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You’re not the only one with no summer plans: This year’s vacations will be last minute, says AAA

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Retired Wall Street analyst Ron Glantz is an inveterate traveler, and this year’s agenda was to have included trips to Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan in May; as well as an excursion to Rwanda and Tanzania at the end of the summer. Now, it turns out, those trips have all been canceled or postponed and the only time Glantz plans to leave Manhattan is for a family reunion in Rhode Island — which, he points out, “is an easy drive (and) on 43 acres for easy social distancing.”

Glantz is by no means alone. The monthslong lockdown covering most of the U.S. translated into empty roads, barren airports and anchored cruise ships. As the country slowly opens back up, traffic is on the rise, but experts don’t see a return to normal travel and vacation plans anytime soon.

That’s underscored by a new AAA report forecasting Americans will take just over 707 million trips this summer. That’s down about 15 percent from a year ago, a number that might seem relatively modest considering the broader impact of the pandemic. But a closer look reveals much more significant changes in how we travel and where we may go.

Almost 97 percent of those trips are expected to be made by car, with travel by automobile forecast to decline by a modest 3.3 percent year-over-year, said the AAA. By comparison, road trips accounted for 85.3 percent of summer travel last year.

Air travel is not yet in recovery mode, with Americans expected to fly 73.9 percent fewer miles this summer. Other travel, including rail and ship, will dip by just over 85 percent, compared to summer 2019, the AAA anticipates.

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“No flying, only car travel,” said Bret Jacobowitz, of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. “No golf vacation. We won’t be taking the grandkids to Disney World. Fortunately, we can play golf locally.”

Even when people do take to the highway, the sort of travel they do is likely to change, the AAA said. Rather than take extended vacations, many Americans are “likely going to take weekend trips and three-day trips, said Jeanette Casselano, a spokesperson for AAA.

The road and travel service also reported seeing a major shift in the way Americans are planning the trips they are taking. Many have canceled previously made plans, in part because of uncertainty about how the pandemic will play out. Instead, AAA is finding a sizable share of travelers making decisions within a day or three of when they actually head out on the road.

And, said Casselano, that is likely to remain the case as they watch the headlines revealing new outbreaks of COVID-19 popping up across the country. Travel experts also warn that plans may have to change due to new restrictions that are being put into place in communities as diverse as Dallas, New York and the European Union. NY, New Jersey and Connecticut now require quarantines for travelers coming from places with new outbreaks. The EU has warned it may ban Americans entirely.

For those who still want to take longer trips, this could be the year of the recreational vehicle, said Vinnie Richichi, the host of an auto and travel radio show in the New York region. “I have spoken to a number of people who say that they are renting or considering renting an RV this year. It gives them much more control of the environment and their surroundings,” while there is also the lure of cheap gas prices.

A survey by Airstream, the maker of those iconic silver RVs, found 60 percent of Americans said “feeling safe is critical to traveling again and 64 percent of people want to avoid crowds.” The study found only 18 percent of consumers felt safe about flying, or staying in hotels.

Even though RVs offer the ability to go pretty much anywhere at any time, however, Airstream also found its owners planning to take shorter, one- to three-day trips, while also sticking closer to home, typically within 100 miles.

Shorter trips, AAA and others indicate, may reflect current economic realities as much as concerns about personal health and safety.

“We’re definitely changing our travel plans,” said Sue Carter, a professor at Michigan State University. “The Education Abroad program is gone. Any trip to New York to see my daughter and her family is not likely to happen either. We’re staying away from where (people) congregate. We’re masked up to make it.”

Paul A. Eisenstein

Paul A. Eisenstein is an NBC News contributor who covers the auto industry.

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Azerbaijan-Russia Ties Face Increasing Challenges

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Russia-Azerbaijan ties face increased challenges as Baku accused Moscow of purposefully stoking the conflict by providing arms to Armenia. It is notable that this rhetoric develops when Turkey is particularly vocal in its military support for Azerbaijan. Though it still remains to be seen whether these signs evolve into a concrete policy shift in Azerbaijan, hopes for diplomatic solution of Nagorno Karabakh conflict recede, and Turkey and Russia up their military support for Baku and Yerevan.

Azerbaijan-Russia relations face increasing challenges as the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus evolves. A series of events tested the bilateral ties and there is an increasing amount of evidence that some reconsideration of foreign policy on Azerbaijan’s part could be taking place.

The first challenge was the July fighting on Armenia-Azerbaijan frontier, far from the actual source of conflict – Nagorno Karabakh. What could have been a relatively unnoticed confrontation, it drew international attention due to the geostrategic infrastructure which runs near the fighting zone in Azerbaijan’s Tovuz region. Those are:

  • Baku-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines, which deliver Caspian oil to the Black and the Mediterranean Seas;
  • South Caucasus natural gas pipeline, which will send Azerbaijani gas to the EU and plays a key component in Turkey’s emerging strategy of positioning itself as regional energy hub.

In addition, the region also has the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars (BTAK) railroad (unveiled in 2017) and rarely mentioned the fiber-optic cables linking Europe with Central Asia. The Tovuz corridor also has a crucial Azerbaijan-Georgia highway, which allows Azerbaijan to connect to the Black Sea.

Thus in July Azerbaijan faced a threat to its major income. Damage to the infrastructure would also diminish the country’s geopolitical weight as a safe source of oil and gas. While fighting in or around Nagorno Karabakh takes place occasionally and at times reaches a serious level, such as in 2016, it nevertheless fits into the overall narrative of more or less predictable military scenarios which military and political leaders in Baku would expect. The Tovuz fighting, on the other hand, goes against most military narratives and required Baku’s tougher reaction. This is how the ties with Russia, Armenia’s major economic and military ally, come under intense scrutiny in Baku.

It is has always been a long-term challenge for Azerbaijan. Baku occasionally expresses its concerns on Russia’s military support for Armenia, but the criticism has usually been aired though newspapers and media rather than by high-level political figures. This changed following the July fighting.

Reasons are multiple. First, Russia (using its 102rd military base in Gyumri) and Armenia launched snap combat drills on July 17-20, just as the fighting in Tovuz region was still unfolding. Second, a series of flights of Russian military cargo planes to Armenia took place right after the July fighting.

In a notable change of tone the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev surprisingly publicly complained to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, stating that the recent reports on allegedly increasing Russian military support (400 tons of military hardware) for Armenia raise concerns and questions in Azerbaijani society. Perhaps as a reaction to growing bilateral differences, the Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu visited Baku to assure the Azerbaijani public that the flights were not of a military nature, but rather transported materials for the 102nd military base.

However, the affair did not end there as a senior adviser to Aliyev, Hikmet Hajiyev, on August 29, following Shoigu’s visit, claimed that “the explanation by the Russian side is not entirely satisfactory.” This effectively meant publicly refuting the Russian defense minister’s statements, further aggravating differences between the two states.

A September 1 article by Nezavisimaya Gazeta claimed that Azerbaijan had readied 500 Syrian militants in preparation for a “blitzkrieg against Armenia” and that Turkey has its troops on Azerbaijani soil. Baku vehemently criticized the report calling it “slander and [a] dirty campaign against our country.”

Yet another sign of troubled ties is the September 6th decision by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry opting out the Russia-led “Caucasus-2020” military drills (planned to be held in the southwest of Russia). Only two servicemen will be sent as observers. Though officially no concrete reasons for the withdrawal were given, it is possible to link the decision to Azerbaijan’s recent grievances at Russia.

Some larger reasons too might be at play motivating a change in Azerbaijan’s rhetoric. The Minsk Group, the body that aims to facilitate the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan is faltering. No concrete way to resolve the stand-off is present and the July fighting has just showed that diplomatic tools are receding. A vacuum is being created for regional powers to fill in. This is how Turkey comes to play an increasingly larger role in Baku’s strategic calculus.

Indeed, as the July fighting unfolded Turkey has been especially supportive of Azerbaijan. For instance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan noted “Turkey will never hesitate to stand against any attack on the rights and lands of Azerbaijan, with which it has deep-rooted friendly ties and brotherly relations.” Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar even warned that Armenia will be “brought to account” for its “attack” on Azerbaijan. Then large Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises followed.

Turkey’s calculus here is clear as the country needs to defend the vital oil, gas and railway infrastructure coming from Azerbaijan. And considering how far has diplomacy receded around Nagorno Karabakh issue, Turkey and Russia are set to play an even larger military and economic role in the South Caucasus. For the moment open rivalry will be avoided, but for Moscow and Ankara the region represents yet another area of covert competition along with Syria and Libya.

However, casting Azerbaijan-Russia relations as deteriorating is not entirely correct. Intensive cooperation still exists between the states. Azerbaijan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jeyhun Bayramov, paid an official visit to Russia on August 26 at the invitation of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov.

In late August-early September Azerbaijani servicemen participated in the “Tank Biathlon” and also won the Sea Cup competition – both held as part of the “International Army Games – 2020” organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

It is still hard to see whether Azerbaijan’s changing rhetoric towards Russia is more than just a temporary, tactical maneuver. It could be a clever diplomatic game Azerbaijan has always pursued since 1990s – namely, facing its larger neighbors against one another. Nevertheless, the rhetoric and recent political decision signal a search for reconsideration of some basic elements in Baku’s strategic vision. Turkey’s bigger role is likely to be sought more intensively, while hopes for a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict would further recede.

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China holds military drill as US envoy visits Taiwan

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China says it is conducting military exercises near the Taiwan Strait to “protect its sovereignty” as a top US official visits Taiwan.

The live-fire drills take place as relations between Beijing and Washington sour and the US shores up its support of Taiwan.

China regards self-ruled Taiwan as a breakaway province.

Keith Krach is the highest-level official from the US State Department to visit the island in decades.

On Friday, China’s defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang accused the US and Taiwan of “stepping up collusion, frequently causing disturbances”, although he did not make any reference to the visit.

He told reporters that “using Taiwan to control China” or trying to “rely on foreigners to build oneself up” was wishful thinking.

“Those who play with fire will get burnt,” he said.

Mr Ren did not give details about the military exercise, which involves the People’s Liberation Army’s eastern theatre command, but described them as “legitimate and necessary for the mainland to protect its sovereignty and integrity”.

They follow two days of large-scale Chinese drills off Taiwan’s southwestern coast last week.

The BBC’s Cindy Sui in Taipei says that by carrying out the military exercises, China is warning Washington against disrupting the balance that the United States had maintained under previous US administrations.

Taiwan’s ruling party and its supporters appear to see the US under Trump and the tensions with Beijing as an opportunity to push for closer ties with Washington and work towards their goal of getting formal international recognition of Taiwan as an independent country, says our correspondent.

Keith Krach arrived in Taipei on Thursday

Washington said Mr Krach, who is the US undersecretary of economic affairs, was visiting Taiwan to attend a memorial service for late president Lee Teng-hui on Saturday.

Later on Friday he is scheduled to meet Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen for a dinner at her official residence.

The visit comes at a time US-China relations have plummeted to their lowest point in years.

The two nations have been locked in a bitter trade war since 2018, clashed over the coronavirus pandemic and traded accusations of espionage with mounting arrests of suspected Chinese spies in the US in recent months.

The deteriorating relations have also affected other areas, including a US clampdown on China’s tech firms and the revoking of Chinese student visas.

Beijing views Taiwan as its own territory, vowing to one day seize it, while many Taiwanese want a separate nation.

Like most countries the US has no formal diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, and in the past was described as pursuing a policy of “strategic ambiguity” to balance China’s emergence as a regional power with admiration for Taiwan’s economic success and democratisation.

As the leading arms supplier to Taiwan, the US is by far Taiwan’s most important friend and only ally. But under President Donald Trump’s administration the US has further bolstered its backing for the island.

When a US cabinet member met President Tsai in Taipei last month China responded angrily.

“We urge the US… not to send any wrong signals to ‘Taiwan independence’ elements to avoid severe damage to China-US relations,” a foreign ministry spokesman said at the time.

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A fired Facebook employee wrote a scathing 6,600-word memo detailing the company’s failures to stop political manipulation around the world

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  • A recently fired Facebook data scientist wrote a lengthy memo detailing the tech giant’s failures to stop election interference in countries around the world, per a BuzzFeed report.
  • The employee, whose job was to find “inauthentic activity,” wrote that the company was slow to take action against fake accounts used to manipulate political outcomes in nations including India, Ukraine, and Bolivia.
  • Sophie Zhang wrote that Facebook instead prioritized its public image in choosing which fake networks to investigate, even if the “disproportionate impact” of real-world problems would go ignored.
  • Facebook has long struggled to stop the spread of misinformation and election interference.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A recently fired Facebook employee wrote a memo on her last day at the company accusing the tech giant of routinely ignoring or otherwise not prioritizing fake accounts’ efforts to manipulate elections and political climates around the world, according to a Monday BuzzFeed report.

The 6,600-word memo was written by Sophie Zhang, a data scientist whose job at the company was to identify fake accounts attempting to manipulate political outcomes. The mid-level employee said she was tasked with exercising her own judgment without managerial support while choosing which crucial matters to prioritize that pertained to Iraq, Indonesia, Italy, India, El Salvador, and countless more nations.

Zhang described a monumental workload that she said resulted in many such fake networks slipping through the cracks in what appears to be more evidence of Facebook struggling to stem the spread of misinformation and election interference on its platform.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.

Zhang said she found a series of inauthentic accounts — a term used to describe engagement on the site involving bot accounts — used in an opposition campaign to promote Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Zhang said in the memo that Facebook did not launch an investigation into the activity until more than a year after she first reported it. She also said it took the company nine months to take action on a coordinated inauthentic campaign to influence public opinion and promote Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández. Zhang said a similar pattern occurred in Bolivia and Ecuador.

Overall, Zhang wrote that she and her team removed “10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the US in the 2018 elections,” according to BuzzFeed. She said she had “blood on my hands by now,” blaming herself at least in part for some of the political strife that erupted in many of these nations. She described her role as highly stressful, a common characterization among content moderators for large tech firms.

Zhang wrote in her memo that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg prioritized networks concerning the US and Western Europe and that other nations took a back seat on the company’s radar. Zhang described an indifference attributed to “slapdash and haphazard accidents” rather than malicious intent, per the report. She did say, however, that Facebook routinely prioritized the company’s public image and “PR fires” over world issues, even if the “disproportionate impact” of those real-world problems would go ignored.

She said, per the outlet, that a NATO researcher brought to Facebook’s attention evidence of Russian inauthentic activity on a “high-profile US political figure that we didn’t catch.” It took that researcher saying they were planning on disclosing the evidence to Congress the next day for the company to prompt Zhang to investigate. She also wrote that to receive approval from higher-ups to investigate a matter, she would post about world issues in internal employee message boards to incentivize management.

As BuzzFeed notes, the kinds of operations outlined in Zhang’s memo are similar to one conducted by Russia in 2016 in an attempt to influence the outcome of that year’s US presidential election.

Read the full report on BuzzFeed here.

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