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Ethics adviser to scandal-hit UK leader Boris Johnson quits

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Ethics adviser to scandal-hit UK leader Boris Johnson quits

LONDON (AP) — The ethics advisor to scandal-hit Prime Minister Boris Johnson has quit and accused the Conservative government of seeking to flout conduct rules, weeks after an investigator’s report criticized the British leader for overseeing a culture of government rule-breaking.

Christopher Geidt stepped down late Wednesday with a terse statement saying “with regret, I feel that it is right that I am resigning from my post as Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests.” Johnson’s office said it was surprised by the decision.

In a resignation letter, which was published Thursday by the government, Geidt said he was put in an “impossible and odious position” because the government asked him to advise on measures which would “risk a deliberate and purposeful breach of the Ministerial Code.”

He did not elaborate but said: “I can have no part in this.”

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In a response, Johnson indicated the issue concerned the imposition of tariffs to protect a “crucial industry” which might “be seen to conflict with our obligations” under the World Trade Organization.

Geidt had stayed in his job as Johnson was buffeted by allegations about his judgment and ethics culminating in the “partygate” scandal over parties in government buildings during Britain’s coronavirus lockdowns. Johnson was one of 83 people fined by police, and a civil servant’s report said Johnson and senior officials must bear responsibility for “failures of leadership and judgment” that created a culture of rule-breaking in government.

When he was quizzed by lawmakers this week, Geidt acknowledged he had felt “frustration” in his job, noting that he was appointed by the prime minister and so was not “truly independent.”

The resignation of his hand-picked ethics adviser is the latest blow for Johnson, who survived a no-confidence vote by his own Conservative Party last week. He has been left a weakened leader after 41% of Conservative lawmakers voted to remove him.

Johnson still faces a parliamentary ethics probe that could conclude he deliberately misled Parliament over “partygate” — traditionally a resigning offense

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Geidt’s predecessor as ethics adviser, Alex Allan, also quit, stepping down in November 2020 after the prime minister ignored his finding that a Cabinet member had bullied her staff and broken the ministerial code of conduct — also usually a resigning offense.

“For the prime minister to lose one adviser on ministers’ interests may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness,” said Conservative lawmaker William Wragg, a critic of Johnson.

Geidt, a former private secretary to Queen Elizabeth II, had been accused of going easy on top officials in his investigations. Last year he cleared Johnson of breaking the ministerial code by failing to disclose that a Conservative party donor had funded a pricey refurbishment of the prime minister’s official residence.

In April he cleared Treasury chief Rishi Sunak of wrongdoing over his wife’s tax affairs and his possession of a U.S. permanent resident’s card.

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‘Super-Earths’ Could Host Alien Life for 84 Billion Years, Study Finds

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‘Super-Earths’ Could Host Alien Life for 84 Billion Years, Study Finds

Life on a rogue Super-Earth would be difficult, but organisms have been shown to thrive even in very extreme conditions on regular Earth.

Concept art of Super-Earth. Image: 

Evgeniy Ivanov via Getty Images

210329_MOTHERBOARD_ABSTRACT_LOGO

ABSTRACT breaks down mind-bending scientific research, future tech, new discoveries, and major breakthroughs.

A special class of planets could potentially host life for as long as tens of billions of years, according to a new study.  

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Super-Earths, which are rocky planets that are more massive than Earth but smaller than ice giants such as Neptune, are abundant in star systems across the Milky Way; indeed, our own solar system may be somewhat of an outlier in lacking this type of world. 

Now, scientists led by Marit Mol Lous, a PhD student studying exoplanets at the University of Zürich, have presented new evidence that so-called “cold Super-Earths” that orbit their stars at more than twice the distance between Earth and the Sun, “can maintain temperate surface conditions” for up to give to eight billion years, a timespan that “suggests that the concept of planetary habitability should be revisited and made more inclusive,” according to a study published on Monday in Nature Astronomy.

In addition, Mol Lous and her colleagues found that some Super-Earths that are kicked out of their home star systems by gravitational perturbations, or other mechanisms, could potentially maintain liquid water habitats for as much as 84 billion years, because these rogue worlds would not be affected by the death of any host star.

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“Here we argue that it should be considered that habitable planets could be very different from Earth, and that we should remain open-minded when investigating such potentially habitable planets,” Mol Lous said in an email. “Of course, it is also important to remain cautious and not jump into conclusions when considering such ‘exotic’ habitats as we know very little, and a lot can be left to speculation.”

The new study is built from theoretical models of these tantalizing worlds, rather than real observations, because it is challenging to spot these cold Super-Earths with current telescopes. Most exoplanets are detected when they pass in front of their star relative to our perspective on Earth, causing a slight dip in starlight. As a result, all known Super-Earths have relatively short orbits that produce frequent brightness dips, making them simpler for telescopes to pinpoint.

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However, scientists have suspected for years that Super-Earths in more distant orbits could be compelling targets in the search for extraterrestrial life. Models suggest that these planets could retain their primordial atmospheres, which are dominated by hydrogen and helium gas, for billions of years. These atmospheres are distinct from those surrounding some rocky planets in our own solar system, including Earth, which evolved atmospheres with more complicated compounds, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen gasses.

“The hypothesis that there could be liquid water on a planet that has a primordial atmosphere has been around for over 20 years and since then more studies have worked on this idea,” Mol Lous said. “We wanted to further investigate the evolutionary aspect, in other words, we calculated how long liquid water could be present and what would be necessary for a planet to have the longest possible duration of liquid water.”

Liquid water is the magic ingredient for life as we know it on Earth, which is why scientists prioritize it in search for aliens elsewhere in the universe. To delve into the “potential exotic habitability” of cold Super-Earths with primordial atmospheres, in the words of the study, Mol Lous and her colleagues ran over 1,000 simulations of planets with different masses, atmospheres, and orbital distances.

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The team discovered that planets between one and ten times the mass of Earth, with atmospheres that are 100 to 1,000 times thicker than Earth’s skies, might occupy a hospitable sweet spot. Worlds that orbit too close to their stars are expected to lose their primordial atmospheres under the harsh stellar glare, but planets that are located at distances beyond the orbit of Mars could hang onto this hydrogen-helium envelope. At this potentially safe distance, these atmospheres could act as greenhouse gasses by absorbing infrared radiation, providing a source of heat that might nurture life in liquid water oceans. 

This class of planets could provide habitable conditions for five to eight billion years, but would eventually become inhospitable once their stars began expanding during their dying stages, reports the study. In a mind-boggling twist, the researchers found that rogue planets that are ten times as massive as Earth, with atmospheres that are about one percent the mass of Earth, could be habitable for an astonishing 84 billion years, according to the models. The study suggests that these unbound worlds would probably be too hot for life at this point in the universe’s 13.8-billion-year lifespan, but could become hospitable over the next several billion years.

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Any speculative aliens on these worlds would have to grapple with very different conditions compared to Earth, including enormous surface pressures and a lack of direct sunlight as a result of thick atmospheres. However, the team notes that extreme lifeforms on Earth can deal with high pressures in deep ocean trenches, while some organisms rely on chemical energy sources instead of drawing fuel from the Sun.

The implications of the study are exciting, but Mol Lous and her colleagues cautioned that it will take more research, and hopefully direct observations, to back up these initial findings. 

“There are three important things to address in the future,” Mol Lous said. “The first is if our results hold when we make our model more realistic. We did a few studies on how robust our results are for changing parameters, but we still make simplifications and that should be improved in future work. For example, we don’t really let the water interact with the atmosphere in our model and that could actually be important.” 

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“The second is to study how likely it is that planets can form with the ‘right’ conditions for liquid water,” she continued. “The third is to think about observations: what can we measure about such planets to determine if they have liquid water or not?’

To that end, the team emphasized that these special exoplanets might be detectable to the next-generation observatories, such as the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope or NASA’s forthcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. 

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“There are no accurate predictions on the occurrence of super-Earth-sized planets with these initial conditions, but it is likely enough that these alternatively habitable planets constitute a fraction of the habitable worlds in the galaxy,” the researchers said in the study.

We “expect that our understanding of this exoplanetary population and its potential habitability will substantially improve in the near future,” they concluded.

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The #1 Period Tracker on the App Store Will Hand Over Data Without a Warrant

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The #1 Period Tracker on the App Store Will Hand Over Data Without a Warrant

​Stardust app screens via Apple Store

Stardust app screens via Apple Store

Stardust, an astrology-focused menstrual tracking app that launched on the App Store last year, is one of Apple’s top three most-downloaded free apps right now. From sometime around Sunday evening until Monday mid-morning, it was in the number one spot. It’s also one of very few apps that has put in writing that it will voluntarily—without even being legally required to—comply with law enforcement if it’s asked to share user data. 

After the fall of Roe on Friday, ending the Constitutional right to an abortion and making abortion illegal in more than a dozen states, many people used Twitter to urge others to delete their period tracking apps for privacy and security reasons. A widely-shared concern is that law enforcement can use personal data created in apps against people who’ve sought or gotten abortions illegally. 

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Despite this, more people are downloading Stardust—which combines astrology with menstrual cycle tracking— right now than some of the most-downloaded apps in history. As of Monday morning, on the iOS App Store, Stardust was ranking above hugely popular apps including TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram. It was ranking above BeReal and NGL, two apps that have recently gone viral with teens. 

Stardust seems to have done a decent job of jumping on this moment when everyone is screaming into the Twitter void to “delete you period tracking app!” by marketing itself as the choice for safety-conscious people to track their cycles. The app has less than 300 followers on Twitter, but has made viral TikToks talking about privacy and landed coverage in Mashable. Its Twitter bio is “Privacy first period tracking app.”

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Despite all of its privacy-first marketing, Stardust states in its privacy policy that if the cops ask for user data, it’ll comply, whether legally required to or not, and claims that the data is “anonymized” and “encrypted.” The privacy policy states:

“We may disclose your anonymized, encrypted information to third parties in order to protect the legal rights, safety, and security of the Company and the users of our Services; enforce our Terms of Service; prevent fraud; and comply with or respond to law enforcement or a legal process or a request for cooperation by a government or other entity, whether or not legally required.”

“Whether or not legally required” is an unusual phrase to include in a privacy policy. Most apps simply state that they will comply to the extent legally required. There’s no reason for companies to comply with the cops if they don’t have to. But Stardust says it will. 

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Stardust advertised that what differentiates it from other apps is an “encrypted wall” that they claim keeps data safe. “What we did was implement an encrypted wall between our users personally identifiable information (email/phone/apple id/ etc) and what they actually do on the Stardust app,” the company tweeted in a thread on Sunday about its data practices. 

This feature isn’t implemented yet: it will launch on Wednesday, according to Stardust, along with its Android app launch. It is not entirely clear what Stardust means by an “encrypted wall,” but Stardust explained that users create an encrypted identifier on their phones that the company doesn’t store, and that links users to their activity on the app. 

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Still, Stardust claims that if it receives a subpoena asking for data on a particular user, it will not be able to hand anything over. “If the government issues a subpoena to find out about your menstrual tracking data, we will not be able to produce anything for them,” Stardust claims. Whether that’s true depends on how and what it stores. Stardust did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Its privacy policy states that it collects and may share “general age demographic information and aggregate statistics about certain activities or symptoms from data collected to help identify patterns across users.” In a section about sharing to third parties, it states it will not share anything except in a laundry list of cases, including subpoenas: 

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“In response to subpoenas, court orders or legal processes, to the extent enforceable, permitted and as restricted by law (including to meet national security or law enforcement requirements); (ii) when disclosure is required to maintain the security and integrity of the App, or to protect any user’s security or the security of other persons, consistent with applicable laws; (iii) when disclosure is directed or consented to by the user who has input the Personal Data; (iv) in the event that we go through a business transition, such as a merger, divestiture, acquisition, liquidation or sale of all or a portion of its assets, your information will, in most instances, be part of the assets transferred. Information that is encrypted will remain encrypted and cannot be shared by us in decrypted form.”

Stardust tweeted that it offers an “an app experience on Stardust that lets our people share their tracking with their friends” and protect users from “bad actors” at the same time. The founders call this a “unique problem to solve.” These are diametrically opposed goals, unless security practices are airtight: either you can create an “app experience” that involves storing data with sharing features, or you can let people use the app without making accounts, and make your app less data-rich and valuable in the process.

The company tweeted that it’s still “working on an option” for anonymous use of the app, without creating an account. 

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Russia Defaults on Foreign Debt for First Time Since 1918

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Russia Defaults on Foreign Debt for First Time Since 1918

Russia defaulted on its foreign-currency sovereign debt for the first time in a century, the culmination of ever-tougher Western sanctions that shut down payment routes to overseas creditors.

For months, the country found paths around the penalties imposed after the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. But at the end of the day on Sunday, the grace period on about $100 million of snared interest payments due May 27 expired, a deadline considered an event of default if missed.

It’s a grim marker in the country’s rapid transformation into an economic, financial and political outcast. The nation’s eurobonds have traded at distressed levels since the start of March, the central bank’s foreign reserves remain frozen, and the biggest banks are severed from the global financial system.

But given the damage already done to the economy and markets, the default is also mostly symbolic for now, and matters little to Russians dealing with double-digit inflation and the worst economic contraction in years.

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Read more: How Sanctions on Russia Will Hurt—and Help—the World’s Economies

Russia has pushed back against the default designation, saying it has the funds to cover any bills and has been forced into non-payment. As it tried to twist its way out, it announced last week that it would switch to servicing its $40 billion of outstanding sovereign debt in rubles, criticizing a “force-majeure” situation it said was artificially manufactured by the West.

“It’s a very, very rare thing, where a government that otherwise has the means is forced by an external government into default,” said Hassan Malik, senior sovereign analyst at Loomis Sayles & Company LP. “It’s going to be one of the big watershed defaults in history.”

A formal declaration would usually come from ratings firms, but European sanctions led to them withdrawing ratings on Russian entities. According to the documents for the notes whose grace period expired Sunday, holders can call one themselves if owners of 25% of the outstanding bonds agree that an “Event of Default” has occurred.

With the final deadline passed, focus shifts to what investors do next.

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They don’t need to act immediately, and may choose to monitor the progress of the war in the hope that sanctions are eventually softened. Time may be on their side: the claims only become void three years on from the payment date, according to the bond documents.

“Most bondholders will keep the wait-and-see approach,” Takahide Kiuchi, an economist at Nomura Research Institute in Tokyo.

During Russia’s financial crisis and ruble collapse of 1998, President Boris Yeltsin’s government defaulted on $40 billion of its local debt, while declaring a moratorium on foreign debt.

The last time Russia fell into default vis-a-vis its foreign creditors was more than a century ago, when the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin repudiated the nation’s staggering Czarist-era debt load in 1918.

By some measures it approached a trillion dollars in today’s money, according to Loomis Sayles’ Malik, who is also author of ‘Bankers and Bolsheviks: International Finance and the Russian Revolution.’

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By comparison, foreigners held the equivalent of almost $20 billion of Russia’s eurobonds as of the start of April.

Russia Debt Held Abroad Below 50%, First Time Since 2018: Chart

“Is it a justifiable excuse to say: ‘Oh well, the sanctions prevented me from making the payments, so it’s not my fault’?” Malik said.

“The broader issue is that the sanctions were themselves a response to an action on the part of the sovereign entity,” he said, referring to the invasion of Ukraine. “And I think history will judge this in the latter light.”

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov dismissed the situation on Thursday as a “farce.”

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With billions of dollars a week still pouring into state coffers from energy exports, despite the grinding conflict in east Ukraine, he reiterated that the country has the means, and the will, to pay.

“Anyone can declare whatever they like,” Siluanov said. “But anyone who understands what’s going on knows that this is in no way a default.”

His comments were prompted by the grace period that ended on Sunday. The 30-day window was triggered when investors failed to receive coupon payments due on dollar- and euro-denominated bonds on May 27.

The cash got trapped after the US Treasury let a sanctions loophole expire, removing an exemption that had allowed US bondholders to receive payments from the Russian sovereign. A week later, Russia’s paying agent, the National Settlement Depository, was also sanctioned by the European Union.

In response, Vladimir Putin introduced new regulations that say Russia’s obligations on foreign-currency bonds are fulfilled once the appropriate amount in rubles has been transferred to the local paying agent.

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The Finance Ministry made its latest interest payments, equivalent to about $400 million, under those rules on Thursday and Friday. However, none of the underlying bonds have terms that allow for settlement in the local currency.

So far, it’s unclear if investors will use the new tool and whether existing sanctions would even allow them to repatriate the money.

According to Siluanov, it makes little sense for creditors to seek a declaration of default through the courts because Russia hasn’t waived its sovereign immunity, and no foreign court would have jurisdiction.

“If we ultimately get to the point where diplomatic assets are claimed, then this is tantamount to severing diplomatic ties and entering into direct conflict,” he said. “And this would put us in a different world with completely different rules. We would have to react differently in this case — and not through legal channels.”

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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