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The AI data-poisoning cat-and-mouse game — this time, IT will win

The IT community of late has been freaking out about AI data poisoning. For some, it’s a sneaky mechanism that could act as a backdoor into enterprise systems by surreptitiously infecting the data large language models (LLMs) train on and then getting pulled into enterprise systems. For others, it’s a way to combat LLMs that try to do an end run around trademark and copyright protections. Put simply, these two fears amount to data poisoning being either 1) an attack tool for cyberthieves and cyberterrorists or 2) a defense tool by artists and enterprises trying to protect their intellectual property. In reality, AI data poisoning is not much of a threat in either scenario — but IT folk do very much love to freak out. It’s the defense tactic that is getting a lot of attention these days, with people downloading a pair of freeware apps from the University of Chicago called Nightshade and Glaze. These kinds of defensive data poisoning apps work by manipulating the targeted file to trick the LLM training function. With Nightshade, it typically manipulates the code around an image. The image might be a desert scene with cactuses (or cacti, if you want to get all Latin on me), but the labeling is changed to say that it is an ocean with waves. The idea is that someone asks the LLM for ocean images, the amended image will show up. But because it is clearly a desert scene, it will be rejected. Glaze works more directly on the image, in essence cloudying it to make it less desirable. Either way, the goal is to make it less likely that the protected image is used via LLM. This technique, although imaginative, is unlikely to work for long. It will not be long before LLMs will be taught how to see through these defensive techniques. “To protect your works, you have to degrade your work,” said George Chedzhemov, the cybersecurity strategist at data firm BigID. “I am going to place a bet that companies with billions of dollars systems and workloads, that they are more likely to prevail in this cat-and-mouse game. In the long run, I simply don’t think this is going to be effective.” The offensive technique is potentially the more worrisome, but it is also highly unlikely to be effective, even in the short term. The offensive technique works in one of two ways. One, it tries to target a specific company by making educated guesses about the kind of sites and material they would want to train their LLMs with. The attackers then target, not that specific company, but the many places where it is likely to go for training. If the target is, let’s say Nike or Adidas, the attackers might try and poison the databases at various university sports departments with high-profile sports teams. If the target were Citi or Chase, the bad guys might target databases at key Federal Reserve sites. The problem is that both ends of that attack plan could easily be thwarted. The university sites might detect and block the manipulation efforts. To make the attack work, the inserted data would likely have to include malware executables, which are relatively easy to detect. Even if the bad actors’ goal was to simply feed incorrect data into the target systems — which would, in theory, make their analysis flawed — most LLM training absorbs such a massively large number of datasets that the attack is unlikely to work well. “The planted code would end up being extremely diluted. Only a tiny amount of the malicious code would likely survive,” Chedzhemov said. The other malicious AI data poisoning tactic amounts to a spray-and-pray mechanism. Instead of targeting a specific company, the bad actors would try and contaminate a massive number of sites and hope the malware somehow ends up at a company with attractive data to steal. “They would need to contaminate tens of thousands of sites all over the place,” Chedzhemov said. “And then they need to hope that LLM model somehow hones in on one of them.” Chedzhemov argued that the only viable approach would be to “pick an extremely esoteric area for which there is not a lot of stuff out there, something very niche.” The tech industry is quite familiar with these counter-measures and they rarely work for long, if ever. Consider antivirus programs that published definitions and then the bad guys changed the technique. Then the AV players looked for patterns instead of specific definitions, and so on. Or think of search engine spiders and their battles with robot.txt scripts that told them to go away. Or Youtube versus ad blockers. LLM data poisoning is something that IT needs to be aware of and to guard against. But in this contest, I think IT has almost all of the advantages. How refreshingly rare.

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Digital work apps arrive for Apple’s Vision Pro

Among the hundreds of native apps already available for Apple’s new Vision Pro headset, there’s already a range of tools focused on getting work done. Microsoft, Cisco, and Zoom are among the software vendors that have already optimized their enterprise apps to function on Apple’s spatial computing device. They make use of the Vision Pro’s immersive virtual environments (to varying degrees) and large viewing space, promising new ways to view and interact with content or communicate with colleagues. “Many early adopters will look to personal productivity as a key justification for buying an Apple Vision Pro, and there are some key native productivity apps available at launch — plus thousands more iPad apps that can run in the headset,” said Avi Greengart, founder and lead analyst at Techsponential. Apple leaned on the Vision Pro’s consumer benefits in the run up to the Feb. 2 launch, but it clearly sees potential for work, too. (The recent addition of mobile device management (MDM) features for the device is perhaps inevitable, and serves as another indication of how Apple is catering to a business audience.) In one sense, the Vision Pro is no different to any other computing platform in Apple’s portfolio. “Some people use Macs for Facebook, others design engine parts on them,” said Greengart. “Over time, I expect a full complement of productivity applications, tools, and services for VisionOS.” Early enterprise uses for AR and VR have mostly centered around employee training and remote assistance — tasks that involve wearing the headset for short periods rather than a full day as a laptop replacement. While the Vision Pro has drawbacks similar to other headsets (battery life and weight, for instance), some new users are already pointing to its effectiveness as a work tool. They credit Apple with largely succeeding with the device’s eye and hand control interface, while the ability to access multiple apps and a large virtual monitor has advantages for productivity. “Using the Apple Vision Pro with native apps arrayed around you and an Apple Silicon MacBook virtual display in the center feels like a productivity superpower,” said Greengart. At the same time, it’s clearly a first-generation device, with a software ecosystem that is just now emerging. Anshel Sag, principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, said the native apps aimed at productivity are “pretty effective,” but also feel like “pared down” versions of their PC counterparts, or “upgraded versions of the mobile apps enhanced with spatial awareness.” Here are six of the notable digital work apps already available for the Vision Pro. Cisco Webex and Zoom Cisco promises an “immersive and intuitive meeting experience” with its native Webex app for visionOS. Users can access core Webex features, with the ability to join a meeting, arrange participant video feeds across their own screen, and create shared content windows. The app is optimized for the Vision Pro, with support for pinch and drag gestures that rely on the device’s hand- and eye-tracking technology. During a meeting, Vision Pro users are represented by their digital Persona, which replicates face and hand movements. Zoom provides a similar meeting experience with its native Vision Pro app, with Personas and access to Zoom’s Team Chat app. It also promises to let users share and interact with 3D objects using the Vision Pro in an update later this year. Microsoft Office apps Several Microsoft Office apps have been optimized for the Vision Pro, including Excel, PowerPoint, Word, and Teams. The PowerPoint app marries well with the Vision Pro’s virtual environments, where users can practice their presentation just as they would present to an audience. Access to Excel spreadsheets is less immediately obvious, but one advantage cited by Microsoft is the ability to move graphs and charts between documents or Teams chats more efficiently. In Teams, users can send chat messages, open calendars and access other Teams apps such as the Viva Engage social network, or join a Teams video meeting. Once in a meeting, a user can join with the Vision Pro persona. (Microsoft plans to add support for its own Mesh 3D environments later this year.) Microsoft is expected to release more native visionOS apps this year, but, for now, at the top of the wish list for many is Intune compatibility. Microsoft 365 users have complained that they are unable to access corporate apps using the Vision Pro without support for the enterprise device management platform. Box With its app for Vision Pro, Box promises to make content sharing more immersive, particularly when accessing 3D files that can be viewed and manipulated in virtual or mixed-reality environments. Box offers up several use cases: manufacturers viewing product renderings on a virtual shop floor; construction firms accessing blueprints alongside project stakeholders; or retailers testing display window designs. Additionally, the Vision Pro’s “infinite desktop” — in other words, the ability to view several screens and apps at the same time — means 3D content can be displayed alongside other sources of information. Adobe Lightroom Adobe’s Lightroom video editing app is one of four native apps available for the Vision Pro; the Fresco sketch app, Behance social network, and generative AI tool Firefly have also gotten the spatial computing treatment. The Lightroom app for visionOS functions much like the regular version of the app, with the ability to manipulate images on a large virtual screen using the Vision Pro inputs, as well as Bluetooth mouse and keyboard. JigSpace JigSpace, an interactive 3D presentation app, showcases the collaboration benefits of the Vision Pro. JigSpace lets coworkers view, annotate and manipulate 3D content such as engine designs in mixed reality, placing virtual objects in physical environments. Early success, but room for improvement In their initial days of using the Vision Pro, Greengart and Sag both pointed to certain pros and cons affecting work-related tasks. There are limitations around collaboration, for example, with the Persona digital avatars not hitting the mark currently. “Attending a video call with a Persona can be off-putting; this will improve, but for now this is more a way to avoid taking the headset off and less a reason to put it on in the first place,” said Greengart. “It is weird using your Persona on a call,” said Sag, as the digital avatar “doesn’t look as good as it should.” The first visionOS software update (v1.1) offers some improvement however, he said. The combination of the Magic Keyboard and touchpad for productivity works well, said Sag, aside from some connectivity issues on starting the headset. “The setup was easy but there were a lot of times when I tried to use the keyboard and it just didn’t work; the same goes for the touchpad,” he said. Adapting to Vision Pro’s eye-tracking input is challenging in certain circumstances too. “[T]rying to move around the cursor with your eyes in a large Word document does take some getting used to,” he said. But while it can be more difficult to navigate iPad apps using the Vision Pro’s “stare-and-pinch” inputs, said Greengart, native apps naturally make for a better user experience. Given how new the Vision Pro and the visionOS ecosystem are, it will take time for vendors to update existing digital work tools for the device and optimize their software to take better advantage of the Vision Pro’s immersive capabilities. The indications are positive, said Sag. “I’ve spoken to a few developers in the enterprise space that seem keen on supporting Vision Pro, even if the install base might not be there yet,” he said.

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The Enigmatic Ruins of Otricoli

An insight on the Roman Ruins of Otricoli In the heart of Italy, nestled among the verdant hills of Umbria, lie the ancient ruins of Otricoli, a site that whispers the tales of a bygone era. Once a flourishing city of the Roman Empire, today it offers a serene escape into the past, where history and nature intertwine to tell a story of civilization, conquest, and cultural amalgamation. This article delves into the captivating history, archaeological significance, and enduring allure of the Otricoli ruins, inviting readers on a journey through time. A Glimpse into History Otricoli, situated on the southern edge of Umbria, near the banks of the Tiber River, was originally an important settlement of the ancient Umbri people before coming under Roman control in the 3rd century BC. Its strategic location along the Via Flaminia, the Roman road connecting Rome to the Adriatic Sea, made it a vital outpost for trade and military movements. Over centuries, Otricoli evolved from a bustling hub of commerce and interaction into a serene archaeological site, offering a panoramic view into the Roman way of life. Archaeological Marvels Unearthed The excavations at Otricoli have brought to light remarkable structures that echo the architectural prowess of the Romans. Among the most significant finds is the remnants of the Roman theater, which once resonated with the dramatic performances of classical antiquity. Although only the foundational structures remain, they provide a fascinating insight into the cultural life of its ancient inhabitants. Adjacent to the theater, the ruins of a Roman bath complex showcase the importance of public baths in Roman society, serving as centers for socialization, relaxation, and hygiene. The intricate mosaics and the layout of the baths reflect the sophisticated engineering and architectural skills of the Romans. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Otricoli is the remains of the temple, dedicated to the goddess Fortuna. This sacred site, with its fragmented columns and sanctified grounds, offers a rare glimpse into the religious practices and spiritual life of the Roman people. The Sculptural Treasures of Otricoli Otricoli is also renowned for its exquisite collection of Roman sculptures, many of which have been transferred to prominent museums, including the Vatican Museum. These sculptures, characterized by their realism and artistic excellence, depict various gods, goddesses, and notable figures, providing invaluable insights into Roman art, mythology, and society. Embracing Nature and History Today, the ruins of Otricoli are more than just an archaeological site; they are a testament to the enduring legacy of the Roman Empire. Visitors to Otricoli can wander among the ancient ruins, enveloped by the serene beauty of the Umbrian countryside. The site offers a unique opportunity to connect with the past, imagining the lives of those who once walked its streets, bathed in its waters, and worshipped in its temples. The ruins of Otricoli stand as a silent witness to the ebb and flow of empires, a reminder of the transient nature of human endeavors against the backdrop of time. Yet, in their quiet decay, they hold the power to inspire awe and wonder, bridging the gap between the past and the present. For history enthusiasts, scholars, and tourists alike, Otricoli offers a tangible link to our ancient heritage, inviting us to reflect on the civilizations that have shaped our world.

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Thousands of Khan supporters block highways to protest Pakistan’s election results

Candidates backed by Khan won more seats than the political parties who ousted him from power nearly two years ago, according to the final tally published Sunday. However, no party won a majority, so the parties will have to hold talks on forming a coalition government. The new parliament chooses the country’s next prime minister. Thursday’s vote to choose a new parliament was overshadowed by the vote-rigging allegations, an unprecedented mobile phone shutdown, and the exclusion of Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, from the vote. While election winners were celebrating victory, PTI and other parties refused to accept their defeat in dozens of constituencies. Dozens of Khan’s supporters were briefly detained in the eastern city of Lahore over the weekend while protesting alleged vote-rigging. Jan Achakzai, a government spokesman in the southwest province of Baluchistan, urged protesters to “show grace” by accepting defeat and moving away from the highways. Khan could not run in the election because of the criminal convictions against him that he says are politically motivated. Candidates aligned with Khan secured 101 out of 266 seats in the National Assembly, or lower house of parliament. The Pakistan Muslim League-N party led by three-time premier and ex-felon Nawaz Sharif secured 75. Sharif is currently in talks with allies to form a coalition government. The Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, led by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, came in third with 54 seats. One result has been withheld and another vote was postponed because of a candidate’s death. The campaign to kick Khan out of office in 2022 was led by the PML-N and the PPP. Pakistan’s military has always cast itself as the ultimate arbiter of who becomes prime minister, and Sharif was marked out as the powerful security establishment’s preferred candidate because of his smooth return to the country last October. Read moreThe ‘generals’ elections’ in Pakistan that turned against the military Sharif spent four years in exile to avoid serving prison sentences but his convictions were overturned within weeks of his arrival in Pakistan. (AP)

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Israeli forces rescue 2 hostages in dramatic Gaza raid that killed at least 67 Palestinians

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli forces rescued two hostages early Monday, storming a heavily guarded apartment in the Gaza Strip and extracting the captives under fire in a dramatic raid that was a small but symbolically significant success for Israel. The operation killed at least 67 Palestinians, including women and children, according to Palestinian health officials in the beleaguered territory. To assist the rescue forces, heavy airstrikes pounded the area near the apartment in Rafah, a city on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip where 1.4 million Palestinians have fled to escape fighting elsewhere in the Israel-Hamas war. The raid was celebrated in Israel as a victory in the sluggish battle to free the hostages, with more than 100 captives still held by Hamas and other Gaza militants, and briefly lifted the spirits of a nation still reeling from Hamas’ cross-border raid last year. But in Gaza, where civilians have borne a staggering toll since the war erupted on Oct. 7, the operation unleashed another wartime tragedy, with many Palestinians killed or wounded. More than 12,300 Palestinian minors — children and young teens — have been killed in Israel’s war against Hamas, the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Monday. That means minors make up about 47% of the total number of 28,176 Palestinians killed so far. About 8,400 women were also among those killed. The ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians, provided the breakdown of minors and women at the request of The Associated Press. Israel claims to have killed thousands of Hamas fighters. The plight of the hostages has profoundly shaken Israelis and the government has made freeing the dozens of remaining captives a top aim of its war, along with destroying Hamas’ military and governing capabilities. But as the fighting drags on, now in its fifth month, their freedom remains elusive and rifts have emerged in Israel over the best approach to end their ordeal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted persistent military pressure will bring about their freedom — a position he repeated on Monday — even as other top officials have opposed this, saying a deal is the only way to secure their release. Israel has described Rafah as the last remaining Hamas stronghold in Gaza and signaled that its ground offensive may soon target the densely populated city. On Sunday, the White House said President Joe Biden had warned Netanyahu that Israel should not conduct a military operation against Hamas in Rafah without a “credible and executable” plan to protect civilians. The army identified the rescued hostages as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, abducted by Hamas militants from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak in the Oct. 7 cross-border attack that triggered the war. Netanyahu’s office said they also hold Argentinian citizenship. They were among roughly 250 taken captive during Hamas’ stunning cross-border raid, when an estimated 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed, according to Israeli authorities. In addition to the thousands killed, Israeli’s retaliatory air and ground offensive has displaced over 80% of the population and set off a massive humanitarian crisis. Over 100 hostages were freed during a weeklong cease-fire in November. Israel says about 100 hostages remain in Hamas captivity, and Hamas also holds the remains of roughly 30 others who were either killed on Oct. 7 or died in captivity. Three hostages were mistakenly killed by the army after escaping their captors in December. “Only the continuation of the military pressure, until total victory, will bring about the release of all of our captives,” Netanyahu said in a statement.A DRAMATIC RAID Israeli military spokesman Read Adm. Daniel Hagari said special forces broke into a second-floor apartment in Rafah under fire at 1:49 a.m. Monday, accompanied a minute later by airstrikes on surrounding areas. He said the hostages were being guarded by armed Hamas militants and that members of the rescue team shielded the hostages with their bodies as a heavy battle erupted in several places at once with Hamas gunmen. The hostages were taken to a nearby “safe area,” given a quick medical check and airlifted to Sheba Medical Center in central Israel. Their medical condition was reported to be good. They are just the second and third hostages to be rescued safely; a female soldier was rescued in November. The rescue, which Hagari said was based on precise intelligence and planned for some time, is a morale booster for Israelis but a small step toward winning the release of the remaining hostages, who are believed to be spread out and hidden in tunnels, likely in poor condition. Har and Marman were kidnapped from a home in southern Israel along with three other relatives who were freed in the late-November deal. No other family members of theirs remain in Gaza, Israeli media reported. Har’s son-in-law, Idan Begerano, who saw the released captives at the hospital, said the two men were thin and pale, but communicating well and aware of their surroundings. Begerano said Har told him immediately upon seeing him: “You have a birthday today, mazal tov.”DOZENS KILLED IN STRIKES The airstrikes that backed up the Israeli forces hit the jam-packed Rafah in the middle of the night and dozens of explosions could be heard around 2 a.m. Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza, said at least 67 people were killed in the strikes. Al-Qidra said rescuers were still searching the rubble; an Associated Press journalist counted at least 50 bodies at the Abu Youssef al-Najjar Hospital in Rafah. Footage circulating on social media from Rafah’s Kuwaiti hospital showed dead or wounded children. The footage could not immediately be verified but was consistent with AP reporting. The wounded were seen lying on the hospital floor as medics tried to treat them. One wounded man was on the ground with two bloodied children lying beside him. “Rescue the girl,” he screamed. A young man was also seen carrying the body of an infant who he said was killed in the attacks. He said the girl, the daughter of his neighbor, was born and killed during the war. “Let Netanyahu come and see: is this (infant) your bank of targets?” he said. “For what is she to blame?”CONCERNS ABOUT RAFAH Netanyahu has said sending ground troops into Rafah is essential to meeting Israel’s war goals. Biden has urged Israel to exercise extreme caution before moving in. More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population is now crammed into Rafah, where hundreds of thousands live in sprawling tent camps and overcrowded U.N. shelters. Biden’s remarks, made in a phone call with Netanyahu late Sunday, were his most forceful language yet on the possible operation. Discussion of the potential for a cease-fire agreement took up much of the call, a senior U.S. administration official said, and after weeks of diplomacy, a “framework” is now “pretty much” in place for a deal that could see the release of remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a halt to fighting. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, acknowledged that “gaps remain,” but declined to give details. The official said military pressure on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis in recent weeks helped bring the group closer to accepting a deal. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call. Hamas’ Al-Aqsa television station earlier quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” the talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar. Biden and Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt threatened to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if troops are sent into Rafah. The Camp David peace accords have been a cornerstone of regional stability for over 40 years. Egypt fears a mass influx of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return. ___ Federman reported from Jerusalem and Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report. (Copyright (c) 2023 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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College admissions upended by FAFSA financial aid form glitches

Esmeralda Bernal is the valedictorian of Downtown Magnets High School this year, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who never went to college. She’s taken 18 college-level classes and aced them with a cumulative 4.5 GPA while taking on leadership roles in her school’s robotics and math clubs. She dreams of becoming a civil engineer. Yet the brainy senior couldn’t get past glitches to submit her federal financial aid form for more than a month. A new form designed to be simpler was just the opposite for her: impenetrable. She had been trying to reach the U.S. Department of Education’s help line since early January, to no avail. Finally, after calling 13 times one day last week, she got someone on the line who could help. She submitted her form and is anxiously waiting for the federal information to be sent to colleges, which use the all-important FAFSA form, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to craft aid packages that let students know whether they can afford their dream schools. For Esmeralda, it’s MIT, Smith College and UC Berkeley. “It was really frustrating,” said Esmeralda. “It didn’t feel simpler to me.” As tens of thousands of California students struggle through one of the most stressful times of their high school journeys — the wait for college acceptance letters — their anxiety has been compounded this year by a chaotic and glitch-filled rollout of newly designed FAFSA forms. Panicked high school seniors and their counselors describe the situation as a fiasco, chaos and scary. The online form, which was previously opened in late October, did not become fully accessible until mid-January. That delay and numerous reported snags have resulted in a steep drop in the number of financial aid forms submitted. As of late January, about 700,000 seniors nationwide had submitted applications, declining from about 1.5 million applicants the same time last year, according to the National College Attainment Network, which analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education. In California, only 16.1% of seniors had submitted a FAFSA through Feb. 2, a drop of more than 57% from that same date the previous year, according to the network’s data. The numbers at local schools show alarming drops in completions. At Downtown Magnets, which often wins honors from L.A. Unified for high rates of FAFSA completion, only one-third as many seniors had completed the form as of Jan. 26 compared with last year, according to federal data. And fewer than five forms had been successfully processed, leaving virtually all of that school’s students in financial aid limbo. As of late last week, Pasadena High would normally have about 75% of FAFSA applications submitted for seniors. Instead, the number is about 17%, counselors said. Other Pasadena Unified schools reported similar numbers. For Muir High, it was 14% instead of 80%. For Marshall Fundamental High, it was 28% instead of 75%. The delays prompted the University of California and California State University to announce last week they would extend their May 1 deadline for first-year students to accept their admission offers for fall 2024. Both systems announced extensions until at least May 15. The California Student Aid Commission, which distributes state Cal Grants, also extended the priority deadline to submit financial aid applications by one month, to April 2. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has acknowledged the problems, saying officials are “determined to get this right.” His department last week pledged to provide additional personnel, funding, technology and other resources to students, high schools and colleges. But on the ground, in high schools across the state, confusion reigns. “This is just the biggest fiasco,” said Lynda McGee, a counselor at Downtown Magnets for 24 years. “I’ve never seen anything in all the years I’ve been a counselor that even begins to compare to this level of dysfunction.” At their monthly meeting last Thursday, counselors in Pasadena Unified described a cascade of problems. Sometimes parents and students got to the end of the form, but the system would not let them create the account, saying there was an error but not explaining what it was. Some who didn’t finish the form on the first try or needed to correct a mistake were locked out. After waiting four weeks, one family was finally able to get a “case number,” meaning they were in line for help with FAFSA problems. But the student’s parent did not speak English — and federal FAFSA advisors speak almost exclusively English. In her confusion, the student made an inadvertent mistake and the system canceled her case number. She had to fill out another form to get a new case number — and wait another month as a result, said Renee Cruz, a college counselor at Muir High School. Students also have been caught in feedback loops, with the system telling them they have a FAFSA account when they don’t. When they try to access it by changing the password, they’re told to create an account. For one Muir High family, the computer system combined the information for twins into one account as one person — and the mother could not create two accounts no matter what she tried. Frustrated counselors report turning to Facebook counselor groups and even Reddit — which have no connection to the FAFSA system — for tips. Krystal Rodas, a college and career advisor at Pasadena High, could find no solution to mysterious error messages on the website. When she got through on the phone, “they kept saying that there was no solution. It was an ongoing issue.” Particularly damaging to students with immigrant parents, the system appears to be especially troublesome when parents do not have a Social Security number. Maria Torres, a Marshall Fundamental High counselor, learned that leaving blank the address section for parents without Social Security numbers might work. It did for two people but none of the others, she said. Financial aid submissions that the federal government typically processed in five to seven days are being pushed off till March, the counselors reported. That means colleges will be jammed as well — even if they push back their own deadlines. Filling out the FAFSA has become something of a universal experience for high school seniors and their families. Only the most prosperous families can afford to forgo all financial aid — with the average total cost of attending a four-year college, including loan repayment and lost wages, often surpassing half a million dollars. At Calabasas High, senior Ella Shapiro has no expectation of qualifying for a federal Pell Grant for low-income students, as her father is a physician and her mother works in fashion. But she understands that colleges typically require the FAFSA for their own institutional grants and supplemental aid, including federally subsidized loans and work opportunities. She said the software was “hard to get on and stay on the website. ” For about two weeks, she also kept getting messages saying the system was down and to try again later. Counselors held meetings and tried to troubleshoot issues. After two weeks of problems, she thinks she has successfully submitted her form: “I’m crossing my fingers at this point.” At Downtown Magnets High School, Hero Khun is the son of Cambodian immigrants without college degrees who opened a doughnut shop in 2019. When the pandemic hit and campuses closed, he would wake up at 4 a.m. and help them until online classes started at about 8 a.m. He still works on weekends while juggling a rigorous course load of Advanced Placement classes; he currently has a 4.0 GPA and dreams of becoming a physical therapist. Hero said he misunderstood one question and wrongly reported that his parents were unwilling to share financial information. But he can’t get back into his account to fix the error until mid-March, when the FAFSA portal will accept corrections. He worries that might be too late to position him for a strong financial aid package should he be admitted to his top choices — USC and Occidental. “It’s kind of worrying because a lot of schools wanted the FAFSA information early on, and I can’t do anything about it now; I just have to wait,” he said. For Zoe Jeronimo, a senior at Blair High in Pasadena, financial aid will be crucial to attending college at all. Her father is a gardener; her mother a homemaker who raises three children and finds some work as a housekeeper. Neither of her immigrant parents attended college or speaks fluent English, leaving Zoe to navigate the college-application process on her own, with help from counselors. She’s spent parts of about 15 days attempting to complete the form, but the system still won’t let her complete the form on behalf of her father. A high-achieving student with a passion for biology — and an internship at Huntington Hospital Medical Research Institutes under her belt — Zoe worries that the delay could crush her college dreams. “Filling out the FAFSA has been like a really scary thing and worrisome because my father and my mother and I keep thinking: What if I got accepted to a school I really wanted, like UCLA, but can’t afford it?”

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Opinion: Cement doesn’t have to be big part of the carbon problem

In 2014, hundreds of Angelenos gathered downtown to watch more than 2,000 trucks pour concrete into a vast hole. During that event, Los Angeles set a world record: 80 million pounds of concrete were laid down over 18 straight hours to form the foundation for the Wilshire Grand Center, which now towers 73 stories over the city. This material that has been used for thousands of years, that formed the Colosseum and the Pantheon, has become indispensable. It’s the most-consumed human-made material on Earth. It’s also one of society’s biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, manufacturing of cement — which binds together sand and rock to form concrete — emits 8% of the carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere, contributing to the climate change that’s causing wildfires, hurricanes and record heat waves. Cement and concrete manufacturing emits as much carbon dioxide as India. We can’t stop building the homes, factories and roads we rely on, but we can and should stop cement’s unchecked emissions. Fortunately, new technologies are beginning to show the way forward, even promising that cement production could one day pull carbon from the atmosphere and become part of the solution to global warming. In cement manufacturing, limestone and other ingredients are added to a kiln. In the standard process today, fossil fuels are burned to heat the kiln, emitting carbon dioxide. The heat breaks down the limestone, freeing carbon trapped inside the rock, emitting more carbon dioxide. This makes cement a massive source of the greenhouse gas emissions accelerating climate change — and its use is projected to keep increasing through 2050, driven by growing global population, urbanization, wealth and infrastructure needs. Here in California, we produce more cement than any other state except Texas. In 2022, our state’s cement plants emitted more than 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the emissions from 2 million cars and SUVs or 22 gas-fired power plants. This makes our state an excellent laboratory in which to find solutions. Electrically heated cement kilns and limestone alternatives could drastically cut climate pollution. For instance, one Oakland-based company is commercializing cement made from carbon-free calcium silicate rock, which emits no carbon dioxide when processed in a kiln. By combining clean heat with carbon-free minerals or equipment to capture the carbon emissions from breaking down limestone, cement-making could become carbon neutral by 2045. That’s an excellent first step, but the innovations happening today could take us beyond carbon neutral. After concrete is made, it gradually absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a process called carbonation. With the ingredients and techniques common today, making cement produces more emissions than the material can later absorb, so every new ton of cement worsens climate change. But if cement kilns are heated with clean electricity and the emissions from breaking down minerals are avoided or stored underground, then the simple act of pouring concrete would remove carbon pollution from the air. New construction would help repair our climate. This won’t happen on its own. Governments will have to implement smart policies to incentivize clean cement manufacturing. California is taking the lead, but the race isn’t over. In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 596, which requires the state’s cement producers to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. Then, last August, the California Building Standards Commission established limits on emissions from manufacturing the materials used in large commercial and school buildings. We’re the first state in the nation to consider these “embodied” emissions in building codes. Next, California should do more to help cement-makers achieve their net-zero target. The 2017 Buy Clean California Act mandated that state infrastructure projects prioritize steel, glass and insulation manufactured with low-emission processes. This provides a protected market in which low-carbon manufacturers can sell products without competition from dirty materials, helping scale up clean manufacturing and drive down its costs. Unfortunately, concrete was removed from the bill before it became law, which seemed at the time designed to spare the industry from regulation. In retrospect, its exclusion denied cement makers and concrete makers a lucrative market that could have paid above-market rates to help them commercialize clean cement technology. The state Legislature should amend the statute to include cement and concrete, as well as other important construction materials, such as aluminum. Additionally, the Building Standards Commission can expand the market for clean cement by extending limits on embodied emissions to additional building types. And supporting clean cement used in projects funded by the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank could provide incentives in a way that does not worsen California’s budget deficit. Cement is an ancient invention that remains crucial to the modern world. But producing it using old-fashioned methods is taking a terrible toll on our climate. Fortunately, innovative cement technologies can simultaneously build stronger societies and fight climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One of today’s biggest climate threats could become the foundation of a sustainable future. Jeffrey Rissman is senior director of the industry program at Energy Innovation, an energy and climate policy research firm in San Francisco. His book “Zero-Carbon Industry” will be published Feb. 27.

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Kremlin unaware if Putin to congratulate Stubb given Finland’s ‘unfriendly stance’

MOSCOW, February 12. /TASS/. Finland and its current authorities take an unfriendly stance toward Moscow, Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday in commenting on whether President Vladimir Putin may potentially extend his formal congratulations to Finnish President-elect Alexander Stubb. “Finland is currently on the [Russian] list of unfriendly countries. It fully sides with the sanctions [against Russia] and statements by the president-elect are of an extremely unfriendly nature,” Peskov said. Finland held the second, runoff round of its presidential election on Sunday, which former Prime Minister Stubb won, securing 51.6% of the vote. His election rival Pekka Haavisto, a Finnish parliament member and former foreign minister, garnered 48.4% of the vote. Voter turnout for the presidential election was reported at 67.6% Finland’s president-elect will take the formal oath of office in early March. Alexander Stubb was born on April 1, 1968. In 2008-2010, he served as Finland’s foreign minister. In 2010-2014 he was minister for EU Affairs and Foreign Trade, and then moved up to the post of prime minister, which he held in 2014-2015. In 2020, he left politics to join the faculty of the Florence School of Transnational Governance in Italy as a lecturer.

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Yemen’s Houthis target US-linked ship with missiles

Houthi fighters have fired on a ship that they identified as United States-owned while it travelled in waters off Yemen. The Iran-linked armed group said on Monday that the Star Iris was targeted with “a number of suitable naval missiles” in “accurate and direct” strikes. The Houthis have attacked numerous ships in the Red Sea in recent months, disrupting the key trade route between Europe and Asia, and called for an end to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Yahya Saree, the Houthis military spokesman said that the strike on the vessel, owned by the US-listed, Greece-based firm Star Bulk Carriers Corp, came “in vindication of the oppressed Palestinian people, in support and solidarity with our brothers in the Gaza Strip”. The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) confirmed that a vessel was attacked by two missiles at 00:35 GMT some 40 nautical miles (74km) south of al-Makha (Mocha) in Yemen. “The crew are reported safe and the vessel is proceeding to next port of call,” it said, advising transit through waters near Yemen with caution. UKMTO WARNING INCIDENT 029 Update 001 https://t.co/XsgrK5uW2N#MaritimeSecurity #MarSec pic.twitter.com/DqP9vcptKg — United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) (@UK_MTO) February 12, 2024 Saree also called the attack “retaliation to the American-British aggression on our country”. In recent weeks, the US and UK have responded to the ongoing attacks on maritime traffic by launching strikes on Houthi-held Yemeni territory. However, the Houthis appear undeterred. The spokesman reiterated that the group intends to continue to target vessels in the Red Sea until the war ends. The latest Houthi attack comes less than two days after the latest “self-defence strikes” by the US military, which has been pounding Yemen with munitions launched from aircraft and warships near Yemen. The US Central Command (CENTCOM) said on Sunday that its newest attacks a day earlier had targeted two unmanned surface vessels and three mobile anti-ship cruise missiles.

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