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Era Ends: Hong Kong Stock Trading Floor to Close

Hong Kong’s last remaining stock market floor traders are taking their final orders as the exchange prepares to shut its trading hall.

The bourse’s operator, Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing, says it will close the trading hall by the end of the month and turn the space into a showcase for the city’s financial markets.

Yip Wing-keung, a trading manager at brokerage Christfund Securities, donned his red trading jacket for the last time Friday, his final day on the floor. He and the other few floor traders left have been moving out ahead of the closure.

Computerized trading

The shutdown marks the end of an era for the stock market, which symbolized the city’s ascent as an Asian finance hub. Activity on the floor, one of a few such venues left worldwide, dwindled as stock dealing became fully computerized.

“I feel sadness and regret,” said Yip, who has been a floor trader since the hall was opened in 1986 after four previous exchanges were merged. “Hong Kong is one of the world’s financial centers, but if we don’t have the stock market trading hall, it will be a little sorrowful. This is my own individual reflection.”

Yip said the floor traders resisted the closure. They sent a protest letter to the government but it was in vain.

“We wrote it but were overruled,” he said. “We can’t stop the times from changing.”

Peers disappearing, too

Hong Kong’s stock exchange, Asia’s third biggest by volume, follows other global peers like Tokyo, Singapore and London that have eliminated their trading floors.

In the U.S., floor traders at the New York Stock Exchange still provide the backdrop for financial TV news reports and bell-ringing ceremonies. But Chicago and New York commodity futures trading pits, where traders used old-fashioned “open outcry” techniques, have shut in recent years as volume fell to 1 percent of the total.

Hong Kong Exchanges stopped updating stats for floor trading in 2014, when it accounted for less than 1 percent of monthly turnover.

From 900 desks to 62

In the 1980s and 1990s the hall housed more than 900 trading desks. The exchange’s most recent count showed only 62 dealing desks were leased, with about 30 traders showing up on an average day. On a visit to the hall this week, only about seven traders could be seen.

Back in its heyday, floor trading was computer-assisted but dealers still needed to talk to each other to complete transactions, either by phone or in person, depending on how far away they sat from each other, Yip said.

“If they were too far you had to use the internal phone line, but if you couldn’t get through, you had to run over to them,” he said. “So you saw lots of people running back and forth.”

These days, Yip just punches orders into his computer.

“Now it’s more comfortable” but relationships with other traders are not as good as they used to be, Yip said.

He doesn’t look forward to returning to his head office.

“It won’t be so free,” he said.

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Kids, Screens and Parental Guilt: Time to Relax a Bit?

Parents of small children have long been hearing about the perils of “screen time.” And with more screens, and new technologies such as Amazon’s Echo speaker, the message is getting louder.

And while plenty of parents are feeling guilty about it, some experts say it might be time to relax a little.

Go ahead and hand your kid a gadget now and then to cook dinner or get some work done. Not all kids can entertain themselves quietly, especially when they are young. Try that, and see how long it takes your toddler to start fishing a banana peel out of the overflowing trash can.

“I know I should limit my kid’s screen time a lot, but there is reality,” said Dorothy Jean Chang, who works for a tech company in New York and has a 2-year-old son. When she needs to work or finds her son awake too early, “it’s the best, easiest way to keep him occupied and quiet.”

Screen time, she says, “definitely happens more often than I like to admit.”

She’s not alone. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group focused on kids’ use of media and technology, said in a report Thursday that kids ages 8 and younger average about 2 hours and 19 minutes with screens every day at home. That’s about the same as in 2011, though it’s up from an hour and a half in 2013, the last time the survey was conducted, when smartphones were not yet ubiquitous but TV watching was on the decline.

While the overall numbers have held steady in recent years, kids are shifting to mobile devices and other new technologies, just as their parents are. The survey found that kids spend an average of 48 minutes a day on mobile devices, up from 15 minutes in 2013. Kids are also getting exposed to voice-activated assistants, virtual reality and internet-connected toys, for which few guidelines exist because they are so new.

​Mixed message

Some parents and experts worry that screens are taking time away from exercise and learning. But studies are inconclusive. 

The economist Emily Oster said studies have found that kids who watch a lot of TV tend to be poorer, belong to minority groups and have parents with less education, all factors that contribute to higher levels of obesity and lower test scores. For that reason, it’s “difficult to draw strong conclusions about the effects of television from this research,” Oster wrote in 2015.

In fact, the Common Sense survey found that kids whose parents have higher incomes and education spend “substantially less time” with screens than other children. The gap was larger in 2017 than in previous years.

Rules relaxed

For more than a quarter century, the American Academy of Pediatrics held that kids under 2 should not be exposed to screens at all, and older kids should have strict limits. The rules have relaxed, such that video calls with grandma are OK, though “entertainment” television still isn’t. Even so, guidelines still feel out of touch for many parents who use screens of various sizes to preserve their sanity and get things done.

Jen Bjorem, a pediatric speech pathologist in Leawood, Kansas, said that while it’s “quite unrealistic” for many families to totally do away with screen time, balance is key.

“Screen time can be a relief for many parents during times of high stress or just needing a break,” she said.

Moderation

Bjorem recommends using “visual schedules” that toddlers can understand to set limits. Instead of words, these schedules have images — dinner, bed time, reading or TV time, for example. 

Another idea for toddlers? “Sensory bins,” or plastic tubs filled with beads, dry pasta and other stuff kids can play around with and, ideally, be just as absorbed as in mobile app or an episode of “Elmo.”

Of course, some kids will play with these carefully crafted, Pinterest-worthy bins for only a few minutes. Then they might start throwing beans and pasta all over your living room. So you clean up, put away the bins and turn on the TV.

In an interview, Oster said that while screen time “is probably not as good for your kid as high-quality engagement” with parents, such engagement is probably not something we can give our kids all the time anyway.

“Sometimes you just need them to watch a little bit of TV because you have to do something, or you need (it) to be a better parent,” Oster said.

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Judge Tosses $400 Million Verdict in Cancer, Talc Powder Case

A California judge on Friday threw out a $417 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson in a lawsuit by a woman who claimed she developed ovarian cancer after using its talc-based products like Johnson’s Baby Powder for feminine hygiene.

The ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maren Nelson marked the latest setback facing women and family members who accuse J&J of not adequately warning consumers about the cancer risks of its talc-based products.

The decision followed a jury’s decision in August to hit J&J with the largest verdict to date in the litigation, awarding California resident Eva Echeverria $70 million in compensatory damages and $347 million in punitive damages.

New trial

Nelson on Friday reversed the jury verdict and granted J&J’s request for a new trial. Nelson said the August trial was underpinned by errors and insufficient evidence on both sides, culminating in excessive damages.

Mark Robinson, who represented the woman in her lawsuit, in a statement said he would file an appeal immediately.

“We will continue to fight on behalf of all women who have been impacted by this dangerous product,” he said.

J&J in a statement said it was pleased with the verdict, adding that it will continue to defend itself in additional trials.

The judge added that there also had been misconduct of the jury during the trial.

J&J said declarations by two jurors after the trial showed that three members of the 12-person jury who voted against finding the company liable were improperly excluded from determining damages.

Nearly 5,000 plaintiffs

J&J says it faces lawsuits by 4,800 plaintiffs nationally asserting talc-related claims. Many of those cases are in California, where Echeverria’s case was the first to go to trial, and in Missouri, where J&J has faced five trials.

The Missouri litigation led to four verdicts against J&J in which juries issued verdicts totaling $307 million. The company has won one trial.

But the Missouri cases, which have largely been brought by out-of-state plaintiffs, have faced jurisdictional questions after the Supreme Court issued a ruling in June that limited where personal injury lawsuits could be filed.

On Tuesday, a Missouri appellate court threw out a $72 million verdict by a jury in February 2016 to the family of a deceased Alabama woman after ruling the case should not have been tried in St. Louis.

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China Set to Spend Billions on ‘One Belt One Road,’ But Some Want Focus on Poverty

Running 1,300 kilometers over the world’s highest mountain pass, the “Friendship,” or Karakoram, Highway is evidence of China’s willingness to spend big as a contributor to global development.

Costing tens of billions of dollars, the road links western China with Pakistan, part of Beijing’s “One Belt One Road” Initiative, which seeks to rekindle ancient Silk Road trade routes linking China with Europe and Africa and is a central tenet of President Xi Jinping’s leadership, said professor Steve Tsang of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. 

“The government is committed to do whatever it can to make sure that it is successful,” Tsang said. “So a lot more money and resources will be put into it to support that.”

But figures show that since the Karakoram Highway was built, Pakistani exports to China have fallen while imports have increased, raising concern China’s new Silk Road could become a one-way street. 

WATCH: China to Spend Billions More on ‘One Belt’ Initiative, but Campaigners Want Focus on Poverty

​Address poverty

Stephen Gelb of the Overseas Development Institute says Beijing should focus its investments on global development goals.

“At the moment there’s a lot of focus on infrastructure and particularly transport, pipelines, that sort of thing, which don’t directly address poverty,” Gelb said. “And in fact there’s been in some cases some controversy about the social and environmental impacts. But I think the focus should be to address development, including poverty and related issues.”

Gliding above the choking traffic of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the Chinese-funded tramway system opened last year at a cost of half a billion dollars. Beijing says investments like this will boost African economies, thereby alleviating poverty.

Gelb says it is also part of China’s plan to become a dominant force on the global stage.

“It was affirmed in Xi Jinping’s speech (this week to China’s Communist Party Congress),” he said, “China’s very much about these days rules-based global governance, multilateralism, globalization.” 

Visiting India this week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused China of not always playing by those rules.

“China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order,” Tillerson said.

Paying the piper

Recipient countries have welcomed Chinese investment, which sometimes comes with fewer conditions than Western aid, such as demands for democratic reform. But Tsang warns there could be a sting in the tail.

“The real issue will come when some of those countries, particularly in central Asia, have to pay back some of the loans that were acquired in the Belt and Road Initiative,” Tsang said. “And most of those countries will have problems paying back those loans.”

For now, Chinese investment continues to expand. Development campaigners say Beijing’s focus should be not only on ports and pipelines but on tackling poverty.

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Wearable Air Filter Combats Pollution

Environmental pollution, from filthy air to contaminated water, kills at least 9 million people a year, according to a new study published by the medical journal The Lancet. Two entrepreneurs from Georgia have invented a wearable filter they say can produce clean, fresh air. Faith Lapidus reports.

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Improved US-India Ties: A Tricky Balancing Act

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson next week makes his first trip to South Asia since the White House laid out a new strategy for the region. The visit includes a stop in India, whose relationship with the U.S. has evolved into what is effectively an alliance, much to the suspicion of New Delhi’s neighbors, as VOA’s Bill Gallo reports.

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US Shutters Special Representative for Afghanistan-Pakistan Office

With the Trump administration’s revised South Asia strategy still in its infancy, the curtain has silently fallen on the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), ending months of speculations that the State Department planned to eliminate the unit.

The office of the special envoy was tasked with heralding reconciliation efforts with the Taliban and other political factions in Afghanistan.

State Department officials, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter, told VOA the core SRAP team focused on Afghan reconciliation was dissolved on Sept. 29. The unit will be integrated into the broader South and Central Asia Bureau.

Most of the office’s employees, according to officials, were temporary civil servants who lost their jobs because their contracts were not renewed.

Remaining staff

A State Department spokesperson told VOA that former SRAP staff remain at the department and are reporting to Alice Wells, who serves as the acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and as the acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.  

 

“She [Wells] will also work to integrate SCA Bureau and SRAP operations. State Department employees arrive and depart from positions regularly, and we have well-established mechanisms to transfer their expertise and contacts to successors,” the spokesperson told VOA.

Current and former U.S. diplomats say the SRAP office focused on three specific areas.

First, the unit took the lead in pursuing Afghan reconciliation, specifically talks with the Taliban. Second, the office was tasked with building support for its efforts within the international community, including at EU and NATO summits. And lastly, the SRAP office took steps to facilitate the success of Afghanistan’s national unity government, including putting together the Ashraf Ghani-Abdullah Abdullah political deal in Afghanistan.

State Department officials say Wells is tasked with heading efforts to integrate SRAP operations within the broader South and Central Asia Bureau.

The consolidation began in June, with the departure of then-acting SRAP Laurel Miller.

Integration

A State Department spokesperson told VOA, “We are at the beginning of a process to determine the bureaucratic and management steps required to integrate the SCA bureau and SRAP operations. But no decisions have yet been made with respect to the timeline and process of this integration.”

This lack of clarity has added to the apparent sense of uncertainty within the State Department, which is already dealing with proposed budget cuts and a number of unfilled positions.

Some former senior U.S. diplomats are skeptical about the timing of the decision to roll back SRAP, saying disbanding the policy team and losing crucial expertise increases risk at a time when the United States is renewing its commitment to stabilizing Afghanistan and promoting reconciliation.

“Unfortunately, I think with the closure of SRAP office or really a departure of temporary employees, we have lost a great deal of expertise and institutional knowledge — deep domain expertise about the Taliban and how to attempt to negotiate with the Taliban,” said former Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Olson.

Olson, who also served as the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, noted, “There continues to be a need for some kind of special envoy, special representative — whatever you want to call it — someone who is focused full time on Afghan reconciliation that is pursuing political settlement.”

 

He added if the U.S. is going to get a diplomatic initiative going, “you can’t wait till you have the initiative to build the team.”

Olson, however, acknowledged that the integration of SRAP’s duties into a broader bureau may add some clarity to South Asia strategy.

“The disadvantage to SRAP was putting India and Pakistan in separate bureaucratic domains, which tended to reduce the coherence of U.S. policy toward South Asia,” he said.

Now a lost relic of former President Barack Obama’s administration, the SRAP post was created in the wake of a troop surge in the Afghan war, with Richard Holbrooke appointed to lead U.S. policy in the volatile Afghan-Pakistan war zone.

Nike Ching at the State Department contributed to this report.

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US Defense Secretary Meets with McCain Over Niger Attack

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis went to Capitol Hill Friday to meet with Senator John McCain after the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee threatened to issue a subpoena for information about the deaths of four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger.

After meeting privately with McCain in his office Friday, Mattis promised to keep better lines of communication with Congress.

“We could be better at communication, we can always improve at communication and that’s exactly what we’ll do,” he said.

McCain said the meeting helped to clear up the information channels. 

“I felt we were not getting a sufficient amount of information and we are clearing a lot of that up now,” he said.

Earlier this week, McCain threatened to use a subpoena to compel information from the Pentagon and Trump administration officials about the Niger attack. He complained that it was easier to get information about military operations under former President Barack Obama.

The U.S. military has blamed Islamic State militants for the deaths of the four Special Forces soldiers in southwestern Niger and has said it is conducting an investigation into the Oct. 4 attack.

U.S. Army Special Forces, also known as Green Berets, had just completed a meeting with local leaders in Niger and were walking back to their vehicles when they were attacked, according to a U.S. official, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

The soldiers said the meeting ran late, and some suspected that the villagers were intentionally delaying their departure, the official said.

Initially, the Pentagon announced that three soldiers had been killed in the ambush. The body of a fourth soldier, Sergeant La David Johnson, was recovered more than a day later and questions have been raised about why it took as long as it did.

CNN reported Friday that Johnson’s body was found nearly a mile away from the site of the ambush. It said military officials are still looking at the exact circumstance of how and when Johnson became separated from the rest of his team, but officials emphasized that the search for Johnson began immediately.

Pentagon officials said there are about 800 U.S. troops in Niger in an operation underway for five years against the Boko Haram militant group and other terrorist organizations.

White House phone calls

President Donald Trump’s calls to the families of the fallen soldiers has sparked a public argument between Trump and a Florida lawmaker, who accused Trump of telling one soldier’s widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday criticized Frederica Wilson, a Democratic congresswoman who clashed with the president over his condolence call.

Sanders told reporters at the White House: “As we say in the South: All hat, no cattle.”

Wilson represents the home district of Sergeant La David Johnson, one of the four soldiers killed in Niger.

Wilson said she was listening in on the call Trump made to Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, while family members were in a limousine en route to an airport to meet the soldier’s body

Speaking to MSNBC on Wednesday, Wilson said Trump “was almost like joking,” during the conversation, which was on a speaker in the car. “He said, ‘Well, I guess you know, something to the effect that he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway,’ ” Wilson explained to MSNBC.

Trump responded to Wilson’s allegations Wednesday, tweeting that she had “totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”

In a separate interview with CNN, Wilson said, “I have proof, too. This man is a sick man.”

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G-7 Backs Internet Industry Effort to Detect, Blunt Extremism

The Group of Seven industrialized nations threw their support behind a new technology industry alliance aimed at detecting and blunting online propaganda, saying Friday it had a “major role” to play in combating extremism on the internet.

G-7 interior ministers meeting in Italy invited representatives from Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter to a session Friday dedicated to the fight against terrorism. In a final communique, the ministers pressed the industry as a whole to do more.

“Internet companies will continue to take a proactive role and ensure decisive action in making their platforms more hostile to terrorism, and will support actions aimed at empowering civil society partners in the development of alternative narratives online,” the statement said.

Social media companies have long seen themselves as neutral platforms for other people to share information, and have traditionally been cautious about taking down objectionable material. But as social media platforms have increasingly been used to recruit jihadis, radicalize young people, share fake news and incite extremism, they have come under pressure from governments to take action.

Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube in June created the Global Internet Forum to Combat Terrorism, which got an early boost when British Prime Minister Theresa May used a speech to the U.N. General Assembly to applaud the initiative and demand internet companies develop technology to more quickly identify and remove terrorist content.

The alliance says it is committed to developing new content detection technology, to helping smaller companies combat extremism and to promoting “counter-speech,” content meant to blunt the impact of extremist material.

The G-7 endorsed the aims and pledged to work collaboratively across the industry to counter the “misuse of technology” by terrorist organizations.

Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti said “a great alliance” had been formed between world governments and major internet providers. While stressing the internet has been an important tool for promoting freedom, “at the same time we all together have agreed that al-Qaida and Islamic State are enemies of our freedoms.”

Several ministers said that while the industry had made progress to quickly remove extremist content, more needed to be done, and faster.

“Our enemies are moving at the speed of a tweet, so we have to counter them just as quickly,” said acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke.

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