Thursday, December 29, 2016


Now here’s something of a complicated mess to talk about. We know that President-elect Donald Trump is keen on “bringing back American jobs from China” as it were; he’s even threatened to slap penalties on US businesses who insist on employing overseas. Now Snapchat, the photo-sharing social network app developed by parent company Snap Inc., is banned in China (along with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, etc.). However, the firm has already established its presence in the country despite the ban on its app, with it having the manufacture of its gadget add-on for Snapchat being done in China. Now they’re planning to go more steps further.

The Verge has it that Snap Inc. has started posting job applications on Chinese sites such as WeChat. Specific job descriptions include having three years’ experience in the field, with huge advantages give to applicants who used to work at China’s major tech brands such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Those who get in will work at a new tech office being set up by Snap Inc. in the city of Shenzen, which already has about 20 employees working there, to focus on developing and building up the base for Snapchat Spectacles.

This is the company’s first app-use gadget. In essence merely sunglasses with cameras attached to a corner of each lens, they’ll enable users to capture line-of- sight photo and send them directly via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to their Snapchat accounts.

At last count Snap Inc. is said to have over 1,500 employees worldwide, a majority of whom work at the company’s Los Angeles Corporate headquarters doing product design and engineering. While their app service, as said earlier, isn’t available in China (except through loopholes like VPN), Snapchat promises their Chinese hires some very competitive bonuses including possible transfer to LA at higher positions and the option for stock shares in their name. In addition, the company has got the same local companies that it’s poaching former employees from to invest in it, like reports of Alibaba’s $200 million investment in Snap Inc. in 2015, or rumors of Tencent chipping during the firm’s 2013 fundraising event that acquitted $60 million.

Shenzen, where Snap Inc.’s China offices are located, is just across the border from Hong Kong. A lot of startup companies are making their, ahem, start there; and some of China’s premium tech brands have their HQs there like smartphone maker Huawei and Tencent, owner of WeChat where Snapchat’s ads are.

Beijing-based consulting outfit BDA founder Duncan Clark remarks that even when Chinese can’t use Snapchat, Snap Inc. can still make money in the country by, for instance, serving as an overseas platform for local Chinese companies to advertise or expand their reach internationally.

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It’s becoming increasingly clear that US President-elect Donald Trump is in some ways softening the fiery rhetoric and terminology he’s been using in the election campaign that saw him to victory in a populist wave. He’s made attempts at conciliation, dropped the use of some of his loaded catchphrases, explained that his numerous biting remarks of the past were merely uttered to get more votes, and pretty much told his more literal and overzealous supporters to knock it off. Some of these Trump followers however haven’t quite gotten the memo, and the result of which is that the atmosphere of xenophobia cultivated by the Trump campaign continues to claim more hapless victims.

According to The New York Times, a couple of online stars on YouTube channels have been the latest to experience the side-effects of this climate of fear firsthand. On their way back to the US after a lengthy world tour, Muslim Americans Adam Saleh and Slim Albaher were boarding a Delta Airlines flight to New York City from London just this Wednesday December 21, when Saleh decided to call his mother to touch base and tell her their schedule. Unfortunately he conversed with her in Arabic over his cellphone, and then exchanged words with Albaher in the same manner. This action would have been innocuous before September 11, 2001 but in this day and age it led to the two being let off the aircraft by the flight captain.

Eyewitness accounts have it that the tension began when a woman passenger admonished Saleh and Albaher to speak English. From there the woman’s husband raised a louder protest demanding that the two be tossed out of the aircraft. Eventually other passengers around the two began expressing their own discomfort, until the captain himself came out and suggested that Saleh and Albaher disembark. With Saleh’s phone recording all the proceedings inside the passenger cabin, from the passenger’s jeering “goodbyes” and one dissenter’s attempt to defend them, the two YouTube stars got off and blitzed their footage online.

Delta Airlines was quick to stand by with their captain’s decision, claiming that testimonies from the passengers around Saleh and Albaher insist that they were causing a ruckus, something that the carrier frowns on regarding passenger behavior regardless of race or religion. Meanwhile thanks to Saleh’s large online following, the incident ignited another storm of indignation against Delta Airlines for racism.

Saleh’s story is not unique, as there has been a serious rash of incidents involving Muslim passengers being forced to disembark from flights due to passenger fears and outrage. This has earned the phrase “Flying While Muslim”, a contemporary version of the old “Driving While Black” distinction.

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So we’ve managed to follow somewhat the heartwarming yet sorrowful but also dangerous journey of young Bana Alabed, whose Twitter updates on life in besieged eastern Aleppo over at Syria has held the rapt attention of hundreds upon thousands of followers all over the world. We were touched with her when JK Rowling sent her a gift of “Harry Potter” novels in eBook form, and we feared for the safety of her family when the regime forces of President Bashar Al-Assad began securing swathes of rebel-held Aleppo where they lived. Thanks to a ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia these anti government fighters and the local residents have been evacuated from the war zone, Bana and her family among them. We wondered when we’ll hear from her again.

Now we come to the next step in young Bana’s adventure, and it’s taken her from Syria to the Turkish capital of Ankara where, as The Daily Mail tells it, the Twitter girl from Aleppo met the one who orchestrated the chain of events that have led the Alabeds to safety: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. This momentous occasion of sorts took place Wednesday December 21 at the Presidential Palace, and the strongman showed off a softer side of himself when he accepted an eager hug from Bana as greeting. Sitting on a state chair with Bana and one of her brothers on his lap, flanked on both by his wife First Lady Emine Erdogan and the Alabed parents with their other son, he looked a far cry from the powerful figure he cut to the press ever since his government put down a coup attempt earlier this year.

While seated on the Turkish President’s lap, Bana spoke on behalf of her family, “Thank you for the help in saving the children of Aleppo from the war. I love you very much.” Her statement was picked up by media and cameras flashed as she gave the 62-year- old Erdogan a peck on the cheek. The President himself remarked on the event on his official Twitter account: “I was pleased to host and her family at the Presidential Complex today. Turkey will always stand with the people of Syria.”

Bana and her mother Fatemah co-wrote on the Twitter page in Bana’s name ever since September, and while their words and pictures generated a great deal of sympathy for them and Aleppo as a whole, the Assad regime condemned them as collaborating with the rebels as propaganda. Upon successfully evacuating, the Alabed family went under the care of Turkish officials who then took them to Erdogan in Ankara. While Turkey has been providing for Syrian refugees on camps close to their mutual borders, only Bana’s family has been given an open invitation to live in their country thus far.

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Wherever you may be in the world, if there’s one social conflict that never goes out of style at all it’s the nigh-customary practice of those with some sort of power or other putting down those who’re weaker than they are, be it verbally or through brutal physicality. Bully at its worse is a nuisance on interpersonal relationships, and the most telling damage it does is often at school, where a formative and educational environment for students can be turned into a nightmare by opportunistic individuals on a power trip over the rest of their fellows. It’s somehow no surprise then that some very extreme cases of bullying have been documented in China.

BBC has it that in light of a slew of incidents involving bullies in Chinese schools, the parents of bullying victims are starting to take action in resolving these situations themselves. Already one mother of a 10-year- old student from Beijing is taking on her son’s struggles by posting a moving account of his experiences on local messaging app WeChat. She wrote of how her child was bullied by his peers at Beijing’s well-known Zhongguancun Second Primary School for a year, ultimately being withdrawn from school after suffering a psychological stress disorder from having poo and garbage thrown at him in a final hazing. What’s worse, the school had rebuffed the boy and his mother’s complaints.

The parent’s WeChat post became trending on Chinese social media, gathering statements of support and righteous indignation on behalf of the mother and her son’s plight. Ultimately Zhongguancun made a public statement disputing their testimony, claiming that the student’s misfortune at the hands of his schoolmates didn’t constitute actual bullying. A lot of good it did them due to the tide of sympathy and support from even the state-controlled media.

This method of shaming schoolyard bullies and uncooperative schools on social media has become an effective tool in the arsenal of Chinese parents with children who’re victims of this predicament. And Chinese-style bullying is on a class of its own, with accounts of a schoolboy from Guangdong Province who was beaten up by a school gang for refusing to pay them “protection money”, a girl who was stripped nude by her classmates, and even young children who get wailed on by bullies armed with steel pipes.

The Guangdong incident was recorded and uploaded, causing a storm of public outrage that had officials of the school in Shenzen scrambling to mediate, resulting in monetary compensation of the victim from the families of his bullies. This and social media shaming are shaping up to be a bully- victim’s parents’ preferred means of resolving such problems, due to the effects being felt in days or weeks rather than the tediously long wait of filing formal criminal charges in Chinese courts.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Anyone with enough lessons in world geography would know that the uppermost portion of the African continent is home to the largest desert in the world. To be precise, it’s the largest “hot desert”, the heat and dryness of which is enforced by the sun beating down on the place all year round; which is why when something completely unexpected weather-wise happens there, it’s certain to grab attention. Recall the 1980s Band Aid collaborative song “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and its line about there wont be snow in Africa in Christmastime. This year however, it skipped rain entirely and went with snow.

The Huffington Post reports that on Monday December 19, a meteorological event that hasn’t happened in the Sahara for nearly four decades has taken place: a freak snowfall happening on the Sahara. Already pictures of the phenomenon have gone online, taken by amateur photographer Karim Bouchetata who lives in Ain Sefra, a town in northwestern Algeria that’s also known as “The Gate to the Desert” due to lying at the fringes of the Saharan dunes at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. These same dunes close to the town were blanketed by a thin yet plainly visible layer of snow that Monday morning. Bouchetata would later tell the Independent, “Everyone was stunned to see snow falling in the desert; it is such a rare occurrence.”

It was fortunate for Bouchetata that the weather remained cold enough for him to take some fantastic photographs of the snow-coated desert sands, before the midday sun melted it all awayAin Sefra is the place to go for this extremely rare chance of seeing the Sahara turning into a winter wonderland for a day. The last time snow managed to make headway against the world’s largest desert was way back in 1979, and it also took place there in Ain Sefra. News reports from the period have it that the snow came in a storm that caused traffic jams in the streets for about half an hour. The town was founded in 1884 during France’s colonial days, as a military garrison.

While summer temperatures in the surrounding area max at 37°C, during the winter months it’s said to get as low as -10.2°C. This practically makes it the only area of the Sahara that can be conducive enough for snowfall, as about half of the great desert receives only an average of less one inch of rain annually, with the rest topping at 4 inches.

For the curious, other places in Algeria that sees snow are their Chrea and Tikjda ski resorts. The only other famous place in Africa to find snow is in Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

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Now I’m going to have to apologize in advance if you get another “Ducktales” reboot update so soon, but as somebody who spent his childhood watching the original series on TV and have fond memories of the experience, I hope you’ll understand and indulge me. It should be plain to see at least that I’m not one of those extreme nostalgia folks who see the 1987 cartoon as the be-all and end-all, nor do I automatically decry the upcoming series as ruining the franchise forever. I just want to enjoy a good storyline, and as this was one of Disney’s first TV hits, I’m sure they won’t mess up the reimagining too much.

In fact, this latest bit of news from The Los Angeles Times ought to be a sign of positive things to come for the show. This week Disney has announced the cast of voice talents for the 2017 “Ducktales”; suffice to say, the House of Mouse thought out of the box and got some interesting choices for the voice cast. Several of them are well known from “Saturday Night Live”, but the choice for voicing the main character Scrooge McDuck – treasure hunter and richest duck in the world – sort of hits everything out of the park. It’s none other than David Tennant, who portrayed the Tenth Doctor in BBC’s long-running “Doctor Who” franchise of TV series.

This was a brilliant casting on the part of Disney as Tennant is from Scotland and therefore has the exact needed Scottish English accent expected of Uncle Scrooge whose voice was codified by British- born Canadian American actor Alan Young in the original “Ducktales” series and other animated productions and videogames starring Scrooge. Young passed away this year at the age of 96.

Moving on to the rest of the cast, the House of Mouse has decided to depart slightly from the original portrayal of Scrooge’s grandnephews and travelling companions Huey, Dewey and Louie, who were all commonly voiced by Russi Taylor. This time around they’ll be having separate unique voice actors to further embellish their individuality, with Danny Pudi (“Community”) as Huey, Ben Schwartz (“Parks and Recreation”) as Dewey, and Bobby Moynihan (“SNL”) as Louie. Rounding up the cast we have Kate Micucci (Garfunkel and Oates, “Steven Universe”) as Webby Vanderquack (also originally voiced by Russi Taylor), Toks Ulagundoye as Webby’s grandmother and Scrooge’s housekeeper Mrs. Beakley, and Beck Bennett (“SNL”) as Scrooge’s pilot/bodyguard Launchpad McQuack.

The best part perhaps about the cast announcement was that it was in the form of a “music video” wherein the cast members sing the classic “Ducktales” theme (yes, even the Duck-tor). While the voice actor for Donald Duck, who’s a regular this time around, has not been revealed, it could likely be given to Tony Anselmo, who has voiced him since 1985.

You can check out the “Ducktales” cast song on YouTube; it’s hard to miss. The “Ducktales” reboot is still on for 2017 on Disney XD.

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HRM Elizabeth, Second of Her Name, by the Grace of God Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so on and so forth, may no longer wield any real political power, however she still manages to retain some royal influence in the slew of ceremonial duties she performs as monarch. Part of this package is her royal patronage of charitable causes and private organizations across the country and the Commonwealth of Nations, running all the way up to over 600 at last count. Still, time passes by ever since her 1952 coronation, and the 90-year old queen feels the need to, if not slow down, then to begin preparing the next generation of the Royal Family to undertake her duties.

So it was reported in People that Her Majesty is moving to divest herself of up to 25 of her patronages, in what an inside source to the Royal Family describes as an “organic shift” of the monarch sharing her workload. A similar precedent was made for the Queen’s consort, Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh when he too reached 90 years of age in 2011. A statement from Buckingham Palace regarding the patronages goes: “Her Majesty has enjoyed a close and active association with a great number of [the patronages] throughout her reign. Her Majesty will continue to serve as Patron to hundreds of charities and institutions but will now share this work with her family.”

It further helped that the same organizations that the Queen has let go of have other Members of the Royal Family as Vice-Patrons or Presidents, to ensure a smooth transition to the new main Royal Patrons. Among the charities and organizations Her Majesty will be passing on to her family are the Royal Geographic Society and Save the Children’s Fund.

But who among the Royals will then carry on the patronages now? As a sampling of the “reassignment”, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge shall be the new patron of the UK Amateur Swimming Association while his brother Prince Harry shall have both the Rugby Football Union and Rugby Football League. Meanwhile Princess Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge will have a patronage aligning with her passion for tennis, being named patron All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which organizes the Grand Slam tournament of Wimbledon. Already the mother of tennis star Andy Murray is supportive of the move, as Duchess Kate’s royal patronage can only mean good things for the sport, in her words.

News of the new Royal Patronage assignment first came out during the Christmas lunch celebrations at Buckingham Palace Tuesday December 20, which was attended by the Royal Family. The changes in Royal Patronage shall become effective at the end of the year.

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Zuckerberg Jarvis Home Al Voiced by Morgan Freeman

In the year 2008 Robert Downey Jr. starred in the first Marvel Studios film that would become the foundation of the nigh-unstoppable moneymaking blockbuster franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In “Iron Man”, Downey’s character of Tony Stark is assisted in his work, home and in operating his hi-tech armor by a servile yet snide super-AI named “JARVIS” (a big upgrade of sorts for Stark’s human butler Edwin Jarvis from the original comics). But I digress. Ever since then there’s been a rise in the development of AI assistants usually tied to mobile operating systems like OK Google and Apple’s Siri. Even consoles have gotten into the act with Windows 10’s Cortana.

Facebook founder and tech visionary Mark Zuckerberg is hoping to one-up all these with the development of a master AI to manage his smart-home. According to Entertainment Tonight Online, the AI will be named Jarvis after the one in the Marvel films. He first revealed his latest venture in a showcase video hosted on his social media platform of FB, where it shows how Jarvis can in theory run all the functions of the house for Zuckerberg while carrying on a conversation, which includes bleeding- edge capabilities like recognizing friends or relatives, then automatically unlocking the front door for them.

Perhaps the best thing about the Jarvis AI is something not in the specs, but in the heart so to speak. An intelligent system that’s able to speak vocally should ideally have a nice voice to hear and talk to, so Zuckerberg has gotten the voice talent services of veteran actor Morgan Freeman, arguably one of the best and most soothing celebrity speakers in like, ever. It’s also been reported that during the early stages of conceptualizing Jarvis, Robert Downey Jr. himself offered the likeness of his voice for the real- life AI, under certain unpublicized conditions. Zuckerberg then decided to put the matter of sourcing his AI’s voice sample in a public vote on Facebook, with Freeman being the runaway winner.

The Jarvis project was touted to be able to control all functions of Zuckerberg’s smart-home by means of the man himself issuing his instructions on a phone app for Jarvis to register. Lights go on and off at Mark’s bidding; the temperature adjusts accordingly too. And perhaps the most ambitious ability that Zuckerberg wants for the AI is being able to speak foreign languages other than English. The promo video has Jarvis-in- Freeman’s-voice giving lessons in Mandarin to Mark’s baby daughter Max.

Zuckerberg stated in a FB post that his goal with Jarvis was to learn more about the development of artificial intelligence, the challenges of which help him get a sense of all the tech that goes into operating Facebook, and an overview of feasible home automation.

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This is supposed to be the season to be jolly, but reality sets in and it just seems anything but possible to be. There’re just so many things going wrong in the world lately, from wars to terrorism to international tensions to – depending on one’s point of view – the rising tide of populism and the uncomfortable side-effects that come with it. Ideally all that baggage would get set aside for December when most of the world tries to celebrate their most festive holidays. No dice with his one however; what appears to be an accident has sparked a tragedy south of the border that has left a bad taste of Christmas in the mouths of many.

USA Today covers the near cataclysmic explosion and fire that ripped through a holiday fireworks market in Tultepec, north of Mexico City, last Tuesday December 20. As eyewitnesses stood stock-still in horror at the sight of a column of black smoke rising into the air, accentuated by the staccato of multiple pyrotechnics cooking off into bright flashes and puffs, about 29 people at the blast site were killed and 50 more injured, some in the mad rush to get away from the impromptu inferno.

According to Governor Eruviel Avila of Mexico State, the casualty toll was expected due to the explosion happening during the day, when the San Pablito fireworks market in Tultepec was packed with pyrotechnic shoppers in anticipation of the upcoming Christmas Eve. Three of the wounded were minors with extreme levels of third degree burns, and were transferred for treatment up north at a Galveston, Texas hospital. Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the fire that ignited the rest of the merchandise, which was captured on multiple video footages around the general area. All through the evening of Tuesday, more of the wounded succumbed and were added to the 29 dead.

In response to the fiery explosive emergency, the Mexican Red Cross deployed ten ambulances to the scene with about 50 paramedics. While they struggled to stabilize the conditions of the casualties who were removed from the burning marketplace, firefighters battled the blaze, which has left charred hulks out of firework stalls and parked vehicles. Other responders and local residents risked the possible resurgence of flames and exploding firecrackers to comb the ashes for any survivors or bodies.

It’s tradition in Mexico to celebrate not only the New Year but Christmas Eve with a display of fireworks and the use of noisemakers out of their own homes. This freak accident feels like it has sapped the jubilation out of the Holiday Spirit in Mexico, described by Governor Avila as “in mourning”. President Enrique Peña Nieto also expressed his condolences to the departed and wishes for recovery of the survivors on his Twitter page.

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There’s been a bad rash of high-profile violence throughout the world this week. Recently I wrote about the shocking assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey by a disgruntled police officer who was upset about the situation in Syria, most specifically the city of Aleppo. There had been concerns that the death of Ambassador Karlov would spark some new conflict even as Turkey and Russia hold together a momentary truce that saw a massive evacuation of Syrian insurgents and residents of eastern Aleppo from their ruined homes. But at roughly the same time an incident over in Europe adds a new wrinkle to the overall global situation, by how it calls to mind bad memories from this year alone.

CNN reports that the notorious and currently under-fire terror organization ISIS has made public claims that it has “inspired” the perpetrator who on Monday December 19 rammed a heavy truck into a Christmas night market in Berlin, resulting in 12 people dead and 48 injured. This grisly act recalls the Nice Bastille Day attack back in July 16, which claimed the lives of 86 victims who were run over. Even more recently, 11 bystanders were also wounded at Ohio State University by a car and knife attack done by legal US resident Abdul Razak Ali Artan in late November.

As of this writing, the initial suspect held by Berlin police after the incident has been let go due to lack of evidence to hold him. It’s now believed by Federal Court of Justice general prosecutor Peter Frank that the attack was carried out by multiple suspects, all of whom are currently feared to be at large. The hypothesis put forth by police was that the attackers hijacked the truck and killed its Polish driver, whose corpse was found inside the vehicle dead of a gunshot wound to the head, and whose other injuries hint that he had vainly tried to fight off his murderers, according to the truck’s company owner Ariel Zurawski, who knew the driver well and was tapped by investigators to identify the body.

ISIS immediately claimed on its Amaq propaganda news website that whoever was responsible for the truck rampage was inspired by their group’s actions, describing the suspect as a “soldier of the Islamic State” following the network’s general directive of launching attacks at civilian populations of all countries fighting ISIS. However, CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruikshank is skeptical of this pronouncement, opining that the terror group has a propensity to label any violent action done against civilians in the world, especially by Muslim hands, to have been spurred by their calls to violence.

Regardless of this claim, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already labeled the incident as a terror attack. Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate was lit up in the colors of the German flag in tribute to the victims.

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For those who follow business news and related topics, it’s plain to see as day that China and its numerous companies are eager to seize up profitable properties and enterprises throughout the world to expand their global market presence. Just ask the UK Prime Ministers’ pub in London that was snapped up by Chinese investors after then-PM David Cameron took President Xi Jinping there for a pint with fish and chips. This bit of news focuses on prospective acquisitions of China’s investment giants in the US. And right now the biggest buzz revolves around what’s probably the most significant target yet: the Chicago Stock Exchange.

It’s been confirmed by The Wall Street Journal that the US Committee on Foreign Investment has just passed a security clearance on behalf of the Chinese investment firms, represented by the Chongqing Casin Enterprise Group. CSE spokesman Drew Mauck tells the WSJ that the committee, had it had the mind to, would’ve recommended not to allow Chinese investment on the exchanged and called on now-outgoing President Barack Obama to officially block it. Now however the buck has been passed from the CFI to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which could deliberate on the warrants of the deal up until February of next year, before they approve or hinder a change in control. Still, passing the CFI review was considered the biggest obstacle to a successful CSE buyout, as the committee’s probes have scared away some of the initial investors in the clique.

As to what the decision means, it’s that the deal to buy the Chicago exchange will not have to be scrutinized by the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has been a venomous critic of Chinese business practices and interests wherever US businesses are also concerned. The CFI review however was expected of Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger from NC, who opines that it only happened due to the outgoing administration’s open investment policies, and would like the committee to provide a viable justification.

The Chicago Stock Exchange has long been suffering from a drop in business interest, and is hoping that an their acquisition by the Casin Group and its partners will enable them to stabilize their situation and once again become an attractive venue for traders, considering that at present the CSE works even less than 1% of the total US equities trade, a figure they’d like to see rise significantly. Last September the exchange petitioned the SEC to allow them to put speed bumps on orders as a protective measure for market makers doing business on their venue.

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Theirs was the American – and female – counterpart success story of One Direction from “The X Factor UK”. In 2012, a year after the English-Irish boy band came to existence, five aspiring female contestants for the second season of the American “X Factor” talent reality show got a second chance at advancing through the competition by being assembled to compete in the “Groups” category. Originally performing as “LYLAS”, then as “1432”, as they got closer to the finals Simon Cowell place their group’s name in the hands of a viewer vote, and so they became “Fifth Harmony”. They would go on to wow the world and show that girl-groups still had wide appeal to listeners. But alas the dream has ended; the five have become four.

E! Online has the lowdown on the shocking December 18 announcement that Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello has left the group. Word on this was initially broken by Cabello’s agent, mere hours after the five-girl band sang at Miami’s “Jingle Bell” radio show together for what would be the last time. The remaining four girls - Ally Brooke, Lauren Jauregui, Normani Kordei and Dinah Jane – left a signed note on their website confirming her departure.

Speculation and rumors abound on the reasons for why Cabello would leave the group after the success of their second full album “7/27” (named after the date when Cowell formed them as a group on “X Factor US”). A statement from her a day later, December 19, seemed to expressed surprise at how her fellows seemed to have cut her loose, making references to lengthy conversations between the members during their concert tour about their future as a group. She also debunked the story that her agent told the others of her decision to leave and then claimed sadness at how things have turned out.

To put the matter to rest, on the very next day December 20, Fifth Harmony released another statement that hopes to straighten out certain conflicting viewpoints on Cabello and the rest of the group. As it turned out, her “resignation” was first formally broached to the others by Cabello’s agent in November, but beforehand they have been undertaking steps to regain some harmony, as it were, with the group members’ dynamic for a year and a half now. It’s just that Cabello has pretty much not been acting as a team player ever since her solo artist recordings. The manifesto stated that she didn’t even bother showing up for informal group meetings, meetings arranged by their label, and even paid group counseling sessions. So no “lengthy conversations” ever happened between Cabello and her teammates at all.

Cabello was born in Havana, Cuba and lived between there and Mexico before moving to the US. As a member of Fifth Harmony she made inroads into a solo career in November 2015 with the single “I Know What You Did Last Summer”, followed by “Bad Things” in October 2016.

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ALEPPO GIRL BANA EVACUATED May Go with Family to Turkey

By now the uprising in Syria that has raged in the country since 2011 during the Arab Spring has finally been brought to an end with the capitulation of the final rebel holdouts from the devastated ruins of the eastern half of Aleppo. Battered to rubble by artillery and airstrikes from both the government forces of Bashar Al-Assad and their Russian allies, the remaining rebel forces and their civilian supporters, residents of Eastern Aleppo who remained throughout the ordeal and placing themselves in the insurgents’ protection, have negotiated several times to obtain a grace period within which they would begin evacuating from Aleppo and Syria altogether without being cut to pieces by the victorious military.

On Monday December 19 the long awaited evacuation was begun at full throttle. As CBC News tells it, among the lucky Aleppo evacuees who managed to flee the fallen rebel bastion by bus was the adorable 7-year old Syrian girl who managed to capture the world’s attention and sympathy through her little accounts of life in the besieged city through a Twitter account created for her by her mother in September. Bana Alabed has been safely transported to safety along with her brother and sister, her father, and mother Fatemah, and English teacher who managed her daughter’s Twitter page and probably helped her with her English tweets to the world, the totality of which has earned Bana more than 331,000 followers.

These followers and many other people on the wider social media community expressed worry for Bana and her family as Eastern Aleppo fell section by section back under regime control through most of November and December. After a tweet from Bana explaining how their home was destroyed by bombing, online updates began to get spotty, with dire tidings of possible capture by government forces (as residents who continued to remain in the neighborhood, they can be charged as collaborating with the anti-Assad insurgents) alternating with some glimmer of hope after Bana’s mother Fatemah remarked on Twitter and Skype conversations with CNN that their family managed to find another place to hide in until either they were finally caught, or the government allowed them to be evacuated. The previous week their prayers were answered, and this past Monday their dreams of sanctuary came true.

With the Alabeds out of harm’s way, the question came up as to where they would go now. A tweet from Fatemah just this Sunday December 18 asked for assistance from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who helped broker this ceasefire and evacuation deal. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu then announced on Turkish state media that the country would be more than happy to provide asylum for Bana and her family. At last the sufferings of w

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Indonesian Island's WALK OF SHAME

When one thinks of exotic vacation getaways in Southeast Asia, one can easily name places in Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia for instance. One doesn’t have to look hard to find tourist spots in this massive archipelagic country. Aside from the easily remember and highly recommended island of Bali, there are other smaller and more exciting locations to be found such as the three Gili Isles off the northwestern coast of the larger island of Lombok. Although definitely a beachgoer’s paradise, foreign tourists still need to be extra careful with their behavior while there. Lest anyone forget, Indonesia can be very much a stickler for ordinances and can cook up some very nasty penalties for caught lawbreakers.

One instance of this imaginative means of punishment in the Indonesian islands was covered recently by BBC. It started with photos surfacing online since the third week of December, showing two Western tourists, a man and a woman, who were allegedly caught for theft. Thus they were subjected to a penalty called the “Walk of Shame”, where local authorities have them marching in the streets with placards around their necks describing their crime. Both read a misspelled condemnation: "I am thieve. Don't do what I did...!!!"

The incident took place on Gili Trawangan, the largest of the Gili islands and the most developed for tourism. Small enough to be circuited by a 7-kilometer boat ride, the isle is tiny enough that Indonesian Police don’t even have some much as a regularly manned outpost there, needing to travel from Lombok in the event that they’re needed. Thus whatever resorts and businesses there are on the island would employ private security personnel. Inspection of the “walk of shame” photos pegs only one possible Indonesian cop among the countless security guards escorting the guilty tourists.

So far there has been no legal basis found on the practice of subjecting perpetrators to the ordeal of public humiliation. However, if the accused has endured the walk, then that’s it with regards to answering for his crimes. They no longer have to pay a fine, or be formally arrested and have to appear in court. At least that’s the idea. BBC has been unable to find the erring tourists in order to hear their side of the case, if they were indeed guilty of stealing a bicycle as purported from security camerafootage, or if they had any other means of defending themselves if they pleaded innocent.

Locals on the Gili isles swear that the Walk of Shame penalty is effective in curbing crime on their neighborhood, both against local criminals and against drunk and unruly foreign tourists who would take advantage of their national hospitality to mess around.

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The Syrian crisis in Aleppo has been a point of contention between the US, Russia and Turkey for several years now. From the origins of the uprising in the Arab Spring period, the consolidation of Syrian insurgents against President Bashar Al-Assad in eastern Aleppo, the rise of terror group ISIS, the border conflicts that erupted against Turkey and Syrian Kurds, the near-overkill military assistance of Russia for the Assad regime and its ensuing loggerheads with the US, all have contributed into the development of a fragile situation in the Middle East that has got the international community’s tense attention. Now a new complication has further derailed what peace processes and negotiations have been going on.

CNN reports that a tragedy has occurred in the Turkish capital of Ankara as the country’s Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov was brutally gunned down while present as a guest of honor at the opening ceremony of a photo exhibit in the city last Monday December 19. While in the middle of a keynote speech for the “Russia as seen by Turks” exhibition at the Cagdas Sanat Merkezi modern arts center, he was shot multiple times by a lone gunman, identified by Turkish Minister of the Interior Suleyman Soylu in a later press conference as Turkish riot police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas.

Camera footage obtained during the incident showed a nightmarish feature: Ambassador Karlov lurching several times as bullets ripped into his back before falling over backwards from the podium. The camera was then focused on a man wearing a business suit with a gun in his hands, Altintas, waving away the audience and media crews with threats before getting into his spiel. He denounced the Russian involvement with the Syrian crisis, alternatively chanting “Allah Akbar!” and repeating “Do not forget Syria! Do not forget Aleppo!”

Police investigators have discovered that Altintas had been off-duty during the assassination, and had likely infiltrated the photo exhibit during Karlov’s speech by pretending to be added police security. A statement released later indicated that the rogue officer had been “neutralized”, though it did not explain further. However, Altintas’ final statement" Only death will remove me from here. Everyone who has taken part in this oppression will one by one pay for it,"seems to indicate that he did not plan on surviving his actions. Three people were also listed as injured during the incident.

Reactions to the even have run the gamut from the mouths of all world leaders with a stake in it. Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan believes it was an act of provocation aiming to sour ties between his country and Russia. Vladimir Putin on his end vowed to step up measures against terrorists, as the gunman was described by his foreign ministry. The United Nations condemned the assassination while Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said the action was “senseless”.

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“ROGUE ONE” Expounds Upon “A NEW HOPE” OF 1977 “STAR WARS”

Some people would say that the “Star Wars” Prequel Trilogy (“I: The Phantom Menace”, “II: Attack of the Clones” & “III: Revenge of the Sith”) was overall an inferior storyline to that of the Original Trilogy (IV, V & VI) from the 70s and 80s. Part of that was said to be, since elements of certain events and characters have already been locked by the classic films, then no twists and developments that took place in the sequels couldn’t touch the aforementioned events and characters other than to show how they came to be so. Another complaint of Original fans was that the squeaky-clean and cutting edge aesthetics of the prequels jarred with their memories of the used-future and rugged utilitarian atmosphere from the old films that were supposed to have taken place years afterwards.

After 2015 saw the release of “Episode VII: The Force Awakens” under the Disney ownership of Lucas film, the “Star Wars” film craze returned in full swing, all the more intensified by the desire of fans to see where old characters have gone after the end of the evil Galactic Empire. But suddenly the producers have taken a significant about-face in storytelling progression, with the release of a spin-off film that doesn’t count as a part of any established trilogy. Rather it takes place shortly before the very first movie in 1977, and elaborates on the opening scrawl about how the heroic Rebel Alliance manages to get their hands on the plans for the Empire’s Death Star super-weapon. “Rogue One” is the first installment of a separate “Star Wars Story” anthology that tries to fill in gaps in the world building of one of science fiction’s most beloved universes.

Directed by British filmmaker Gareth Edwards, who helmed the 2014 “Godzilla” film, the film focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a grifter and former ward of the Rebel Alliance and daughter of Galen Erso (Madds Mikkelsen), an Imperial engineer. Freed from Imperial captivity by the Rebels, Jyn is tasked by the Alliance leadership to find information on her father’s whereabouts from his a defecting Imperial pilot named Bohdi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who claims to have data about the super-weapon that the Empire is building (Death Star, of course).

Jyn is accompanied by Rebel Intelligence Officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a reprogrammed Imperial security droid called K-2SO (voice of Alan Tudyk). They also pick up two former guardians of an ancient Jedi temple, the cynical Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and the blind Jedi devotee Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen). This motley crew sets out to find Jyn’s father, and ultimately must attempt to infiltrate a highly secured Imperial base to acquire the plans for the Death Star, an unsanctioned mission that could turn the tide of the Galactic Civil War, but might end up getting them all killed.

Sort of like the prequel films, there’s generally no suspense as to what the outcome of the narrative is, so the best way to judge the plot’s merits is in the manner of how the events lead up to what we already know, and that lies in the characterization of the players in place during the story.

Jones is effective at illustrating how Jyn shifts from disillusioned con artist to inspiring Rebel commander. Luna sells the motivation of jaded Rebel agent Cassian, who tries to reconcile his worthy cause with the dark deeds he did in its name.

Tudyk’s voice as K-2SO could serve to give birth to a new favorite droid character in the franchise with how he plays a snapping servant unlike the high-strung C-3PO. Donnie Yen was a breakthrough character in his blind Jedi wannabe who can beat up Storm-troopers with a stick. The brief appearance of Forest Whitaker as Saw Guerrera from the “Clone Wars” sub-franchise was too brief, but still serviceable. And several returning faces have caught everyone’s attention due to them looking like the 1977 movie, when their actors have either aged or died already.

This was the result of some swanky SFX worked that saw a body double of Governor Tarkin being given a CGI replica of the late Peter Cushing’s face. A chance discovery of unused footage from “Episode IV” saw two pilot characters returning in the direct story prequel of their film, wherein they die. And this graphical works extend to the vehicles, starships, locations, battle effects, and the dreaded Death Star’s deadly (if deliberately under-charged) firepower.

Finally, a great deal can be said by how the production managed to tie in “Rogue One” with the canon Original Trilogy movie it precedes narrative-wise. The Death’s Star’s hilarious design flaw is explained brilliantly, and when the stolen plans reach the hand of a CGI-faced Princess Leia in the ending, the audience when I watched the film applauded and cheered. Now that’s a good sign that the film did its job well.

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