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Saving the poor and vulnerable

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PHOTO: S.M.E. BOYD

Right now, warm surface water is moving into the western Pacific Ocean in the form of a “La Niña.” It is a sentinel for a complex set of connections that drive weather patterns from the Horn of Africa to Botswana and normally presages drought in East Africa. This event soon will be ringing alarm bells within the World Food Programme (WFP). Even as this United Nations–led agency celebrates its well-deserved award of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, the relentless challenge of preventing hunger marches on.

Why a Nobel Prize for the WFP, and why now? Last year, the WFP assisted nearly 100 million people in 88 countries. It is the safety net for those who fall off the edge of existence. It is the humanitarian end of the response to solving the problem of food insecurity. Its Nobel Prize reminds us all of the moral hazard in imagining that the poor and vulnerable are somebody else’s problem.

The work of the WFP is the consequence of failure. It has been around since 1961 and has been the global coordinator of nationally based efforts to avert catastrophes with food aid. If it has struggled at times, this is largely because of the debilitating nexus of war, corruption, climate change, and famine. Despite decades of effort to alleviate hunger, the latest estimate is that about 11% of people on the planet (about 820 million people) are suffering chronic undernourishment. This rises to nearly a quarter of all people in sub-Saharan Africa, and hunger is on the rise in Africa. Progress at reducing undernourishment has stalled despite gains through the 1990s and 2000s.

At this time, when a global pandemic is forcing the rich of the world to adjust their lives—often in minor ways compared with the starving and dispossessed—the Nobel Committee is challenging humanity to act with moral courage and selflessness. Even in good times, the richest of the world are hardly overflowing with generosity. The Group of Seven (G7) nations typically spend less than $8 per person per year to support the work of the WFP (the annual WFP contribution from a country divided by the population of that country). When we think of all the other things that nations spend money on—from defense to their own social welfare—do we really get our priorities right? Added to this, many of the countries with the greatest food security problems are debt peons of wealthier nations, often generating the cash to pay off some of these debts in food exports. What is given in generosity in one hand is taken back with the other and, in some places, wealthy nations even supply the weapons to perpetuate wars, which undermine the work of the WFP. Climate change, a product largely of the accrual of capital wealth by rich nations, just adds to the asymmetry of stress. The developing world suffers the most from the negative impacts of climate change.

American philosopher John Rawls saw that addressing the needs of the poor and vulnerable is about more than money—it is mostly about creating conditions under which liberty and opportunity can thrive. Under Rawls’s schema, the “America First” slogan of today seems particularly aversive. Aid that promotes the gap between rich and poor and sustains a “know thy place” message to the recipients is aid with heavy conditions. It was U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower who asked for the WFP to be established, but the current incumbent of that office has hardly shown such leadership. Nations must act together and act globally. Perhaps the Nobel Committee’s choice was also a poke in the eye for Donald Trump and his tribe.

At least within the scientific community, there is a helping hand because of rapid progress in embedding expertise in fields such as agro-climatology within countries most vulnerable to poverty and hunger. By making its voice heard, science can lead by example. The various national food aid agencies that are coordinated through the WFP are increasingly informed by forecasting of climatic challenges to food production, for instance. The resilience that must be built into some of the poorest countries will not come from loans from wealthy and populous countries, which may have a food deficit of their own, or institutions like the International Monetary Fund. It will be built upon self-confident people using open and shared scientific knowledge to pull themselves out of their misery.

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Too bright to breed

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Night light from coastal cities overpowers natural signals for coral spawning from neighboring reefs.

PHOTO: NOKURO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Most coral species reproduce through broadcast spawning. For such a strategy to be successful, coordination has had to evolve such that gametes across clones are released simultaneously. Over millennia, lunar cycles have facilitated this coordination, but the recent development of bright artificial light has led to an overpowering of these natural signals. Ayalon et al. tested for the direct impact of different kinds of artificial light on different species of corals. The authors found that multiple lighting types, including cold and warm light-emitting diode (LED) lamps, led to loss of synchrony and spawning failure. Further, coastal maps of artificial lighting globally suggest that it threatens to interfere with coral reproduction worldwide and that the deployment of LED lights, the blue light of which penetrates deeper into the water column, is likely to make the situation even worse.

Curr. Biol. 10.1016/j.cub.2020.10.039 (2020).

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SpaceX launches Starlink app and provides pricing and service info to early beta testers

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SpaceX has debuted an official app for its Starlink satellite broadband internet service, for both iOS and Android devices. The Starlink app allows users to manage their connection – but to take part you’ll have to be part of the official beta program, and the initial public rollout of that is only just about to begin, according to emails SpaceX sent to potential beta testers this week.

The Starlink app provides guidance on how to install the Starlink receiver dish, as well as connection status (including signal quality), a device overview for seeing what’s connected to your network, and a speed test tool. It’s similar to other mobile apps for managing home wifi connections and routers. Meanwhile, the emails to potential testers that CNBC obtained detail what users can expect in terms of pricing, speeds and latency.

The initial Starlink public beta test is called the “Better than Nothing Beta Program,” SpaceX confirms in their app description, and will be rolled out across the U.S. and Canada before the end of the year – which matches up with earlier stated timelines. As per the name, SpaceX is hoping to set expectations for early customers, with speeds users can expect ranging from between 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s, and latency of 20ms to 40ms according to the customer emails, with some periods including no connectivity at all. Even with expectations set low, if those values prove accurate, it should be a big improvement for users in some hard-to-reach areas where service is currently costly, unreliable and operating at roughly dial-up equivalent speeds.

Image Credits: SpaceX

In terms of pricing, SpaceX says in the emails that the cost for participants in this beta program will be $99 per moth, plus a one-time cost of $499 initially to pay for the hardware, which includes the mounting kit and receiver dish, as well as a router with wifi networking capabilities.

The goal eventually is offer reliably, low-latency broadband that provides consistent connection by handing off connectivity between a large constellation of small satellites circling the globe in low Earth orbit. Already, SpaceX has nearly 1,000 of those launched, but it hopes to launch many thousands more before it reaches global coverage and offers general availability of its services.

SpaceX has already announced some initial commercial partnerships and pilot programs for Starlink, too, including a team-up with Microsoft to connect that company’s mobile Azure data centers, and a project with an East Texas school board to connect the local community.

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Erratum for the Report “Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances” by R. Van Klink, D. E. Bowler, K. B. Gongalsky, A. B. Swengel, A. Gentile, J. M. Chase

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S. Rennie, J. Adamson, R. Anderson, C. Andrews, J. Bater, N. Bayfield, K. Beaton, D. Beaumont, S. Benham, V. Bowmaker, C. Britt, R. Brooker, D. Brooks, J. Brunt, G. Common, R. Cooper, S. Corbett, N. Critchley, P. Dennis, J. Dick, B. Dodd, N. Dodd, N. Donovan, J. Easter, M. Flexen, A. Gardiner, D. Hamilton, P. Hargreaves, M. Hatton-Ellis, M. Howe, J. Kahl, M. Lane, S. Langan, D. Lloyd, B. McCarney, Y. McElarney, C. McKenna, S. McMillan, F. Milne, L. Milne, M. Morecroft, M. Murphy, A. Nelson, H. Nicholson, D. Pallett, D. Parry, I. Pearce, G. Pozsgai, A. Riley, R. Rose, S. Schafer, T. Scott, L. Sherrin, C. Shortall, R. Smith, P. Smith, R. Tait, C. Taylor, M. Taylor, M. Thurlow, A. Turner, K. Tyson, H. Watson, M. Whittaker, I. Woiwod, C. Wood, UK Environmental Change Network (ECN) Moth Data: 1992-2015, NERC Environmental Information Data Centre (2018); .

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