political situation in Gabon rapidly destabilized. Within a week, the military had launched a coup-the first in the country since 1964-citing the New Years video as proof that something was amiss with the president. To this day experts cannot definitively say whether the New Years video was authentic, though most believe that it was. (The coup proved unsuccessful; Bongo has since appeared in public and remains in office today).

But whether the video was real is almost beside the point. The larger lesson is that the emergence of deepfakes will make it increasingly difficult for the public to distinguish between what is real and what is fake, a situation that political actors will inevitably exploit-with potentially devastating consequences. "People are already using the fact that deepfakes exist to discredit genuine video evidence," said USC professor Hao Li. "Even though there's footage of you doing or saying something, you can say it was a deepfake and it's very hard to prove otherwise." In two recent incidents, politicians in Malaysia and in Brazil have sought to evade the consequences of compromising video footage by claiming that the videos were deepfakes. In both cases, no one has been able to definitively establish otherwise-and public opinion has remained divided. Researcher Aviv Ovadya warns of what she terms "reality apathy": "It's too much effort to figure out what's real and what's not, so you're more willing to just go with whatever your previous affiliations are." In a world in which seeing is no longer believing, the ability for a large community to agree on what is true-much less to engage in constructive dialogue about it-suddenly seems precarious. The core technology that makes deepfakes possible is a branch of deep learning known as generative adversarial networks (GANs). GANs were invented by Ian Goodfellow in 2014 during his PhD studies at the University of Montreal, one of the world's top AI research institutes. In 2016, AI great Yann LeCun called GANs "the most interesting idea in the last ten years in machine learning." Before the development of GANs, neural networks were adept at classifying existing content (for instance, understanding speech or recognizing faces) but not at creating new content. GANs gave neural networks the power not just to perceive, but to create. Goodfellow's conceptual breakthrough was to architect GANs using two separate neural networks-one known as the "generator", the other known as the "discriminator"-and pit them against one another.

Starting with a given dataset (say, a collection of photos of human faces), the generator begins generating new images that, in terms of pixels, are mathematically similar to the existing images. Meanwhile, the discriminator is fed photos without being told whether they are from the original dataset or from the generator's output; its task is to identify which photos have been synthetically generated. As the two networks iteratively work against one another-the generator trying to fool the discriminator, the discriminator trying to suss out the generator's creations-they hone one another's capabilities. Eventually the discriminator's classification success rate falls to 50%, no better than random guessing, meaning that the synthetically generated photos have become indistinguishable from the originals. One reason deepfakes have proliferated is the machine learning community's open-source ethos: starting with Goodfellow's original paper, whenever a research advance in generative modeling occurs, the technology is generally made available for free for anyone in the world to download and make use of. Given that deepfakes are based on AI in the first place, some look to AI as a solution to harmful deepfake applications. For instance, researchers have built sophisticated deepfake detection systems that assess lighting, shadows, facial movements, and other features in order to flag images that are fabricated. Another innovative defensive approach is to add a filter to an image file that makes it impossible to use that image to generate a deepfake. A handful of startups have emerged that offer software to defend against deepfakes, including Truepic and Deeptrace.

 

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