Mad Minute

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A company wants to use an advanced balloon to fly customers from Earth’s surface in Alaska to the highest reaches of the planet’s atmosphere.

Florida-based startup firm Space Perspective plans to use the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak to serve as one of the launch sites for the vehicle, called the Spaceship Neptune, The Anchorage Daily News reported Sunday.

The balloon rides will be manned by a flight crew taking eight passengers in a pressurized capsule suspended beneath a hydrogen balloon the size of a football stadium.

Each passenger could pay an estimated $125,000 for a six-hour journey.

Mark Lester, CEO of Alaska Aerospace Corp., said the high-altitude rides will be available from Kodiak in a few years and will support Alaska tourism.

“You will have people from around the world who want to come to Alaska and see the northern lights from the edge of space,” Lester said.

Alaska Aerospace and Space Perspective will test and refine spaceport operations and secure spaceflight licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Space Perspective plans to complete an unmanned test flight from the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida next year.

Passengers will begin with a two-hour ascent to about 19 miles (31 kilometers) above Earth. They will then be able to post on social media about the experience or send data.

“Neptune then makes a two-hour descent under the balloon and splashes down, where a ship retrieves the passengers,” along with the capsule and balloon, Alaska Aerospace said.

Capsule recovery would occur in the waters around Kodiak Island and the Aleutian Island chain, depending upon the seasonal wind patterns.

The balloon design is derived from technology NASA has used for decades to fly large research telescopes, Space Perspective said.

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TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — In the Mississippi city where Elvis Presley was born, the mayor announced last week that masks would be required in public buildings and businesses starting Monday because of the COVID-19 pandemic — and he used the opportunity to debunk an array of rumors.

"Please listen to our health care professionals regarding covid-19. My job as mayor is do to my best to keep our community safe, not make easy or politically popular decisions," Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton wrote on Facebook.

He added: "ANTIFA is not coming to Tupelo, Elvis statues are not being removed, you are not the target of some type of global conspiracy, it is impossible to erase history and no one has attempted to do so, covid is not a hoax, you shouldn't believe and share posts that are obviously false or used as political propaganda, and there is nothing 'liberal' about any of the actions that have been taken by our administration regarding these matters."

Shelton, a Democrat who publicly supports presidential nominee Joe Biden, told The Associated Press in a brief phone interview Monday that he was addressing "specific allegations I have received either by phone, email or social media."

He said people seemed, by and large, to be following the mask requirement, though City Hall was getting complaints about businesses not requiring employees to wear masks.

Responses to his Facebook message on Friday and a follow-up on Monday ranged from praise to: "Your days are numbered."

The reference to erasing history is because Shelton has pushed for years to remove the Confederate battle emblem from Mississippi's state flag — something the state Legislature voted on Sunday to do.

Shelton said he signed the mask order at the request of officials at North Mississippi Medical Center, which he described as Mississippi's largest rural hospital, and the Tupelo Economic Recovery Committee — about 40 business and civic leaders appointed to help Tupelo during the pandemic.

Tupelo is the seat of Lee County, where state officials reported 460 cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus and 15 deaths as of Sunday. Statewide cases of COVID-19 rose 675, to 26,000 confirmed and 167 probable, with 1,042 deaths confirmed to be caused by the disease and 17 probably caused by it, state officials said.

Shelton's order said that as of Friday, 429 cases were in Tupelo, where the total was rising an average of 11.7 per day. The hospital had been near or at capacity for COVID-19 patients for two weeks, it said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. But for some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.

The mayor said his Facebook post was written Friday as he was getting ready to leave for the day.

"I thought I'd just address everything at once," he said. "I just tried to hit the main topics of just the outlandish things that go around the rumor mill."

Those included the Antifa rumors linked to protests against racial injustice and the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him down and pressed a knee on Floyd's neck.

"I don't know where that kind of stuff comes from," Shelton said. "Personally, I think it's right-wing political propaganda to keep their base stirred up."

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June 30 (UPI) -- A team of University of California, Los Angeles, scientists announced they have developed a glove that translates American Sign Language into speech in real time.

The UCLA team, who published their research in the journal Nature Electronics, said the glove contains sensors in the digits that identify each word, phrase or letter in American Sign Language and transmits them wirelessly to a smartphone app that translates them at a rate of one word per second.

The device also includes optional sensors attached to a user's face to register facial expressions used in ASL.

"Our hope is that this opens up an easy way for people who use sign language to communicate directly with non-signers without needing someone else to translate for them," said lead researcher Jun Chen, an assistant professor of bioengineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. "In addition, we hope it can help more people learn sign language themselves."

Chen said the gloves and facial sensors were developed to be more lightweight and comfortable than previous efforts to translate sign language via machinery. She said previous attempts were criticized as too bulky for practical use.

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June 30 (UPI) -- Firefighters in Connecticut said a man survived with only minor injuries when he fell through the floor of a friend's home and plunged nearly 30 feet down a well under the house.

The Guilford Fire Department and Guilford Police Department said Christopher Town was helping a friend move furniture into the home when the floor gave way under him and he fell nearly 30 feet down a well under the house, splashing into the cold water at the bottom.

The police department said the well was likely located outside the house when it was built in 1843, but the hole was covered only by some simple wood flooring when the property was renovated and added to in 1981.

"It is important to note that some of these older, historical homes may have hazards that were not upgraded by current code," police said in a Facebook post.

Firefighters tossed town a flotation device to help him remain above water as they worked to hoist him out of the well with a rope system.

Town suffered only minor injuries from his fall and was treated at a local hospital.

"The fire department was incredibly professional," Town told WTIC-TV. "They did a wonderful job and saved my life basically. It's not a certainty that I would've died down there, but I was getting more and more hypothermic."

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June 30 (UPI) -- A 15-year-old inventor in Britain designed a watch to warn users when they are about to touch their faces after both of his parents contracted COVID-19.

Max Melia of Bristol, England, said he and his mother, Natalie Melia, came up with the original idea for the watch, dubbed Vybpro, a couple of years ago as a tool to prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses, but he didn't decide to put the idea into action until the coronavirus pandemic took over the news -- and his family.

"Watching this pandemic unfold on the news, it was clear the devastating effect it was having on people's lives across the world," Max told CNN.

"However it wasn't until I saw the severity of the virus firsthand, when both my parents contracted COVID-19, that I truly appreciated just what we were dealing with."

The teenager said his father, Richard Melia, helped him with concept work and research earlier in the year, and he has now teamed with a product designer to create a working prototype of the Vybpro.

The Vybpro is designed to vibrate and give off warning beeps when a user's hand approaches their face.

Melia said he is now in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign with a goal of $74,000 to get the watches into production as soon as possible. He said the product could hit the market for about $111 per watch by September of this year if the goal is met.

The teenager said all proceeds from initial sales of the watches will go toward providing free watches for vulnerable communities and healthcare workers.

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June 30 (UPI) -- A Canadian family spent two days rounding up a herd of 52 escaped bison with the help of authorities and volunteers.

Dalmeny Fire Rescue and Corman Park Police Service said the 52 bison escaped from a family's property Saturday night in Dalmeny, Saskatchewan, when someone cut through a fence.

Authorities warned residents to keep a distance if they spotted the animals, which could be dangerous if they feel threatened.

Les Kroeger, president of the Canadian Bison Association, helped the family and authorities corral the bison.

He said all of the animals were believed to have been contained by Monday evening, and volunteers were working on a plan to load the bison onto trailers and return them to the farm.

One of the bison was reported to have died as a result of the escape.

Police said they are investigating the damage to the fence.

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June 30 (UPI) -- Police in New York ended up in an unusual chase when a peacock escaped from the Prospect Park Zoo and went for a run through Brooklyn.

The New York Police Department said it received a 911 call just before 6 a.m. Monday from a witness who reported a peacock running loose near Flatbush Avenue and Empire Boulevard.

Witnesses said the bird ran loose through traffic for about 15 minutes before being surrounded by police.

The officers attempted to guide the peacock back to the sidewalk, but the bird took flight and vaulted a fence back into the zoo.

The zoo has been closed since March amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Three people on a recreational boat were injured, one seriously, after it collided with a humpback whale, authorities said Monday.

The collision happened Saturday just outside Auke Bay, north of Juneau, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries said in a statement.

The Coast Guard relayed information to NOAA that the boat immediately returned to shore, where some family members were transported to Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau.

Hospital spokeswoman Katie Bausler said three people were taken to the hospital. Two were discharged, but one was flown to a Seattle hospital.

Bausler said the person sent to Seattle and one person discharged were from out-of-state, and the third person was from Alaska.

"We do not know the fate of the whale at this point," said Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries Alaska region.

A message left with NOAA Fisheries law enforcement to see if an investigation was underway was not immediately returned Monday.

Capital City Fire and Rescue in Juneau also didn't immediately return a message seeking more information on the incident.

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Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) (AFP) - Turkmenistan's eccentric and authoritarian leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has penned a poem celebrating wheat and the farmers that grow it, state media in the Central Asian country reported Tuesday.

Berdymukhamedov is portrayed by local media as a prolific author, poet and composer, while reverence for wheat is a tradition deeply rooted in the Soviet Union that oil-rich Turkmenistan separated from in 1991.

The poem published in the state newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan hailed wheat as a "wonderful cereal, miracle seed."

"I wish success to the farmer, the whole world warms itself with wheat," read the poem attributed to Berdymukhamedov.

In a report shown on tightly controlled state television, Berdymukhamedov said that the verses had been inspired by the sight of "fields of waving wheat" during his recent working trips through the country.

"When you harvest wheat with your own hands or at the wheel of a combine harvester, special feelings awaken in your soul," Berdymukhamedov explained.

"Because bread is not just a food product, it is an invaluable gift from the Earth to man."

Several leaders in former Soviet states are fond of posing for photographs in fields of wheat and other crops, continuing a custom that dates back to communist bosses like Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.

The 63-year-old Berdymukhamedov cut his teeth as a personal dentist and then health minister under Sapamurat Niyazov, an even more eccentric leader who was notorious for renaming months of the year after himself and his mother.

Niyazov, self-styled 'Father of the Turkmen,' died in 2006, enabling Berdymukhamedov, who is also well-known for his love of horses and bicycles, to ascend to the presidency with support from the country's powerful security bloc.

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June 26 (UPI) -- A California diver known as "Merman Mike" plunged into the Sacramento River and was able to recover a lost ring worth $17,000.

Mike Pelley, who uses the alias "Merman Mike" on his YouTube channel, said he was approached by a man named Bill Fitty who heard about his underwater exploits and needed help finding a lost item.

Fitty said in a video posted by Pelley that he had dropped a ring into the Sacramento River that was a gift from his brother. He said the item was worth about $17,000.

Pelley said his first dive came up empty, so he dropped a brick into the water in the same spot where Fitty lost the ring, so he would have a better idea of where to look.

Pelley surfaced from his second dive with the ring in his hand.

Fitty said he wanted to reward Pelley with $1,500 to buy an underwater metal detector for future dives.

"I'm like getting choked up talking about it," Pelley told CBS Sacramento. "Doing this has brought back the good in humanity in me because everyone I talk to is always so grateful and happy."

Pelley said the metal detector will help him on the search for two wedding rings he has been trying to find for their owners.