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Ben Shanahan, Arizona Daily Sun 

Flagstaff’s Kaleb Hintz (5) swings at a pitch Friday afternoon against Washington High at Flagstaff High School.

Explosions rock Syrian capital as Trump announces strikes

DAMASCUS, Syria — Loud explosions ripped through Syria's capital early today and the sky turned orange as Syrian air defense units fired surface-to-air missiles in response to joint airstrikes by the United States, France and Britain.

Associated Press reporters saw smoke rising from east Damascus and a huge fire to the east. From a distance, U.S. missiles hitting suburbs of the capital sounded like thunder. Shortly after the one-hour attack ended, vehicles with loudspeakers roamed the streets of Damascus blaring nationalist songs.

President Donald Trump announced Friday night that the three allies had launched military strikes to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for alleged chemical weapons use and to prevent him from doing it again.

Trump said Washington is prepared to "sustain" pressure on Assad until he ends what the president called a criminal pattern of killing his own people with internationally banned chemical weapons.

"The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children, thrashing in pain and gasping for air. These are not the actions of a man; they are crimes of a monster instead," Trump said.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied any use of banned weapons.

"Good souls will not be humiliated," Syria's presidency tweeted after the airstrikes began.

Immediately after the attack, Syrian state TV, broadcasting live from the landmark Omayyad Square, showed crowds of civilians mixing with men in uniform, including vehicles with flags.

Syrian media reported that air defenses had hit 13 incoming rockets south of Damascus.

The attack began at 4 a.m. Syria time with missiles hitting the eastern suburbs of Damascus, shaking the grounds from a distance. The sky looked orange over eastern Damascus apparently as a result of fires caused by the missiles hitting Syria. Air defense units fired surface-to-air missiles from different directions toward incoming missiles.

At about sunrise, the sound of explosions could be heard just as the loudspeakers from the city's mosques called for morning prayers.

A car with loudspeakers blaring the national song "Oh Syria, You Are My Love" could be heard driving through central Damascus amid the attack.

Syrian television said the attacks targeted a scientific research center in Barzeh, near Damascus, and an army depot near Homs.

Syrian media reported that air defenses had hit 13 incoming rockets south of Damascus.

Syrian state TV called the attacks a "blatant violation of international law and shows contempt for international legitimacy."

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said there were no reports of U.S. losses during the initial airstrikes.

"Right now this is a one-time shot," he said but did not rule out further attacks. He said the airstrikes were launched against several sites that helped provide Assad's ability to create chemical weapons.

Britain's defense ministry said that while the effectiveness of the strike is still being analyzed, "initial indications are that the precision of the Storm Shadow weapons and meticulous target planning have resulted in a successful attack."

British Prime Minister Theresa May describes the attack as neither "about intervening in a civil war" nor "about regime change" but a limited and targeted strike that "does not further escalate tensions in the region" and does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.

"We would have preferred an alternative path. But on this occasion there is none," May said.

The decision to strike, after days of deliberations, marked Trump's second order to attack Syria; he authorized a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles to hit a single Syrian airfield in April 2017 in retaliation for Assad's use of sarin gas against civilians.

Trump chastised Syria's two main allies, Russia and Iran, for their roles in supporting "murderous dictators," and noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed a 2013 international agreement for Assad to get rid of all of his chemical weapons. He called on Moscow to change course and join the West in seeking a more responsible regime in Damascus.

The allied operation comes a year after a U.S. missile strike that Trump said was meant to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons. Since that did not work, a more intense attack would aim to degrade his ability to carry out further such attacks, and would try to do this by hitting Syrian aircraft, military depots and chemical facilities, among other things.

The one-off missile strike in April 2017 targeted the airfield from which the Syrian aircraft had launched their gas attack. But the damage was limited, and a defiant Assad returned to episodic use of chlorine and perhaps other chemicals.

Friday's strikes appear to signal Trump's willingness to draw the United States more deeply into the Syrian conflict. The participation of British and French forces enables Trump to assert a wider international commitment against the use of chemical weapons, but the multi-pronged attack carries the risk of Russian retaliation.

In his nationwide address, Trump stressed that he has no interest in a longtime fight with Syria.

"America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria under no circumstances," he said. "As other nations step up their contributions, we look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home."

Outdoors: Inside the gates

“Beat the rush – bike a Flagstaff forest road in April.”

That’s been our family motto for nearly two decades in Flagstaff, and timing is everything. Go too soon, and the roads are still too muddy, even for bicycles. Too late, and the gates are unlocked and the motocross and ATV riders are spitting gravel in our faces.

This spring, what little snow fell melted early and the roads started firming up in late March. In fact, some were never gated to motorized vehicles – the Forest Service says roads south of Flagstaff never really muddied up. After seeing the foot-deep ruts atop Anderson Mesa near the Interferometer, I’d dispute that, but I wrote that column last month.

Lindsay Wilson, courtesy 

The view of the Peaks from the rim of the cinder pit at Wing Mountain is spectacular.

Our first outing behind the locked gates was to Wing Mountain – the commercial snowplay operation at the cinder pits was closed this winter as was the access road, FR222, so I was curious to see how the area fared. To my surprise, the plastic sled shards and other detritus of previous winters were nearly gone and there were few, if any, tire tracks in the pits. The outer slopes, however, were deeply grooved by motocrossers who had carved out their own challenge course, complete with jumps and hairpin turns. I’d encountered these illegal trails farther up the slopes of the mountain in previous years, but these appeared to be relatively self-contained.

On this Saturday, we had the roads that circumnavigate the mountain all to ourselves – even the cattle that graze the lower slopes weren’t out yet. The tanks were low and the grassy meadows were already brown and dry, foretelling an early fire season without some April and May rains.

Arizona Daily Sun 

Most tanks atop Observatory Mesa in late March were nearly out of water.

The next Saturday, it was up to Observatory Mesa, coming in from the western end at A1 Mountain. The city has recently acquired the state trust parcels and converted them to a nonmotorized conservation area, and locked gates closer to Lowell Observatory appear to have done the trick. The only vehicles we saw were green Forest Service trucks – we assumed the drivers had keys to the locks.

The city has done a good job of signing the intersections with “No Motorized Vehicles” messages and helpful maps. We stuck mainly to the forest roads, with occasional detours to stock tanks over discontinued tracks. The tanks were even lower than at Wing Mountain, and elk and deer tracks sank deep into the muddy bottoms. We interrupted a gray fox at one of them at high noon – a rare sighting.

Lindsay Wilson, courtesy 

The trail from Little America required a stream crossing at the Rio de Flag before connecting to the FUTS, which was dry.

Finally, on a third outing we looked to access Sandys and Fay canyons via the maze of old forest roads from the unincorporated Herold Ranch Road subdivision southeast of Little America. There’s a locked gate at an old forest road at the end of Cottonwood Drive, but the neighbors this year put up signs claiming private parking rights all around, so we used the trailhead at Little America instead.

This trail took us down to the FUTS south of the Rio de Flag Wastewater Treatment Plant, where a month before the mud was too deep to ride. But this time, the track had firmed up, and we were treated to a smooth ride and a spectacular lenticular cloud hovering over Mount Elden on the northeast horizon.

We turned around at Hoffman Tank, which was completely dry, a disturbing sign for so early in spring. It had apparently been dry for some time, as there were no fresh animal tracks or scat anywhere.

By this weekend, all of the Forest Service gates likely will have been unlocked. But if you’re lucky, the Phoenician day-trippers won’t have discovered Hart Prairie Road or FR 245 to the lava tube. Get out and enjoy the forest roads on your bike while you can, although the way the fire season is going, they may be closed again to motorized vehicles well before the monsoon arrives.

Outdoors: Cycling inside the gates

Bovines online: Farmers are using AI to help monitor cows

SAN FRANCISCO — Is the world ready for cows armed with artificial intelligence?

No time to ruminate on that because the moment has arrived, thanks to a Dutch company that has married two technologies — motion sensors and AI — with the aim of bringing the barnyard into the 21st century.

The company, Connecterra, has brought its IDA system, or "The Intelligent Dairy Farmer's Assistant," to the United States after having piloted it in Europe for several years.

IDA uses a motion-sensing device attached to a cow's neck to transmit its movements to a program driven by AI. The sensor data, when aligned repeatedly with real-world behavior, eventually allows IDA to tell from data alone when a cow is chewing cud, lying down, walking, drinking or eating.

Those indicators can predict whether a particular cow is ill, has become less productive, or is ready to breed — alerting the farmer to changes in behavior that might otherwise be easily missed.

"It would just be impossible for us to keep up with every animal on an individual basis," says Richard Watson, one of the first four U.S. farmers to use IDA since it launched commercially in December.

Watson, who owns the Seven Oaks Dairy in Waynesboro, Georgia, says having a computer identify which cows in his 2,000-head herd need attention could help improve farm productivity as much as 10 percent, which would mean hundreds of thousands of dollars to his family.

"If we can prove out that these advantages exist from using this technology ... I think adoption of IDA across a broad range of farming systems, particularly large farming systems, would be a no-brainer," Watson says.

Dairy farming is just one industry benefiting from AI, which is being applied in fields as diverse as journalism, manufacturing and self-driving cars. In agriculture, AI is being developed to estimate crop health using drone footage and parse out weed killer between rows of cotton.

Yasir Khokhar, the former Microsoft employee who is the founder and CEO of Connecterra, said the inspiration for the idea came after living on a dairy farm south of Amsterdam.

"It turns out the technology farmers use is really outdated in many respects," he says. "What does exist is very cumbersome to use, yet agriculture is one of those areas that desperately needs technology."

Underlying IDA is Google's open-source TensorFlow programming framework, which has helped spread AI to many disciplines. It's a language built on top of the commonly used Python code that helps connect data from text, images, audio or sensors to neural networks — the algorithms that help computers learn. The language has been downloaded millions of times and has about 1,400 people contributing code, only 400 of whom work at Google, according to product manager Sandeep Gupta.

He says TensorFlow can be used by people with only high-school level math and some programming skills.

"We're continuing this journey making it easier and easier to use," Gupta says.

TensorFlow has been used to do everything from helping NASA scientists find planets using the Kepler telescope, to assisting a tribe in the Amazon detect the sounds of illegal deforestation, according to Google spokesman Justin Burr.

Google hopes users adapt the open-source code to discover new applications that the company could someday use in its own business.

Flagstaff to receive federal funding for veterans home

Flagstaff learned Friday that it will receive federal funding to construct an 80-bed nursing home for veterans on McMillan Mesa, Flagstaff leaders announced Friday.

The federal government has allocated funding to complete 52 projects on the 2018 list, and Flagstaff is number 52, Mayor Coral Evans said.

Evans said if all goes according to plan, construction can begin on the home in spring of 2019, and will be completed in 18 to 24 months. Yuma also received funding for a veterans’ home as part of the announcement.

Flagstaff was required to allot the land for the home as its contribution, and the state had to give a $10 million contribution, which Governor Doug Ducey approved in May 2016. The Department of Veterans Affairs then was responsible for the rest of the cost, which was previously said to be $20 million.

In August of 2017, the department announced a change to its funding criteria that would help rural communities compete to create the facilities.

“This is extremely important for our veterans,” Evans said. “This is a good way to show support for our veterans, not only in Flagstaff, but in all of northern Arizona.”

Evans began researching the possibility of a veterans home in the city in 2011, and the city allocated the land in 2015.

The home will serve as a nursing home for both veterans and their spouses, Evans said.

Evans said the funding was a victory for veterans in northern Arizona, and said many other people played a critical role in securing the funding.

Former Flagstaff City Councilman Jeff Oravits worked closely with Evans when trying to secure money from the state. Evans also said Ducey, senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, Congressman Tom O’Halleran and Victor Daniels, from the Arizona VA were instrumental in helping the city receive the grant for the home.