Microsoft Wins $22 Billion Deal Making Headsets for US Army

Microsoft won a nearly $22 billion contract to supply U.S. Army combat troops with its augmented reality headsets.  
 
Microsoft and the Army separately announced the deal Wednesday.
 
The technology is based on Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets, which were originally intended for the video game and entertainment industries.
 
Pentagon officials have described the futuristic technology — which the Army calls its Integrated Visual Augmentation System — as a way of boosting soldiers’ awareness of their surroundings and their ability to spot targets and dangers.
 
Microsoft’s head-mounted HoloLens displays let people see virtual imagery superimposed over the physical world in front of them — anything from holograms in virtual game worlds to repair instructions floating over a broken gadget. Users can control what they see using hand gestures or voice commands.
 
The Army’s website says soldiers tested the gadgets last year at Fort Pickett in Virginia. It said the system could help troops gain an advantage “on battlefields that are increasingly urban, congested, dark and unpredictable.”
 
The Army first began testing Microsoft’s system with a $480 million contract in 2018 and said the headsets could be used for both training and in actual battle. The new contract will enable Microsoft to mass produce units for more than 120,000 soldiers in the Army’s Close Combat Lethality Task Force. Microsoft said the contract will amount to up to $21.88 billion over the next decade, with a five-year base agreement that can be extended for another five years.  
 
Microsoft President Brad Smith told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February that the system could integrate thermal night vision and facial recognition to provide soldiers with “real-time analytics” on remote battlefields. He also described how it could help in planning a hostage rescue operation by creating a “digital twin” of the building.
 
A group of Microsoft workers in 2019 petitioned the company to cancel its initial Army deal, arguing it would turn real-world battlefields into a video game.
 
Microsoft is among several tech companies that have sought to wow the gaming world with glitzy new virtual reality goggles over the past decade, though the efforts have largely fizzled. Microsoft pivoted away from consumer applications for its second-generation HoloLens 2, introduced in 2019, which is the basis for the Army’s new gadgets.
 
Although Microsoft recently demonstrated a way to use the goggles to play the hit game Pokemon Go, it mostly pitches the devices as work tools to help surgeons, factory crews and others.  
 
The headset deal is part of Microsoft’s broader work as a defense contractor. The Pentagon in September reaffirmed Microsoft as winner of a cloud computing contract potentially worth $10 billion, although the work has been delayed by a legal battle over rival Amazon’s claim that the bidding process was flawed.
 

‘Falling Like Flies’: Hungary’s Roma Community Pleads for COVID-19 Help

Coronavirus infections are ravaging Hungary’s 700,000-strong Roma community, according to personal accounts that suggest multiple deaths in single families are common in an unchecked outbreak fueled by deep distrust of authorities.Data on infections in the community is unavailable but interviews with about a dozen Roma, who often live in cramped and unsanitary conditions, reveal harrowing stories of suffering and death and of huge health care challenges.”Our people are falling like flies,” said Aladar Horvath, a Roma rights advocate who travels widely among the community.When asked by phone to describe the overall situation, he broke down sobbing and said he had learned an hour before that his 35-year-old nephew had died of COVID.Another Roma, Zsanett Bito-Balogh, likened the outbreak in her town of Nagykallo in eastern Hungary to an explosion.”It’s like a bomb went off,” she said.”Just about every family got it. …People you see riding their bikes one week are in hospital the next and you order flowers for their funerals the third.”Bito-Balogh, who herself recovered twice from COVID-19, said that at one point she had 12 family members in hospital. She said she had lost two uncles and her grandmother to the virus in the past month, and a neighbor lost both parents, a cousin and a uncle within weeks.She says she is now rushing to organize in-person registration points for vaccines and plans to have the network up and running in a few weeks.Despite the challenges in persuading many Roma to turn to health authorities for medical care and vaccinations, Roma leaders are urging the government to do more to intervene and tackle what Horvath describes as a humanitarian crisis.Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, said vaccinations would be rolled out to Roma but that the community needed to volunteer for their shots.”Once we get to that point, the younger Roma should get in line,” Gulyas said in answer to Reuters questions. The Roma community is predominantly young, which means their vaccinations are scheduled later than for older Hungarians.The government’s chief epidemiologist did not respond to requests for comment.Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
download this video to view it offline.Download File360p | 11 MB480p | 16 MB540p | 22 MB720p | 46 MB1080p | 89 MBOriginal | 102 MB Embed” />Copy Download AudioIn northern Hungary, one of the European Union’s poorest regions, many Roma who live with hardship in the best of times are facing hunger as the coronavirus brings the economy to a halt.Decades of mistrustBarely 9% of Roma want to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a survey carried out at Hungary’s University of Pecs in January but published here for the first time. It was conducted by Zsuzsanna Kiss, a Roma biologist and professor at Hungary’s University of Pecs.Kiss said the Roma have mistrusted doctors and governments for decades because of perceived discrimination.However, gaining Roma trust is not the only challenge.Hungary’s 6,500 general practitioners are leading the vaccine rollout, but 10% of small GP clinics are shut because there is no doctor to operate them, mostly in areas with high Roma populations, government data shows.Although the government has deployed five “vaccination buses” that tour remote areas, people must first register for inoculations.”The rise in cases (among the Roma) is clearly proportionate to vaccine rejection,” said former Surgeon General Ferenc Falus.”This more infectious virus reaches a population whose immune system has weakened greatly during the winter months. If they go without vaccines for long, it will definitely show in extra infections and fatalities among the Roma.”Hungary currently has the world’s highest weekly per capita death toll, driven by the more contagious variant first detected in Britain, despite a rapid vaccination rollout, data from Johns Hopkins University and the European Union indicates.”We never trusted vaccines much,” said Zoltan Varga, a young Roma also from Nagykallo.

Kremlin Critic Navalny Threatens Hunger Strike Over Lack of Medical Care

A week after his lawyers claimed he was in poor health, jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny says he will go on a hunger strike until he is given proper medical care, according to a post on his Instagram account.
 
“I have declared a hunger strike demanding that the law be upheld and a doctor of my choice allowed to visit me,” Navalny wrote.
 
He also posted his intentions on Twitter.
 
In another Instagram post earlier this week, Navalny said he could be placed in solitary confinement for minor infractions of prison rules such as getting out of bed a few minutes early.
 
“You get two reprimands, and you go to punitive isolation confinement, which is an unpleasant place, conditions there are close to torture,” Navalny wrote.
 
Last week, Navalny’s lawyers said he was suffering back pain and has virtually lost the use of one of his legs.
 
One lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, said he’d been given an MRI, but that the results had not been shared with him. She added that pleas for medicine were ignored for four weeks.
 
At the time, Russian authorities said Navalny was in “satisfactory” condition.
 
Navalny survived a near-fatal poisoning last year and was arrested when he returned to Moscow in January following lifesaving treatment in Germany. He blames Russia for the poisoning, but the Kremlin denies any role in it.
 
Navalny was sentenced to two-and-a half-years in prison in February for violating the terms of his probation in embezzlement case while convalescing in Germany.
 
He is being held at the Pokrov correctional colony, roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Moscow, which he described as “a real concentration camp.”
 
The United States and other countries have sanctioned Kremlin officials over the poisoning, and many are calling for Navalny’s release.

Italian Naval Officer, Russian Detained on Spying Charges

Italian authorities said Wednesday they have arrested an Italian Navy captain on spying charges after he was allegedly caught giving classified documents to a Russian embassy official in exchange for money. The Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador, Sergey Razov, after the sting operation late Tuesday caught the two in what police said was a “clandestine operation” to exchange the goods. Italy’s Carabinieri paramilitary police said in a statement that the Italian official, who is a frigate captain, had been arrested. The Russian, a member of the Russian armed forces stationed at Moscow’s embassy to Italy, has been detained but his status is “under consideration” given his diplomatic position, the statement said. Italy’s special operations forces in Rome staged the operation “during a clandestine operation between the two, surprising them red-handed immediately after the handing over of classified documents by the Italian official in exchange for a sum of money,” the statement said. The Carabinieri said both were accused of “serious crimes concerning espionage and state security.” The Russian Embassy in Rome confirmed the detention of a diplomat who was part of the military attache’s office but wouldn’t comment on the incident. “In any case, we hope that it wouldn’t affect bilateral ties,” it said in a statement. 

Germany Limits Use of Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine Because of Fears of Blood Clots 

Germany has limited the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to people 60 years of age and older due to concerns that it may be causing blood clots.   Federal and state health authorities cited nearly three-dozen cases of blood clots known as cerebral sinus vein thrombosis in its decision Tuesday, including nine deaths.  The country’s medical regulator, the Paul Ehrlich Institute, says all but two of the cases involved women between the ages of 20 and 63.    The nationwide order was made after several local governments, including Berlin, Munich and the states of Brandenburg and North Rhine-Westphalia, had already decided to limit the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to older residents.   Health authorities say younger people who belong to a high-risk category for serious illness from COVID-19 can still get the vaccine, while people 60 and younger who have received the first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot can still receive the second shot as planned. About 2.7 million Germans have been inoculated with the vaccine. The decision is likely to further slow down Germany’s already sluggish vaccination campaign, and marks another setback for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which has had a troubled rollout across the world. Several European countries had briefly stopped use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine because of similar reports of blood clots, until the  European Medicines Agency (EMA), the European Union’s drug approval body, declared the vaccine as safe.German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Health Minister Jens Spahn brief the media after a virtual meeting with federal state governors at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, March 30, 2021.Germany’s decision came a day after Canada said it would stop offering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to people under age 55 because of concerns of serious blood clots, especially among younger women.   Also on Tuesday, the United States and 13 other nations issued a statement raising “shared concerns” about the newly released World Health Organization report on the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19. The statement, released on the U.S. State Department website, as well as the other signatories, said it was essential to express concerns that the international expert study on the source of the virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples. The WHO formally released its report earlier Tuesday, saying while the report presents a comprehensive review of available data, “we have not yet found the source of the virus.”  The team reported difficulties in accessing raw data, among other issues, during its visit to the city of Wuhan, China earlier this year. The researchers also had been forced to wait days before receiving final permission by the Chinese government to enter Wuhan. The joint statement by the United States and others went on to say, “scientific missions like these should be able to do their work under conditions that produce independent and objective recommendations and findings.”  The nations expressed their concerns in the hope of laying “a pathway to a timely, transparent, evidence-based process for the next phase of this study as well as for the next health crisis.” Along with the United States, the statement was signed by the governments of Australia, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, and Slovenia. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday further study and more data are needed to confirm if the virus was spread to humans through the food chain or through wild or farmed animals.   Tedros said that while the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, the matter requires further investigation. WHO team leader Peter Ben Embarek told reporters Tuesday that it is “perfectly possible” COVID-19 cases were circulating as far back as November or October 2019 around Wuhan, earlier than has been documented regarding the spread of the virus. 

Turkey’s Reliance on Chinese COVID-19 Vaccines Seen as Gamble

Turkey’s announcement of new restrictions in the face of surging COVID-19 infections is putting the spotlight on Ankara’s decision to rely almost solely on Chinese vaccines. With those deliveries repeatedly delayed, there is growing suspicion Beijing could be using the vaccines as leverage — as Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.Producer: Jon Spier

US Lawmakers Press Big Tech for Internal Research on Kids’ Mental Health

Four Republican U.S. lawmakers requested on Tuesday that Facebook Inc., Twitter, and Alphabet Inc.’s Google turn over any studies they have done on how their services affect children’s mental health.The request follows a joint hearing last week of two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees at which the companies’ chief executives discussed their content moderation practices in the wake of the siege on the Capitol in January.Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the committee’s ranking Republican, asked the CEOs at the hearing whether their companies had conducted internal research concerning children’s mental health.Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said he believed the company had, while Twitter’s Jack Dorsey said he did not believe so. Google’s Sundar Pichai said the company consulted with outside experts and invested “a lot of time and effort in these areas.”In letters to the companies on Tuesday, McMorris Rodgers asked for copies of any relevant research or internal communications, as well as information on any contractors and partners involved. They also requested any research the companies had done about how competitors’ products affect mental wellness of people under 18 years old.The requests also cover Google’s YouTube Kids service and Facebook’s Instagram, which is developing a version for people under 13 years old.The other lawmakers who signed the letter were ranking Republicans on various subcommittees, including Robert Latta, Gus Bilirakis and Morgan Griffith.They asked for the companies to respond by April 16. 

Germany Extends COVID-19 Border Restrictions with Czech Republic

German officials said Wednesday the country will extend COVID-19-related border restrictions with the Czech Republic for another two weeks as they try to bring the third wave of coronavirus outbreaks under control.At a Berlin news conference, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said the COVID-19 situation is still “not stable” in the Czech Republic and will ask border patrols to check anyone wishing to enter Germany from the nation to provide a negative test and then go into quarantine for 14 days.Seehofer said the situation in Austria’s Tyrol region has “improved considerably,” so he will be allowing border controls for that region to expire.  But he told reporters he has asked German border patrols to conduct random spot checks along all of Germany’s borders, including France, Denmark and Poland, over the next two weeks, particularly after the Easter holiday.The announcement comes as rules came into force making testing mandatory for all air travelers to Germany, regardless of whether they come from a risk area or an area with virus mutants.The tougher measures take effect as Germany struggles to slow a rise in coronavirus infections, driven by new, more contagious virus strains. Experts warn that the vaccination pace remains too slow to break a third wave of the pandemic.

US, 13 Other Nations Concerned About WHO COVID Origins Report

The United States and 13 other nations issued a statement Tuesday raising “shared concerns” about the newly released World Health Organization report on the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19.
The statement, released on the U.S. State Department website, as well as the other signatories, said it was essential to express concerns that the international expert study on the source of the virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.
The WHO formally released its report earlier Tuesday, saying while the report presents a comprehensive review of available data, “we have not yet found the source of the virus.”  The team reported difficulties in accessing raw data, among other issues, during its visit to the city of Wuhan, China, earlier this year.
The researchers also had been forced to wait days before receiving final permission by the Chinese government to enter Wuhan.
The joint statement by the U.S. and others went on to say, “scientific missions like these should be able to do their work under conditions that produce independent and objective recommendations and findings.”  The nations expressed their concerns in the hope of laying “a pathway to a timely, transparent, evidence-based process for the next phase of this study as well as for the next health crises.”
Along with the U.S., the statement was signed by the governments of Australia, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, and Slovenia.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday further study and more data are needed to confirm if the virus was spread to humans through the food chain or through wild or farmed animals.  
Tedros said that while the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, the matter requires further investigation.
WHO team leader Peter Ben Embarek told reporters Tuesday that it is “perfectly possible” COVID-19 cases were circulating as far back as November or October 2019 around Wuhan, earlier than has been documented regarding the spread of the virus.
 

SpaceX’s SN11 Rocket Prototype Explodes Upon Landing

Elon Musk’s SpaceX suffered another setback Tuesday when one of its experimental rockets malfunctioned during a test flight at the company’s Texas facility.
 
The incident occurred as the Starship SN11 prototype was attempting to land after what the company called a normal ascent to roughly 12 kilometers in altitude.
 
Heavy fog obscured observers from seeing exactly what happened, but an explosion seems most likely, as there were reports of fire and debris.
 
“At least the crater is in the right place!” Musk tweeted.
 
This is the third time the experimental rocket has crash-landed or exploded.
 
John Insprucker, a SpaceX engineer, said all was going well when data feeds and the on-board cameras stopped working as the vehicle entered a thick layer of fog while trying to land.  
 
The company said it will provide more information as it gets it but added it does not expect to be able to recover video footage.
 
Starship SN11 is the vehicle Musk hopes will carry the first humans to Mars.  
 
The company wants to send it into orbit by the end of the year. NASA has also awarded SpaceX a $135 million contract to potentially use the Starship SN11 to take astronauts to the moon.