Facebook’s F8: It’s not just for software developers

by Arthur and Drew

Click here to read article with annotations

You’re a small business owner, looking to stay ahead of the curve in everything you do. Say, for example, you run a local electrical service, where you employ 50 technicians, and you send them to customers’ homes when something isn’t working and they call in. As the owner of this business (like countless other small businesses), you’re likely using Facebook to advertise, but you’re probably not very tech savvy yourself or have the time to keep up with all the technology enhancements. Evolutions can be really tough.

But … you know it’s important. Competition is relentless, and your users are on Facebook, so staying up to date on advertising practices is important to you.

Last week, Facebook held their annual conference called F8, and though this event is meant to be for software developers, it’s important for business owners who rely on Facebook to understand the announcements at this event and think proactively about how they can act to take advantage of these platform upgrades for their businesses.

Below, we break down the three most important Facebook platform upgrades that concern advertising and businesses, and share some ideas for how small businesses can leverage these new tools to further their sales.

To get a basic understanding of the announcements below, you should watch either the entire keynote speech or this shortened summary.

Facebook Augmented Reality (AR)

Frame Studio and AR Studio

You know those cool filters on Snapchat that give you dog ears or turn you into a taco? Well, Facebook now allows you to do the same thing. The basic idea is that you can spend some of your advertising dollars to create custom filters for users to use, and those filters will act as highly engaging advertising.

SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping)

Facebook also talked about a new technology, called SLAM, which is slightly, yet importantly, different from the filters above. Whereas the underlying technology of the above allows you to recognize and digitally paint on a person’s face, this recognizes shapes and objects in the real world, which allows you to now place digital items into the physical world, and have those items follow real world physics laws (e.g. you put a digital cup on a table, and as you pan around the table, the cup stays in the same place as if it were a real cup!)

Now, you might be thinking, “So what? Why is this relevant?” But imagine leveraging this form of AR to allow users to digitally tag things relevant to your business. For example, let’s go back to our technician example. You can now have your customers use their camera to digitally circle the specific light switch that doesn’t work, or where they left the keys under the mat so that your technician can find it and head outside, or a note on the wall with special instructions just for the technician. This could allow you to offer a better service than your competitors, giving you that leg up you need to attract customers and grow your business.

Facebook Spaces

Whereas the above announcement is all about AR (Augmented Reality), this is Facebook’s VR (Virtual Reality) play. As a small business owner, imagine building a space on Facebook Spaces for your business to act as a digital customer service center. Imagine a future where everyone has a VR headset, and customers who want to learn more about your service don’t have to take the time to drive down, and they also don’t have to settle for the limitations of a phone call. Instead, they can enter Facebook’s virtual world, find your virtual store in that virtual world, and then engage with someone from your sales or customer support team through that virtual store.

Facebook Messenger

New integrations in Messenger allow for games, music sharing, and more capable bots. These bots can now be included in group chats, allowing businesses to provide useful services for drawing in new customers. Discovery of these bots has also been enhanced, making it easier for customers to find relevant bots.

For example, customers could interact with an electrical services business through the convenience of Facebook Messenger, and on their phone. (As of last week, customers can now scan QR codes from a flyer and immediately be put into a conversation with the business.) On the small business side, the owner could automate the matching process: using software to dispatch customer’s requests to the appropriate electrician in that area.

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Why Amazon Has Bought Whole Foods

(In short: It’s their grocery playground.)

The decision, last week, from Amazon to buy Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, has been met with considerable criticism. Big acquisitions are not a part of Amazon’s usual playbook. Amazon has generally patiently built its services across many years, and relied on mergers only for specific technologies or, in rare cases, to buy competitors such as Pets.com.

It looks like a horrendous decision

This is all the more puzzling when one looks at Whole Foods in more detail. One, for all its growth, it has had tremendous difficulties in recent years, struggling to be profitable, and is now under attack of activist investors over its falling stock. Amazon will therefore have to somehow change Whole Foods to turn it into a success. Plus, Whole Foods is known for having a unique corporate culture in which welfare and the independence of store employees is emphasized. For instance, employees are allowed to vote on benefits every three years. A caricatural way of summing up Whole Foods’ culture is that there is no employee union because the work conditions are so good. This stands in contrast with Amazon’s corporate culture, which is reportedly brutal for low-level employees, and insanely competitive for high-level ones.

So, Amazon has bought, at a massive price, a flailing company in a low-margin, competitive market; seems to prepare itself to massive culture clash and the PR nightmare that could result from it; and, on top of that, some are already talking about the need of antitrust regulation to block this merger that would consolidate Amazon a retail behemoth. What on Earth is Jeff Bezos thinking?

Now, I am here to argue that the merger is strategically justified (and, as The New York Times mentioned, one of Amazon’s strengths is its willingness to fail.) But there is a pretty strong case for Amazon to buy a company like Whole Foods, and I am going to lay it out here.

The problem with the grocery industry

The sector of groceries has long been an area of future growth for Amazon. It is indeed one of the biggest sectors of the retail industry; and, notoriously, it has been pretty impervious to e-commerce. So, for the past years, Amazon has tried to spin their take on grocery shopping with a flurry of products. Most notable among them was Amazon Fresh, which allows customers, for a monthly fee, to have produce to be delivered or picked up. Or one could mention Amazon Prime Now, which allows Amazon Prime members to be delivered produced products in two hours, albeit for a hefty price.

The problem with that strategy is that, essentially, it has not worked out. Grocery services is a tough nut to crack, Amazon seems to have discovered. Groceries are indeed ordered pretty differently than books or households objects. Immediacy is very important: hence the value of a combination of physical presence and very fast delivery. Also, perishable products cannot be stored and presented in a way that is even remotely similar to the rest of their catalog. Therefore, Amazon has tried to innovate in both domains. It has opened physical stores and food trucks in Seattle. These experiments, although headline-grabbing, didn’t seem to be very scalable. If Amazon wanted to have a physical presence as ubiquitous as their website, it would have to acquire a lot of real estate and build stores there. These operations are notoriously lengthy, difficult and expensive to realize; at least, much harder than scaling their online presence.

You could buy Whole Foods for its real estate, but that’s not enough

Whole Foods partially solves that problem. Their physical presence across the US is relatively expansive; there are Whole Foods in virtually every major US city. The mere real estate of Whole Foods can be valued in billions of dollars. So, if Amazon wanted to convert all of the Whole Foods in Amazon Groceries, they would have a good jumpstart. This, in itself, not a sufficient reason to buy Whole Foods. After all, if Amazon really wants to be as gigantic as their $500 billion valuation suggests, it can’t content itself with a grocery brand that occupies only a percent of the market, focuses on organic products, and is itself under financial duress.

So it can’t be just about acquiring a grocer; Amazon will have to change Whole Foods somehow. One could imagine, instinctively, that Amazon would radically transform the Whole Foods stores, rebrand them under the Amazon brand, and change the catalog to make it appealing to every American. And, because this Amazon, make Whole substantially bigger. But that probably would engender a heavy culture clash. This probably explains that, after the acquisition, Amazon declared that Whole Foods store would continue to operate as before, and that no jobs cuts were in store.

Whole Foods is a playground for Amazon

And honestly, there is plenty of ground to believe that. Amazon is probably not thinking of Whole Foods as their endgame, but rather as their playground in the grocery space. And you can think of playground as a demeaning word, but it really isn’t. A playground is what Amazon needs to be able to succeed in the grocery space.

The flurry of experiments that Amazon conducted in the past few years have failed because of a kind of chicken-and-egg problem. It is hard to prove that a single grocery experiment is viable without economies of scale, but it is hard to scale that experiment without financial viability. That problem surely existed for previous business like books, but they probably were less complicated.

So, Amazon needs scale from the get-go to jumpstart their grocery experiments. That is what Whole Foods offers. It is a grocer that is big without being as big as Walmart. Plus, their culture emphasizes the independence of each location, which makes it easier to run local experiments. Therefore, it seems like Whole Foods was bought to be a guinea pig.

This seems all the more logical that it very much fits Amazon’s structure and history. Amazon is structured around small teams that have a lot of independence. This means that a lot of them are running live experiments that are validated or axed based on their results. This is the corporate equivalent of throwing stuff against the wall and see if it sticks. More crucially, a lot of these teams operate as APIs: they are supposed to treat both the rest of Amazon and the external world as customers. This explains, for instance, that the Amazon supply chain is available to both Amazon.com and third-party retailers; or that their web services hosts both Amazon’s websites and other customers.

If one takes that framework to think about the Whole Foods acquisition, it is simple to see how this will unfold. Amazon will run experiments in countless Whole Foods stores (and potentially opposite experiments in two different stores to compare them,) and see what works and what doesn’t. In addition, they will probably will reconfigure the back-end of Whole Foods to make more efficient, and, crucially, more flexible so that it can be modularized. (This has led some writers such as Ben Thompson to think that Amazon could use that supply chain to deliver produce to other groceries or even third-party restaurants.)

Despite this acquisition, they are still hard questions that Amazon will have to answer. Even if Amazon is comfortable with being a modular company, it is dubious that they would only keep Whole Foods as their only customer-facing operation, especially outside of the US where Whole Foods is unknown. It seems probable that they would create Amazon branded stores; what they would look like is probably a mystery to the company itself. (But the experience acquired from running Whole Foods, I think, would give them clues to how to conceive them.) And the question of culture compatibility, which has sunk so many mergers before, is still crucial to Amazon’s success.

These issues will still be here next year; hell, they may very well be there in five years. But, at least, Amazon won’t have to worry anymore about the first step of their grocery business, as they will have a jump base to start from.

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Giving beyond the big-name nonprofits

Vox.com published an article this Monday on the “income inequality” of nonprofits — rich charities keep getting richer because they have the resources to market/fundraise and because everyone knows their familiar name.  Each marginal dollar donated to these large organizations potentially is less effective than the same dollar donated to a lesser-known, smaller nonprofit.  The article urges U.S. donors to try to find these lesser-known nonprofits where their dollar could possibly be more effective and asks donors do their research before giving.

This can be a daunting process (how do you even begin?), so my companion piece here leads potential donors to the most suitable resource for their mindset.

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What can happen to your electronics at the US border?

The politics and policies tied to U.S. borders have perhaps never been so fraught and new data released last week by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection showed that turmoil has reached the electronic devices we all increasingly carry in our pockets and suitcases. Searches of electronic devices by Customs officials at borders and airports have nearly doubled in the past six months, according to the latest information released by the agency. In a press release the agency stressed that the 14,993 searches–up from 8,383 in the same period tin 2016 and 8,503 in 2015still only represented 0.008 percent of the approximately 189.6 million travelers arriving to the United States. Nonetheless, the report confirmed the fears of civil liberty and privacy groups who say they have seen a steady uptick in the number of searches being reported.

INTERNATIONAL ARRIVALS PROCESSED
FY2016 FY2017
OCTOBER 31,239,053 32,248,121
NOVEMBER 30,350,596 30,430,424
DECEMBER 32,717,813 33,009,690
JANUARY 31,215,009 31,593,522
FEBRUARY 28,209,735* 28,209,602
MARCH 32,643,912 34,103,063**
TOTAL 186,376,118 189,594,422
INTERNATIONAL ARRIVALS PROCESSED WITH ELECTRONIC DEVICE SEARCH
FY2016 FY2017
OCTOBER 857 2,560
NOVEMBER 1,208 2,379
DECEMBER 1,486 2,404
JANUARY 1,653 2,756
FEBRUARY 1,470 2,299
MARCH 1,709 2,595
TOTAL 8,383 14,993
*February 2016 was a leap year.
**March international arrivals are approximate.walk through new study and make some graph of the data

Source and images CBP

Also this week, the prominent documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras finally received the results of a Freedom of Information Act request she had made in 2015 regarding the approximately 40 border searches and interrogations she underwent between 2006 and 2012. This was before she became internationally famous for her role in the Edward Snowden leaks and revelations, which she chronicled for her Academy Award-winning documentary CITIZENFOUR. “When it first started happening, I was naive and thought as soon as they realize I am a journalist and filmmaker I’ll stop being detained at the border,” Poitras told me in a 2014 interview. “And then it didn’t end.”

According to the information she received this week, Poitras had been singled out for extra attention and caution because of allegations regarding her involvement with an ambush of U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2004. (Some soldiers alleged they had seen her on a roof filming the ambush and suggested she had prior notice of the attack. Poitras has vehemently denied the allegations and the army said in 2006 that it did not have sufficient evidence to bring any charges). While Poitras’s example is a unique one, it does shed light on the increasing likelihood that one’s electronic devices may be searched while in transit and the very limited recourse one has to fight back.

So what gives?

Why are Customs officials allowed to search your belongings without a warrant? Doesn’t that violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against “unreasonable searches and seizures”? 

Depends who you ask. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the rights of border officials to conduct warrantless searches of people and their belongings as part of upholding immigration and customs law (thinks searches of luggage for contraband). Civil liberty groups and privacy experts argue these rulings are anachronistic and that the breadth of information available on electronic devices in the 21st century vastly exceeds whatever kind of material was previously available. The CBP last updated its procedures in 2009 in which they give agents wide leeway to conduct searches.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed but the results so far have not provided an overwhelming precedent to change the existing procedures. Nonetheless, privacy groups have been heartened by recent decisions such as a 2013 federal court ruling by the Ninth District of the west coast that extensive forensic searches of laptops at borders can’t be totally indiscriminate and require “reasonable suspicion.” A  2014 decision by the Supreme Court to extend greater protection against the search of electronic devices during arrests was also heralded as important progress that could be used as a basis for future border cases.

How long has this been going on?

Electronic searches at borders unsurprisingly became an issue as both electronic devices and terrorism concerns became more prevalent under the George W. Bush administration, but they really revved up in the last years of Obama’s presidency. At that time, journalists in particular sounded the alarm that they feared they were being targeted by officials eager for information about their reporting and sources; information they otherwise were unlikely to get without a subpoena and long legal fight.

Why is it getting worse?

As shown above, most of the laws and guidelines to govern these searches are outdated and without any clear legal precedent to change the border search exemptions from the Fourth Amendment, agents have vast discretion to apply the regulations as they see fit. The political rhetoric around border protection and general confusion and chaos sowed by the executive order travels bans have created a kind of “anything goes” atmosphere that often comes down to the decision making of individual agents. “The shackles are off,” an ACLU lawyer told NBC news. Despite a number of highly publicized electronic search incidents, the tone of last week’s CBP press release doesn’t suggest the practice will be reined in anytime soon. Even worse, some fear that requiring searches of social media accounts now may become routine.

Crucially, non U.S. citizens have very little legal protection from interrogations and searches at the border, something that is likely to get even worse.

Well this is pretty grim. Is there any way forward?  

Legal challenges are ongoing and unlikely to end anytime soon. There are rumblings in Washington to revise or at least review existing procedures. On April 4, a bipartisan, bicameral group lead by Senator Ron Wyden introduced the Protecting Data at the Border Act to “ensure Americans are not forced to endure indiscriminate and suspicionless searches of their phones, laptops and other digital devices just to cross the border.”

U.S. citizens may not be legally required to unlock their devices (again, it’s murky), but border agents have wide powers to try to compel them to do so (holding passengers until they miss their flight, copying data from devices or seizing them for up to five days). Requiring access to social media accounts has also been contested, though if they are able to open your phone and you are signed in to your social media accounts it’s a moot point.

To that end, most privacy experts recommend taking measures to protect your devices before travelling. The simplest option is leaving them at home and bringing temporary devices, but numerous organizations and media outlets have published guides to encryption and digital security practices to protect them should that not be possible.

The ACLU also has a general guide to knowing your rights at airports here.

 

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War games – what you need to know about current North Korea’s nuclear politics

By Dijana Milenov and Mika Kanaya

What is a timeline of five nuclear tests?

1) October 9, 2006

North Korea initiated its first nuclear testing, becoming the eighth country in history.

2)  May 25, 2009

The North Korean official news agency announced that it “successfully conducted one more underground nuclear test…. as part of the measures to bolster up its nuclear deterrent for self-defense in every way.”

3)  February 12, 2013

UN approves fresh sanctions after North Korea stages its third nuclear test, said to be more powerful than the 2009 test.

4)  January 6, 2016

An anchorwoman in the state TV said, “The republic’s first hydrogen bomb test has been successfully performed.” Before the test, North Korean state media said the country “deserved to hold nuclear weapons… to counter nuclear threats by the U.S.”

5)  September 9, 2016

South Korea believes it is the North’s biggest-ever test, raising fears it has made significant nuclear advances. This was the first time North Korea conducted two nuclear tests within the same year.

What is the real issue this time?

Global political situation changed. There is a new president in the U.S., and Pyongyang is trying to reframe their relationship and the power dynamics by pushing the new administration. Despite the international strategies to pressure denuclearization, there is a worry that intercepting missiles could escalate tensions and risk war.

The Japan Times summarized the move as follows:

“Though tensions had been rising dangerously between Washington and Pyongyang in the lead-up to the April 15 anniversary, the biggest holiday of the year in North Korea, the heightened rhetoric and saber-rattling on both sides could begin to cool down — a pattern that has been common in recent years, especially in the spring, when the U.S. and South Korea stage their huge annual war games.

But this year, there is a new issue. In an interview with The Associated Press on Friday, a senior North Korean official said that Pyongyang has determined that Trump is “more vicious and aggressive” than his predecessor, Barack Obama. And Pyongyang is vowing it won’t back down.”[1]

What was a missile which exploded seconds after the launch on Sunday? 

The latest North Korean missile launch may have been of a new and hitherto unknown systems being developed by the leader Kim Jong Un’s regime, a weapons expert said Monday.

The Pentagon has not discussed which missile blew up “almost immediately” after launch early Sunday from near Sinpo on the North’s east coast, and the White House has said only that it was a medium-range device. John Schilling, a weapons expert with the 38 North monitoring group, said the launch failure was indicative of a new systems test.

What type of missiles North Korea owns and what is the real threat? 

North Korea’s big day, the anniversary of the birth of its founding leader, Kim Il Sung, was April 15 and the latest missiles were on display in a military parade. Experts believe the arsenal displayed in Saturday’s parade included a new kind of short-range cruise missile, probably for coastal defenses. North Korea also unveiled its latest submarine-launched ballistic missile and a version of the same missile that can be launched from land-based launchers — both of which use solid fuel and present a far greater challenge to find and destroy before they’re fired off. And it showed off canisters that seemed in line with what would be required for an intercontinental ballistic missile, which is Washington’s major concern.

However, the large and small missiles at the parade was meant to send out a strong message that North Korea is able to “project its power well beyond its own borders”. At the very least, to the U.S. military bases in Japan. At the most, to the U.S. mainland itself.


How does China, a long-term ally of North Korea, handle the situation?
 

China’s bottom line is that it does not want the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang if that leads to a chaotic power vacuum, possibly filled by the U.S. and its allies. China is also concerned about South Korea’s deployment of an anti-missile defense system (known as THAAD), and by the allies’ annual joint military exercises. So, there is a strong pressure from Beijing on North Korea. They have implemented economic sanctions such as refusing coal shipments and they are talking about cutting off oil shipments. Flights between Beijing and Pyongyang operated by Air China were also suspended on April 17. However, NPR points out tighter implementation of economic sanctions could be challenging.

“Most of China’s giant state-owned enterprises have scant involvement with North Korea; they have too many interests elsewhere to risk getting sanctioned in pursuit of limited profits. Smaller firms more often find smuggling worth the risk, and Beijing often cannot control them, because local authorities protect them.”[2]

President Donald Trump also tweeted on Sunday that Beijing was “working with us on the North Korean problem”. He had stated last week that the U.S. and its allies may “deal with” Pyongyang if China did not.

What was the U.S. response this time?

1) Mike Pence visit to South Korea

U.S. Vice President, Mike Pence on Monday warned North Korea not to test the determination of the U.S. “or the strength of our military forces”. “We will defeat any attack and we will meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective response,” Pence said, adding that when it came to North Korea “all options are on the table.”[3]

2) An aircraft carrier group

Last week, President Donald Trump said that an aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was sent to Korean Peninsula as a warning to Kim Jong-Un’s government. However, a Navy photograph over the weekend showed the Carl Vinson in the Sunda Strait near the Indonesian islands, 3,000 miles from Korean Peninsula.

3) Radiation sniffer plane

The U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix Nuclear explosion “sniffer” has arrived in Japan. There are only two aircrafts of this type and one of them is in Japan since April 12.

Future actions? 

Han Song-Ryol, North Korea’s deputy foreign minister told the BBC that Pyongyang would continue to test missiles “on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis”[4]. “All-out war would ensue if the U.S. took military action, he said.”[5]

The Korea Herald reports that the Carl Vinson Strike Group is due to arrive in the region by April 25, the day that North Korea is due to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the founding of its army. Some experts believe that Pyongyang may choose to conduct its sixth nuclear test, or another missile launch, around that date. The U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will be in Hawaii on April 24-25, concluding his 10-day trip to Asia.

Sources:

[1] http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/04/17/world/north-koreas-big-parade-whats-next/#.WPaMQBF1tbY

[2] http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/04/18/524341304/on-china-and-north-korea-the-strength-of-weakness-and-the-limits-of-power

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/16/politics/us-north-korea-dmz-vice-president-pence/

[4] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-39623882

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/18/us-military-shoot-down-north-korea-missile-tests

Taiwan: When a phone call becomes an issue.

Shortly after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, he took a call from Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen. In doing this he appeared to be ignoring or possibly discarding established US policy on Taiwan, which is that the United States does not have diplomatic ties to the island, which China considers to be its sovereign territory. The phone call sparked much media debate but little explanation about US-Taiwan relations and China-Taiwan relations, yet Taiwan plays a prominent role in a number of issues of vital global importance.

The following is a brief overview of important facts about Taiwan and its importance as well as key initiatives of mainland China that of international significance.

  • Where is Taiwan located?
  • Is Taiwan a democracy?
  • How are Taiwan and China connected?
  • How are the Chinese and Taiwanese governments different?
  • If Taiwan is functionally an independent country, why is there this “one China” policy?
  • Where is the US in this?
  • What happened to Taiwan when the US established formal relations with China (PRC)?
  • What effect does not having official diplomatic status as a nation state have on Taiwan?
  • Taiwan is a small island. How important is it in international affairs?
  • What are some of China’s key interests and initiatives?
  • What is the Belt and Road Initiative?
  • What is the AIIB?

Where is Taiwan located?

Taiwan is an island off the coast of mainland China bordering the South China Sea (SCS). When the Chinese Nationalists (国民党, KMT, Kuomingtang), led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled the Communist Chinese (共产党, CCP, Chinese Communist Party) in the mid-twentieth century, the bulk of the Nationalist army retreated to Taiwan. Other names for Taiwan include Republic of China and Formosa. Taiwan has conflicting claims with China to islands in the SCS.

Is Taiwan a democracy?

Yes. Taiwan has a free press, rule of law-based system of governance, independent judiciary, and democratic elections. It also maintains its own military. Taiwan was governed under martial law by the KMT (the party of Chiang Kai-shek) until July 14, 1987 but then successfully transitioned to a democratic system of governance.

How are Taiwan and China connected?

The governments of both China and Taiwan have their roots on the Chinese mainland. Chiang Kai-shek inherited the leadership of the KMT from Sun Yat-sen, who is regarded by both the KMT and CCP as the father of the Republic of China (1918-1937).

A civil war (the 1949 Communist Revolution) between the Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists ended in the defeat of the Nationalists. Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist (KMT) army retreated to Taiwan.  Chiang Kai-shek did not acknowledge the Chinese Communists as the legitimate government of the China. Over time the two countries established separate systems of governance, but the PRC has not given up its claims to Taiwan, which it refers to as a “rogue province,” and Taiwan still officially refers to itself as the “Republic of China.”

How are the Chinese and Taiwanese governments different?

China is a single party state under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. Taiwan has developed a two party political system and holds democratic elections. Taiwan has two main political parties–the independence leaning DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) and the KMT.

If Taiwan is functionally an independent country, why is there this “one China” Policy?

In pragmatic terms, the “one China” policy preserves a status quo where China and Taiwan avoid armed conflict and issues related to Taiwanese independence. Countries must choose to have diplomatic relations with either Taiwan or the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan’s official name is still the “Republic of China.” China-Taiwan relations are also referred to as “Cross-Strait Relations.” China has stated that it will invade Taiwan if the island declares independence.

Where is the US in this?

The short answer is that the United States supported Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT over competing warlords in the early twentieth century and later over the Chinese Communists. China was invaded by Japan in 1937 and joined the Allied Powers when the United States entered World War II. The dynamics of armed conflict in China during the twentieth century are complex. The United States maintained diplomatic ties with the “Republic of China” under the KMT until 1976.

What happened to Taiwan when the US established formal relations with China (PRC)?

The United States switched its official diplomatic ties to the PRC in 1979 following then President Richard Nixon’s landmark 1972 visit to the Chinese mainland. The PRC replaced Taiwan in the United Nations and on the UN Security Council in 1971. The United States continues to maintain strong economic ties with Taiwan, its fourth largest trading partner, and also sells defensive armaments to the island per the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

What effect does not having official diplomatic status as a nation state have on Taiwan?

Lack of official status puts Taiwan in a difficult position internationally. It operates independently of mainland China, but cannot claim the rights and privileges of an independent nation state. As the PRC grows in power, it has taken steps intended to bring the island under the control of Beijing.

It is difficult for Taiwanese representatives to participate in international organizations and decision making bodies, including academic conferences, model UN meetings, and the Olympics. Recently, China has pressured a number of countries to deport Taiwanese passport holders to the PRC, claiming them as “Chinese citizens,” and arrested a pro-democracy activist who is a Taiwanese national.

Taiwan is a small island. How important is it in international affairs?

As China gains international strength and prominence, it also grows in international influence. Taiwan is one of many areas in Asia that maintain democratic systems of governance, and its political system is affected by Chinese influence. In some senses, Taiwan is a bellwether for how democracy and democratic institutions in Asia are responding to China’s growing influence.

Hong Kong is another such case. As a former British colony that returned to mainland China in 1997, the city is supposed to operate under an autonomous and democratic system of government for the next 30 years; however, there are signs that Hong Kong’s democratic institutions are being eroded. Other Asian democracies–Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and India among them–must negotiate their own strategic interests with an increasingly powerful Chinese state.

What are some of China’s key interests and initiatives?

China has initiated economic initiatives, including the “Belt and Road” and established the AIIB as a competitor and possibly alternative to the World Bank. It has acted to assert claims to the South China Sea, which is an area of importance in terms of commerce and natural resources.

What is the Belt and Road Initiative?

The Belt and Road initiative is also known as One Belt, One Road (OBOR) (一带一路). The Belt and Road initiative is the PRC’s strategic economic initiative to develop a southern “maritime Silk Road” and land-based Silk Road or “belt” through Central Asia and extending into Europe.

What is the AIIB?

The AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) is an organization spearheaded by mainland China as an effective alternative to the World Bank, which it views as an institution dominated by the United States and other western countries. The United States, while invited to join the AIIB, has not done so. China has attracted the participation of AIIB countries by offering incentives, such as investment in the infrastructure of participating countries. AIIB strategically advances China’s economic interests and complements its Belt and Road (一带一路) initiative.

Violence on Social Media

It’s now a familiar trope in Hollywood–a politician is blackmailed by terrorists who claim they will post a video of a decapitation or some other type of violence against a victim on social media, usually YouTube.

Violence captured and shared on social media: this content tends to become quickly viral, and is difficult to contain for social media platforms that host user generated content. Today, Facebook is increasingly feeling the heat, most recently when Steve Stephens, a Cleveland native, posted a video of him randomly shooting and killing an innocent victim, Robert Goodwin, that was viewed over 1.6 million times before the video was pulled by Facebook more than two hours later.  

Last month, it was a gang rape in Chicago that was streamed on Facebook Live. In January, another similar incident in Sweden was streamed on Facebook Live. Torture of a man with disabilities, child abuse, and suicides have all been streamed on Facebook as well as its subsidiary, Instagram.

Facebook’s typical response to these events involve: taking down content as quickly as possible, an emphasis that the company doesn’t condone this type of content, and a promise to do better.

It seems that the bulk of Facebook’s responses have focused on improving its internal operations and technology, in order to reduce the time from when the content is uploaded to when it is reported, to when it is taken down. Facebook has started exploring using artificial intelligence to prevent questionable content from being shared.

Yet, the challenge of dealing with violent content on social media is not new news. YouTube similarly has had disturbing violent incidents or videos posted, where suspects discuss their intentions for mass shootings. The Syrian Civil War has also led to the uploading of mass violence on YouTube. 

Here is a look at some key events that have happened on social media in the past decade:

While there is almost no way to capture a complete picture of all violent events on social media, it’s clear that with the launch of Facebook Live, the violence has become more real-time, and perhaps more varied. In the era before Facebook Live launches, most videos of violence are related to international crises, where different interest groups are using YouTube as a communication channel for propaganda. The videos of police violence against African Americans in 2015 also showcase how video sharing has changed between then and now: most videos are released significantly after an event occurrence, and their dissemination is still controlled by news media, police, etc. Perhaps because of this, most of the criticism launched at YouTube has been around the difficulty of implementing an effective policy that filters out inflammatory content yet protects the freedom of speech.

In contrast, today’s violent content is easily controlled and disseminated by the perpetrators themselves. This shift is seen as largely thought to be driven by the fact that “The attention from online peers, combined with immediate feedback in the form of comments, reactions and shares, can be intoxicating. The fact that the footage is self-incriminating doesn’t matter to some offenders,” the Guardian claims.

Yet, it’s important to consider whether all violence on social media should be banned. The timeline above shows some key video content that have been critical in spreading public awareness about issues such as police brutality, or mass violence in the Syrian Civil War. The societal importance from public access to such violent content cannot be understated.

Where does that leave users? Unless social media companies develop more automated solutions to identify violence that is purely criminal, and does not have any societal benefit, there will likely be more violent events covered on Facebook Live or otherwise. Understandably, defining what has “societal benefit” is a tricky line to define–and one that will involve a strong hand of company-driven curation, which historically companies such as Facebook and Google have been reluctant to pursue.

 

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What is happening in Arkansas? 

 

Arkansas is everywhere in the media these days. After more than a decade without having carried out any execution (the last person to be put to death was Eric Randall in 2005, 12 years after he had committed murder), the governor of the state, Asa Hutchinson, scheduled the execution of seven inmates. The executions are supposed to be carried out within a 11 days span, starting Monday, April 17. This tight schedule is due to one of the drugs used in lethal injections in Arkansas: midazolam. Arkansas’s supply of midazolam expires at the end of April. Arkansas has never carried out any execution using this drug, a powerful sedative administered to the prisoner to make sure the inmate does not feel pain during the process and is not conscious. However, midazolam is highly controversial, as inmates who have been given the drug during their execution seem to have clearly felt something, voicing it and agonizing for as long as 34 minutes in the case of Ronald Bert Smith, who was put to death in Alabama last December.

On Monday 17th, at 7pm, it appeared that « Arkansas ha[d] asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule the state’s high court and allow two executions to continue as scheduled Monday night», according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

Over the past few days in fact, the issue has become harder to follow. Appeals are made on various grounds, some executions are stayed, others are not, courts block and others do not. So, what is happening in Arkansas? 

First of all, who is scheduled to be executed and for how long have these people been on death rows?

Seven convicts are scheduled to be executed between April 17 and April 27. They are seven males, and each was found guilty of murder. Bruce Earl Ward, scheduled to die on Monday 17, was sentenced to death in 1997. On Monday 17 was also scheduled the death of Don William Davis, who has been on death rows since 1991. Stacey Eugene Johnson, is scheduled to die on April 20 and was sentenced to death in 1997. On the same day is scheduled Ledelle Lee, sentenced in 1995. On April 24, Jack Harold Jones and Marcel W Williams are scheduled to be executed and they have been on death rows since 1996 and 1997 respectively. Lastly, Kenneth D Williams is scheduled for April 27, and was sentenced to death in 2000.

The seven convicts, with year of sentencing.

Originally, eight death sentenced were scheduled to be carried out. One of the inmates, Jason McGehee, was granted a stay of his April 27 execution earlier this month.

Wait. How did that work?

McGehee filled an appeal for clemency. In fact he is not the only one to have done so: five of the other convicts did the same. Clemency is the ability of the governor of a state to come back on the decision of a trial. A clemency application is reviewed by a parole board, and in Arkansas the board is composed of seven members, appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. The parole board formulates a recommendation to the Governor, about whether or not he should grant clemency to the convict, and the governor usually follows the recommendation – even if technically it is a non-binding advice.

Process of an application for clemency

In McGehee’s case, the parole board recommended Asa Hutchinson, to grant the prisoner clemency. Following the recommendation of the board, the federal Judge D. Price Marshall Jr, granted McGehee a stay of execution while waiting for the decision of the Governor, as the timeline is particularly tight in this precise case. Hutchinson should follow the parole board’s recommendation in the upcoming days, and McGehee’s sentence is likely to transform into life in prison without parole.

How come the convicts have been incarcerated for so long?

Each case is different. In fact, it is not unusual for a convict to spend several years, and even decades on death rows. In 2012, the average time between a death sentence and the execution of the sentence was of 190 months. The trend is clearly positive, as this average was only of 74 months in 1984.

Average time on death rows, in months (deathpenaltyinfo.org)

Why do prisoners spend so much time on death rows?

Once the final appeal is reached, the execution is scheduled and carried out rather fast. However, there is a gigantic amount of procedures between the sentencing, and the final appeal because multiple appeals can be made, under different names, following different procedures and filled at various courts.

To get a better understanding of the process, let’s see what happens when an inmate is sentenced to death in California by highlighting the main steps of the procedure.

Death penalty in California… and how long it takes for execution to be carried out (law.stackexchange.com)

The whole judicial development involves four different courts at different levels. One is the state Supreme Court. When the sentence is pronounced, the legal representation (that is to say the lawyer) of the condemned can fill for direct appeal in one of the state’s appeal court (and this already takes from 9 to 18 months). An appeal must be filled only on the grounds of what was recorded during the trial, that is to say either challenging some of the information, or arguing that judges made a « harmful error », getting in the way of a fair trial.

If the appeal is rejected, the state Supreme Court can be asked for review but does not have to consider the case. Only one direct appeal can be made.
Of course, the procedures do not end with direct appeal being rejected. There is an arsenal of legal instruments that the prisoner and his legal representation can use. One of these instruments is called a writ. A writ is supposed to be processed faster than an appeal, and is technically a document issued by a court granting a lower court the right to pursue legal actions in its name. Now in fact, it turns out that it is much more complicated than this in practice, but also clearer than this plain definition that comes straight out of a law dictionary.

In our case, the petitioner, that is to say the prisoner condemned to death, usually fills a writ to ask the right to appear in front of a court for his trial to be reviewed. The most well known writ is the writ of habeas corpus. This writ of habeas corpus challenges the legality of an incarceration, using as a ground the 14th amendment to the US Constitution, and pointing at what went wrong during the trial, or possible missing pieces of the case (the writ does not have to be filed on grounds explicitly present in the record of the trial, contrary to direct appeal). In other words, a writ of habeas corpus can be filled when it is likely that a prisoner has been denied constitutional right to a fair trial. As a reminder, section 1 of the 14th amendment states that: «  No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law ».

There is also the possibility to apply for writ of certiorari when the appeal has been denied, which means asking the Supreme Court to consider the case. However, the Supreme Court does not have to do so ( and it turns out that it considers less than 2% of the cases for which such a writ is filled every year).

How does a case get to the Circuit Court step on the California explanatory graph, and what is a Circuit Court? 

When an appeal has failed at the state level Court, one can apply to the next higher level court. So in our California case, this means turning to courts of the 9th circuit, one of the 13 Circuit Courts of the United States. A Circuit Court handles appeals at the federal level, and the courts are divided between geographical zones because the judges are mobile between the several courts of a same circuit. These courts are specifically made for appeal, that is to say that no trial happens at this level, and the Circuit Courts do not pronounce sentences. Usually, a Circuit Court takes a very long time to review a trial and issue a ruling.

The whole process of appeals can stop at this point, but appeals for clemency can be filled, as in McGehee’s case.

Summary of different levels of courts

What makes the cases in Arkansas so specific? 

In Arkansas, the pace of the scheduled executions is unprecedented since the reinstitution of the death penalty in the US in 1977. It has caused international uproar and indignation.

What makes the cases in Arkansas different is that there are many matters being discussed at various court levels at the moment. One of the issues that was argued at the Supreme Court of Arkansas this past few weeks had to do with the legality of the use of midazlolam, and whether or not it qualified as a « cruel and unusual punishment ». The Swiss firm Hoffman La Roche, that invented and produces the drug, was not even aware of the fact that its product was going to be used in capital executions, and decided to stop selling the drug to states altogether, although some states did try to curb the interdiction. However, challenges on the grounds of the legality of the drug fell short after the Supreme Court of Arkansas ruled that it was legal to use midazolam in executions.

Moreover, dozens of judges have sent a petition to Asa Hutchinson to request a stay of the executions. A Kickstarter was launched to fund the visits of the families to the inmates. Of course, the convicts are filling applications for clemency. The media and independent initiatives such as the Fair Punishment Project, funded by the Harvard Law School, are challenging the very validity of the trials.

Because there was something wrong with the trials?

In fact, it turns out that all the men scheduled to be executed in Arkansas have an IQ falling below 70, which qualifies for mental illness and impairment. Bruce Ward is a paranoid schizophrenic (he does not believe that he is going to die, but that he is leaving soon to go on a « special mission as an evangelist ». He also sees dogs all over his cell.

No independent party has ever assessed Don Davis’s mental health. It is all the same for Ledelle Lee. Stacey Johnson’s lawyer has never taken a closer look at his client’s personal background. All of the convicts suffered from constant neglect during their childhood. Their families beat them and they grew up in crushing poverty. Some of the men were raped multiple times, and Marcel William’s mother pimped him on a regular basis in exchange for food stamps and a place to stay. All of them have suffered from bad and inconstant representation during the course of their trial. The Fair Punishment Project argues:

« Across the eight cases, the quality of lawyering that we detected falls short of any reasonable standard of effectiveness—one lawyer was drunk in court, while another struggled with mental illness. Several of the lawyers missed deadlines, failed to visit their clients, and continued on a case despite the appearance of a conflict of interest. »

The Project suggest that the governor issues a moratorium while further investigation is conducted.

What happens next?

The Supreme Court is likely to review the cases and last minute appeals because of the uproar the affair is causing. So far, no execution has been carried out. Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Arkansas stopped the executions of Don Davis and Bruce Ward. However, the attorney general of Arkansas challenged the decision of this court and asked for the US Supreme Court to overrule the decision for Don Davis (remember, no background research of his mental health has been conducted, so he is not considered as mentally impaired contrary to Bruce Ward who is acknowledged as being, according to the Fair Punishment Project, « insane »). The Supreme Court did not overrule the decision: it suspended the execution of Don Davis. We are now waiting to see what will happen to the other inmates, and what the Supreme Court will rule when reviewing the inmates mental health condition. Much more is to come in the following days. Remember that no stay of execution has been issued for the other 5 convicts… yet.

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Power play during a state of emergency

On April 16th, Turkey voted for a referendum that gave additional powers to the President under the new constitutional changes. Under the new changes, Turkey will now have executive powers for the President, like appointing important Judicial positions and removing the post of Prime Minster, by abolishing the current parliamentary system.

In July 2016, President Erdogan established a state of emergency in the country after a failed military coup that tried to remove him as President. Since then the state of emergency has been extended multiple times for 3 months at a time. It was first extended to stabilize the country and also in January after the New Year’s attack. Following image shows the other countries with a state of emergency in 2016

Source: https://qz.com/738249/the-worlds-depressing-state-of-emergency-in-2016-mapped/

The referendum impacts the people of Turkey and following is an attempt to map the power and interests of the impacted parties:

Source: Built Mindmap using MindMeister

President Erdogan’s winning the referendum vote by a slight majority has given him immense power in the upcoming years. This helps provide stability to the country because the President can control any coup attempts in the future by bringing in an authoritarian regime, but this will suppress the freedom of Turkey’s people. But the immense power in the hands of one individual will make it difficult to predict the future state of the country and will create confusion on how to build diplomatic ties with the country.

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