Colombians Get First Glimpse of Peace Monument

Colombians got their first glimpse Tuesday of a monument being constructed with weapons turned over by leftist rebels as part of an historic peace agreement ending more than five decades of bloody conflict.

The work by artist Doris Salcedo is titled “Fragments” and consists of a simple floor of gray-colored tiles built with melted rifles.

“This touches me personally, from the bottom of my heart,” President Juan Manuel said as he visited the site. “In a certain way, this is an epilogue.”

The monument is still under construction and is one of three that rebels and government officials agreed to build with more than 7,000 surrendered weapons. The other two will be placed in New York at the United Nations and in Cuba, where both sides spent four years negotiating the accord.

Salcedo said her work is an attempt to symbolically narrate the memories of war through a space that is “radically empty and silent.” The tiled floor monument will become part of a museum documenting the conflict.

Colombia’s conflict between leftist rebels, paramilitaries and the state left at least 250,000 dead, 60,000 missing and millions displaced.

Salcedo is a Colombian artist whose work has been shown in contemporary exhibitions at institutions including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Mexico Still Preparing for US Car Tariffs, Backs WTO Reform

Mexico is still preparing all options to respond to possible U.S. tariffs on car imports, Deputy Economy Minister Juan Carlos Baker said on Tuesday, despite U.S.-European talks last week that were supposed to have seen off the immediate threat.

Last week European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he had secured a “major concession” from President Donald Trump, having agreed that as long as the two sides were negotiating on trade, they would hold off on imposing further measures, including U.S. tariffs on cars and auto parts.

Baker was speaking after meeting senior trade officials from Canada, Japan, South Korea and the European Union in Geneva, which is also home to the World Trade Organization.

The countries — long term U.S. allies which are at odds with Trump over trade relations — were not coordinating their response, Baker told reporters. However, they were all determined to respond if tariffs on cars were imposed, he said, noting that the U.S. process to introduce them had not stopped.

“We take that very seriously. Until that process is fully concluded and no tariffs are imposed, we need to be serious and consider the possibility that those tariffs may be established.

We need to make clear that we are prepared to react,” he said.

Over several hours of talks at the EU mission, the five powers — all of them hit by Trump’s steel tariffs imposed in March, and concerned about his disruption of the WTO — also discussed reform of the 23-year-old trading club.

Trump is demanding a shake-up of the WTO, saying it treats the United States unfairly and gives China undue advantages.

To force the issue, he has brought the WTO’s system for settling international trade disputes to the brink of collapse by blocking the appointment of judges when the terms of others expire, a situation that diplomats and trade officials have described as hostage taking and the “asphyxiation” of the WTO.

Baker said there were several sets of reform ideas on the table for the WTO and he was encouraged. “We would not be doing this if we believed the process is doomed to fail,” he said. “We all feel the sense of urgency here. We do not necessarily have a due date … but the sooner we start the better.”

Proposals are likely to be polished in the next few months, including at meetings of the G20 major economies, an APEC forum of Pacific rim countries, and at a Canadian-hosted meeting in October. A trade ministers’ meeting in Davos in January would be an important moment to take stock of progress, he said.

“Today was only a very initial, incipient discussion but I believe it was good in terms of knowing how much running round we have ahead of us.”

Tourists Hurt in Train Crash Near Machu Picchu

Several foreign tourists were injured Tuesday when a train struck the rear of another train near the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru, a local police

chief said.

Police were trying to determine the cause of the accident, which occurred along a popular tourism route from the village of Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu in southern Peru, said Eulogio Farfan, a police chief in the nearby town of Urubamba.

At least 13 people were injured, most of them foreign tourists, said Farfan. A police officer in Ollantaytambo, Edson Quispe, said there were 23 injured in the collision.

Farfan said a train operated by PeruRail S.A., owned jointly by Belmond Ltd. and Ferrocarril Transandino S.A., struck a train operated by IncaRail, another railway service that takes tourists to Machu Picchu, Peru’s biggest tourist site.

IncaRail said only one of its passengers, a Chilean woman, had been injured in the accident and that the rest would continue their trip to Machu Picchu.

PeruRail said it activated its emergency protocol to evacuate the injured by ambulance and would look into the cause.

Aeromexico Plane Crashes in Mexico’s Durango State

Dozens of people were injured on Tuesday when a packed Aeromexico-operated Embraer jet crashed soon after takeoff in Mexico’s state of Durango, but authorities said most were not seriously hurt and there were no fatalities.

The mid-sized jet was almost full, with 97 passengers and four crew members, when it came down at around 4 p.m. local time (2100 GMT), Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, Mexico’s minister for communications and transportation, wrote on Twitter.

One passenger, identified as Jackeline Flores, told reporters she and her daughter escaped from a hole in the fuselage as the aircraft filled up with smoke and flames.

“A little girl who left the plane was crying because her legs were burned,” said Flores, who said she was Mexican but lived in Bogota, Colombia. The plane had barely left the ground in heavy rain when it came down, she said.

Flores said her passport and documents burned in the fire.

“I feel blessed and grateful to God,” she said.

TV images showed the severely damaged body of the plane after it came to rest in scrubland and a column of smoke rose into the sky.

The aircraft made an emergency landing about six miles (10 km) from the airport, said Alejandro Cardoza, a spokesman for the state’s civil protection agency. Other authorities said the crash was closer to the airport.

Cardoza said in an interview that around 85 people had suffered mostly light injuries, adding that the fire resulting from the accident had been put out. The civil protection agency said 37 people were hospitalized, while the state health department said two passengers were in a critical condition.

“Many managed to leave the plane on foot,” Cardoza said.

The operator of Durango airport, Grupo Aeroportuario Centro Norte, attributed the crash to bad weather conditions, citing preliminary reports. The plane had barely taken off when it felt like it was hit by a strong air current, another passenger told network Televisa.

The head of Mexico’s civil aviation agency, Luis Gerardo Fonseca, said it could take months to know the cause of the accident. Speaking to Televisa, he said the plane’s voice and data recorders would be recovered once rescue efforts were completed.

Flight number 2431 was an Embraer 190 bound for Mexico City when it crashed, Aeromexico said on Twitter. A spokesman for the Mexican airline declined to disclose the passenger list or the nationalities of those on board.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman said he did not currently have confirmation of whether any American citizens were involved in the accident.

According to the Flight Safety Network, the Embraer 190 has been involved in four accidents. Only one, a Henan Airlines flight in China in 2010, involved fatalities after the plane missed its runway approach.

Aeromexico leased the 10 year-old aircraft involved in Tuesday’s incident from Republic Airlines in the United States in 2014, according to data on Planespotters.net.

Embraer said late on Tuesday that it had sent a team of technicians to the scene of the accident and stood ready to support the investigation.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto wrote on Twitter that he had instructed the defense, civil protection and transportation ministries to aid in the response to the crash.

Change in Elevator Rules Frustrates Eiffel Tower Queue

A change in who gets to use the Eiffel Tower’s elevators has stranded frustrated tourists in long queues at the Paris landmark during a heat wave in the French capital.

Management of the 324-meter (1,063-foot) tower decided this month to dedicate one elevator for those who book tickets in advance and leave only one for those who turn up on the day, rather than both as before.

Sightseers who arrive without tickets have had to join queues that snake all the way around the base of the monument.

Some said they had waited for up to three hours, annoyed that few people were lining up for the other elevator.

Temperatures in the city have hit 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit), leaving sweltering adults and children desperate for bottled water in the queue.

“It’s too long!” said Burty Surette, 37, an electrician visiting from Mauritius. “I was expecting the wait to be long but not this long. There should be two elevators for people arriving without tickets. With the number of people that are coming to visit, one is not sufficient.”

Pat Murphy, a 66-year-old retired automotive worker from Ohio, disliked the idea of having to book three months in advance for a particular day.

“You don’t know if it’s going to rain,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Eiffel Tower played down suggestions the new system had caused extra queues, saying there always are large numbers of visitors to the monument, particularly in summer.

Workers at the tower have threatened to strike over what they call the “monstrous” new system. Negotiations are under way between the tower’s management and the CGT union, with a decision expected Wednesday.

“I can understand the workers saying this is insane — people are getting mad … so I’d join them on strike,” Murphy said.

More than 40 million tourists visited Paris last year, the highest on record, with over 6 million going up the Eiffel Tower, the most popular site in the city.

German Farmers Step Up $1B Aid Call After Drought Damage

German farmers intensified calls for around 1 billion euros ($1.17 billion) in special aid on Tuesday after crop damage from a drought and heatwave, but Berlin said it would wait for an August harvest report before making a decision.

The president of German farming association DBV, Joachim Rukwied, said drought had caused 1.4 million euros ($1.6 million) of damage to grains crops alone this year.

Poor growing weather, including a heatwave and lack of rain, has damaged crops in France, Germany and the Baltic Sea countries, while a shortage of animal feed is also looming after damage to maize (corn) crops and grass.

“Expensive animal feed will have to be purchased,” Rukwied told German TV channel ZDF.

However, German agriculture minister Julia Kloeckner said on German television that a clearer view of the national picture was needed and the government would await her ministry’s own harvest report in late August.

“Then we will have a real overview of the situation in Germany,” she said, adding that regional state governments could provide local aid if needed.

Indications were that German federal and state governments were in disagreement about whether aid should be paid.

German state and federal agricultural agencies meet on Tuesday to discuss the drought and Kloeckner is due to report to the cabinet on Wednesday.

Kloeckner said later on German radio NDR that harvests were varied among states.

“Farmers themselves do not know how their harvest will turn out,” she said.

Till Backhaus, the farm minister in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, called on the government to declare a state of emergency for farmers, saying a decision in late August would not be fast enough.

French consultancy Strategie Grains expects the German soft wheat crop to fall to 20.7 million tons, from 22.8 million estimated in early July, Reuters reported on July 25. Last year some 24 million tons were harvested in Germany. German grain traders, however, increasingly expect a wheat harvest of under 20 million tons.

Robotic Hand Can Juggle Cube — With Lots of Training

How long does it take a robotic hand to learn to juggle a cube?

About 100 years, give or take.

That’s how much virtual computing time it took researchers at OpenAI, the nonprofit artificial intelligence lab funded by Elon Musk and others, to train its disembodied hand. The team paid Google $3,500 to run its software on thousands of computers simultaneously, crunching the actual time to 48 hours. After training the robot in a virtual environment, the team put it to a test in the real world.

The hand, called Dactyl, learned to move itself, the team of two dozen researchers disclosed this week. Its job is simply to adjust the cube so that one of its letters — “O,” “P,” “E,” “N,” “A” or “I” — faces upward to match a random selection.

Ken Goldberg, a University of California, Berkeley robotics professor who isn’t affiliated with the project, said OpenAI’s achievement is a big deal because it demonstrates how robots trained in a virtual environment can operate in the real world. His lab is trying something similar with a robot called Dex-Net, though its hand is simpler and the objects it manipulates are more complex.

“The key is the idea that you can make so much progress in simulation,” he said. “This is a plausible path forward, when doing physical experiments is very hard.”

Dactyl’s real-world fingers are tracked by infrared dots and cameras. In training, every simulated movement that brought the cube closer to the goal gave Dactyl a small reward. Dropping the cube caused it to feel a penalty 20 times as big.

The process is called reinforcement learning. The robot software repeats the attempts millions of times in a simulated environment, trying over and over to get the highest reward. OpenAI used roughly the same algorithm it used to beat human players in a video game, Dota 2.

In real life, a team of researchers worked about a year to get the mechanical hand to this point.

Why?

For one, the hand in a simulated environment doesn’t understand friction. So even though its real fingers are rubbery, Dactyl lacks human understanding about the best grips.

Researchers injected their simulated environment with changes to gravity, hand angle and other variables so the software learns to operate in a way that is adaptable. That helped narrow the gap between real-world results and simulated ones, which were much better.

The variations helped the hand succeed putting the right letter face up more than a dozen times in a row before dropping the cube. In simulation, the hand typically succeeded 50 times in a row before the test was stopped.

OpenAI’s goal is to develop artificial general intelligence, or machines that think and learn like humans, in a way that is safe for people and widely distributed.

Musk has warned that if AI systems are developed only by for-profit companies or powerful governments, they could one day exceed human smarts and be more dangerous than nuclear war with North Korea.

Facebook Removes Accounts ‘Involved in Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior’

Efforts to influence U.S. voters ahead of the 2018 midterm elections in November appear to be well underway, though private companies and government officials are hesitant to say who, exactly, is behind the recently discovered campaigns.

Facebook announced Tuesday it had shut down 32 Facebook and Instagram accounts because they were “involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

Specifically, the social media company said it took down eight Facebook pages, 17 Facebook profiles, and seven Instagram accounts, the oldest of which were created in March 2017.

Facebook said the entities behind the accounts ran some 150 ads for about $11,000 on Facebook and Instagram, paid for with U.S. and Canadian currency.

“We’re still in the very early stages of our investigation and don’t have all the facts — including who may be behind this,” Facebook said in a blog post. “It’s clear that whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has in the past.”

Effort to spark confrontations

At least 290,000 accounts followed the fake pages, most of which appeared to target left-wing American communities in an effort to spark confrontations with the far right, according to an analysis done by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

 

“They appear to have constituted an attempt by an external actor — possibly, though not certainly, in the Russian-speaking world,” the Digital Forensic Research Lab said in its own post.

It said similarities to activity by Russia’s IRA included “language patterns that indicate non-native English and consistent mistranslation, as well as an overwhelming focus on polarizing issues at the top of any given news cycle with content that remained emotive rather than fact-based.”

Facebook’s announcement came the same day top U.S. officials warned the country is now in “a crisis mode.”

“Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said at a National Cybersecurity Summit, citing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.

“It is unacceptable, and it will not be tolerated,” Nielsen said. “The United States possesses a wide range of response options — some of them seen, others unseen — and we will no longer hesitate to use them to hold foreign adversaries accountable.”

Homeland Security officials said they had been in touch with Facebook about the fake accounts and applauded the move to take them down. The White House also praised Facebook’s actions.

“We applaud efforts by our private sector partners to combat an array of threats that occur in cyberspace, including malign influence,” NSC spokesman Garrett Marquis told VOA.

Nielsen, who did not comment on the Facebook announcement directly, also said officials were “dramatically ramping up” efforts to protect U.S. election systems with the help of a new Election Task Force.

She also announced the launch of a National Risk Management Center to make it easier for the government to work with private sector companies to counter threats in cyberspace.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has at times cast doubt on findings by the U.S. intelligence community regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election, chaired a meeting of his National Security Council on election security on Friday, with the White House promising continued support to safeguard the country’s election systems.

Vice President Mike Pence, speaking Tuesday at a Homeland Security-sponsored summit, echoed that, saying, “Any attempt to interfere in our elections is an affront to our democracy, and it will not be allowed.”

Pence assured the audience that the White House did not doubt Russia’s attempts to influence U.S. elections, saying, “Gone are the days when America allows our adversaries to cyberattack us with impunity.”

“We’ve already done more than any administration in American history to preserve the integrity of the ballot box,” he added. “The American people demand and deserve the strongest possible defense, and we will give it to them.”

Hackers targeted congressional campaigns

Less than two weeks ago, Microsoft said hackers had targeted the campaigns of at least three congressional candidates in the upcoming election.

Tom Burt, Microsoft’s vice president for customer security and trust, refused to attribute the attacks, but said the hackers used tactics similar to those used by Russian operatives to target the Republican and Democratic parties during their presidential nominating conventions in 2016.

Late last week, The Daily Beast reported one of the targets of the attack was Missouri Democratic senator Claire McCaskill, who has been highly critical of Russia and is facing a tough re-election campaign.

Until recently, both U.S. government and private sector officials had said they had not been seeing the same pace of attacks or influence campaigns that they saw in the run-up to the 2016 election.

“I think we’re not seeing that same conduct,” Monika Bickert, head of Facebook’s product policy and counterterrorism, said during an appearance earlier this month at the Aspen Security Forum. “But we are watching for that activity.”

Still, many officials and analysts said it was likely just a matter of time before Russia would seek to strike again.

“I think we have been clear across the entire administration that even though we aren’t seeing this level of activity directed at elections, we continue to see Russian information operations directed at undermining our democracy,” Homeland Security undersecretary Chris Krebs said.

Facebook said it was sharing what it knows because of a connection between the “bad actors” behind the Facebook and Instagram pages and some protests that are planned next week in Washington, D.C.

Facebook also canceled an event posted by one of the accounts — a page called “Resisters” — calling for a counterprotest to a “Unite the Right” event scheduled for August in Washington, D.C.

U.S. lawmakers’ reactions

Key U.S. lawmakers applauded Facebook’s actions Tuesday, though they warned more still needs to be done.

“The goal of these operations is to sow discord, distrust and division in an attempt to undermine public faith in our institutions and our political system,” Sen. Richard Burr, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “The Russians want a weak America.”

“Today’s announcement from Facebook demonstrates what we’ve long feared — that malicious foreign actors bearing the hallmarks of previously identified Russian influence campaigns continue to abuse and weaponize social media platforms to influence the U.S. electorate,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

“It is clear that much more work needs to be done before the midterm elections to harden our defenses, because foreign bad actors are using the exact same playbook they used in 2016,” Schiff added.

Yugolsav Architects ‘Concrete Utopia’ on Display in New York

After the devastation of World War Two, architects in Yugoslavia got to work helping to rebuild the country which straddled the Cold War divide between the East and West. The architecture reflects styles from both sides and the architects’ vision of the future. The Museum of Modern Art in New York examines their work in an exhibit called “Toward a Concrete Utopia.” Ardita Dunellari has the story.