Abba stars give first performance together in 30 years

The four members of Abba have appeared together in Sweden, and surprised fans with an impromptu singalong.

The stars gathered on Sunday at a private party to celebrate the 50-year partnership between songwriters Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson.

During the gala, Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad performed the Abba song The Way Old Friends Do.

Ulvaeus and Andersson joined in at the end of the song, marking the band’s first public performance in 30 years.

Footage of the performance has yet to surface, but images of the quartet have appeared on social media.

Since winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, Abba have sold almost 400 million singles and albums around the world. Mamma Mia!, the musical based on their hits and produced by Ulvaeus and Andersson, has been seen by more than 50 million people.

During their most successful period, the band survived marriage break-ups between Ulvaeus and Faltskog, and Lyngstad and Andersson, but they finally called it a day in 1983.

Their last public performance came three years later, on the Swedish version of TV show This Is Your Life, which was honouring their manager Stig Anderson.

Abba have resisted pressure to reunite ever since, including a reported $1bn (£689m) offer for the band to tour in 2000.

“They were talking about 120 gigs or something,” Andersson said of the deal. “It would have taken 10 years out of my life. Just the stress. And leaving people disappointed all the time.

“It was easy to say no to it. And we all felt the same.”

Speaking to the BBC in 2013, Faltskog said she preferred to leave the band in the past.

“It was such a long time ago, and we are getting older, and we have our different lives,” she explained.

However, the band have appeared together for promotional events – at the premiere of Mamma Mia! in 2005 and, more recently, at the opening of an Abba-themed restaurant in Sweden.

Speaking after Sunday’s celebration, Lyngstad told Swedish newspaper Expressen: “It was absolutely amazing. A lot of emotions.

“We’ve made this journey throughout our history. Benny and Bjorn in particular. Its been very nostalgic.”

An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the song Abba performed as Me and I, based on Swedish media reports. The first line of The Way Old Friends Do is “You and I”.

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Kelis says she was abused by Nas during their marriage

Pop star Kelis has claimed she was mentally and physically abused during her five-year marriage to rapper Nas.

In an hour-long interview, Kelis said the couple frequently traded blows, with Nas sometimes drinking heavily before becoming violent.

“I’m not afraid to throw a punch, but I wouldn’t have started it,” she told Hollywood Unlocked. “I was never that angry. He was angry. He was dark and he’s always been that way.”

Nas hasn’t responded to her comments.

When Kelis and Nas married in 2005, they were hailed as hip-hop royalty – his debut Illmatic is considered one of hip-hop’s classic albums, while she scored era-defining, trend-setting hits with Milkshake, Trick Me and Caught Out There.

But behind the scenes, their relationship was “tumultuous and toxic”, Kelis said, with both sides becoming violent.

“I’ve never painted myself as a saint,” she said. “I never just sat there. Did he hit me? Mmm-hm. Did I hit him back? Mmm-hm.”

The star, now 44, said a pivotal point in their relationship came when details emerged of Rihanna’s abuse at the hands of Chris Brown in 2009.

“I remember so clearly when the pictures came out,” she said. “And the only way I can describe it was like double-dutch.

“I felt like, ‘Do I jump in? Do I say it?’ Cause I had bruises all over my body at that time.

“Seeing her, the way she looked, and then looking at myself. I was embarrassed.”

‘I stayed for years’

Ultimately, however, she decided not to reveal her own story.

“I wasn’t ready to walk. I just wasn’t,” she told Hollywood Unlocked’s Jason Lee.

“I’m not weak. I’m really private. I don’t want people in my business. I felt like, ‘This is my partner. I chose this. I’m going to make it work.’ I stayed for years after that.”

The decision to leave eventually came when she became pregnant with her first child, Knight.

“At seven months pregnant, I was terrified. I was like, ‘I can’t bring a person into this. This is a mess,'” she said.

“I probably would have stayed longer had I not been pregnant.”

The singer filed for divorce over “irreconcilable differences” in April 2009 and gave birth that July. In less than a year, their divorce was finalised.

‘My life is good’

The couple are currently in the middle of a protracted custody battle over Knight, focusing on visitation rights.

Kelis remarried in 2014 and has a two-year-old son, Shepherd, with estate agent Mike Mora.

“I moved on,” she said. “I’m married. I have another baby. My life is good.”

The star said she had decided to share her story in the hope it would help other women confront their own experiences of abuse.

“Women can’t be afraid to fight,” she said. “I have edited myself for nine years and I woke up this morning and said, ‘Not today.'”

Nas’s spokesperson has not responded to a request for a comment.

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Kanye West defends pro-Trump sentiments in new song

After a week of controversial Twitter postings, Kanye West has defended his support of the US president in a new song.

The track Ye vs. The People sees the star trading lyrics with fellow-rapper T.I., who takes him to task over his support of Donald Trump.

“You representin’ dudes who seem crude and cold-hearted,” argues T.I., adding that West is emboldening “white supremacy”.

But the star stands his ground, insisting that he’s “fighting for the people”.

Alluding to a photo he posted of himself wearing Donald Trump’s famous Make America Great Again baseball cap, West raps: “Wearing the hat will show people that we are equal.”

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my wife just called me and she wanted me to make this clear to everyone. I don't agree with everything Trump does. I don't agree 100% with anyone but myself.

— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 25, 2018

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“I love Hillary too,” he added in another post.

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If your friend jumps off the bridge you don't have to do the same. Ye being Ye is a fight for you to be you. For people In my life the idea of Trump is pretty much a 50 50 split but I don't tell a Hillary supporter not to support Hillary
I love Hillary too.

— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 25, 2018

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‘Kind of a big deal’

Nonetheless, the president has seized upon this rare, A-list endorsement and tweeted his approval.

“Kanye West has performed a great service to the black community,” he wrote on Friday. “Big things are happening and eyes are being opened for the first time in decades – Legacy stuff!”

“Kind of a big deal,” added his son, Donald Trump Jr, on Instagram. “Seems like a cultural turning point.”

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Kind of a big deal. Seems like a cultural turning point. Nice to see some real influencers push back on the nonsense narrative and actually push for free speech and thought and not just thought that falls totally in line with Hollywood’s and the far left’s ideology. #kanyewest #maga

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However, West has come in for criticism from fellow musicians, including his friend and former protégé John Legend.

Legend pleaded with the rapper not let his support for Trump tarnish his “legacy” in a private text message, which West later posted online.

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pic.twitter.com/zxcloMEj9I

— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 26, 2018

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“Think freely,” he advised West. “Think with empathy and context too. Your words and actions have consequences.”

Fellow Chicagoan Chance The Rapper initially defended West, saying “Black people don’t have to be democrats”.

But after President Trump praised his comments, the star issued a clarification.

I’d never support anyone who has made a career out of hatred, racism and discrimination,” he wrote.

“Unfortunately, my attempt to support Kanye is being used to discredit my brothers and sisters in the movement and I can’t sit by and let that happen.”

A prolonged publicity campaign?

Ultimately, it’s possible the entire controversy has been a bizarre, prolonged publicity campaign for West’s new music; but the exchange of views seems genuine.

T.I. even hinted that Ye vs. The People was recorded just two days ago, amidst the fallout of West’s return to Twitter.

“Yesterday spent the day with Kanye,” he wrote on Instagram on Friday.

“Still optimistic something from our discussion gon stick… I refuse to just give up on him.”

Before the release of Ye vs. The People, West trolled his fans by releasing another song – Lift Yourself – filled with nonsense lyrics.

The track opens with a sped-up sample of the 1973 Amnesty song Liberty, a soulful call to arms that states, “we need to strive for more liberty”.

However, West’s sole contribution was a verse built around the lyrics: “Poopy-di scoop / Scoop-diddy-whoop / Whoop-di-scoop-di-poop.”

The two releases are West’s first new music since 2016’s Life Of Pablo album.

He has hinted he will release a new album on 1 June, followed a week later by a collaborative record with Kid Cudi.

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Abba announce first new music since 1982

Pop group Abba have returned to the studio to record their first new music since the 1980s.

The Swedish quartet said the new material was an “unexpected consequence” of their recent decision to put together a “virtual reality” tour.

“We all four felt that, after some 35 years, it could be fun to join forces again and go into the studio,” the band said on Instagram.

“And it was like time stood still.”

No release date has been set for the new songs – but one of them, titled I Still Have Faith In You, will be performed in December on a TV special broadcast by the BBC and NBC.

The band have resisted pressure to reform since they stopped recording together in 1982, despite a reported $1bn (£689m) offer to tour in 2000.

In an interview with the BBC in 2013, Agnetha Faltskog said she preferred to leave the band in the past.

“It was such a long time ago, and we are getting older, and we have our different lives,” she explained.

News of the new material comes in a bumper year for Abba fans. An immersive exhibition based on the band’s career is running on London’s South Bank, while Chess, the musical Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson wrote with Sir Tim Rice, is being revived in the West End.

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    A sequel to the film version of Mamma Mia!, starring Amanda Seyfried, Lily James and Cher, will be released on 20 July.

    Speaking to BBC News, Rod Stephen, founder of Abba tribute act Bjorn Again, described the new material as “a whole new beginning”.

    “I heard about Abba releasing new songs and I was instantly, like everyone else in the Abba community, really excited to know what the songs were and how they’re going to sound. Will it have that 1970s sound or will it be up to date?

    “It’s brilliant really, because we love Abba’s music to death. I just hope they’re great songs, I hope they’re equivalent to Dancing Queen or Mamma Mia.”

    He added: “I know Benny and Bjorn wouldn’t release something in this way unless they were good songs.”

    Speaking to the BBC’s Adam Fleming last week, Ulvaeus had hinted that there could be new material. Here’s what he said:

    How did the Abba avatar idea come about?

    We were introduced to an idea by Simon Fuller who is, as you know, an entertainment entrepreneur – [creator of] the format of American Idol and manager of the Spice Girls and so forth.

    He came to Stockholm and he presented this idea to us that we could make identical digital copies of ourselves of a certain age and that those copies could then go on tour and they could sing our songs, you know, and lip sync. I’ve seen this project halfway through and it’s already mind-boggling.

    What does it actually look like? Does it look like a younger you?

    Yes. Real. And they say once it’s finished you’ll never see that it’s not a human being. And what attracted me personally to this is of course I’m always curious, scientifically-curious and this is new technology and we are pioneers. So I thought, ‘Yeah let’s go for it,’ and you know the other three went for it as well.

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    What is the actual format of the tribute show going to be? Is it going to be these Abba-tars all the way though?

    No, other people as well. And as for the format I’m not entirely sure what it’s going to look like but some sort of tribute show with these Abba-tars for want of a better word as the kind of centrepiece.

    Will you write new material for it?

    We don’t know what the Abba-tars will sing yet but there’s lots to choose from of the old stuff and yeah, I’m not ready to say that yet.

    So there could be new songs…

    I’m… it’s up in the air.

    Stay tuned…

    Yeah.

    Why not reform and have a reunion? The real you, rather than the virtual ones.

    Yeah, why not? Well… it never seemed like a good idea. It’s not that we haven’t had offers over the years. But somehow we always thought that the Abba that people have in their minds are the once-young and energetic group from the ’70s. And we just never felt the urge to go on tour, I guess.

    On the whole we toured very little. We had like 10 years together and of those 10 years maybe we toured, like, seven months. Not more than that. So to go on tour as a geriatric, I don’t know!

    Formed in 1972, Abba were essentially a Swedish supergroup, consisting of songwriters Ulvaeus and Andersson from The Hep Stars and singers Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who had scored success as solo artists.

    But their joint project completely eclipsed their previous successes. After winning the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo in 1974, the band sold almost 400 million singles and albums around the world.

    Mamma Mia!, the musical based on their hits and produced by Ulvaeus and Andersson, has been seen by more than 50 million people.

    During their most successful period, the band survived marriage break-ups between Ulvaeus and Faltskog, and Lyngstad and Andersson, but they finally called it a day in 1983.

    Their final recording sessions, in 1982, produced the hits Under Attack and The Day Before You Came, which featured on the compilation album The Singles.

    Their last public performance came three years later, on the Swedish version of TV show This Is Your Life, which honoured their manager Stig Anderson.

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SOS! Will Abba’s new music live up to their legacy?

It’s hard to imagine now but, once upon a time, people hated Abba.

Those spangly satin jumpsuits, their Eurovision origins, the wedding disco ubiquity of Dancing Queen – they all conspired to consign Abba to the cheesy-smelling scrapheap of pop.

The band were frequently misunderstood as kitsch because they wrote soft, optimistic pop songs. And, to be fair, some of their lyrics were pretty banal. (Nina, Pretty Ballerina, a weak tea version of Dancing Queen, is particularly awful.)

But a critical reappraisal began in the 1990s, with the release of the bewilderingly-successful Abba Gold compilation (30 million units and counting) and the emergence of tribute acts like Bjorn Again.

Some people embraced Abba ironically. But those people were wrong.

Abba are one of the most straightforwardly brilliant pop bands of all time.

SOS? Amazing. Mamma Mia? Amazing. So Long? Amazing. The Name Of The Game? Amazing. Chiquitita? You get the picture.

Anyone with a passing acquaintance with melody loves what Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Anni-Frid achieved.

“Purely from a songwriting point of view they were up there with the best,” said Noel Gallagher in 2004.

“They enter Eurovision singing about the battle of Waterloo in platforms [and] they were all shagging each other? Does it get better than that?”

Last year, Michael Eavis pledged he would un-cancel Glastonbury if Abba reformed, while artists including Portishead, Kylie, Sinead O’Connor and The Carpenters have covered their music.

The group never officially split up, drifting into the dusk in 1983 after recording sessions for a planned ninth album didn’t work out.

Since then, they’ve resisted the temptation to reform, through thick, thin and offers of $1bn in cash.

Until Friday, that is, when the band announced they’d gone back into the studio and cut two new songs.

“I’m half-thrilled and half-terrified,” says Kitty Empire, pop critic for The Observer.

  • Abba record first new songs since 1982
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    “No matter what they produce, can it ever live up to this weight of expectation? But I’m cautiously optimistic.”

    And herein lies the problem. Can any band reform 35 years after their peak and recapture what fans loved about them?

    “I think a good parallel is when the surviving Beatles got back together to do Free As A Bird [in 1995],” says music writer Pete Paphides.

    “Some people were sniffy about it at the beginning, when they first heard it, and I was one of them.

    “I was in my early 20s and had that 20-something arrogance that you sometimes have. But, actually, I can barely get to the end of Free As A Bird now without my eyes watering.

    “I think it’s just a beautiful song and I’ve lived with it over the years. My youngest daughter plays it on the piano. And that feels as valid and important a part of their legacy as any other Beatles songs.”

    The Beatles aren’t the only ones who got it right, says Paphides, listing Blur, New Order and Take That as bands who bounced back from a break-up.

    “The Take That album was really clever because they weren’t trying to be the band that they were before,” he says. “It was like they’d stepped back and asked themselves, ‘Who are we as people, and how can we credibly do this?’

    “It was an album that honoured the fact that both their fans and they as people were older. So there was a bittersweet aspect to that record, which I think sort of touched people.”

    EDM banger?

    So what will Abba 2.0 sound like? Perhaps we can gather clues from the quartet’s recent solo material.

    Agnetha Faltskog made an accomplished return to the studio with 2013’s A, which included the single When You Really Loved Someone.

    Her sole writing credit, I Keep Them On The Floor Beside My Bed, found the singer scattering photos of an old lover across her bedroom floor, wondering what happened to their relationship.

    A pleading, age-appropriate ballad, it feels connected to the wistful melancholy of Abba’s swansong The Visitors – an obvious jumping-off point for new material.

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    Benny Andersson’s recent album of solo piano pieces, released on classical label Deutsche Grammophon, reinforced his profound gift for melody. However it seems unlikely to inform the Abba reunion.

    A better indicator is the Benny Andersson Orchestra (BAO), which combines his passion for pop, rock and the oompah rhythms of Swedish folk with surprisingly intoxicating effects.

    The band’s 2009 single Du Ar Min Man (You Are My Man) – which spent four years in the Swedish chart – wouldn’t sound out of place on one of the earlier Abba albums.

    Anni-Frid Lyngstad, meanwhile, has largely avoided the recording studio since the ’80s.

    However, her 2010 cover of Morning Has Broken, recorded with Swedish musician Georg Wadenius, shows how effective her voice would be over the sort of stripped-back acoustic arrangements Benny and Bjorn favoured in their 1990s musical Kristina.

    Thankfully, then, no-one seems inclined to give Abba an EDM makeover.

    The one song title they’ve revealed so far – I Still Have Faith In You – suggests a timeworn romance perfectly suited to Agnetha and Frida’s strong-but-vulnerable vocals.

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    Can we safely assume the crisis has been averted, then?

    “I think their filter is very good,” says Kitty Empire. “I think their quality control will be impeccable.

    “But my personal fear is that it will be the cheesy end of Abba rather than the kind of Abba songs that very gently twist a knife into your innards and make you cry.”

    Rod Stephen, founder member of Bjorn Again, agrees.

    “Yes, there is a risk to their legacy being undone [but] I know Benny and Bjorn wouldn’t release something in this way unless they were good songs.

    “Even if they do misfire, I don’t think anybody would blame them for trying.”

    For his cover-bandmate Agnetha (she doesn’t like using her real name), the chance to put new songs in the set list comes as something of a relief.

    “After doing Abba for 20 years every weekend, it would actually be quite nice to learn new material!” she laughs.

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    But for Paphides, the arrival of new music is less compelling than the story of how it came about.

    “I’m happy for them,” he says. “I’m happy they felt so relaxed in each other’s company, that it didn’t seem like an onerous thing for them to even countenance the idea of making music together.

    “It’s a lovely thing – not just in terms of the creative merit, but because making music with people you love is a joyful thing.

    “And they don’t owe us anything, they’ve given us more wonderful music than we could’ve reasonably asked for, and it’s sustained us over the decades.

    “And in a weird way I don’t care if it turns out not to be as good as some of my favourite Abba moments, because they’ve given us way more than we could’ve asked them for.”

    Abba-solutely.

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Giant plastic ‘berg blocks Indonesian river

A crisis of plastic waste in Indonesia has become so acute that the army has been called in to help.

Rivers and canals are clogged with dense masses of bottles, bags and other plastic packaging.

Officials say they are engaged in a “battle” against waste that accumulates as quickly as they clear it.

The commander of a military unit in the city of Bandung described it as “our biggest enemy”.

Like many rapidly developing countries, Indonesia has become notorious for struggling to cope with mountains of rubbish.

A population boom has combined with an explosive spread of plastic containers and wrapping replacing natural biodegradable packaging such as banana leaves.

The result is that local authorities trying to provide rubbish collection have been unable to keep up with the dramatic expansion of waste generated.

And a longstanding culture of throwing rubbish into ditches and streams has meant that any attempt to clean up needs a massive shift in public opinion.

‘Shocking sight’

In Bandung, Indonesia’s third largest city, we witnessed the shocking sight of a concentration of plastic waste so thick that it looked like an iceberg and blocked a major tributary.

Soldiers deployed on a barge used nets to try to extract bags, Styrofoam food boxes and bottles, a seemingly futile task because all the time more plastic flowed their way from further upstream.

The senior official in charge, Dr Anang Sudarna, who heads the West Java Environmental Protection Agency, told me that the problem was “impossible to sort out without the highest authority”.

That’s why he took the drastic step of appealing to the Indonesian president to send in the army, and the move has made some difference, according to Dr Sudarna.

“The result is a little bit improved…but I am angry, I am sad, I am trying to think how best to solve this… the most difficult thing is the people’s attitude and the political will.”

Frontal assault

For Sergeant Sugito, commanding an army unit, the assignment was new and unusual and “not as easy as flipping your hand”.

“My current enemy is not a combat enemy, what I am fighting very hard now is rubbish, it is our biggest enemy.”

But he also said that plastic should be recognised as valuable – “for example, plastic cartons and drinking bottles can be separated from the other rubbish and sold”, he said.

Encouraging people to see plastic as a resource is a key step towards finding a solution to the crisis.

To encourage recycling, the authorities in the Bandung area are supporting initiatives in “eco-villages” where residents can bring old plastic items and earn small amounts of money in exchange.

The plastics are then divided by type. In one project we visited, two women patiently cut apart bottles and small water cups because separating the different kinds of polymers earns higher prices.

Officials are optimistic that word will spread that plastic has value – and raise awareness of the plastic waste problem – but they also admit privately that many residents are either uninterested or cannot see the point.

Meanwhile, on Bandung’s only landfill site – which receives only a fraction of the waste the city produces – an unofficial form of recycling is under way.

Next generation

On a hillside buried in rubbish, amid an overwhelming stench in the tropical heat, 500 so-called “scavengers” search each new load of rubbish for plastic products.

When I asked one man, scrambling from the path of an excavator, what he was looking for, he reached into a bag and held up a plastic bottle.

The work is punishing but generates income which supports entire families living on the dump, and it also demonstrates that there is a market for recycled plastic and more could be done to serve it.

For one activist working to change attitudes, Mohamad Bijaksana Junerosano of Greeneration, the solution has to involve law enforcement, education and social awareness.

Investment was needed to teach children about waste and recycling, he said, but that had to be done in combination with improvements in public attitudes.

“If we educate the student, when they go outside the school and the ecosystem is still broken and people are littering everywhere, they are confused so it needs both sides, education and also law enforcement by society.”

Monumental scale

A Dutch environmental scientist, Prof Ad Ragas of Radboud University, with long experience of Indonesia’s plastic problem, told me he has detected an important shift in the authorities.

Two years ago, when he organised a workshop on plastic pollution in Bandung, “government officials didn’t seem to care about it, they didn’t see it as a really big problem”.

By contrast, at another workshop held last month, “it’s changed dramatically”.

Social media, rapidly conveying images of choked waterways, had made a difference to people, he said.

“They immediately see that ‘this is what my river look likes now and I’m doing that because I’m throwing all this plastic away’ so they get feedback much quicker than they used to.”

But the challenge is not only monumental in scale; it is also constant.

The soldiers we filmed had planned to load the plastic onto trucks but because the vehicles never arrived they decided on a different course of action: to use a digger to push the waste downstream.

I asked the sergeant what would happen to it. It was up to another unit to collect, he said. It became someone else’s problem.

Near the coast, just outside the capital Jakarta, we came across a canal that was totally blocked with plastic. Local residents complained that whenever they tried to clear it, more arrived from upstream, as in Bandung.

Most apocalyptic of all was the scene at a fishing village on the coast itself. The mud of the shoreline was completely hidden by a thick layer of plastic waste stretching over hundreds of metres.

On a walkway crossing over the sea of plastic was a small girl playing with a balloon. By the time Indonesia’s plastic nightmare is sorted, she may well have grown up.

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Europe’s Mars rover takes shape

So, here it is. Europe’s Mars rover. Or rather, a copy of it.

This is what they call the Structural Thermal Model, or STM. It is one of three rovers that will be built as part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars 2020 mission to search for life on the Red Planet. And, no, we’re not sending all three to the Red Planet.

The STM is used to prove the design. It will go through a tough testing regime to check the rover that does launch to Mars – the “flight model” – will be able to cope with whatever is thrown at it.

What’s the third robot for? It stays on Earth and is used to troubleshoot any problems. If mission control needs to re-write a piece of software to overcome some glitch on the flight rover, the patch will be trialled first on the “engineering model” before being sent up to the Red Planet.

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    It’s getting real, then. After all the delays and arguments, the ExoMars hardware is at last taking shape.

    The STM, which has been assembled at the Airbus factory in Stevenage in the UK, is about to be boxed up and sent to a facility in Toulouse for environmental testing.

    “We’re going to ‘shake and bake’ it to demonstrate that the rover can survive all of the vibrations and acoustic loading during the rocket launch, all of the shocks of deployment, and then all of the thermal stresses it will experience – all the highs and lows – both when it’s in deep space and on the surface,” explained engineer Abbie Hutty.

    “This is where we qualify our design, proving that it meets the requirements.”

    Esa member states will meet on 8 May for the Critical Design Review. This will consider every aspect of the venture and is really the last chance to change some aspect of the mission. There may be some tinkering at the edges, but the broad scope will not alter.

    There have been recent difficulties related to the “Analytical Drawer”, which will hold ExoMars’ life-seeking instruments. A leak was found in the test model for this box and a membrane also failed. “But, OK, this is why you do testing,” said ExoMars project scientist Jorge Vago.

    “Overall, I think we’re on a good track to complete everything we need to do. We have margin. It could be better, but we’re not working double shifts and on weekends, which is what you see on most projects towards the end.”

    ExoMars is a joint venture with the Russians. They’re building the descent module – the mechanism that gets the rover down to the surface once it enters the planet’s atmosphere.

    A structural model of this system is also in production, and when the rover STM completes its Toulouse exams, the two will have a fit check in Moscow and undergo another round of testing as a combined unit.

    A couple of developments in the rover’s capabilities are worth reporting. It’s now been confirmed the robot will be able to wheel-walk.

    This is a driving mode that sees the vehicle lift up its wheels and take steps – as opposed to just rolling forward. It would allow ExoMars to tip-toe out of a sand trap, if it gets caught in one. Nasa’s Spirit rover was snared in this way and the mission lost as a consequence.

    Wheel-walking was in the initial spec for ExoMars and then withdrawn for cost reasons. I’m pleased to report that member states have found the money to put it back on the rover.

    The other key capability that needs a similar response is autonomous navigation. This self-driving system would permit the robot to plot its own path across the surface of Mars, independently avoiding hazards such as large rocks and trenches.

    Without it, controllers back on Earth have to direct every move, and that’s a very slow process.

    “Clearly we need it, otherwise we will pay a high price in terms of the science you can do,” Dr Vago said.

    “To give you an example – if we need to move 500m, with autonomous navigation we can do that in five days. Without it, the drive might take 15 days.”

    Whether the rover gets this smart upgrade is probably going to depend on the UK and French space agencies.

    They’re the parties most interested in the technology and will have to fund it.

    Fortunately, autonomous navigation is a software complement, so even though hardware choices have to be locked down now there is still some extra time to resolve this particular issue.

    If you’re wondering where ExoMars will be sent, the decision will be made in November. Scientists will meet at Leicester University to choose between two equatorial locations, known as Oxia Planum and Mawrth Vallis.

    They’re both areas rich in clay minerals – the kinds of sediments that must have formed during prolonged rock interactions with water.

    Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Plastic recycling: Why are 99.75% of coffee cups not recycled?

It’s gradually becoming common knowledge that it’s not as easy to recycle your takeaway coffee cup as people may have thought.

It’s the mixture of paper and plastic in their inner lining – designed to make them both heat and leakproof – that causes difficulties.

There are currently only a small number of specialist plants in the UK able to process the disposable used cups, and as a result, the vast majority of them (more than 99.75%) don’t get recycled.

In 2011 it was estimated that 2.5 billion coffee cups were thrown away each year and that figure is likely to be higher now.

Some of the biggest sellers of coffee in the UK, including Costa and Starbucks, say they have started recycling coffee cups, but that’s only if customers dispose of their takeaway cups in store.

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    Ace UK, the representative body for beverage carton manufacturers, has 415 recycling points for coffee cups and other paper products across the UK. Cups deposited here will be taken to the company’s own specialist recycling plant.

    They are generally in places like car parks rather than on the street.

    Cups that are left on the kerb in household recycling or in a bin on a high street or railway station, however, will generally end up in landfill.

    Industry body the Paper Cup Alliance says the specialist plants that do have the technology already have the capacity to recycle all the cups we throw away – it’s the infrastructure to transport them there that’s currently lacking.

    A growing number of retailers and offices are buying compostable cups and one of the biggest providers in the UK is Vegware, which makes its products without any plastic so they biodegrade.

    It sells compostable cups to office canteens, schools, hospitals and independent coffee shops and its sales have increased by more than a third in the last two years.

    However, compostable cups have to be disposed of in food waste bins rather than in a normal recycling bin and this is an issue for both homeowners and managers of cafes or workplace canteens.

    Trewin Restorick, at environmental charity Hubbub, believes the right disposable method is not always clear to people and says: “Compostable sounds better, but it can actually make things worse if they are put in the wrong bin.”

    Because they are designed to break down, if they end up in with the plastic recycling they can contaminate it. The same is true if you put an ordinary takeaway coffee cup in the recycling.

    This costs councils money in sorting it and can even lead to the whole batch of recycled items being rejected.

    • Coffee: Who grows, drinks and pays the most?

      Vegware says its products work best in an environment where the waste can be controlled, like a festival. In those kinds of environments people are likely to buy a drink onsite and throw it away onsite.

      The amount of waste that gets rejected for recycling by councils in England has been rising. That waste then ends up in landfills or being burnt.

      The proportion of recycling that gets rejected is still relatively small, though – less than 5%.

      If compostable cups end up in landfill, unlike plastics they will break down. But this misses the opportunity to harness the energy produced through composting for another use – as fertiliser or even to generate electricity.

      Reusable cups

      The three biggest coffee retailers in the UK – Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero – all provide incentives for customers to bring in their own reusable mug rather than using a disposable cup.

      Costa and Starbucks offer a 25p discount while Caffe Nero offers double stamps on its loyalty card, which it says is equal in value to 25p.

      Greggs and Pret a Manger – the biggest “food-focused” sellers of coffee according to retail consultancy Allegra Strategies – also have discount schemes. Pret is the most generous with a 50p discount for shunning single-use cups.

      Starbucks has offered a discount for customers in the UK using their own mugs since it opened in 1998, and says about 1.8% of all hot drinks sold are in reusable cups.

      The coffee shop chain is trialling a 5p “latte levy” charge on paper cups in 35 branches in London – a plan proposed on a national level by MPs and rejected by the government in March.

      The trial has been in operation for six weeks so it’s too soon to judge its success, but early indications are that it has increased sales of drinks in reusable cups compared with a discount alone.

      Costa Coffee says about 1% of hot drinks it sells are in reusable mugs and that has been consistent since the discount was introduced.

      The company doesn’t have data on reusable cup use from before the incentive scheme was introduced, so it’s difficult to say whether the discount itself is encouraging some people to use non-disposable cups.

      Caffe Nero don’t have figures on how many drinks are sold in reusable cups because they give extra loyalty card stamps as an incentive rather than discounting the drink itself.

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Wildlife photo competition disqualifies ‘stuffed anteater’ image

A winning entry in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition has been disqualified for featuring a taxidermy specimen.

The image, known as The Night Raider, shows an anteater moving towards a termite mound in a Brazilian reserve.

London’s Natural History Museum, which runs the competition, says the use of stuffed animals breaches its rules.

The photographer, Marcio Cabral, denies he faked the scene and claims there is a witness who was with him on the day.

Other photographers and tourists were in the park at the same time and therefore “it would be very unlikely anyone wouldn’t see a stuffed animal being transported and placed carefully in this position”, he told BBC News.

But Roz Kidman Cox, the chair of judges for Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY), was stern in her criticism.

“This disqualification should remind entrants that any transgression of the rules and spirit of the competition will eventually be found out,” she said.

The Night Raider picture won the Animals In Their Environment category in the 2017 WPY awards. It was taken in Emas National Park.

The green lights are click beetles hoping to lure termites into being their prey with a bioluminescent display.

The anteater’s appearance was described in the citation caption as being serendipitous – a “surprise bonus” that walked into the shot. But the Natural History Museum (NHM) says third parties recently raised concerns the image was staged – that the hungry interloper is in fact a static model that can be seen at a visitors’ centre at an entrance to the reserve.

When alerted to this possibility, the museum asked five scientists to review the winning photo and to compare it with the centre’s display model.

These experts, who included the NHM’s own taxidermy specialist and South American mammal and anteater researchers, worked independently of each other, but they all came to the same conclusion – that the two animals were one and the same.

The scientists found the markings, the postures, the morphologies and even the positioning of the fur tufts to be just too similar.

Nature’s reality

The NHM says Mr Cabral fully cooperated with the investigation, supplying RAW images for inspection that were taken “before” and “after” the winning scene. But none of these included the anteater.

“Unfortunately, I do not have another image of the animal because it is a long exposure of 30 seconds and ISO 5000,” Mr Cabral said.

“After the flashes were fired, the animal left the place, so it was not possible to make another photo with the animal coming out of the place that is totally dark.”

The WPY rules state that “entries must not deceive the viewer or attempt to misrepresent the reality of nature”. And it is on this basis that The Night Raider has been stripped of its title and removed from display in the competition’s UK tour.

Roz Kidman Cox has been a judge on WPY for more than 30 years. She told the BBC: “I find it disheartening and surprising that a photographer would go to such lengths to deceive the competition and its worldwide following.

“The competition places great store on honesty and integrity, and such a breach of the rules is disrespectful to the wildlife-photography community, which is at the heart of the competition.”

Iberian wolf

This is not the first time the WPY judges have had to disqualify a winning entry. In 2009, they threw out the grand prize photo that supposedly depicted a wild Spanish wolf jumping over a gate.

A similar investigation concluded that the pictured animal was not wild at all, but a tame wolf from a zoo.

Ms Kidman Cox said the judges were always alert to the possibility that photos might be staged but that the artifice could be very hard to spot if the featured animals were in a natural pose in a low-lit scene.

“The judges themselves are chosen to include a range of skills and expertise, both biological and photographic, and are well able to question the veracity of an image,” she added.

“The rules also make it clear that the competition champions honest and ethical photography, and they are translated into a number of languages to prevent any misunderstanding.”

Mr Cabral describes his exclusion as a sad decision and one he will continue to contest.

The visitors’ centre is locked at night and has guards and so he could not have had access to the model, the photographer says. He intends to return to Emas National Park later this year to collect evidence that he believes will exonerate him.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Closing gender gap in physics ‘will take generations’

Closing the gender gap in physics will take hundreds of years, given the current rate of progress.

That’s the finding of research analysing the names of authors listed on millions of scientific papers.

Physics, computer science, maths and chemistry had the fewest women, while nursing and midwifery had the most.

Without further interventions, the gender gap is likely to persist for generations, said scientists from the University of Melbourne.

“Of the gender-biased disciplines, almost all are moving towards parity, though some are predicted to take decades or even centuries to reach it,” said Dr Cindy Hauser.

Number crunching

The researchers used computer methods to analyse the genders of authors listed in databases (PubMed and ArXiv) containing thousands of scientific papers published over the past 15 years.

They found that 87 of the 115 subjects examined had fewer than 45% women authors.

Women are increasingly working in male-biased fields such as physics (17% women), while men are increasingly working in female-biased fields such as nursing (75% women).

However, forecasts suggest it will take a very long time to close the gender gap in some fields, with predictions of 320 years for nursing, 280 years for computer science, 258 years for physics and 60 years for mathematics.

The researchers said practical measures are already known that could help close the gap, including:

  • Reforming publishing
    • Ensuring women receive equal resources at work
      • Greater recognition of demands outside the workplace that traditionally fall on women when assessing achievements
        • Better access to parental leave and career breaks
          • Equal access to informal professional networks.

            “The solutions are out there but it’s difficult to bring about change and get people to act on them,” said Dr Luke Holman.

            “We haven’t acted on them enough because it’s difficult to change the way that people have always done things and it’s maybe not afforded as high a priority as it should be by people in positions of power in the scientific industry and academia.”

            The researchers also looked at variation across countries.

            They found a larger gender gap in Japan, Germany and Switzerland and a smaller gender gap in some European, African and South American countries.

            The research is published in the journal PLOS Biology.

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