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Google Bets Big on Hardware With HTC Buy


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Photo Courtesy: Flickr

Google is biting off a big piece of device manufacturer HTC for $1.1 billion to expand its efforts to build phones, speakers and other gadgets equipped with its arsenal of digital services.

The deal announced Thursday underscores how serious Google is becoming about designing its own family of devices to compete against Apple and Amazon in a high-stakes battle to become the technological hub of people’s lives.

Over the past decade, Google had focused on giving away its Android operating system to an array of device makers, including Taiwan’s HTC, to ensure people would keep using its ubiquitous search engine, email, maps, YouTube video service and other software on smartphones and other pieces of hardware.

But that changed last year when Google stamped its brand on a smartphone and internet-connected speaker. HTC manufactured the Pixel phones that Google designed last year, perhaps paving the way for this deal to unfold.

Although Android powers about four out of every five smartphones and other mobile devices in the world, the software can be altered in ways that result in Google’s services being de-emphasized or left out completely from the pre-installed set of apps.

That fragmentation threatens to undercut Google’s ability to increase the ad sales that bring in most of the revenue to its corporate parent, Alphabet Inc., as people spend more and more time on smartphones and other devices instead of personal computers.

Apple’s iPhone and other hardware products are also particularly popular among affluent consumers prized by advertisers, giving Google another incentive to develop its own high-priced phone as a mobile platform for its products and ads.

Google also wants to build more internet-connected devices designed primarily for home usage, such as its voice-controlled speaker that’s trying to catch up with Amazon’s Echo. The Home speaker includes a digital concierge, called Google Assistant, that answers questions and helps manage people’s lives, much like the Alexa in Amazon’s Echo.

The purchase is a gamble on several fronts for Google and Alphabet.

Google’s previous forays into hardware haven’t panned out to be big winners so far. It paid $12.5 billion for smartphone maker Motorola Mobility five years ago only to sell it to Lenovo Group for less than $3 billion after struggling to make a dent in the market. And in 2014, Google paid more than $3 billion for home device maker Nest Labs, which is still struggling to make money under Alphabet’s ownership.

Expanding into hardware also threatens to alienate Samsung Electronics, Huawei and other device makers that Google relies on to distribute its Android software.

News Courtesy:VOA NEWS

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Making Movies Gets More Frightening With Age, Judi Dench Says


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Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Making movies gets more terrifying the older you get, British actress Judi Dench said on Monday, a day after her latest royal comedy drama “Victoria & Abdul” premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

Dench, who won an Oscar for her role in “Shakespeare in Love” and was nominated for Academy Awards six other times, said unlike in theater, where you can adjust with each performance, in films you get only one chance.

“It’s always challenging, I am always frightened, always frightened,” the 82-year-old actress told Reuters in an interview. “I get more frightened the older I get.

“It’s like having a huge bank of buttons and you chose to press so many in order to do what the writer and director wants you to do, and then when you see it, you think ‘oh no, I could have done that better!’.”

Dench began her career in theater, followed by numerous TV roles, but still recalls how during a film audition she was told she would never make a movie “because you have everything wrong with your face.”

But the turning-point came in 1997 when she was cast as Queen Victoria in “Mrs. Brown,” the first time she played the late British monarch. She stepped back into the queen’s shoes for “Victoria & Abdul,” which screened in the out-of-competition section in Venice.

“It’s like coming back to meet an old friend,” she said.

While “Mrs. Brown” explored Queen Victoria’s relationship with her servant John Brown, Stephen Frears’ new comedy drama is based on her subsequent unlikely friendship with Indian clerk Abdul Kazim who was sent to England to present her with a gold coin.

Kazim was only due to visit Britain briefly but Victoria took a shine to him and asked him to stay on and be her teacher.

In the end Kazim served Victoria until the end of her reign.

Judi Dench holds her honorary Doctor of Arts degree during the 366th Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 25, 2017.

Coming to London to shoot the film was the first time Indian actor Ali Fazal, who stars as Kazim, visited the British capital, and the first time he met Dench, “who is pretty much royalty amongst actors,” the 30-year-old actor said.

“It was a sort of parallel, going along with the film: I like to think I gained a wonderful friend,” he said.

Asked whether she would ever want to be royalty, Dench shook her head.

“No, certainly not, I can’t think of anything worse,” she said, although she added that the royal family was doing a “phenomenal job,” especially given it was not something they had chosen, but “just the job you’re born with.”

The festival ends on Sept. 9.

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

World War II Bomb Defused after Mass Evacuation in Germany


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The Image used only for representational purposes Picture Courtesy: Flickr

German bomb experts successfully defused a massive World War II bomb in the financial capital of Frankfurt on Sunday after nearly 65,000 people were evacuated to safety.

The 1.4 ton British bomb was found at a construction site last week.

Police on Sunday cordoned off a 1.5 kilometer radius around the bomb, leading to the largest evacuation in Germany since the end of World War II.

Helicopters with heat seeking devices scoured the area before the bomb experts began their work.

Among the evacuees were more than 100 patients from two hospitals, including people in intensive-care.

Experts had warned that if the bomb exploded, it would be powerful enough to flatten a whole street.

More than 2,000 tons of live bombs and munitions are discovered each year in Germany, more than 70 years after the end of the war. British and American warplanes pummeled the country with 1.5 million tons of bombs that killed 600,000 people.

German officials estimate that 15 percent of the bombs failed to explode.

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

 

Tesla Starts Production of Solar Cells in Buffalo, New York


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Tesla Inc. is starting production of the cells for its solar roof tiles at its factory in Buffalo, New York.

The company has already begun installing its solar roofs, which look like regular roofs but are made of glass tiles. But until now, it has been making them on a small scale near its vehicle factory in Fremont, California.

Tesla’s Chief Technical Officer, JB Straubel, says the company now has several hundred workers and machinery installed in its 1.2 million-square-foot factory in Buffalo.

“By the end of this year we will have the ramp-up of solar roof modules started in a substantial way,” Straubel told The Associated Press Thursday. “This is an interim milestone that we’re pretty proud of.”

The Buffalo plant was originally begun by Silevo, a solar panel startup, on the site of an old steel mill. Solar panel maker SolarCity Corp. bought Silevo in 2014. Then Tesla acquired SolarCity for around $2 billion late last year.

SolarCity was run by cousins of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who sat on SolarCity’s board.

“This factory, and the opportunity to build solar modules and cells in the U.S., was part of why this project made sense,” Straubel said.

Tesla’s partner, Panasonic Corp., will make the photovoltaic cells, which look similar to computer chips. Tesla workers will combine the cells into modules that fit into the roof tiles. The tiles will eventually be made in Buffalo as well, along with more traditional solar panels. Panasonic is also working with Tesla at its Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada.

Straubel says Tesla eventually hopes to reach 2 gigawatts of cell production annually at the Buffalo plant. That’s higher than its initial target of 1 gigawatt by 2019. Straubel said Tesla has been working on making the factory more efficient.

One gigawatt is equivalent to the annual output of a large nuclear or coal-fired power plant, Straubel said, “so it’s like we’re eliminating one of those every single year.”

Straubel wouldn’t say how many customers have ordered solar roof tiles, but said demand is strong and it will take Tesla through the end of next year to meet its current orders. Both he and Musk have had the tiles installed on their roofs.

Tesla shares were up less than 1 percent to $355.65 in afternoon trading.

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

Study: Blasphemy Laws on Books in One-third of Nations


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Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Laws prohibiting blasphemy are “astonishingly widespread” worldwide, with many laying down disproportionate punishments ranging from prison sentences to lashings or the death penalty, the lead author of a report on blasphemy said.

Iran, Pakistan, and Yemen score worst, topping a list of 71 countries with laws criminalizing views deemed blasphemous, found in all regions, according to a comprehensive report issued this month by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Statutes invite abuse

The bipartisan U.S. federal commission called for repeal of blasphemy statutes, saying they invited abuse and failed to protect freedoms of religion and expression.

“We found key patterns. All deviate from freedom of speech principles in some way, all have a vague formulation, with different interpretations,” Joelle Fiss, the Swiss-based lead author of the report told Reuters.

The ranking is based on how a state’s ban on blasphemy or criminalizing of it contravenes international law principles.

Ireland and Spain had the “best scores,” as their laws order a fine, according to the report which said many European states have blasphemy laws that are rarely invoked.

Supporters of Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama who is imprisoned for blaspheming Islam shout slogans during a protest outside the High Court in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 16, 2017. The imprisonment of the Christian politician has triggered an outpouring of anger and support around Indonesia.

Offenders face imprisonment

Some 86 percent of states with blasphemy laws prescribe imprisonment for convicted offenders, it said.

Proportionality of punishment was a key criteria for the researchers.

“That is why Iran and Pakistan are the two highest countries because they explicitly have the death penalty in their law,” Fiss said, referring to their laws which enforce the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

Blasphemy laws can be misused by authorities to repress minorities, the report said, citing Pakistan and Egypt, and can serve as a pretext for religious extremists to foment hate.

Recent high-profile blasphemy cases include Jakarta’s former Christian governor being sentenced to two years in jail in May for insulting Islam, a ruling which activists and U.N. experts condemned as unfair and politicized. Critics fear the ruling will embolden hardline Islamist forces to challenge secularism in Indonesia.

Blasphemy on Facebook

A Pakistani court sentenced a man to death last month who allegedly committed blasphemy on Facebook, the first time the penalty was given for that crime on social media in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

“Each of the top five countries with the highest scoring laws has an official state religion,” the report said, referring to Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somali and Qatar. All have Islam as their state religion.

Saudi Arabia, where flogging and amputations have been reported for alleged blasphemy, is not among the top “highest-risk countries,” but only 12th, as punishment is not defined in the blasphemy law itself.

“They don’t have a written penal law, but rely on judges’ interpretation of the Sharia. The score was disproportionately low,” Fiss said. “If a law is very vague, it means prosecutors and judges have a lot of discretion to interpret.”

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

Islamic State Becoming a Growing Presence in Southeast Asia


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Map Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Government security forces in the Philippines city of Marawi have been fighting for the past three months to rout militants suspected of ties to the Islamic State (IS) militant group in the region.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in May declared the country’s restive south under martial rule for 60 days – which, in July, was extended through the end of the year — after an attempt by security forces to capture an IS-linked militant leader failed. That set off clashes that left the city under siege.

A number of IS affiliates from Indonesia have reportedly crossed into the Philippines to support the local militants who are fighting against the Philippines military in the Marawi region.

Analysts say as IS militants are losing ground in Syria and Iraq, the terror group is attempting to expand in Southeast Asia, which is home to a number of separatist and militant groups.

“This is an evidence that the people under Jamaah Islamiyah in Indonesia now have a new ‘flag’ operating under ISIS, in this case, ISIS of the Philippines.” Ridwan Habib, a terrorism analyst at the University of Indonesia, told VOA. He used an acronym for the militant group. “Something serious is brewing and the government needs to anticipate what could happen next. We‘re worried that this new identity.

Extremist militant group

Jammah Islamiyah is an extremist militant group in Southeast Asia with links to al-Qaida, and has carried out numerous bomb attacks in Indonesia and elsewhere in the region, including the 2002 Bali attacks that killed more than 200 people.

IS has already shown signs of expanding in the region through local affiliates and sympathizers.

The group has been recruiting in Indonesia, with more than 380 people joining the terror group by January, according to the country’s counterterrorism agency. Most of those recruits have traveled to Syria and Iraq.

Greg Fealy, an associate professor at the Australian National University who studies terrorism in Indonesia, said the IS terror threat in the country has been on the rise since mid-2014.

IS has reportedly tapped a leader in the Abu Sayyaf group — an extremist militant group in the region known for kidnapping and beheading foreign tourists — as its Southeast Asia chief.

Indonesian authorities also confirmed that IS posed a threat to their country.

The terror group claimed responsibility for a coordinated bomb and gun attack in central Jakarta in January that killed eight people, including the four attackers.

U.S. Treasury authorities in March added Bahrun Naim, a prominent Indonesian militant, to the global terrorist list, saying he provided financial and operational support for IS in Indonesia and funneled money through Southeast Asia to recruit people to IS battlefields.

In the Philippines, IS has endorsed Isnilon Hapilon — the country’s most-wanted man, with a $5 million bounty placed on his head by the U.S. for alleged terrorist acts against American citizens — as the leader of a loosely affiliated association of small groups that have sprouted in the past three to four years around the central and southern Philippines.

Hapilon swore allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a July 2014 video, according to the U.S. State Department.

FILE – Soldiers distribute pictures of a member of extremist group Abu Sayyaf, Isnilon Hapilon, who has a U.S. government bounty of $5 million for his capture, in Butig, Lanao del Sur in southern Philippines, Feb. 1, 2017.

 

Philippines as a new destination

Some analysts charge that many extremists in Indonesia who wish to join IS are now heading toward the Philippines instead of Syria and Iraq, because the condition in the terror group’s former strongholds have degraded due to the ongoing multifront military campaign against the group in the region.

“In terms of costs, distance and access, the Philippines is more feasible,” Ridwan Habib of the University of Indonesia said. “Therefore, many jihadists from Indonesia chose to go to Marawi instead of going to Syria.”

Habib warned that the situation could get worse if the ongoing conflict in Marawi is not tackled and managed properly.

The analyst claimed that Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian militant in the Philippines who has studied in Islamabad, Pakistan, has been attempting to help establish an IS presence in the Southeast Asia region.

Ahmad was reported to have been killed in the Marawi battle in June, but Khalild Abu Bakar, a Malaysian police chief, told media that he believes Ahmad is still alive.

Gen. Eduardo Ano, chief of staff of the Philippines armed forces, said Ahmad channeled more than $600,000 from the IS group to acquire firearms, food and other supplies for the attack in Marawi, according to The Associated Press.

Returning IS fighters dilemma

Many fighters from Southeast Asia who had traveled to fight with IS in Syria and Iraq are returning to their home countries as the terror group is losing ground in the Middle East.

Indonesia’s government reported last year that between 169 and 300 Indonesians who fought for IS have returned home.

“Though I have said there are 50 (IS affiliates) in Bali, 25 in NTT (East Nusa Tenggara) and 600 in NTB (Nusa Tenggara Barat), their whereabouts are known to us and under control,” Major General Simandjuntak, a military commander in Bali, told reporters last week.

“They are in a sleep or inactive mode,” he added.

Abdul Haris Masyhari, chairman of the committee on defense and foreign relations in Indonesia’s parliament, worried that returning IS fighters could set up cells in their hometowns.

“In reference to Bali, I hope law enforcement would take action and preventive measures to thwart terror plots,” Masyhari said.

Opposition to Islamic State is growing in Indonesia amongst the public.

In May, a survey of 1,350 adults suggested nearly 90 percent of the participants viewed IS as a serious threat to their country. Meanwhile, several surveys conducted in the country indicate an increase in extremist ideology among the youth, who are idolizing radical figures.

Irna Sinulingga with VOA’s Indonesian service contributed to this report.

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

Typhoon Hato Claims at Least 12 Near Hong Kong


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Map Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The death toll from Typhoon Hato has risen to 12 as the most powerful storm to hit the southern Chinese region around Hong Kong in more than half a century barreled west.

Macau says eight people were killed in the gambling enclave, including two men found overnight in a parking garage. Another 153 were listed as injured amid extensive flooding, power outages, and the smashing of doors and windows by the high winds and driving rain.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency says four people were killed in the neighboring province of Guangdong and one person remains missing. Hato roared into the area Wednesday with winds of up to 160 kilometers (99 miles) per hour.

Fast storm, large rainfall

Xinhua said almost 27,000 people were evacuated to emergency shelters, while extensive damage to farmland because of the heavy rain and high tides was also reported. Almost 2 million households lost power temporarily, while fishing boats were called back to port and train services and flights suspended, Xinhua said.

“Compared to other typhoons, Hato moved fast, quickly grew more powerful and caused massive amounts of rainfall,” Wu Zhifang, chief weather forecaster at Guangdong meteorological bureau, was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

By Thursday, a weaker Hato was moving into China’s Guangxi region.

Flooding and injuries were also reported in Hong Kong, which lies across the water 64 kilometers (40 miles) from Macau, but there were no reports of deaths. Hato’s fierce gales blew out windows on skyscrapers in the Asian financial capital, raining shattered glass onto the eerily quiet streets below. Hong Kong’s weather authorities had raised the hurricane signal to the highest level for the first time in five years.

The earlier deaths in Macau were men, aged 30, 45 and 62. One fell from the 11th floor of a building, one was hit by a truck and another was killed when the wind blew down a wall. Details about the deaths in Guangdong weren’t immediately available.

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

Dutch Build Vital New Infrastructure — World’s Biggest Bike Parking Lot


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A Bicycle Parking Lot in Amsterdam Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The city of Utrecht in the cycling-mad Netherlands opened on Monday what it said would be the world’s largest parking garage for bikes with room for 12,500 once completed next year.

The move by authorities in the city of 344,000 people aims to prevent a sprawling clutter of bicycles outside its main train station, overwhelming limited parking space.

“This is a side-effect of the success of the bicycle in our cities,” city councilor Lot van Hooijdonk told Reuters. “We are happy so many people use bikes, but it creates huge challenges for the city, especially around the station.”

A cyclist parks his bike on the street near the world’s largest bike parking garage in Utrecht, Netherlands Aug. 21, 2017.

The Dutch love for cycling is increasingly being tested by a worsening shortage of parking space. An ever-growing number of bikes is forcing municipal authorities to spend millions of euros on state-of-the art parking venues, maintaining cycling lanes, removing wrecks and impounding badly parked bikes.

Utrecht’s 40-million-euro ($47 million) garage is designed to resolve the problem of cyclists leaving their bikes anywhere they want, preferably next to the station entrance.

The three-story garage will be directly linked to the street by bicycle paths and offer access to train platforms via elevators and stairs. Parking will be free for the first 24 hours and 1.25 euro for each following day.

A cyclist rides her bike in the world’s largest bike parking garage in Utrecht, Netherlands Aug. 21, 2017.

Elsewhere, The Hague plans a garage for 8,500 bikes while Amsterdam – with 835,000 people and around 847,000 bikes – is working on a storage space for thousands under the city’s Amstel river and linked to its central station.

Parking space in Amsterdam is scarce partly because of the many bikes left behind in and around the racks. Last year the Dutch capital removed some 24,000 neglected bikes and 40,000 were seized for parking violations.

($1 = 0.8490 euros)

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

IS Member Behind Paris, Brussels Attacks Added to US Terrorist List


vm.jpgAhmad Alkhald, a Syrian national from Aleppo who played a key role in the Islamic State (IS) terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, has been identified as a specially designated global terrorist by the United States, the U.S. State Department said.

The designation Thursday — which also included an Iraqi national who has provided close protection to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS leader in Iraq and Syria — imposed “strict sanctions” on the individuals and prohibited any dealings with them.

Alkhald is an IS bomb maker and the terror group’s explosives chief who helped carry out the November 2015 attacks in Paris and the March 2016 attacks in Brussels, the State Department statement said.

The series of the deadly terrorist attacks on several public places killed 130 people in Paris and 32 in Brussels.

Alkhald reportedly traveled to Europe, where he made the explosive vests used in the Paris attacks.

Island a gateway to Europe

According to French media, he crossed into Europe via the Greek island of Leros in September 2015. The island has been a gateway for some other IS attackers who have reportedly sneaked in among Syrians seeking refuge in Europe in the aftermath of the country’s civil war.

Alkhald returned to Syria shortly before the Paris attacks and continued helping other IS plots in Europe, including the March 2016 attacks in Brussels.

“Alkhald is wanted internationally and a European warrant for his arrest has been issued,” the statement said.

Al-Baghdadi’s protector

Abu Yahya al-Iraqi, also known as Iyad Hamed Mahl al-Jumaily, was the second individual identified as a specially designated global terrorist in Thursday’s statement.

Al-Iraqi is a senior IS figure close to al-Baghdadi, the terror group’s leader. He is reportedly a key IS leader in Iraq and Syria and has played a major role in providing security for al-Baghdadi.

The designation “notifies the U.S. public and the international community that Alkhald and al-Iraqi have committed or pose a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism,” the State Department said.

The statement said the designation and action by the State Department would help expose and isolate the two men, and help law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and around the world in their efforts against them.

A response to 9/11 attacks

Specially designated global terrorist (SDGT) is a designation established by the U.S. government in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks. Individuals designated as SDGTs are believed to pose a threat to U.S. national security by committing acts of terrorism.

The State Department has placed 272 individuals from different terrorist entities on the designation list, including 20 IS leaders and operatives.

“These designations are part of a larger comprehensive plan to defeat [IS] that, in coordination with the 73-member global coalition, has made significant progress toward this goal,” the State Department said.

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

‘Use the Force, Disney’: Obi-Wan Kenobi to Get his Own ‘Star Wars’ Movie


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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Walt Disney Co. is developing a “Star Wars” standalone movie based on the beloved character of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the wise and noble Jedi master, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety reported Thursday.

The Hollywood trade publications cited unnamed sources as saying that the project was in the early stages of development by Disney and Lucasfilm.

The project has no script yet, but British filmmaker Stephen Daldry, best known for 2000’s ballet movie “Billy Elliott,” is in early talks to direct it, the publications said.

Disney declined to comment.

Han Solo movie, too

Disney bought “Star Wars” creator George Lucas’ Lucasfilm in 2012 in a $4 billion deal and announced a new trilogy of films following the space saga as well as three standalone “Star Wars” projects that focus on stories outside of the central tale of the Skywalker family.

Disney debuted the first standalone “Star Wars” story with 2016’s “Rogue One,” which featured new characters and a storyline tied loosely to the ongoing saga.

A Han Solo movie is in production featuring a younger version of the freewheeling space smuggler played by Harrison Ford in the original “Star Wars” trilogy of films.

Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, who portrayed Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones,” poses with Star Wars character Darth Vader and Storm Troopers in background at the Los Angeles charity premiere of the film, May 12, 2002, in Hollywood.

Who will play Kenobi?

Kenobi, a recluse played by the late British actor Alec Guinness, was the mentor to Luke Skywalker and introduced the young warrior to the Force in the first “Star Wars” movie in 1977. Kenobi was later killed by his old pupil, the evil Darth Vader.

Actor Ewan McGregor played the character in the second trilogy of “Star Wars” films from 1999 to 2005. The Hollywood Reporter said no actor was attached to the standalone project.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Disney’s first installment of the new trilogy in the revamped franchise, brought back beloved characters Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo as well as introducing a new generation. It took in more than $2 billion at the world box office after its 2015 release.

The next film, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” is scheduled for release in December.

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

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