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Typhoon Koppu could dump nearly a meter of rain on the northern Philippines

Typhoon Koppu slammed into the Philippines with formidable winds this weekend—reaching 240 kph (150 mph) before landfall—but weather experts say the rain, not the wind, is the main worry.

The storm (known locally as Typhoon Lando) has already dumped massive amounts of rain on Luzon, the nation’s main northern island and home to nearly half its population of 98 million people. The death toll has been minimal, but with the exceptional rains expected to rage on for several more days, the risk of flash floods and mudslides is growing by the hour and over 16,000 have been evacuated so far.

The heavy rains are widespread across the island, including in Cabanatuan, a city in central Luzon:

Oct. 19 in Cabanatuan city, northern Manila.Improvised transport in Cabanatuan city, on Oct. 19.

 

Crossing a bridge in Cabanatuan city on Oct. 19.Crossing a bridge in Cabanatuan city on Oct. 19.

A flooded street in Cabanatuan city on Oct. 19.A flooded street in Cabanatuan city on Oct. 19.

Thousands of villages have fled their homes, wary of a repeat of previous typhoons. In 2009 more 460 people died from severe flooding and mudslides in the city of Baguio and other parts of northwestern Luzon. That’s when Typhoon Parma (known locally at Typhoon Pepeng) dumped 1,854 milliliters (73 inches) on the area.

Baguio, a high-elevation city of about 320,000, is getting especially walloped. As of earlyMonday (Oct. 19) morning, it had received 208.3 millimeters (8.2 inches) of rainfall, with 610 millimeters more possible in the coming days, even as the storm is weakening.

Some 15 to 20 million people live in the area of northern Luzon north of Manila, many of them in cities with steep hillsides or flood-prone rivers, and in some cases both. Many roads have already been flooded, and millions of people have suffered power outages.

Floods in Manila, one of the world’s most densely populated cities, are also a worry. Parts of the capital look oddly naked without road-side billboards, many of which were taken down ahead of the typhoon’s arrival.

Public warning systems have been greatly improved since 2013, when Super Typhoon Haiyan killed more than 6,300 people.

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Tunisia exports the highest number of ISIL fighters of any country in the world

Tunisia is where the Arab Spring began. And of all the countries enveloped in the revolutions that followed, it is the only one where hopes of a democratic future remain strong. Just last week, the Nobel committee awarded the Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet this year’s peace prize, commending the group for “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.”

But the forces of democracy in the country are being challenged by darker elements in their midst. Tunisia has been troubled by repeated terror attacks this year, and is now believed to contribute the highest number of fighters for Islamist terror group ISIL.

According to the latest data from the US House Homeland Security Committee, of the 25,000 fighters thought to be working for ISIL in Iraq and Syria, 5000 are Tunisian.

The government sees ideological militancy among its citizens as an issue of national concern. “The fight against terrorism is a national responsibility,” Habib Essid, the country’s prime minister said after a local beach resort was attacked by a gunman in June. “We are at war against terrorism which represents a serious danger to national unity during this delicate period that the nation is going through.”

This delicate period, while it has opened up the democratic space, has not eased the economic challenges the country is facing, which analysts say has created an opening for ISIL to exploit.

Four years after the revolution Tunisia’s economy is contracting. After 2.3% growth in 2014, the World Bank and IMF project GDP growth for this year at a measly 1%. Overall unemployment is at 15.2%. And for university graduates, unemployment is even worse at a staggering 34%, estimates the African Development Bank (AfDB).

All these factors have created deep disillusionment about post-revolutionary Tunisia. And ISIL recruiters have exploited this air of dissatisfaction to devastating effect, luring young people to their cause. They offer monthly salaries of up $2,000 and the promise of a life of meaning, fighting to correct injustice as epitomized by the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. Where jobs are scarce and those who can find them earn meager wages of $100 a month, what ISIL is offering has proved to be a compelling alternative.

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There’s now a computer program that lets you control someone else’s face

In the prophetic 1997 film “Face/Off,” John Travolta figures that the only way to avoid going back to prison was to surgically replace his face with that of Nicolas Cage’s. Although medical science has not really gotten to the point where that isn’t still completely laughable, a new technology out of Stanford University is getting us closer.

Researchers have figured out how to make one person’s face mimic the facial expressions of another, in real-time video. The method, announced in a paper (pdf) that will appear in a special edition of the scientific journal ACM Transactions on Graphics later this year, uses a regular computer, special cameras, and some seemingly magical new software.

The research team comprises computer scientists from Stanford, the Max Planck Institute, and University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany.

Their system requires a bit of set-up: A pair of cameras needs to calibrate with each new face, then renders it in digital 3D. Then the program tracks both subjects’ facial expressions using cameras that can sense depth, texture, face shape and location, and maps movements of prominent facial features like nose, mouth, and eyes, from one person’s face onto the avatar of the other. The end result: You can appear to control a friend’s face with your own.

(To make up for the fact that not everyone’s mouths are the same size, the program puts in an eerily fake set of perfect teeth to fill in any gaps.)

It's like Photoshop, but for video.It’s like Photoshop, but for video.

Matthias Niessner, one of the researchers on the project, told Quartz that the team’s main motivation was to create something that could aid multi-language videoconferences like Skype.

David Bowie might be interested in seeing this.David Bowie might be interested in seeing this.

In the future, interpreters could translate someone speaking in real time, and the end user would just see the person they’re watching speak to them in their own language.

In their research paper, the team said they believe that this technology could pave the way to having photo-realistic avatars in virtual reality settings.

Niessner added that the team was also interested in applying this technology to movies, dubbing them for foreign audiences. “Most important though: It’s a crap ton of fun playing around with the system,” Niessner said.

Consumers improve finances as interest rate hike looms

The much-anticipated and long-delayed Federal Reserve hike in interest rates could slow the economy a bit when it finally comes. But Americans generally appear to be in better shape to handle higher borrowing costs than even a few years ago.

Not everyone would be adversely affected anyway. A lot of people just don’t do much borrowing, from affluent seniors who have no need for loans to low-income individuals who couldn’t qualify. About 27% of Americans are unbanked or underbanked, according to Federal Reserve research, meaning they’re outside the financial system or tangentially connected to it, and thus not applying for conventional loans.

Nor would all types of loans feel the pinch. For example, 30-year mortgages are tied to yields on Treasury notes, which the central bank doesn’t directly affect. Their yields move more in response to inflation and inflationary expectations.

And more to the point, Americans gradually have been getting their finances in better shape, making them more resilient to a rate increase.

“I think people are better prepared than, say, five years ago,” said Bruce McClary, a spokesman for the the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which represents 75 credit-counseling agencies around the nation. “Even though wages are relatively flat, people are doing a better job managing their finances.”

Probably the biggest reason for improvement is that more people are working than when the recession was in full swing. Job losses are key catalysts that push people over the financial edge. As employment has risen, bankruptcies have dropped sharply in recent years — nationwide filings in September were down 54% compared with September 2010, report the American Bankruptcy Institute and Epiq Systems.

Many newly hired individuals aren’t making much more money than they were years ago — personal incomes remain sluggish — but at least they’re drawing paychecks. After shedding 8.8 million jobs in the wake of the recession, the economy has added 13.2 million since then.

And there are other heartening signs. FICO credit scores have reached a 10-year high. Credit scores reflect both a willingness and ability of consumers to handle debt payments.

The most recent score of 695, on a scale of 300 to 850, is up from 687 five years ago. Perhaps of more significance, fewer people are scoring at the low end, below 550. That’s an encouraging trend that suggests consumers are managing credit responsibly, the company said in a blog. And more people are creeping into FICO’s top tier, with scores above 800.

And while it doesn’t always seem like it — and the gains haven’t been shared equally — Americans are doing a better job accumulating assets. Household net worth, which bottomed during the recession below $57,000, currently stands around $85,700, the Federal Reserve reports. Overall consumer debt payments now eat up 9.8% of personal income, down from 13.2% when the recession hit.

People with adjustable-rate loans would feel the impact of a Fed rate hike more than others. Credit cards are a good case in point, since cards generally come with variable rates. Yet credit card delinquencies have dropped significantly, with just 2.5% of bank cards 30 days or more past due, below the long-term average near 3.8%, reports the American Bankers Association. On eight other consumer-loan categories tracked by the association, delinquencies of 1.4% are down from a 15-year average of 2.3%.

“By paying off credit card debt, consumers have reduced their costliest debt burden and one that is set to become costlier when interest rates start to rise,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com.

Credit card reform legislation enacted in 2009 limits certain rate hikes on existing credit card balances while giving borrowers more advance notice. These changes could ease the bite from rising interest rates.

McClary cautions that credit card balances have risen significantly this year, but he also sees that as a sign of rising consumer confidence. Besides, he feels financial literacy has improved, with fewer distressed individuals seeking help from consumer-counseling agencies. “Definitely, there’s an increased awareness,” he said. “People are very much in tune with their budgets.”

Like mortgages, auto loans are another type of borrowing where fixed rates are more prevalent. That’s important because Americans have been adding auto-loan debt at a robust pace — the $932 billion in balances as of June 30 was up 24% over the past two years, reports credit bureau Experian. Nearly 86% of new vehicles are purchased with a loan, and the financed amount and average term have been creeping higher — to a recent average $28,500 finance amount and 67-month average term, Experian said.

Yet consumers so far have been up to the challenge. A modest 2.3% of vehicle loans are 30 days or more past due and just 0.6% are past due by 60 days or more, Experian added. Those figures have held steady over the past year.

Higher fixed rates on auto loans wouldn’t make that much of a difference to the typical budget anyway, assuming the change is modest. An increase of one-quarter of a percentage point would add just $3 to the monthly payment on a $25,000 loan, McBride said, referring to someone who waits until after a rate hike to buy.

Student loan costs eventually could push higher, but that won’t happen for a while. Several types of college loans are pegged to 10-year Treasury notes, with rates resetting each July 1. For the 2015-16 school year, undergraduate loans now carry a rate of 4.29%, down 0.37 of a point from the prior year. Rates on loans for graduate students and Plus loans taken out by parents also dipped by 0.37 of a point. Though fewer people are seeking credit counseling help for credit card debt, student loan inquiries are rising, McClary said.

​With memories of the housing meltdown still fresh, anything that might unsettle real estate could prove worrisome. Sharply rising rates could dampen prices by discouraging potential buyers, but a big rate uptick isn’t likely. Home buyers with adjusted-rate mortgages would face higher payments, but these loans represent only a tiny slice of the market these days — about one in 14 new loan applications, reports the Mortgage Bankers Association. Fixed-rate loans dominate.

Housing affordability remains positive from a long-term perspective, and rates would need to rise a lot to discourage potential home buyers. The typical mortgage payment consumes 12.4% of household income, well below the 40-year average of 19.6%, according to JP Morgan Funds.

“By paying down debt, paying off debt and refinancing into fixed rates, Americans have reduced their monthly debt burdens as well as their sensitivity to rising interest rates,” McBride said.

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68% of Chinese men are smokers—and millions will die because of it

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China is becoming a smoker’s paradise—and a doctor’s nightmare.

Cigarettes are an increasingly gendered health risk in China, according to a new study that reports 68% of Chinese men smoke, compared to just 3.2% of women.

The study of male and female smoking trends, published in medical journal The Lancet on Oct. 8, doesn’t mince words when it comes to health risks. The authors conclude that smoking will cause roughly one in five adult male deaths in China during the current decade. And the fatality rate will rise steadily without preventative action.

“About two-thirds of young Chinese men become cigarette smokers, and most start before they are 20. Unless they stop, about half of them will eventually be killed by their habit,” study co-author Zhengming Chen from the University of Oxford wrote in a statement.

The report, which studied a total of 730,000 people in China, warned that tobacco caused about one million deaths in 2010. Unless smokers give up the habit en masse, the death toll will rise to two million in 2030 and three million in 2050.

separate Lancet article on how to reduce smoking in China warned that although men are most obviously at risk, they are not the only ones affected. Young women are an attractive target to the tobacco industry, and hold “the allure of increasing sales by crafting appeals based on themes of independence, glamour, sophistication, sexuality, and social acceptance.”

The authors of that study, Jeffrey Koplan and Michael Eriksen of the Emory Global Health Institute in Atlanta, noted that while still only a relatively small percentage of total smokers, young women have increased their tobacco usage “substantially” since the 1980s.

The report also notes several political issues that make it difficult to reduce China’s fondness for tobacco:

Complicating any efforts to reduce the public health burden of tobacco is the fact that China is the world’s largest grower, manufacturer, and consumer of tobacco and has the largest workforce devoted to tobacco farming, manufacturing, and sales. Being a government monopoly, China Tobacco (the Chinese National Tobacco Corporation) provides over 7% of the Central Government’s annual revenue through both taxes and net income.

Widespread misinformation about tobacco in China is not helping public information efforts. Popular myths claim that smoking is less hazardous to Asian people and that tobacco is an “intrinsic and ancient part of Chinese culture,” according to Koplan and Eriksen.

To combat the health risk, earlier this year Beijing introduced a smoking ban in all offices, shopping malls, restaurants, bars and airports. Some four million smokers live in Beijing, smoking an average of 14.6 cigarettes per day, according to Global Times. But an earlier attempt to ban the practice in 2008 was widely ignored and it remains to be seen whether the latest ban will have an effect.

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The Brazilian real is sliding down a painfully familiar path

Brazil’s real hit its lowest level since it was introduced in 1994 to rescue the country from economic doom.

The currency closed at a historic low of 4.18 real to the US dollar yesterday (Sept. 23) as Brazil struggles with some of the same problems of the early 1990s era: high inflation, budget deficits and a faltering economy.

It may be little consolation to Brazilians, but the economic ills back then were much, much worse. In some years, inflation exceeded 2000%.The exchange rate for the real’s predecessor, the cruzeiro real, was nearly 1,800 per US dollar in 1994.

To restore Brazilians’ faith in their currency, a group of economists established a make-believe currency that was linked to the dollar and remained stable in spite of the jittery cruzeiro.

It worked. The fake currency was later replaced with the real, which started its life at near parity with the dollar.

Given Brazil’s ongoing currency woes, it might be time for another confidence booster.