AP News in Brief 03-09-19

  • Mats Pettersson, of Sweden, mushes along the frozen Bering Sea coast outside Nome, Alaska, on March 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)

Technology brings rugged Iditarod race to global audience

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Far from competitors tackling the frozen wilderness in Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a dozen people are holed up inside an Anchorage hotel behind banks of computers, tracking the punishing route and connecting with global fans seeking a real-time link to the off-the-grid sport.

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As of Friday, 51 mushers are traveling long stretches between remote village checkpoints with no other company but the dogs pulling their sleds. But they’re not competing in a vacuum on the 1,000-mile trail that spans two mountain ranges and the frozen Yukon River before it heads up the wind-scrubbed Bering Sea Coast to the finish line in the Gold Rush town of Nome.

Their progress is monitored from several hotel rooms whose 24/7 occupants are the Iditarod’s electronic eyes and ears. Technology has increasingly made the 47-year-old race more immediate to fans and safer for competitors, said Chas St. George, acting CEO of the Iditarod Trail Committee, the race’s governing board.

“This is a really low-tech event when you look at it from that perspective, but high-tech research has always been a huge part of the race,” he said Wednesday during a tour of the Iditarod’s hotel command post.

This is where volunteers and race contractors monitor the dog teams through sleds equipped with GPS trackers that allow fans to follow them online in real time and organizers to ensure no one is missing. Some serve as aircraft dispatchers for a cadre of pilots who ferry supplies as well as mushers and dogs that drop out.

Others process live video streamed from checkpoints along the rugged trail, using satellite dishes. Some volunteers handle race-standing updates sent through equipment first tested last year, making it possible to activate a super-size hot spot in the most remote places with satellite connections.

Venezuela buckles under massive power, communications outage

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s worst power and communications outage on Friday deepened a sense of isolation and decay, endangering hospital patients, forcing schools and businesses to close and cutting people off from their families, friends and the outside world. While electricity returned to some parts of Caracas nearly 24 hours after lights, phones and the internet stopped working, the blackout was another harsh blow to a country paralyzed by economic and political turmoil.

Many of the few shops that were open were only accepting cash because without electricity and the internet they couldn’t process debit card payments, a common method of doing transactions in Venezuela since hyperinflation transformed the bolivar into one of the world’s most worthless currencies.

“I’m desperate,” said Maria Isabel Garcia, a 39-year-old office worker who hadn’t been able to cook anything for her three young children. She had planned to buy empanadas but had no cash because the bank didn’t have any when she went there on Thursday.

Another Caracas resident who is diabetic was searching for ice to preserve his limited supply of insulin medication.

Venezuelans are accustomed to power cuts, but nothing like the one that hit during rush hour Thursday evening, sending thousands of people on long nighttime treks in the dark to their homes. It reached virtually every part of the oil-rich country of 31 million, which was once Latin America’s wealthiest but is now beset by shortages and hyperinflation projected by the International Monetary Fund to reach a staggering 10 million percent this year, compelling about one-tenth of its population to flee in recent years.

Chelsea Manning jailed for refusing to testify on WikiLeaks

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who served years in prison for leaking one of the largest troves of classified documents in U.S. history, was sent to jail Friday for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.

U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton ordered Manning to jail for civil contempt of court after a brief hearing in federal court in Alexandria in which Manning confirmed she has no intention of testifying. She told the judge she “will accept whatever you bring upon me.”

Manning has said she objects to the secrecy of the grand jury process and already revealed everything she knows at her court-martial. She said prosecutors have granted her immunity for her testimony, which eliminates her ability to invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

“I will not participate in a secret process that I morally object to, particularly one that has been used to entrap and persecute activists for protected political speech,” she said in a statement released after she was taken into custody.

The judge said she will remain jailed until she testifies or until the grand jury concludes its work.

Smollett indicted on 16 counts stemming from reported attack

CHICAGO — A grand jury in Chicago indicted “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett on 16 felony counts related to making a false report that he was attacked by two men who shouted racial and homophobic slurs.

The Cook County grand jury indictment filed Thursday says he made a false report about an offense.

Smollett was charged on Feb. 20 with one count of disorderly conduct for filing a false police report.

Smollett told police in late January that he was physically attacked by two men in downtown Chicago. The actor said the men shouted at him, wrapped a rope around his neck and poured an “unknown substance” on him. Police said Smollett, who is black and gay, told detectives the attackers also yelled he was in “MAGA country,” an apparent reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. After an investigation, Chicago police said Smollett recruited two men to stage the attack because he was upset with his pay on the Fox show.

From wire sources

Smollett has denied playing a role in the attack.

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Trump pays his respects to 23 killed by Alabama tornado

BEAUREGARD, Ala. — Head bowed, President Donald Trump paid respects Friday to the 23 people killed when a powerful tornado roared through a rural Alabama town, observing a moment of silence before white wooden crosses that stood in remembrance of each victim.

Trump and his wife, Melania, held hands as they paused in front of each of the markers erected near a church serving as a makeshift disaster relief center for survivors of Sunday’s twister.

Earlier, the president stood on a hill overlooking a debris field and surveyed mangled trees and other wreckage.

Trump flew by airplane to a military base on the Georgia-Alabama border and boarded a helicopter that provided him with an aerial tour of the region before he arrived in Beauregard, which bore the brunt of the storm.

“We saw things that you wouldn’t believe,” Trump said after visiting a section of town where tornado winds tore houses from their foundations and uprooted trees. Mangled metal siding, wood planks and piping lay strewn on the ground, along with remnants of everyday life: items of clothing, a sofa, a bottle of Lysol cleaner and a welcome mat encrusted with dirt.

Bill Shine resigns from White House communications post

WASHINGTON — Bill Shine, a former Fox News executive who took over as President Donald Trump’s communications director last summer, exited the White House on Friday, the latest person to step away from a job that has become a revolving door within the turbulent West Wing.

Shine will join the president’s Republican re-election campaign, the White House said in a laudatory statement that quoted Trump and other top White House officials.

When Shine joined the administration, he was viewed as an experienced hand whose television experience could help shape Trump’s message. But like others before him, Shine was forced to grapple with a president who preferred to run his own communications strategy via tweet. In recent weeks, Trump had expressed frustration that Shine had not done more to improve his press coverage, said two people close to the president who were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The announcement took many in the West Wing by surprise, though there were signs of unrest lately. Shine did not join Trump on his high-stakes trip to Vietnam for a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Still, Trump said in a statement: “We will miss him in the White House, but look forward to working together on the 2020 Presidential Campaign, where he will be totally involved.”

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Court denies new trial in ‘Serial’ podcast murder case

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Maryland’s highest court denied a new trial Friday for a man whose murder conviction was chronicled in the hit podcast “Serial.”

In a 4-3 opinion, the Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court that Adnan Syed’s legal counsel was deficient in failing to investigate an alibi witness, but it disagreed that the deficiency prejudiced the case. The court said Syed waived his ineffective counsel claim.

The court reversed a Court of Special Appeals’ judgment, sending the case back to that court with directions to reverse a Baltimore Circuit Court judgment granting a new trial.

Syed is serving a life sentence after he was convicted in 2000 of strangling 17-year-old Hae Min Lee and burying her body in a Baltimore park. More than a decade later, the popular “Serial” podcast brought Syed’s case to millions of listeners with its debut 2014 season. The show revealed little-known evidence and attracted millions of listeners, shattering podcast-streaming and downloading records.

In 2016, a lower court ordered a retrial for Syed on grounds that his attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, who died in 2004, didn’t contact an alibi witness and provided ineffective counsel. The state appealed. The special appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling last year and the state appealed that decision, too.

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US adds just 20K jobs; unemployment dips to 3.8 pct.

WASHINGTON — Hiring tumbled in February, with U.S. employers adding just 20,000 jobs, the smallest monthly gain in nearly a year and a half. The slowdown in hiring, though, might have been depressed by harsh winter weather and the partial shutdown of the government.

Last month’s weak gain came after employers had added a blockbuster 311,000 jobs in January, the most in nearly a year. And over the past three months, job growth has averaged a solid 186,000, enough to lower the unemployment rate over time.

Despite the tepid pace of hiring in February, the government’s monthly jobs report Friday included several positive signs that point to a still-sturdy employment market and economy: Average hourly pay last month rose 3.4 percent from a year earlier — the sharpest year-over-year increase in a decade. The unemployment rate also fell to 3.8 percent, near the lowest level in five decades, from 4 percent in January.

“The U.S. labor market is still in good shape,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial. “Slower job growth was expected after huge average gains of better than 250,000 over the preceding four months. Job growth should bounce back in March and through the rest of this year.”

Last month’s pullback in hiring does follow signs that U.S. economic growth is slowing because of a weaker global economy, a trade war between the United States and China and signs of caution among American consumers. Those factors have led many economists to forecast weaker growth in the first three months of this year.

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Amazon lobbies to exempt employees from labor protections

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Many of Amazon’s Seattle-area employees would be exempt from new labor protections in a bill passed by the state Senate after lobbyists for the tech giant pushed to change a key threshold in the rules.

The protections would partially prohibit non-compete clauses — controversial agreements used by tech companies and others to block employees from going to work for competitors or launching rival startups.

Lawmakers say Amazon lobbied to have the income threshold set at a level that would likely exempt many workers in Seattle.

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The effort came as the company has expanded its presence in the state capital, where its spending has tripled in recent years.

The bill passed the Washington state Senate Tuesday with the salary threshold of $100,000 sought by Amazon. Employees above the threshold would be exempted from the labor protection.

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