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Canada among nations calling for further, transparent COVID-19 origin probe after WHO report release

Canada, the United States and 12 other countries expressed concerns Tuesday that the released World Health Organization (WHO) report on the origins of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was delayed and lacked access to complete data, according to a joint statement.

The statement was also signed by the governments of Australia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia and the United Kingdom.

“Together, we support a transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence, of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement read. “In this regard, we join in expressing shared concerns regarding the recent WHO-convened study in China, while at the same time reinforcing the importance of working together toward the development and use of a swift, effective, transparent, science-based, and independent process for international evaluations of such outbreaks of unknown origin in the future.”

The statement praises the mission of WHO and called for “further studies of animals to find the means of introduction into humans, and urge momentum for expert-driven phase 2 studies.”

The WHO-led team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan, China, in January and February released its final report to the public.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, seen in 2020, called a report on the origins of the novel coronavirus a beginning, but he admitted to member states on Tuesday that the team of experts had some difficulty accessing raw data while in China. (Fabrice Coffrini/Reuters)

WHO report called ‘important beginning’

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement the report was “a very important beginning.”

“Finding the origin of a virus takes time and we owe it to the world to find the source so we can collectively take steps to reduce the risk of this happening again,” Tedros said in his statement. “No single research trip can provide all the answers.”

The joint WHO-China study on the origins of COVID-19 says the virus was probably transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, a finding that became widely known Monday after a draft of the report was obtained by news organizations. The theory was among four that was discussed in detail in the report.

The conclusion that knowledge around virus origins remains incomplete likely means that tensions over how the pandemic started — and whether China has helped or hinder efforts to find out, as the United States has alleged — will continue.

While not mentioning China specifically, Tedros told member states he expected “future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”

Peter Ben Embarek, a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), is shown on Feb. 10 in Wuhan, Hubei province in China. (Aly Song/Reuters)

The leader of the four-week WHO mission to China, Peter Ben Embarek, said on Tuesday he was not pressed to remove anything from its final report, though he did admit there was some difficulty in accessing raw data

It is “perfectly possible” COVID-19 cases were circulating in November or October 2019 around Wuhan, Embarek said, potentially leading to the disease spreading abroad earlier than has been documented.

Lab leak considered least likely possibility

The report acknowledges that there is literature suggesting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the coronavirus disease, may have been circulating earlier as indicated by sewage testing in Spain and Italy. But officials at Tuesday’s news conference said the methodology of those studies need more scrutiny.

Dominic Dwyer, a WHO mission expert, said there was “no obvious evidence” that any Wuhan-area labs were involved in the outbreak.

Some members of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration have promoted a lab leak theory, though they have not provided specific evidence to support their supposition.

READ | WHO report on origins of SARS-CoV-2:

Three laboratories in Wuhan working with coronaviruses had “well-managed,” high-quality biosafety levels, and there had been no reports of compatible respiratory illness among staff during the preceding months, the report said.

Nor had they tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in subsequent blood screening for antibodies, the report said.

The report also discusses evidence — supporting or conflicting — for two other possibilities.

Direct spread from bats to humans was considered as possible, while potential spread through “cold-chain” food products was considered possible but not likely.

White House urges more action from WHO

The White House on Tuesday urged WHO to take additional steps to determine the origins of COVID-19 in its own comment.

“There’s a second stage in this process that we believe should be led by international and independent experts. They should have unfettered access to data. They should be able to ask questions of people who are on the ground at this point in time, and that’s a step the WHO could take,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

WATCH \ WHO last month says it believes lab leak theory unlikely:

Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, a World Health Organization expert who is part of the team investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus, says it is ‘extremely unlikely’ the virus came from a lab in Wuhan, China. 0:36

Earlier Tuesday, more than 20 heads of government and global agencies in a commentary published Tuesday called for an international treaty for pandemic preparedness that they say will protect future generations in the wake of COVID-19.

But there were few details to explain how such an agreement might actually compel countries to act more co-operatively.

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Report: Nintendo ‘Switch Pro’ Will Feature DLSS, New Nvidia Silicon

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A few weeks ago, we wrote about the possibility the rumored Switch refresh coming from Nvidia and Nintendo later this year would use DLSS. Rumors have claimed that the new Switch (sometimes referred to as the Switch Pro) would target 4K rendering when plugged into a dock. Modern gaming GPUs aren’t efficient enough to drive AAA titles at native 4K on handheld power budgets, so it seemed likely that any 4K-capable hybrid solution would use either DLSS or an approach like checkerboard rendering to hit that resolution target.

Today, agreeably, Bloomberg ran a story claiming that the new Switch will indeed use DLSS to reach 4K when played in docked mode. Because the feature will require additional code, it may only be supported on new titles going forward, and the report reiterates claims that the upcoming Switch will have a larger display (7 inches, up from the current 6.2 inches). This doesn’t necessarily require a form factor change. Eliminating the bezels from the current Switch would allow Nintendo to increase the screen size up to 7.5 inches, without changing the physical device at all.

A hypothetical Switch with no bezels. Image posted to Reddit by user agiantbluewhale

DLSS is Nvidia’s deep learning technology for enhancing low-resolution images into high-resolution renders using AI. The technique requires tensor cores, which means a Volta or later GPU, but it offers the potential for much higher resolutions than a device like the Switch can render natively.

Making DLSS a built-in capability of newer titles also allows Nvidia to keep offering support for the mainstream Switch. Both flavors of the platform will target 720p by default in handheld mode, so the only difference between the Switch and Switch Pro would be the latter’s ability to hold a 720p image where the Switch drops below that target to keep its frame rate up. When docked, the standard Switch would raise its clock somewhat and continue to target somewhere between 720p and 1080p, depending on the title. The Switch Pro would have the option to engage DLSS and aim for 4K. In theory, Nintendo and Nvidia could work to enable other resolution targets besides 4K, or to boost the frame rate up to 60fps instead of holding 30fps.

Sony and Microsoft allow game developers to target a mixture of experiences, and gamers can sometimes choose between playing a game at 1080p60 or 4K30, for example. Nintendo hasn’t previously offered this degree of flexibility, but the Switch has been something of a game-changer for the Japanese company.

Nintendo Finally Has a Reason to Chase Cutting-Edge Silicon

Nintendo has never particularly chased silicon specifications. There have been times in the console cycle when the company’s platforms led its competition — the SNES was a better console than the Genesis, despite a lower CPU clock — but the last time Nintendo attempted to position its own platform (mostly) head to head against Sony and Microsoft was 20 years ago, with the GameCube.

The Switch followed Nintendo’s conservative design philosophy by tapping a commodity chip and a known silicon design, but that’s not how mobile device manufacturers maximize performance or battery life. It’s still possible Nintendo would tap a newer bulk Nvidia SoC, but the more I look at the situation, the more likely it seems Nintendo might have paid Nvidia for some custom design work. Company executives have made statements implying Nintendo may have changed its approach to system design:

If Nintendo stuck with an existing Nvidia solution, Xavier NX would be the likely chip of choice. Xavier is huge, though, with a die size of 350mm sq compared with just 118mm sq. for the original Tegra X1 SoC. Its CPU cores are only clocked at 1.2GHz in quad-core mode (when operated in a 10W power envelope) and it’s built on a 12nm FinFET process. Either 7nm or 5nm (7nm being more likely) would be better for power consumption. The GPU is larger (512 cores), but based on the older Volta architecture, not Ampere or Turing.

Paying Nvidia for a custom SoC would give Nintendo the freedom to target the features it wanted for Switch Pro without paying (in $ or die space) for hardware blocks it doesn’t need. Nvidia doesn’t currently manufacture a quad-core Cortex-A78 SoC with 256-512 Ampere GPU cores. Nvidia’s Ampere-equipped Orin SoC won’t hit the market until 2022, and it’s a 750W TDP part intended for vehicles. We’re guessing the Switch Pro probably doesn’t represent a truly radical experiment in die recovery.

Bloomberg reports that the Switch Pro could be priced between $ 349 and $ 399 and a price increase makes sense if Nintendo is planning to pay for custom silicon. This could be seen as somewhat in tension with reports Nvidia has ceased production of the current Switch SoC. Nintendo has introduced larger versions of its handheld devices before, but it’s never forced its customers to adopt a more-expensive version of a handheld by phasing out an older model.

The company’s last set of earnings slides state:

“When adapting a new technology, we go to great lengths to ensure we offer new and innovative content that complements it… when we do decide to use an existing technology, we actively pursue collaborations with partner companies that specialize in that technology.”

DLSS could be a truly game-changing technology for the Switch Pro. The current Switch is based on a 7-year-old GPU and an eight-year-old CPU. The Cortex-A57 was never a particularly power-efficient CPU core — it’s the same CPU that powered the Snapdragon 810 — so stepping up to a modern design based on the A76 or A78 would be advantageous for Nintendo. Xavier NX offers 51.2GB/s of memory bandwidth and we can expect any custom silicon to at least match this level, or at least 2x what’s available on the Switch today. If Nintendo had pushed the envelope back in 2017, the gap between the Switch and Switch Pro would be smaller, but Nintendo relied on commodity hardware when it built the handheld in the first place, which means a jump to either the leading edge or n-1 would deliver a proportionally larger boost.

A custom, Ampere-based Switch Pro ought to be able to offer a rock-solid 30 or 60fps in 720p mode, while a DLSS-powered 4K mode worth playing seems plausible, given the combined gains in memory bandwidth efficiency and raw memory bandwidth. Nintendo would almost certainly follow in the footsteps of Sony and Microsoft in requiring that Switch games work well on both Switch and Switch Pro, to avoid alienating customers.

Nintendo doesn’t try to compete head-to-head with Sony and Microsoft the way it used to, but it still pays close attention to how its products are positioned in-market against the other firms. Adding 4K capabilities to the Switch allows Nintendo’s handheld to claim the same render target as the far larger consoles, delivered in a fraction of the power. Nintendo cannot build a Switch Pro that competes with the PS5 or Xbox Series S|X on raw power, but the combination of cutting-edge manufacturing, updated hardware architectures, and AI could shrink the gap between the current Switch and other consoles significantly. This time around, Nintendo may feel the gains are worth the cost.

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Flight PS752 shot down after being ‘misidentified’ as ‘hostile target,’ Iran’s final report says

Iran’s civil aviation authority says an error by the Iranian military was the cause of Ukrainian Airlines Flight PS752’s destruction in January 2020.

In its long-awaited final report on the incident, released today, Iranian safety investigators conclude that the Boeing 737-800 passenger plane was shot down by accident after being “misidentified” by an air defence unit as a “hostile target.”

All 176 passengers and crew members — including 138 people with ties to Canada — died in the crash.

“The … aircraft was misidentified by the air defence unit in the suburbs of Tehran and, consequently, two missiles were launched toward it,” the report reads. “The operation of the aircraft had not imposed any error to the air defence unit.

“The interference of military activity with civil aviation operations resulted in an accident.”

Investigators identified the immediate cause of the crash as the detonation of a warhead on the first of two surface-to-air missiles fired in close proximity to the plane. The explosion damaged the aircraft’s navigation systems and caused it to crash. The plane exploded on impact.

The report, conducted by Iran’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Board, bolsters the Iranian government’s claim that the plane was shot down as a result of human error — but it leaves unanswered many questions raised by the Canadian government and the families of the victims.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board said it has received the final report and senior officials will respond at a press conference Thursday morning.

Iran denied shooting down the aircraft for three days after the crash. In response to mounting international pressure and evidence, Iran later admitted a unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “mistakenly” shot down the jet.

The Iranian military was on high alert at the time because of the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani by a U.S. drone strike five days earlier, and a subsequent retaliatory attack by Iran on Iraqi bases where U.S. forces were stationed.

In a video posted to Facebook, Ukraine’s foreign minister blasted the investigation as incomplete and biased.

“What we saw published today is just a cynical attempt to hide true causes of the downing of our passenger aircraft,” Dmytro Kuleba said, according to an English translation.

“This is not a report but a collection of manipulations aimed not at establishing the truth, but acquitting the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Kuleba said the investigation violated standards set out under international law and by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

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Chinese government responsible for genocide in Xinjiang, says independent report

The Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang have violated every single act prohibited by the United Nations Genocide Convention — including one that forbids killing members of a group — says a new independent report drafted by dozens of experts in human rights, international law and genocide studies.

Released Tuesday by the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the report contains a legal analysis that concludes China “bears state responsibility for an ongoing genocide” against the Uighurs, an overwhelmingly Muslim minority group.

“China, as a state, is committing acts of genocide against the Uighurs with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the group as such, as exemplified by state-orchestrated mass internment, forced birth prevention and campaigns of eradication,” Yonah Diamond, legal counsel for the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and a principal author of the report, said in a press release.

That damning conclusion follows years of other reports from media, academic and UN experts that have accused China of imprisoning over a million Uighurs in concentration and “deradicalization” camps and targeting them for forced labour, sexual violence, population control methods and sweeping surveillance. 

The Chinese government has denied accusations of human rights abuses. The Chinese ambassador to Canada has accused his country’s critics of fabricating the “lie of the century.”

The report includes input from a number of Canadian human rights experts, including former cabinet ministers Lloyd Axworthy, Allan Rock and Irwin Cotler, as well as former ambassador to the UN Yves Fortier and University of Ottawa human rights professor John Packer.

WATCH | China accidentally releases report on forced relocation, retraining of Uighurs

A Chinese government report, unintentionally made public, outlines how Uighurs and other minorities were forcibly relocated and retrained for new jobs in what’s considered an attempt to dilute their culture and reduce populations. 2:00

1948 Genocide Convention

Article II of the UN Genocide Convention, adopted in 1948, defines genocide as acts committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

The convention includes a list of five acts that constitute genocide: killing members of a group; causing serious bodily or mental harm; creating conditions meant to force the physical destruction of the group; forcibly transferring children to another group; and imposing measures that prevent births.

The researchers say a review of public and leaked government communications, eyewitness testimony and open-source research methods offers evidence that Chinese state institutions have engaged in all five actions. China is a party to the convention, along with over 150 other countries.

According to the report, between one and two million people have been forcibly detained in over a thousand internment-style camps across Xinjiang since 2014. That’s when the Chinese government launched a campaign supposedly targeting terrorism in the region, but which critics have said was a cover for smothering Uighur dissent.

MPs passed a motion in the House of Commons two weeks ago that, in part, calls on the government to push for the relocation of the 2022 Winter Olympics out of Beijing. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via The Associated Press)

The report says many prominent Uighur leaders have been selectively sentenced to execution, while other elderly Uighurs have died during long stints in prison. Imprisoned Uighurs have faced torture, harsh interrogations and other cruel treatment.

Uighur women have been subjected to forced intrauterine device insertions and abortions and have been injected with medication that halts their menstrual cycles, the report says.

“China is a highly centralized state in full control of its territory and population, including [in Xinjiang],” the report reads. “The persons and entities perpetrating the above-indicated acts of genocide are all state agents or organs — acting under the effective control of the state — manifesting an intent to destroy the Uighurs as a group.”

Liberals reluctant to use genocide label

The release of the report comes two weeks after the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to declare China’s actions against Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang a genocide. While backbench Liberal MPs joined their opposition colleagues in that vote, cabinet ministers abstained.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government have been reluctant to use the word genocide, arguing that more evidence from independent investigations is needed. 

A House of Commons subcommittee said in an October report that China’s campaign against the Uighurs meets the definition of genocide after hearing testimony from several Uighur witnesses who gave first-hand accounts of atrocities.

The Trump administration accused China of committing genocide and other crimes against humanity in January, a position the Biden administration has maintained.

A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau’s office told CBC News the department is aware of the report and will be reviewing it closely.

“We remain deeply disturbed by the troubling reports of human rights violations in Xinjiang. Canada takes allegations of genocide very seriously,” said Christelle Chartrand. 

“We will continue to work in close collaboration with our allies to push for these to be investigated through an international independent body and for impartial experts to access the region so that they can see the situation firsthand and report back.”

Earlier this year, the federal government announced a new regulation meant to ensure that Canadian companies are not complicit in human rights abuses or the use of forced labour in Xinjiang. But the measures stopped short of imposing “Magnitsky-style sanctions” on Chinese officials, something called for by the opposition Conservatives.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole today urged the Liberal government to join MPs in calling China’s actions genocidal. He renewed his call for sanctions and for the relocation of the 2022 Winter Olympics out of Beijing.

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Former FC Barcelona officials detained after raid on soccer club, Spanish media report

Catalan police detained several people after raiding Barcelona’s stadium on Monday in a search and seize operation, adding to the club’s turmoil less than a week before it elects a new president.

The operation was related to last year’s “Barcagate,” in which club officials were accused of launching a smear campaign against current and former players who were critical of the club and then-president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

Police said detentions were made but did not say who or how many people were taken into custody. Spanish media said Bartomeu and other former club officials were among those detained.

Authorities spent several hours at the team’s headquarters searching documents and talking to employees.

The club, mired in debt of more than 1.1 billion euros ($ 1.68 billion Cdn), said it offered “full collaboration to the legal and police authorities to help make clear facts which are subject to investigation.”

It added the case was related “to the contacting of monitoring services on social networks.”

“The information and documentation requested by the judicial police force relate strictly to the facts relative to this case. FC Barcelona (expresses) its utmost respect for the judicial process in place and for the principle of presumed innocence for the people affected within the remit of this investigation,” the club said.

The club did not mention Bartomeu.  A text message sent to Bartomeu was not immediately answered.

Key former officials detained

One of the three presidential candidates, Joan Laporta, told Lleida Radio that what happened on Monday “was a consequence of the bad management by the previous administration.”

He said news of Bartomeu’s reported detention was “shocking” and “not good” for the club, but said the former president deserved the “presumption of innocence.”

Laporta was Barcelona’s president a decade ago and, like Bartomeu, also faced a no-confidence vote during his time in charge.

Among those reportedly detained were club CEO Oscar Grau and legal department chief Roman Gomez Ponti. Jaume Masferrer, Bartomeu’s former chief of staff, also was allegedly detained.

Police say several people were detained but did not say who or how many were taken into custody. (AP/Joan Monfort)

They were taken to a police station for interrogation, Spanish media said, and police also went to Bartomeu’s house searching for evidence. 

Court officials said a judge ordered the search and seize operation but the detentions were made at the discretion of the police agents involved. Authorities said the operation was being carried out by the police’s financial crimes department.

A period of struggles

Barcelona has denied accusations that it hired – and overpaid – a company to make negative comments about its own players and opponents on social media in order to boost the image of senior club officials.

The company was accused of using fake social media accounts to discredit opposition figures when they expressed views that went against the club. Some of the figures were reported to have included players such Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique, as well as former coach Pep Guardiola.

The club later released an independent audit report showing that there was no wrongdoing.

Bartomeu and his board of directors resigned last year amid fallout from the controversy surrounding Messi. The club has been mired in political turmoil and debt prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The club has been managed by a caretaker board since Bartomeu left in October while facing a no-confidence motion supported by thousands of club members furious at the team’s poor performances and the club’s financial situation.

The club’s struggles began to surface after the team’s embarrassing 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals of the Champions League last season, which was the first without a title for the Spanish club since the 2007/08 season.

Bartomeu was loudly criticized by Messi, especially after the former president denied the player’s request to leave the club at the end of last season. Messi’s contract ends this season and the Argentine great has yet to say whether he will stay or go.

Barcelona is five points off the Spanish league lead. It lost at home to Paris Saint-Germain 4-1 in the first leg of the round of 16 of the Champions League and was beaten by Sevilla 2-0 in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals.

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Report: Stadia Missed Active User Targets by Hundreds of Thousands

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Google launched its Stadia cloud gaming service in late 2019, but already the bloom is off the rose. A series of increasingly concerning tales from Google’s game division has come to light in the weeks since Google killed its internal studio, and the latest tidbits are perhaps the most damning. According to a report in Bloomberg, Google blew millions of dollars to get games like Red Dead Redemption 2, but it still missed active user targets by hundreds of thousands of units. 

Stadia is similar to platforms like Amazon Luna and Microsoft xCloud, but both of those services have rolled out more gradually. Google tried to hit the ground running after testing the streaming technology with Project Stream. According to Bloomberg’s sources, Stadia management took a game console approach rather than starting small, but the service’s poor game library and traditional pay-per-game model didn’t catch on. 

Many of the sources interviewed for the Bloomberg report say this approach was flawed from the start. Several members of the team urged the company to launch Stadia as a beta — both Gmail and Maps Navigation were in beta for years after launch, allowing Google to tune the services based on how people used them. But Stadia manager Phil Harrison wanted the service to duke it out with consoles right away. 

The Stadia app as seen on Android in early 2021.

Google is said to have dropped huge sums of money to get AAA titles like Assassin’s Creed and Red Dead Redemption 2 to further this goal — we’re talking tens of millions for each game. That’s enough to develop a new game from scratch, but a handful of premium games isn’t going to hack it when gamers on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox get hundreds of new games every year. The result was a substantially smaller player base than Google expected, to the tune of hundreds of thousands. The resultant oversupply of Stadia controllers is allegedly why Google was giving them away so readily late last year. 

While Google was paying out the nose for AAA games, the company’s Stadia Games and Entertainment division was working on games that could only happen in the cloud. Sources claim they were building experiences that transcended the memory and processing limits of local hardware, but then Google got cold feet. That’s when the company pulled the plug on SG&E early this month. Without exclusive content, Stadia’s future as a distinct platform is in doubt. Google hinted that it might license Stadia’s tech to other companies — that might be Stadia’s destiny.

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Saudi crown prince approved murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi: U.S. intelligence report

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved of an operation to capture or kill dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in 2018, according to a declassified U.S. intelligence assessment released on Friday.

Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post critical of the crown prince’s policies, was killed and dismembered by a team of operatives linked to the crown prince in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.

Riyadh has denied any involvement by the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in the report.

“We base this assessment on the Crown Prince’s control of decision making in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”

Biden treading fine line by releasing report

In declassifying the report, U.S. President Joe Biden reversed his predecessor Donald Trump’s refusal to release it in defiance of a 2019 law, reflecting a new U.S. willingness to challenge the kingdom on issues from human rights to the war in Yemen.

The report was released in a manner choreographed to limit damage to U.S.-Saudi ties.

Biden is treading a fine line to preserve the country’s relationship with the kingdom as he seeks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with its regional rival Iran.

He also hopes to address other challenges, such as fighting Islamist extremism and advancing Arab-Israeli ties.

WATCH | U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on impact of report’s release:

Asked Thursday, ahead of the release of the declassified intelligence report into the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, how that report would influence Washington’s policy with Riyadh, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton that “Saudi Arabia remains an important partner for the United States on a whole host of issues.” 0:58

Washington choreographed events to soften the blow, with Biden on Thursday speaking with the crown prince’s 85-year-old father, King Salman, in a call in which both sides said they reaffirmed their decades-old alliance and pledged co-operation.

Within moments of the report’s release, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken imposed visa bans targeting 76 individuals from Saudi Arabia who have engaged in activities against dissidents.

U.S. officials earlier said the Biden administration is not expected to impose sanctions on the crown prince.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Sept. 18, 2019. (Mandel Ngan/The Associated Press)

The declassified intelligence report, prepared by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, echoed a classified version of a report on Khashoggi’s murder that Trump shared with members of Congress in late 2018.

Trump’s rejection of demands by lawmakers and human rights groups to release a declassified version at the time reflected a desire to preserve cooperation with Riyadh amid rising tensions with Iran and to promote U.S. arms sales to the kingdom.

Biden’s new director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, has committed to complying with a 2019 defence bill that required her office to release within 30 days a declassified report on Khashoggi’s murder.

After the report’s release, Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, tweeted a photograph of him with the hashtag #justiceforjamal.

Khashoggi lured to consulate

Khashoggi, 59, was a Saudi journalist living in self-imposed exile in Virginia. He wrote opinion pieces for the Washington Post that were critical of the policies of the crown prince, known to some in the West as MbS.

He was lured on Oct. 2, 2018, to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul with a promise of a document that he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee. A team of operatives linked to MbS killed and dismembered him there. His remains have not been found.

Riyadh initially issued conflicting stories about his disappearance, but eventually admitted that Khashoggi was killed in what it called a “rogue” extradition operation gone wrong.

Twenty-one men were arrested in the killing and five senior officials were fired, including the deputy intelligence chief, Ahmad Asiri, and Saud al-Qahtani, a senior aide to the crown prince. 

In January 2019, 11 people were put on trial behind closed doors. Five were given death sentences, which were commuted to 20 years in prison after they were forgiven by Khashoggi’s family, while three others were given jail terms.

Asiri was tried but acquitted “due to insufficient evidence,” the prosecution said, while Qahtani was investigated but not charged.

As part of Biden’s rebalancing of ties with Saudi Arabia, he will only communicate with King Salman, the White House has said. The move may allow Washington to put some distance between itself and the 35-year-old crown prince.

People take part in a vigil to remember Khashoggi outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 25, 2018. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, journalist and critic of the Saudi regime, went missing after entering the consulate on Oct. 2. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

That will restore protocol broken by Trump and his son-in-law and top aide, Jared Kushner, who maintained a direct channel to the crown prince.

MbS has consolidated power since ousting his uncle as heir to the throne in a 2017 palace coup, seeking to win public support by overseeing popular economic and social reforms.

But he’s also had opponents and women’s rights activists detained and pursued risky foreign gambits, some of which backfired, like the intervention in Yemen, where a war between Saudi and Iranian proxies has created a humanitarian crisis. 

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‘Focused on hosting’: Tokyo Olympics, IOC refute report of cancellation

The head of the International Olympic Committee and local organizers are pushing back against reports that the postponed Tokyo Olympics will be cancelled.

Now set to open July 23, the Tokyo Games were postponed 10 months ago at the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and now the event appears threatened again.

The Times of London, citing unidentified government sources, reported that the games will have to be cancelled. It quoted an unidentified senior member of the ruling government coalition.

“No one wants to be the first to say so but the consensus is that it’s too difficult,” the source said. “Personally, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

In a statement Friday, the local organizing committee did not address directly the Times story, but said the Olympics were going forward and had the support of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

“All our delivery partners including the national government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, the IOC [International Olympic Committee] and the IPC [International Paralympic Committee] are fully focused on hosting the games this summer,” the statement said.

“We hope that daily life can return to normal as soon as possible, and we will continue to make every effort to prepare for a safe and secure games.”

Following the initial Times report, Canadian Olympic Committee CEO David Shoemaker said the organization was unaware of any decisions made by the Japanese government.

The committee “has confidence that the Games can be staged safely and successfully given what has been learned in sport over the last several months and the emphasis the IOC and Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee have placed on COVID-19 countermeasures,” Shoemaker wrote on Twitter.

The Canadian Paralympic Committee added in a statement it has not received any official word from the IPC about the Tokyo Games. 

“At this time, we continue to plan for the Paralympic Games this summer with a focus on the health and safety of the entire Canadian team,” it said. 

The Times said Japan hoped to land the 2032 Olympics. The IOC has already awarded the 2024 Olympics to Paris and the 2028 version to Los Angeles.

The idea of Tokyo waiting a decade seems unlikely, given the cost of maintaining venues, negotiating new leases, and so forth. Tokyo has already spent about $ 25 billion US to organize these Olympics, most of which is public money.

Several reports of a cancellation began to surface this month when the Japanese government put Tokyo and other prefectures under a state of emergency order to counter a surge of rising COVID-19 cases.

“We have at this moment, no reason whatsoever to believe that the Olympic Games in Tokyo will not open on the 23rd of July in the Olympic stadium in Tokyo,” IOC president Thomas Bach told the Japanese news agency Kyodo on Thursday. He also said there is “no Plan B.”

Senior International Olympic Committee member Richard Pound said earlier in the week that the Olympics may be held largely without fans, making it a mostly television event.

The Switzerland-based IOC gets 73 per cent of its income from selling broadcast rights and has seen its main revenue source stalled by the Olympic postponement. A largely TV-only event would suit the IOC better than a cancellation.

‘Sacrifices will be needed’

Unlike other sports businesses that offer hundreds of games, the IOC has only two main events to sell — the Summer and Winter Olympics.

Bach hinted that radical changes may be needed to pull off the Tokyo Olympics, which involve 11,000 athletes and tens of thousands of coaches, officials, judges, VIPS, media and broadcasters.

About 4,400 athletes will attend the Paralympics, which are set to open Aug. 24.

“You may not like it but sacrifices will be needed, ” Bach said. “This is why I’m saying, safety first, and no taboo in the discussion to ensure safety.”

WATCH | Olympian DeBues-Stafford talks importance of vaccines:

Jacqueline Doorey speaks with Canadian middle distance runner Gabriela DeBues-Stafford to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine, how it can affect the Olympics, and whether athletes deserve to cut the line. 5:51

Japan has reported fewer than 5,000 deaths from the coronavirus and has handled the virus better than most countries. But the surge is not tapering off in Tokyo, a sprawling metropolitan area of 35 million.

Public opinion in Japan has also turned against the games with 80 per cent in several polls saying they should be postponed again or cancelled.

Bach said organizers were in a better position to hold the Olympics now than they were 10 months ago when the games were postponed.

“First of all, let me be clear that you cannot compare March 2021 with March 2020 because there is such great progress in science, medicine, vaccination and [virus] tests,” Bach told Kyodo. “All this was not available in March last year. Nobody knew yet how really to deal with the pandemic, and now we know much more.”

Japan is experiencing a slow roll out of vaccines. However, the IOC has said its measures against the virus will focus on testing, quarantines, social distancing and keeping athletes largely isolated.

It has encouraged athletes to be vaccinated but will not require it.

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Report: Nvidia’s Next-Gen GPU Could Pack 18,432 CUDA Cores, 64TFLOPS

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Fresh leaks suggest that Nvidia’s next-generation GPU will be named after computing pioneer Ada Lovelace with an enormous jump in maximum GPU core counts relative to current parts. The leaks, written by @kopite7kimi, suggest the chip could pack 12 GPU processing clusters, 72 texture processing clusters, and a total of 144 streaming multiprocessors. Assume the company sticks with 128 GPU cores per streaming multiprocessor group, that brings Lovelace up to 18,432 cores.

3dcenter.de believes the GPU will clock at around 1.75GHz (the 1.8GHz prediction above got trimmed back a bit). This would imply clocks roughly comparable to current chips like the RTX 3090, though that card can boost higher than Nvidia’s official clocks. Ada might or might not follow the same behavior.

The interesting thing about that prediction is that it doesn’t square with what’s been conventionally predicted for 5nm GPUs. According to TSMC, 5nm is only expected to introduce modest performance and power consumption improvements of ~15 percent and ~20 percent, respectively. The big winner on 5nm is supposed to be density, with up to a 45 percent gain over 7nm, though these improvements tend to depend on exactly what kind of chip you are trying to build in the first place. Larger, more power-hungry structures intended for high-speed operation tend to draw more power than a more modest implementation.

Nvidia’s huge core count expansion would make sense given predicted density improvements, but power consumption is a major unknown. The RTX 3090 significantly outperforms Turing, but Nvidia had to expand the GPU’s power consumption to do it, up to 350W from 280W. It’s not clear how much additional headroom exists to keep pushing GPU power consumption. I won’t claim to know exactly where the cutoff would be, but it’s difficult to imagine Nvidia shipping 450W-500W cards for consumer systems. At some point, Nvidia is going to have to limit its own growth. Intel and AMD will allow their respective CPUs to draw over 200W of power in short boosts, but they don’t sit at those TDPs long-term by default.

Remarks on the increase in L2 cache don’t mean much, at this point. If you scaled up Ampere from RTX 3090 to the 18,432 cores contemplated by this design, you’d wind up with more total L2 on-die no matter what. It’s an unknown whether Nvidia will adopt any of the features we’ve seen AMD deploy on its own RDNA2 architecture, like a large, on-die central cache (AMD refers to this as its “Infinity” cache).

Lovelace is currently expected in 2022. It’s not known if Nvidia will launch a true Ampere refresh cycle in 2021, or if the company will instead opt to launch high-VRAM variants of cards. There are rumors of an RTX 3080 Ti (20GB) and an RTX 3060 Ti with 12GB of RAM — an RTX 3070 Ti with 16GB of RAM would fit neatly in the stack. Nvidia could potentially pair these VRAM jumps with higher clocks or slightly more GPU cores across the new hardware for any 2021 refresh cycle.

We haven’t heard anything yet about additional features Ada might introduce, or where Nvidia will choose to build the chip. Nvidia began building its Ampere cores at Samsung on that firm’s 8N node, but there have been rumors that poor yields with Samsung pushed Nvidia to swap back to TSMC for future product launches coming in 2021.

Feature image is Nvidia’s Ampere. No images or mock-ups of Lovelace have been released. 

Now Read:

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Saudi and U.A.E operatives hacked phones of Al Jazeera journalists: report

Government operatives linked to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates hacked the personal phones belonging to journalists, producers, anchors and executives of the Al Jazeera news network, according to a report obtained by CBC News.

And these types of attacks, claim the Citizen Lab, the report’s author, are an “accelerating trend of espionage against journalists and news organizations.”

“The increased targeting of the media is especially concerning given the fragmented and often ad-hoc security practices and cultures among journalists and media outlets,” said the research group, based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, which investigates digital espionage.

In the case of Al Jazeera, the Citizen Lab — working with the Qatar-based broadcaster’s IT team — said it found that in July and August, at least four operatives used Pegasus spyware to hack 36 personal phones of journalists and senior executives.

Enables clients to monitor devices

Pegasus spyware, created by the Israeli firm NSO Group, is a mobile phone surveillance system that enables customers to remotely exploit and monitor devices, the Citizen Lab said. Researchers from the Citizen Lab have authored multiple reports on what they claim is the misuse of the spyware developed by the company.

The research group concluded that one of the four Pegasus operators spied on 18 phones and did so on behalf of the Saudi government. Another one of the four can be linked to the U.A.E government and spied on 15 phones, the report claimed.

Meanwhile, the personal phone of a London-based Al Araby TV journalist was also compromised, the Citizen Lab claims.

The spyware is able to record audio from the microphone, including audio of encrypted phone calls, and take pictures, the report said. It can also track device location, as well as access passwords and stored credentials, according to the report.

“The zero-click techniques used against Al Jazeera staff were sophisticated, difficult to detect, and largely focused on the personal devices of reporters,” the report said.

One investigative journalist from Al Jazeera who thought his phone was hacked allowed the Citizen Lab to install a VPN application to monitor metadata associated with his Internet traffic.

When researchers reviewed his VPN logs, they found that in July, his phone — without his knowledge — had visited a website used to infect a target with the Pegasus spyware, the report said.

Both Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have had a fractious relationship with Qatar and Al Jazeera. As the Citizen Lab noted, both countries have concerns about Al Jazeera’s critical coverage, including of the Arab Spring uprisings in the early 2010s. The governments also claim that Qatar shelters dissidents from Egypt, Bahrain, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, and supports political Islamist groups.

The Citizen Lab claims that at least four operatives used Pegasus spyware to hack 36 personal phones of journalists and senior executives with Al Jazeera. (Marco Jose/The Associated Press)

During their diplomatic crisis with Qatar in 2017, both countries blocked Al Jazeera’s websites and channels.

Earlier this year, the Citizen Lab reported that a New York Times journalist was targeted by a Saudi-linked operator using the same Pegasus spyware. And in 2019, the Citizen Lab concluded that the same software was used to spy on Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s inner circle before he was killed in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Along with the U.A.E and Saudi Arabia, such digital attacks also come from China, Russia, Ethiopia and Mexico.

50 known cases

The Citizen Lab said with this latest attack on Al Jazeera, there are at least 50 publicly known cases of journalists and others in media targeted with NSO spyware.

NSO Group has said it develops technologies that governments and law enforcement agencies can use to track and intercept terror activity, break up organized crime operations and even search for missing persons.

It has said that it sells only to responsible countries after diligent vetting and with Israeli government approval.

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