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New Year’s Eve in Times Square Still On, With Smaller Crowd




NEW YORK (AP) — Revelers will still ring in the new year in New York’s Times Square next week, there just won’t be as many of them as usual under new restrictions announced Thursday as the city grapples with a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Viewing areas that normally accommodate about 58,000 people will be limited to about 15,000 to allow for more distancing, and everyone in attendance must show proof of vaccination and wear a mask, Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a news release announcing the changes.

“There is a lot to celebrate and these additional safety measures will keep the fully vaccinated crowd safe and healthy as we ring in the New Year,” de Blasio said, noting the city’s success in getting residents vaccinated while also keeping businesses open.

The added precautions for New Year’s Eve in Times Square were spurred by the rapid spread of the omicron variant in the Big Apple, where lines for testing have snaked around blocks in recent days.

On Wednesday, the city set yet another one-day testing record with 22,808 new cases, though a true comparison to the number of cases during the initial COVID-19 surge in spring 2020 is impossible because tests were very limited at the time.

Because of vaccinations, hospitalizations and deaths from the current surge are far fewer than at the pandemic’s height.

The new wave of cases has led to the cancellation of concerts, sporting events and Broadway shows, but de Blasio has shown a strong preference for having the annual Times Square ball drop go on as planned — the last major event of his eight-year tenure, which ends Jan. 1.

Little more than a month ago, de Blasio gleefully announced that a fully vaccinated crowd of hundreds of thousands of people would be back at the iconic celebration — donning goofy 2022-themed glasses and watching a crystal-clad ball drop at midnight — after it was limited last year to small groups of essential workers.

But that was before omicron caught fire, forcing city officials and event organizers to rethink just how many people they wanted to squeeze into the bright, billboard-lined tourist haven known to some as the Crossroads of the World.

On Tuesday, the Fox network gave its verdict, pulling the plug on a planned live broadcast from the New Year’s Eve event. Other networks plan to air the festivities, including Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve on ABC, the stalwart now hosted by Ryan Seacrest.

De Blasio said along with Thursday’s announcement that the city is monitoring the COVID-19 situation and could impose additional precautions if needed. Among the other changes announced Thursday, revelers won’t be allowed into viewing areas until 3 p.m., much later than in past years.

On New Year’s Eve last year, Times Square was mostly empty, with Jennifer Lopez and other artists performing behind police barricades. After vaccines became widely available in the U.S., the city allowed crowds back to the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and other events.

“New York is the best place in the world to celebrate New Year’s Eve and now it will be one of the safest against COVID as well,” Mayor-elect Eric Adams said in a written statement endorsing the new precautions. “New Yorkers and visitors alike can now enjoy Times Square and the rest of our city as we ring in 2022.”

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Ex-rebel Takes Oath As Colombian President in Historic Shift




BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia’s first leftist president was sworn into office Sunday, promising to fight inequality and bring peace to a country long haunted by bloody feuds between the government, drug traffickers and rebel groups.

Gustavo Petro, a former member of Colombia’s M-19 guerrilla group, won the presidential election in June by beating conservative parties that offered moderate changes to the market-friendly economy, but failed to connect with voters frustrated by rising poverty and violence against human rights leaders and environmental groups in rural areas.

On Sunday, he said Colombia was getting a “second chance” to tackle violence and poverty and promised that his government would implement economic policies that seek to end longstanding inequalities and ensure “solidarity” with the nation’s most vulnerable.

The incoming president said he was willing to start peace talks with armed groups across the country and also called on the United States and other developed nations to change drug policies that have focused on the prohibition of substances like cocaine, and fed violent conflicts across Colombia and other Latin American nations.

“It’s time for a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed,” he said. “Of course peace is possible. But it depends on current drug policies being substituted with strong measures that prevent consumption in developed societies.”

Petro is part of a growing group of leftist politicians and political outsiders who have been winning elections in Latin America since the pandemic broke out and hurt incumbents who struggled with its economic aftershocks.

The ex-rebel’s victory was also exceptional for Colombia, where voters had been historically reluctant to back leftist politicians who were often accused of being soft on crime or allied with guerrillas.

A 2016 peace deal between Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia turned the focus of voters away from the violent conflicts playing out in rural areas and gave prominence to problems like poverty and corruption, fueling the popularity of leftist parties in national elections. However, smaller rebel groups like the National Liberation Army and the Gulf Clan continue to fight over drug trafficking routes, illegal gold mines and other resources abandoned by the FARC.

Petro, 62, has described U.S.-led antinarcotics policies as a failure but has also said he would like to work with Washington “as equals,” building schemes to combat climate change or bring infrastructure to rural areas where many farmers say coca leaves are the only viable crop.

Petro also formed alliances with environmentalists during his presidential campaign and has promised to turn Colombia into a “global powerhouse for life” by slowing deforestation and reducing the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.

He has said Colombia will stop granting new licenses for oil exploration and will ban fracking projects, even though the oil industry makes up almost 50% of the nation’s legal exports. He plans to finance social spending with a $10 billion a year tax reform that would boost taxes on the rich and do away with corporate tax breaks.

“He’s got a very ambitious agenda,” said Yan Basset, a political scientist at Bogota’s Rosario University. “But he will have to prioritize. The risk Petro faces is that he goes after too many reforms at once and gets nothing” through Colombia’s congress.

Analysts expect Petro’s foreign policy to be markedly different from that of his predecessor Iván Duque, a conservative who backed Washington’s drug policies and worked with the U.S. government to isolate the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in an attempt to force the authoritarian leader into holding free elections.

Petro has instead said he will recognize Maduro’s government and try to work with the Venezuelan president on several issues, including fighting rebel groups along the porous border between the countries. Some border residents are hoping that improved relations will generate more commerce and job opportunities.

Hours before Petro took office, at the most important border crossing bridge with Venezuela, a group of people carried a Colombian flag as they walked toward Venezuela chanting “Viva Colombia, Viva Venezuela!” Supporters of Maduro held a concert on the Venezuelan side of the border.

In Cúcuta, a city just a few miles from the Venezuelan border, trade school student Daniela Cárdenas is hoping Petro will carry out an educational reform that includes free tuition for college students.

“He has promised so many things,” Cardenas, 19, said after traveling 90 minutes from her rural community to the city. “We must work to be able to pay our student fees, which are quite expensive and, well, that makes many things difficult for us.”

Eight heads of state attended Petro’s inauguration, which was held at a large colonial-era square in front of Colombia’s Congress. Stages with live music and big screens were also placed in parks across Bogota’s city center so that tens of thousands of citizens without invitations to the main event could join the festivities. That marked a big change for Colombia where previous presidential inaugurations were more somber events limited to a few hundred VIP guests.

“It’s the first time that people from the base can come here to be part of a presidential inauguration,” said Luis Alberto Tombe, a member of the Guambiano tribe wearing a traditional blue poncho. “We feel honored to be here.”

But not everyone is feeling so hopeful about Petro’s victory. In Medellin Stefan Bravo, a conservative activist, organized an anti-Petro march on Saturday that was joined by around 500 people. He’s worried Colombia’s new president will erode the separation of powers in the South American country, and follow the policies of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

“Petro does not represent us,” Bravo said. “This government will be a threat to family values, private property and foreign investment.”

Petro won the election by just 2 percentage points, and is still a polarizing figure in Colombia, where many have been wary of having former guerrillas participate in politics.

His Cabinet appointments have also been highly scrutinized: The new president picked an internationally renown economics professor as his finance minister, while also choosing an academic who researches the negative impacts of extractive industries as his minister for mining, and giving the labor ministry to the head of Colombia’s communist party.

“I think he’s trying to forge a balance,” said Sergio Guzmán, a political risk analyst in Bogota. “He has included the activists who he promised to make an integral part of his government, the centrist technocrats who give the markets confidence, and the different political parties with whom he has to govern to pass anything in congress.”


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Former Theranos COO Found Guilty of Federal Fraud




(CNN) — Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, the former COO of failed blood testing startup Theranos and ex-boyfriend of founder Elizabeth Holmes, was found guilty of defrauding investors and patients.

Jury deliberations stretched for four full days following a lengthy trial that got underway in March with opening statements. A jury of five men and seven women determined that Balwani had defrauded both patients and investors, finding him guilty on all 12 charges he faced, which included ten counts of federal wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

During Holmes’ trial, a separate jury acquitted her on charges pertaining to defrauding patients, and were not able to reach a unanimous verdict on three of the charges concerning defrauding investors. She was found guilty on four charges relating to investors.

Balwani, the former president and COO at the failed blood testing startup, was indicted four years ago alongside Holmes, the founder and former CEO, for allegedly defrauding investors and patients. Their trials were severed after Holmes’ legal team outlined in legal filings that she planned to make accusations about their relationship as part of her defense.

Balwani showed little emotion as his fate was read aloud. Afterward, he briefly huddled with a small support system present in the courtroom. The verdict comes roughly six months after Holmes’ trial concluded.

In a statement read outside the courthouse Thursday, US Attorney Stephanie Hinds thanked jurors for “dutifully navigating through the complex issues presented by this case.”

“We appreciate the verdict and look forward to sentencing proceedings,” Hinds said.

In a written statement to CNN Business, Balwani defense attorney Jeffrey Coopersmith of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe said: “We are obviously disappointed with the verdicts. We plan to study and consider all of Mr. Balwani’s options including an appeal.”

Balwani’s verdict marks an end to a rare criminal fraud case against two Silicon Valley startup executives and the final chapter of a company, and a founder, once viewed as a posterchild for the entrepreneurial dream of building a disruptive product with the potential to change the world.

“Balwani is a reminder that she, like everyone, didn’t do it by herself,” Margaret O’Mara, a historian of the tech industry and professor at the University of Washington told CNN Business. “He still had a significant role running the company.”

Holmes founded Theranos when she was 19 years old in an effort to create a cheaper, more efficient alternative to traditional blood testing, a goal she said was inspired by her own fear of needles. The startup later claimed to have developed technology capable of testing for a range of conditions, including cancer and diabetes, using just a few drops of blood. Theranos ultimately raised $945 million from investors, including well-known figures such as media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Walmart’s Walton family. It also struck up partnerships with prominent retailers.

Then it all came crashing down, beginning with a 2015 Wall Street Journal investigation into the startup that revealed holes in its testing methods and technological capabilities.

Balwani’s trial took place in the same San Jose, California courtroom where Holmes was convicted. His case, also presided over by Judge Edward Davila, was pushed back several times due to delays in Holmes’ trial and later by a surge in Covid-19.

To make its case against Balwani, the government called two dozen witnesses as it sought to convince jurors that he knowingly and intentionally lied to and deceived investors and patients in order to get money for Theranos. As with Holmes’ case, the government sought to untangle the layers of the alleged fraud for jurors, including concealing use of third-party manufactured machines, overstating financials, misrepresenting work with pharmaceutical companies and the military, and leveraging the media to perpetuate the scheme.

The defense, on the other hand, called two witnesses to testify. During opening and closing arguments, it portrayed Balwani as having acted in good faith and having believed in the company’s technology. It also argued prosecutors cherry-picked information to prove its case and cast doubt on whether the government had enough evidence for the jury to find Balwani guilty.

Balwani, 57, faces up to 20 years in prison as well as a fine of $250,000 plus restitution for each count of wire fraud and each conspiracy count.

Holmes, 38, is slated to be sentenced in late September. Balwani is scheduled to be sentenced in November.

Balwani’s road to Holmes, and Theranos

While Holmes’ stunning rise and fall is likely what most will remember about the story of Theranos in years to come, O’Mara said Balwani is actually “more representative of the Valley in terms of his career.”

Balwani and Holmes first crossed paths in the summer of 2002. The two met while attending a summer program in Beijing to learn Mandarin. Balwani, nearly 20 years older than Holmes, had already had a successful career in the software industry and as an entrepreneur.

Originally from South Asia, Balwani moved to the United States on a student visa in 1986 to attend college in Texas. After graduating, he came to Silicon Valley and worked for tech companies such as Lotus and Microsoft. He went on to start an e-commerce company, which he eventually sold. By 2002, he was back in school to get his MBA.

As Holmes testified in her own defense in her trial, the two forged a friendship. They kept in touch and their relationship ultimately turned romantic. By 2005, the year after Holmes dropped out of Stanford to work full-time on Theranos, the pair were living together.

Balwani took a formal role at Theranos in 2009, shortly after guaranteeing a $10 million loan to the company. At the recommendation of Theranos’ board, according to Balwani’s defense, he would eventually take on the role of COO and president. Their romantic relationship, however, was largely kept private from investors, employees and business partners.

Under the leadership of Holmes and Balwani, Theranos struck a major retail partnership with Walgreens, hit a $9 billion valuation and received glowing coverage in the press. Holmes was featured on multiple magazine covers and hailed as the rare female founder of a billion-dollar business, not to mention one said to be a paper billionaire.

But in 2015, the Journal reported that Theranos had only ever performed roughly a dozen of the hundreds of tests it offered using its proprietary blood testing device, and with questionable accuracy. The Journal also revealed Theranos was relying on third-party manufactured devices from traditional blood-testing companies rather than its own proprietary technology.

Balwani, who had been overseeing the lab that processed patient samples, departed the company in May 2016. (Their personal relationship also ended at that time.) Theranos voided two years of blood test results.

In 2018, following nearly two years of turmoil, Holmes and Theranos settled “massive fraud” charges with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, but did not admit to or deny any of the allegations as part of the deal. Balwani, on the other hand, is fighting the charges. Coopersmith, the attorney also representing him in his criminal trial, said in a statement at the time that he “accurately represented Theranos to investors to the best of his ability.”

Theranos dissolved soon after.

“Partners in everything”

While their trials were separated, each featured prominently in the other’s court proceedings.

As assistant US attorney Robert Leach told jurors during the prosecution’s opening arguments in Balwani’s trial, the government believes he and Holmes “were partners in everything, including their crimes.”

While Balwani was an integral part of Theranos and a confidante to Holmes throughout her time running the company, he was more of a behind-the-scenes force. In addition to the critical role of overseeing its patient lab, he also oversaw its key retail partnership with Walgreens and managing Theranos’ financial projections. Balwani, at times, also communicated directly with some investors to secure deals.

During her criminal trial, Holmes suggested that Balwani wielded even more power than she did at her own company in some ways. Taking the stand in her own defense, she testified that she was the victim of a decade-long abusive relationship with Balwani. She claimed Balwani exerted tremendous control over her, prescribing a restrictive lifestyle and image to become successful in the business world. At times, she alleged in testimony, he forced her to have sex with him. Balwani’s attorneys have strongly denied the allegations.

Holmes stopped short of saying Balwani directed her to mislead anyone. “He impacted everything about who I was, and I don’t fully understand that,” she testified.

Mark MacDougall, a white-collar defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said both the prosecution and the defense likely benefited by being able to see how evidence and witness testimony fared with jurors in Holmes’ trial. “Each side in Sunny’s trial would have made adjustments based on the outcome of the Holmes case, which could account for a different verdict,” he said.

While Balwani did not take the stand, his defense team’s strategy included pointing the finger back at Holmes. The defense highlighted to jurors that he, too, was a believer in Holmes and in Theranos, just as numerous other notable investors, business partners and employees had been.

The list of people who believed in Holmes and Theranos included Stanford University chemical engineering professor Channing Robertson, who served as the company’s first board member; former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former Secretary of State George Shultz, who also once served on the board.

“That was the board at Theranos that the investors were understandably impressed with, as was Mr. Balwani no doubt,” said Coopersmith, during closing arguments.

The caliber of Theranos’ backers was reflected in the witnesses called by the government. Among those who testified in both trials were investor Chris Lucas, whose uncle Don Lucas was a well-known Silicon Valley investor and onetime chairman of Theranos’ board; Lisa Peterson, who helped vet a deal for the billionaire family of former US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Daniel Mosley, a prominent lawyer who was introduced to Theranos through his longtime client Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State who once served on the board of the company. (Mosley went on to introduce several of his clients to Holmes and Theranos, including the DeVos family.)

“This is what Elizabeth was able to do…the charisma, the drive, the vision, the goal to change diagnostic testing, and he bought into that vision,” added Coopersmith.

Balwani’s attorneys also emphasized a missing database as reason for jurors to be skeptical of the prosecution’s case. The database contained the company’s testing records but the prosecution was never ultimately able to retrieve access before it was destroyed.

“It’s important to the process and to your deliberations that you focus on what actually is in evidence and not speculate about things that are not before you,” said assistant US attorney John Bostic in the prosecution’s rebuttal to the defense’s closing arguments shortly before case went to jurors.


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Top Scientist Admits ‘space Telescope Image’ Was Actually a Slice of Chorizo




 (CNN) — A French scientist has apologized after tweeting a photo of a slice of chorizo, claiming it was an image of a distant star taken by the James Webb Space Telescope.

Étienne Klein, a celebrated physicist and director at France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, shared the image of the spicy Spanish sausage on Twitter last week, praising the “level of detail” it provided.

“Picture of Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun, located 4.2 light years away from us. It was taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. This level of detail… A new world is unveiled everyday,” he told his more than 91,000 followers on Sunday.

The post was retweeted and commented upon by thousands of users, who took the scientist by his word.

Things, however, were not quite as they seemed.

Klein admitted later in a series of follow-up tweets that the image was, in fact, a close-up of a slice of chorizo taken against a black background.

“Well, when it’s cocktail hour, cognitive bias seem to find plenty to enjoy… Beware of it. According to contemporary cosmology, no object related to Spanish charcuterie exists anywhere else other than on Earth”

After facing a backlash from members of the online community for the prank, he wrote: “In view of certain comments, I feel obliged to specify that this tweet showing an alleged picture of Proxima Centauri was a joke. Let’s learn to be wary of the arguments from positions of authority as much as the spontaneous eloquence of certain images.”

On Wednesday, Klein apologized for the hoax, saying his intention was “to urge caution regarding images that seem to speak for themselves.”

In a bid to make amends, he posted an image of the spectacular Cartwheel galaxy, assuring followers that this time the photo was genuine.

The Webb telescope, the most powerful telescope ever launched into space, officially began scientific operations on July 12. It will be able to peer inside the atmospheres of exoplanets and observe some of the first galaxies created after the universe began by viewing them through infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye.

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