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As much as Star Wars fans usually flood the Comic-Cons, with the new sequel “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” coming in just a few months the hype has escalated to a whole new level.
The 2015 Comic-Con in Sand Diego, a festival of everything sci-fi and fantasy, had a lot to offer to Star Wars fans: panel discussions with actors and creators, sneak previews, and limited merchandise.
But what Comic-Con fans love most of all is dressing in elaborate, true-to-original, and outright over the top costumes. They show up all decked out as their favorite movie, TV, manga, anime, video game characters.
And in the dress up department, the Star Wars theme occupied a massive part of the 2015 festival universe.
Visitors could easily take a selfie with a Darth Vader-clad man hardly distinguishable from the movie costume, or run into a female variety of Darth Vader, complete with a pink helmet and a pink bodysuit.
Perhaps most innovative was the group of ladies masked as female Wookies—a very, very hairy species of the Star Wars universe—roaming the premises, calling themselves “Chewie’s Angels,” a tribute to the best-known Wookie Star Wars character, Chewbacca.
MORE:Ben Affleck Debuts ‘Batman V Superman’ Footage at Comic-Con
The “Star Wars” original cast Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher made an appearance receiving a massive reception from the stadium full of fans. All three are re-cast in their original roles in the upcoming blockbuster, together again with original director J.J. Abrams.
Still, very few new pieces of information about the movie were released.
The juiciest nugget was probably the name of the command center of one of the main villains of the movie—General Hux. Domhnall Gleeson, who plays the character, leaked the name, perhaps accidentally, as “Starkiller Base.”

There are now 6,264 endangered animal species on Earth, 2,524 of which are critically endangered, according to the Red List of Threatened Species managed by International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
The problem is, just presenting the numbers tends not to carry much impact.
For example, the Red List also includes 32 animals that are now extinct in the wild, but still surviving in captivity, such as Scimitar oryx or Père David’s deer.
At least everyone has an idea of what a deer looks like and probably wouldn’t want a whole species of them to disappear.
Yet probably nothing is more compelling than looking at the babies of the very species that are on the brink of extinction—almost certainly because of human activity.
Indeed, the usual suspects among causes of extinction are fragmentation, deforestation, and hunting—all well within the human purview.
And so it is that 731 animal species are now categorized as extinct.
MORE:These Photos of Abandoned Pets Will Melt Your Heart
Yet there is also good news to report.
Many endangered species have been successfully bred in captivity and later reintroduced into the wild. Many more have such initiatives underway.
The last couple dozens of Père David’s deer, for example, were wiped out during the Boxer Rebellion in China at the onset of the 20th century. Yet a few of them were sneaked to Europe before that, gathered by Herbrand Russell, 11th Duke of Bedford, and nurtured into a herd by his descendants until they were reintroduced to China in 1985. Now, though still managed in captivity, there are thousands of Père David’s deer strolling the Middle Kingdom again.
And so the lesson reads that by human hands the treasures of nature may not only perish but flourish as well.

Robert F. Bukaty was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and studied photographic illustration at Rochester Institute of Technology. Bukaty has a reputation for making compelling images of ordinary every day life. Be it frozen curves of Mount Washington in New Hampshire or a barge plowing through arctic sea-smoke on its way out of Portland Harbor, Bukaty captured the moments in a visually breathtaking way.
In this selection, we see Bukaty focusing on the Northeast, tracing people interacting with nature in its rugged beauty. In his picture of Russell Norris, age 15, diving into the Swift River at Coos Canyon in Maine, you can almost feel the invigorating chills of the brisk water. And the simple photograph of a sign listing six different varieties of potatoes for sale outside a farm near Houlton may tell us more about Maine than a page of statistics.
On the other hand, his photo of a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn., or of Jack Fleming, one of the top men behind organizing the Boston Marathon, as he pauses at the finish line just a week after the terrorist attack, showcase photojournalism of the most serious kind.
Bukaty has worked for the Associated Press since 1993 and was part of the AP team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for coverage of the President Clinton impeachment story. His major assignments included the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City, Hurricane Katrina, the Boston Marathon bombing, and several presidential campaigns. In 2008 he had a special six-month assignment in Beijing, culminating with the summer Olympics, one of six Olympic Games that he has covered.
Associated Press contributed to this story.

Bob Daugherty certainly has had a full career. After documenting the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, he captured the presidency of Richard Nixon and his subsequent fall over Watergate. He was there for President Ronald Reagan’s trip to China, the rise of George H.W. Bush, and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
Daugherty was one of only three Associated Press photographers allowed into China during Nixon’s historic visit in 1972. He remembered, standing in the cold of Beijing, the moment when the 37th U.S. president emerged from Air Force One.
“We didn’t know who would greet him even at that late moment in the protocol. Then, without warning or special attention, Zhou Enlai [then Chinese Prime Minister] stepped forward and reached out to shake hands with Nixon. It was a handshake to remember, decades of history running through those two hands,” Daugherty is quoted in “Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else,” a 2007 book by AP reporters.
But Daugherty wasn’t just a presidential photographer. His career also has spanned sports, culture, and breaking news, as seen from his images of jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Cash, the Beatles, and incidents like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway deadly crash in 1964 or the aftermath of the State Fairgrounds Coliseum explosion in 1963.
In any case, it’s quite enough for one man’s career and quite an inspiration for scores of photojournalists to follow.
Let us know in the comment section what you think about the photos and who’s work you would like to see next.

As heat waves hit across the globe, adults, children, even animals enjoy some cool relief. The mercury is high not just in the expected places, like India, the Middle East, or California, but this year places like Germany and the United Kingdom are also getting scorched.
Who can then blame one for taking advantage of every opportunity to soak one’s body in a pool, sea, ocean, or perhaps a water fountain.
June 2015 was the hottest ever for 32 American cities from Alaska to Arizona. The list includes places like Las Vegas, Reno, and Miami. Miami is actually experiencing the hottest year on record, according to Weather.com.
Across the ocean, Madrid hit a record temperature for July with 103.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Berlin broke their record as well with 100.2 F and Frankfurt set a new high at 102.2 F. Germany as a whole hit a new July record when a middle-sized town of Kitzingen in central Germany heated up to 104.5 F.
United Kingdom toppled its July heat record with 98.1 F measured on the London’s Heathrow Airport. Paris, France, came close to its all time high with temperatures of 103.5 F, the second hottest reading since 1873.
Yet if you’re really hard to impress, you may want travel all the way to the south of Spain to the historical city of Córdoba, where July has brought, so far, a scorching high of 113 F.
Now if you’re looking for a slight counterbalance, you’d have to look all the way down to Australia. That’s right. Aussies have winter these days, meaning the temperatures dropped to chilling 41 F over the first July weekend.

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Entering Kew Gardens in London, the first sight that hit me was the iconic Victorian Palm House, looking like a half-buried, upside-down transparent Zeppelin. Made from glass and iron, it was designed by Decimus Burton and engineered by Richard Tanner to accommodate the exotic palms being collected and introduced to Europe in early Victorian times.
Pachystachys lutea “Lollipop Plant”
Walking inside the Palm House, the overwhelming tropical heat hit my lungs and instantly fogged up my camera lens. While exploring the botanical delights, I came across the enigmatic subtropical Lollipop Plant (Pachystachys lutea) It has brightly coloured orange leaves and dainty pale white petals sprouting out like tiny wings. The majority of the plants inside the Palm House are dug into beds to form a miniature tropical rainforest.
Walking along the balcony inside The Palm House
Today, the tallest palms that need the most room are located beneath the central dome. These include the peach palm (Bactris gasipaes), babassu (Attalea speciosa), queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana), and the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera).
Hibiscus storckii “Pink Form” from Fiji growing in The Palm House

Hibiscus storckii “Pink Form” stigma

The flower beds outside The Palm House

Victoria cruziana waterlilys in the Waterlily House at Kew Gardens
Throughout the day I kept coming back to the Waterlily House, built in 1852. It’s a warm, peaceful sanctuary filled with giant Victoria cruziana waterlily plants, named after Queen Victoria and originally from the Amazon. I was told these floating bright green discs could support a small child. Underneath the leaves of the V.cruziana there are protruding ribs, which trap air keeping them buoyant. The wonderful variety of sweet-smelling waterlily flowers on the surface of the 36-foot pond only last for 48 hours. They start out white then darken to pink and purple before disappearing underwater – short-lived but majestic life.
Nymphaea “Saint Louis Gold”

Nymphaea caerulea “Blue Egyptian Waterlily”
Accompanied by a plant hunting team in Western Australia, Carlos Magdalena – Kew Gardens’ resident tropical plant and waterlily expert – recently discovered a brand new species of waterlily. He said: “After years of wondering about this plant, it was a huge surprise to make this discovery. Finding the first population was a shock, but then we found creeks filled with just this species – it was breathtaking.”
As the discovery took place in crocodile-infested waters, Carlos said: “It was also extremely scary at times. Ultimately, if you are attacked by a crocodile there is nothing you can do but accept your fate as waterlily fertiliser!”
Even though an identical plant had previously been collected in the Northern Territory and subsequently grown at Kew, it had been thought that the lily must be a hybrid – a cross between two different plant varieties to acquire the attributes of each. However, this new location was thousands of kilometres from where the original lily had been discovered, and there was no trace of the suspected parents in the surrounding area. Carlos realised it was in fact a well-defined and separate species. “It is vitally important that we have a thorough knowledge of how many species there are out there,” said Carlos. “Without it, it is impossible to protect them. Where they are, how many, which threats they may face – all these factors must be established. Plant conservation of this nature is at the very heart of what Kew exists to do.”
Nymphaea “Kew’s Stowaway Blues”

Encircling the Palm House lies Kew Gardens’ famous Rose Garden. Here I watched a bee climbing petals to collect the sweet nectar and pollen from the vivacious rose. Kew Gardens is spread across a vast area. To explore the 132 hectares of landscaped gardens, I would need a number of visits. I look forward to going back.
Bee collecting Rose pollen

A couple strolls through Kew Gardens in London
Kew Gardens is open daily from 10 a.m., closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The Temperate House is closed until 2018 for restoration.

TOPEKA, Kan.—A pair of boys are cycling 3,000 miles to help orphans on the other side of the world. Chunjing Neumann, 13, from Virginia, and his best friend, 12-year-old Zachary Ware from Washington D.C. are part of Ride2Freedom.
They stopped in Topeka, the capital of Kansas, on June 25. In Topeka, Zach and Chunjing and their fellow Ride2Freedom riders toured the governor’s office and visited a local legislator’s office.
Kansas is roughly the halfway point for Ride2Freedom. It’s a group of youths between the ages of 11-25 who started in Los Angeles and are cycling to Washington, D.C. and then traveling to New York. Their mission is to raise awareness about the orphans affected by the persecution in China of Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, a peaceful traditional meditation practice. It emphasizes the principles of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance, but the Chinese Communist Party has persecuted Falun Gong practitioners since July 20, 1999.
I ride for the second chance of children in China, and the great life that they might have here in America. Chunjing Neumann, 13, Ride2Freedom cyclistWhen the cyclists reach their final destination in the United States, several of them will fly to China to rescue five orphans.
For American-born Chunjing, the mission has a personal resonance. When he was very young, his father, who also practices Falun Gong, was detained in China, and Chunjing and his mother did not see him for two years. “My mom had to work really hard to support our family and to support me as a child.”
He wants to help other children who faced a similar situation but had a tragic outcome. “I ride for the second chance of children in China, and the great life that they might have here in America.
His father had gone to China to speak up for other Falun Gong practitioners in China. So had Zachary Ware’s father, Keith Ware, who is one of the adult coordinators of the Ride2Freedom. They were among the small group from Western countries who went to Tiananmen Square in 2002 to call for an end to the persecution of Falun Gong. They unfurled a banner and meditated on the famous square. Police beat and detained them. Ware was deported barefoot, after police stole his sneakers.
“Keith and my father are very close to each other,” said Chunjing. “They have some stories, when they got detained in China. They got detained together so they are very close to each other.”
Zachary and Chunjing have been friends for years, and they share a passionate empathy for the orphans of the persecution in China. Speaking of the orphans, Zachary said, “It’s just sad! Children walking around, their parents either dead or kidnapped.”
He described the danger that Falun Gong practitioners face in China. “The worst thing that the persecution does is plucks the practitioners off the street, throws them into a jail.”
The two friends are making a heroic effort to raise awareness of their cause. Chunjing misses Mountain Dew. Zachary wishes his father would let them ride down hills at top speed. But both are encouraged when people understand what they are trying to do.
Zachary said, “You have to live by truth, compassion, and tolerance.”
Cat Rooney contributed to this report
The Ride2Freedom team of 25 youth and 10 parents and other helpers who spent the Fourth of July in Chicago before heading to Philadelphia. However, once in Washington D.C., they will end the bike portion of the tour with a public concert and candlelight vigil, on Friday, July 17 at the Lincoln Memorial. They will then travel to New York City to the United Nations and then a select few will fly to China to rescue the five orphans.

To satisfy the notable interest in our Stunning US Air Force Photography photo gallery, once again I have delved into the archives of the United States Air Force photographers to dig up the absolute best of what they offer.
One has to admire the prowess of the photographers in capturing the spirit of the airmen while spotting and sometimes, I’d imagine, staking out the perfect moments to feature their gear.
MORE:The Absolute Best of US Marine Corps Photography, Part 1
By the way, it only requires a high school or GED diploma to land a job as an Air Force photographer. “As a Still Photography Specialist, you’ll play an integral part in the Air Force communications strategy. After attending an intense 12-week training course on the intricacies of photography, you’ll begin your role in documenting Air Force activities. You’ll shoot everything from portraits to mission aerial shots. Your assignments will change often and can take you around the world, so you’ll face new challenges every day,” the Air Force website states.
To get the job directly, you need to prove you’re a professional and then wait for a job opening, which can take months or up to a year, according to a Yahoo Answers post by Larry Smith, retired Air Force senior master sergeant.
MORE:The Absolute Best of US Marine Corps Photography, Part 1The Absolute Best of US Marine Corps Photography, Part 2
Another option is to just enlist in the Air Force, set being a photographer as a preferred job and wait to see what the Air Force assigns to you, which of course is a much greater gamble.

Raised by firefighters from the smoking wreckage of the World Trade Center, a flag telegraphed both anguish and resolve. Planted atop a mountain on Iwo Jima, another piece of national cloth came to symbolize collective perseverance and conquest.
Around the globe, flags—some of nations, others of affiliation—have wrapped spectators at soccer matches and participants in protest marches, flown over revolutions and holy wars, adorned advertisements and marked lunar landings. But even to people gazing up at the same flag, it can mean very different things. And, experts say, there may be nowhere else in the world where flags stir more intense feelings than in the United States.
That was proven again after a massacre at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, touched off fevered criticism of the Confederate flag, with politicians who had long tiptoed around questions about its meaning suddenly calling for it to be removed from the statehouse grounds.
The man police charged with the attack, Dylann Roof, posted photos online showing him burning a U.S. flag and holding a Confederate flag, along with a manifesto laying out hatred of minorities. In another photo, he wore a jacket bearing the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia.
“Flags are, by their nature, emotion-charged emblems, and that’s especially the case in the U.S.,” said John Hartvigsen, president of the North American Vexillological Association, a group of scholars dedicated to the study of flags. “What does the flag mean? Well, who’s looking at it? And that’s the whole issue with the Confederate flag.”
The notion of flags as potent symbols is hardly new or exclusively American. Roman legions carried banners into battle. In Nazi Germany, the flag emblazoned with a swastika came to embody an ideology now so loathed that modern-day Germany bars it display. In Iraq and Syria, masked members of the Islamic State group have seized control of cities under their own black-and-white banner.
But in the U.S., particularly since the Civil War, when soldiers leading troops into battle were shot out from under the banners they carried, flags have come to embody ideology and stir passions in ways that have few modern international equivalents, experts say.
“We are unique in the extent and depth of our worship of the flag. There’s no nation on earth like us,” said Rick Shenkman, associate history professor at George Mason University and editor of the History News Network.
Marc Leepson, author of “Flag: An American Biography,” agreed. “We don’t have a monarch or a state religion,” he said. “In some ways, the flag is a substitute.”
Leepson recalled that when he was writing his book, he solicited online comments from people around the world on how they regarded their nations’ flags. The response, he said, was almost unanimous. “They said, ‘We love our flag but nothing like you Americans do.’ …. People are as patriotic as Americans are. They just don’t have this deep emotional attachment.”
But often that attachment seems to overlook the ambiguity of flags’ meaning.
“The thing about the flag is that it’s not language. People use language to invest it with meaning but because it’s not language itself, it’s for everybody to say what they think it means,” said Carolyn Marvin, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag.”
Leepson points out the many ways the Stars and Stripes are honored: The annual celebration of Flag Day (June 14), the Pledge of Allegiance recited daily by schoolchildren, the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” in so many venues, including countless Fourth of July celebrations.
Yet, during the 1960s, the same flag was burned by Vietnam War protesters to signal their disagreement with U.S. foreign policy. And it’s that same flag, going back more than a century, that has been used on commercial packaging of products like whiskey.
“You’re not going to drive around England and see Union Jacks (the United Kingdom’s flag) displayed around car dealerships,” Leepson said. “That’s an American thing.”
The Confederate flag, too, has its own long history of widely differing interpretation.
Over the decades, it has been adopted by some as a symbol of Southern heritage, even as others decried it as an emblem of slavery and hate. Marvin calls it as an “undigested piece of American history.”
“It is a totem and a memorial to the Confederate soldier. It’s a cloth testament to their service and to their descendants. When it’s attacked as a symbol, that’s essentially seen as a condemnation of their families and themselves,” said John Coski, author of “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem.”
Many have come to embrace it as a symbol of rebelliousness and a kind of good ol’ boy mentality portrayed in “The Dukes of Hazzard,” the former TV series. Reruns of the 1980s action comedy, whose lead characters drive a car with a Confederate flag on its roof, were pulled this week by the TV Land network. Others regard the flag as a stark reminder of Jim Crow. But Coski, a historian at the American Civil War Museum, said it is too powerful to simply disappear.
“There are still people who are dedicated to it and devoted to it,” he said. “In these controversies, when one side pushes to remove something, the other side always pushes back.”
The passions that both the U.S. and Confederate flags arouse in Americans contrast with the place of flags overseas.
In Japan, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, concerned about the national flag’s lack of prominence, this year issued a directive strongly encouraging the country’s universities to fly it. But the flag’s long-ago association with the country’s wartime imperialism leaves some uncomfortable.
In Romania, demonstrations in 1989 that presaged the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu saw protesters assert independence by cutting holes in a national flag to remove its Communist insignia.
But in the U.S., where immigration has created a population of widely disparate backgrounds, flags have lasting and far-reaching currency.
Flags can “act as communal ‘umbrellas’ under which people with vastly different views can gather and unite — whether physically or in spirit — without having to explore the different meanings that the flag in question might have for each of them,” Richard Jenkins, a retired professor at England’s University of Sheffield and co-editor of “Flag, Nation and Symbolism in Europe and America,” said in an email.
That was evident in the proliferation of American flags in every corner of the U.S. following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist bombing.
But Hartvigsen, the flag scholar, said flags’ power — to unite or divide — is only as great as the significance people assign to them. That is at least as true today, he said, as 101 years ago when U.S. Interior Secretary Franklin Lane delivered a speech, describing a “conversation” with a living Stars and Stripes.
“I am no more than what you believe me to be and I am all that you believe I can be,” the flag said, according to Lane. “I am what you make me; nothing more.”

NEW YORK—It all started early afternoon when the most tenacious spectators arrived at the East River waterfront in New York City to grab the sweetest spots for watching the spectacle. About eight hours later, when the darkness fell and the early birds were surrounded by thousands upon thousands, the first sparklers launched from several barges gently rocking on the water—Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks was on!
To celebrate Independence Day, Macy’s has been putting on the show for 35 years. The fireworks show lasts about 30 minutes and is synchronized to music broadcast live by NBC and also made available Macy’s website.
Gasps and exclamations from the audience enhance the excitement while many a spectator donning stars, stripes, and national colors lend the experience to patriotic overtones.
Gary Souza, producer of the show and vice president of Pyro Spectaculars by Souza, a California-based family company that’s been putting on the New York fireworks for the past 30 years, shared with Epoch Times last year some secrets of his art.
The most magical part is the synchronization with music, Souza said. He first picks the songs and then choreographs the fireworks in his mind. “It’s almost like having videos in your brain,” he said. Then the songs are broken into segments and specific fireworks are fit in.
In the last stage pyrotechnics spend dozens of hours to program a digital launching system to achieve the synchronization. And, of course, all of the individual projectiles have to be manually wired and prepared for launch. Quite a feat of engineering for 30 minutes of fun.

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