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Analysts: US Cyber Monday Sales Could Set New Online Spending Record

In the United States, it’s Cyber Monday, a day when holiday shoppers could set a new spending record for online purchases from work, home or anywhere with their cellphones.

With rising wages in the U.S., low unemployment and strong consumer confidence, research firm Adobe Analytics predicted shoppers could spend $6.6 billion on Monday, more than a 16 percent jump over last year’s record-setting total.

Online shopping has been increasing steadily in the U.S. for years as many consumers stay away from traditional brick-and-mortar stores in favor of the convenience of shopping from laptop computers, hand-held devices or, to the dismay of their employers, workplace computers.

Black Friday

Black Friday, the day after last week’s Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., is traditionally the biggest holiday shopping day of the year, coming a few weeks ahead of gift-giving at Christmas and Hanukkah. Equity firm Consumer Growth Partners estimated Friday’s sales, both in stores and online, at about $33 billion, a 4.8 percent advance over 2016.

Even as shoppers, lured by discounted prices, thronged to stores on Friday to buy the latest tech gadgets, toys and clothing, retailers reported that overall, the number of shoppers in their stores dipped a bit, an indication that many buyers were instead shopping online.

The National Retail Federation is predicting that U.S. consumer spending in November and December could climb 4 percent over a year ago to $682 billion, which would make this the strongest holiday shopping season since 2014.

Competition

Two of the biggest online retailers in the U.S., Amazon.com and Wal-Mart Stores, are about even in offering the lowest prices on a large array of consumer items, a Reuters survey showed. A year ago, products bought through Amazon were typically 3 percent cheaper, but the news agency said its survey showed that Wal-Mart has now narrowed the gap to three-tenths of 1 percent.

The boost in consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of the U.S. economy, the world’s largest, is buoyed by a falling jobless rate. The unemployment rate was 4.1 percent in October, the lowest level in 17 years, and employers hired another 261,000 workers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

India’s Global Entrepreneurial Summit to Focus on Women

Startup founders, investors and tech leaders from around the world are heading to Hyderabad, India for the 8th annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit, co-hosted by the U.S. and Indian governments.

Ivanka Trump, adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump and his daughter, will join host Prime Minister Narendra Modi in kicking off the three-day event, which will focus on women in business. More than 1,500 participants from 150 countries are expected at the event, which runs from November 28 through 30.

 

It had not been clear whether the Trump administration would continue the annual summit that was launched at the White House by the Obama administration in 2010. Trump has focused on domestic growth and U.S. job creation with an “America first” message.

But in June, Prime Minister Modi, while visiting the White House, announced that the two countries would co-host the summit.

 

America first, global partners

 

The gathering comes as the U.S. and India appear to be working to strengthen ties.

 

Having an “America first” economic policy is “not exclusive of collaboration, partnership and strong economic security and social relationships around the world,” said a senior administration official, speaking anonymously.

 

The summit is “a testament to the strong friendship between our two people and the growing economic and security partnership between our two nations,” said Ivanka Trump during a news conference this week.

Participants at this year’s summit will represent four industry sectors — energy and infrastructure, health care and life sciences, financial technology and digital economy, and media and entertainment.

 

Women in majority

 

In a first for the event, women will represent 52 percent of the attendees. Ten countries, including Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, are sending all female delegations.

 

In advance of the summit, the Indian state of Telangana, where Hyderabad is located, has been working to clean up the city, and there have been reports of beggars being relocated.

“We know that the Indian government is really firmly committed to raising individuals out of poverty and to create economic opportunity for its large and diverse population and we think they are making great progress,” said another U.S. official.

Mobile App Connects Responders to Those Having Mental Health Crisis

Rickey pushes himself up slowly, grabs the leash tethered to the side of his walker and takes a few steps. His dog, a terrier named Madman, perks his ears up and follows him. Rickey pauses and looks across the street at a rundown building.

“That was a Blues Club,” he says. “The police station was a jazz club. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, we had all them,” says the 69-year-old. 

But the far-off look in his eyes isn’t reality. The nightlife that once electrified the Tenderloin District of San Francisco is no more.

Illicit drugs are dealt openly on the streets of the Tenderloin, a neighborhood in San Francisco, California. The Tenderloin has become a corrupt, high-crime neighborhood with homeless people lining the sidewalks.

High crime rates

The Tenderloin Housing Clinic and San Francisco police statistics show violent crime in just one block of the Tenderloin “is 35 times higher than the rest of the city.” In addition, one aggravated assault occurs every day and robbery statistics are even higher.

But several years ago, trendy businesses priced out of an adjacent area, brought property in Tenderloin. The gentrification of the area is starting, but it’s created another problem. More homeless filter onto the streets as real estate gets more expensive.

“Oh, hey, there you are.” A guy wearing black-rimmed glasses and a deep purple T-shirt and purple vest greets Rickey.

Jacob Savage is a community activist who founded the group Concrn.

Savage, who describes himself as a “privileged white guy,” found common ground with Rickey — and other Tenderloin residents — by playing a trumpet. He’s never without the instrument.

The two men — who couldn’t look more different — harmonize together in a duet. Rickey’s fingers snap to the beat of Savage’s horn, then he starts belting out, “Stand by Me,” a popular ballad by Ben E. King. It’s a calm, fun moment in Savage’s otherwise serious day.

Building trust

As a 15-year-old growing up in wealthy, tech-savvy Palo Alto, California, Savage became a police cadet, and spent six years riding along on calls. But he says the criminal arrests and prison sentences didn’t satisfy his passion to help others.

A few years ago, Savage brought Concrn to the Tenderloin, through a mobile app and a team of responders.

Through the app, witnesses report incidents of mental crises with descriptions of the person, location and other notes.

“When you submit that,” says Savage, “it goes into our dispatching platform” where responders are assigned to the incident. 

They arrive on the scene and offer mental health or drug abuse assistance before police arrive to make arrests. Often that first meeting includes only a conversation if the Tenderloin resident refuses treatment. Savage is fine with that.

“It’s building trust and having a trusting relationship so when they are actually ready to get better, we’re there,” he says.

Each Concrn responder completes 20 hours of classroom instruction and 80 hours on the street. Fifty people have completed the training.

In the past few years, they’ve responded to 2,000 crises. The ultimate goal is to train residents as responders, so the community is self-sufficient and doesn’t need Concrn. But that intention is years away.

Carrying a trumpet

Savage gets a call for a crisis several blocks away and he walks there with his trumpet at his side.

When he arrives, police are still there, but no disturbance. He approaches some men and mentions Concrn.”What kind of music do you play?”they ask. He starts a jazz number and they smile. 

Then a police officer taps Savage on his shoulder. There’s a guy police can’t handle right now – could he see what he can do?

Savage walks over to a thin young man dressed in black wearing a magenta scarf around his head. He’s bopping and weaving and talking to no one in particular. Jacob interrupts the constant gibberish.”Hey brother, what’s your name buddy?”

“Eddie” is the only word Jacob can understand in the restless man’s ongoing monologue.

Savage thinks he’s on crystal meth and asks if him if he would like to go to a clinic.

Eddie keeps blabbering but doesn’t answer. Savage sees the cigarette lighter he’s holding and asks if he would like a cigarette. Savage contacts another Concrn responder and starts playing his trumpet as a beacon.

Savage explains, “Cigarettes are a last resort to use when people are going so fast we can’t understand them or they are panicking.”

David, the other responder, finds their location from the trumpet blast and hands Eddie the cigarette, which he half eats. 

Savage and David spend several hours with Eddie. They learn he’s a composer.

Eddie offers to sell Savage his black leather outfit. They part, hoping to meet on the street again. Maybe by then Eddie will be ready to accept Concrn’s intervention.

Rwanda Ramps up STEM Education for Girls

In Rwanda, the number of schoolgirls studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields, is climbing steadily. It’s part of an ambitious government agenda to transform the economy. In the past decade, several STEM schools for girls have opened in Rwanda amid the rising demand. Chika Oduah reports for VOA from Kigali.

US Senate to Vote on Tax Overhaul

This week could decide whether Republicans salvage one of President Donald Trump’s major agenda items during his first year in office or head into a midterm election year with no landmark legislative accomplishments to tout. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, in coming days, Senate Republicans hope to pass a bill overhauling America’s tax code, but it is not clear they have the votes from their caucus to do so, given unified Democratic opposition.

Amid Allegations, Congressman Steps Aside From House Panel Role

The longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, said Sunday he is relinquishing his position as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee while allegations of sexual harassment against him are investigated.

The 88-year-old Conyers last week acknowledged he had reached a $27,000 settlement with a woman who formerly worked on his Washington staff who alleged Conyers fired her after she rebuffed a sexual advance from him. But Conyers continued to deny the allegation and said he settled the case only to avoid protracted litigation over her claim.

The House Ethics Committee is investigating whether Conyers used taxpayer money in his office funds to settle the case and whether he engaged in sexual harassment of other women.

“I deny these allegations, many of which were raised by documents reportedly paid for by a partisan alt-right blogger,” Conyers said. “I very much look forward to vindicating myself and my family.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said as a woman and mother, she takes any sexual harassment accusation very seriously and urges the ethics committee to quickly carry out its probe.

“We are at a watershed moment on this issue and no matter how great an individual’s legacy, it is not a license for harassment,” Pelosi said in a statement.

Allegations against Franken

Meanwhile, another well-known Democrat accuse of sexual harassment says he is “embarrassed and ashamed” by the charges against him.

Minnesota Senator Al Franken spoke to Minneapolis media Sunday, saying he “let a lot of people down and I’m hoping I can make it up to them and gradually regain their trust.”

Two weeks ago, a Los Angeles radio host posted a picture of a grinning Franken apparently grabbing her breasts while she appeared to be sleeping after performing for U.S. troops in 2006. Franken was a well-known television comedian and writer at the time.

Another woman alleges he cupped her behind while being photographed with Franken during his first Senate campaign in 2010.

Franken said he takes thousands of photographs and does not remember his accuser. But he said “this is not something I would intentionally do.” He has said he welcomes an ethics probe into his behavior.

 

Does Cellphone-Sweeping ‘StingRay’ Technology Go Too Far?

New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Las Vegas are among scores of police departments across the country quietly using a highly secretive technology developed for the military that can track the whereabouts of suspects by using the signals constantly emitted by their cellphones.

Civil liberties and privacy groups are increasingly raising objections to the suitcase-sized devices known as StingRays or cell site simulators that can sweep up cellphone data from an entire neighborhood by mimicking cell towers. Police can determine the location of a phone without the user even making a call or sending a text message. Some versions of the technology can even intercept texts and calls, or pull information stored on the phones.

Part of the problem, privacy experts say, is the devices can also collect data from anyone within a small radius of the person being tracked. And law enforcement goes to great lengths to conceal usage, in some cases, offering plea deals rather than divulging details on the StingRay.

“We can’t even tell how frequently they’re being used,” said attorney Jerome Greco, of the Legal Aid Society, which recently succeeded in blocking evidence collected with the device in a New York City murder case. “It makes it very difficult.”

At least 72 state and local law enforcement departments in 24 states plus 13 federal agencies use the devices, but further details are hard to come by because the departments that use them must take the unusual step of signing nondisclosure agreements overseen by the FBI.

An FBI spokeswoman said the agreements, which often involve the Harris Corporation, a defense contractor that makes the devices, are intended to prevent the release of sensitive law enforcement information to the general public. But the agreements don’t prevent an officer from telling prosecutors the technology was used in a case.

In New York, use of the technology was virtually unknown to the public until last year when the New York Civil Liberties Union forced the disclosure of records showing the NYPD used the devices more than 1,000 times since 2008. That included cases in which the technology helped catch suspects in kidnappings, rapes, robberies, assaults and murders. It has even helped find missing people.

But privacy experts say such gains come at too high a cost.

“We have a Fourth Amendment to the Constitution,” said Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, referring to the protection against unreasonable search and seizure. “Our Founding Fathers decided when they wrote the Bill of Rights there had to be limits placed on government.”

Lawmakers in several states have introduced proposals ranging from warrant requirements to an outright ban on the technology; about a dozen states already have laws requiring warrants. Federal law enforcement said last year that it would be routinely required to get a search warrant before using the technology – a first effort to create a uniform legal standard for federal authorities.

And case law is slowly building. Two months ago, a Washington, D.C., appeals court overturned a conviction on a sex assault after judges ruled a violation of the Fourth Amendment because of evidence improperly collected from the simulator without a proper warrant.

In the New York murder case argued by the Legal Aid Society, a judge in Brooklyn last month ruled that the NYPD must have an eavesdropping warrant signed by a judge to use the device, a much higher bar than the “reasonable suspicion” standard that had previously been required.

“By its very nature, then, the use of a cell site simulator intrudes upon an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy, acting as an instrument of eavesdropping and requires a separate warrant supported by probable cause,” wrote state Supreme Court Judge Martin Murphy.

New York City police officials disagreed with the ruling and disputed that a StingRay was even used in the case, even though there had been a court order to do so. Police officials also said they have since started requiring a higher stander of probable cause when applying for the devices.

Legal Aid Society’s Greco said he hoped the ruling will push the nation’s largest department into meeting the higher standard, and help judges better understand the intricacies of more cutting-edge surveillance.

“We’re hoping we can use this decision among other decisions being made across the country to show that this logic is right,” Greco said. “Part of an issue we’re facing with technology, the judges don’t understand it. It makes it easier if another judge has sat down and really thought about it.”

For Cambodian Techies, US Tour Ends With Vision of Startup at Home

At home in Phnom Penh, the five techies knew of each other by reputation but had never met. After three weeks touring the United States, they’ve returned to Cambodia fired up about collaborating on a fintech startup.

“Before, when I thought about a million-dollar business, it was only a dream,” Sopheakmonkol Sok, 29, a co-founder and CEO of Codingate, a web and mobile developer, told VOA Khmer.

Langda Chea, founder and CEO of BookMeBus, a booking app for Cambodian bus, ferry and taxi travel, met Sopheakmonkol Sok while under the auspices of a U.S. State Department program called the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), which includes work on democracy, human rights, security, environment, international crime, economic growth and development.

​Learned from other companies’ successes

The tech intensive “Accelerating Tech Entrepreneurship and SME Development” focused on small- and medium-sized enterprise growth in the tech sector. The Cambodians engaged with tech leaders in Washington, D.C.; Cleveland, Ohio; Raleigh, North Carolina; San Francisco and San Jose, California.

In Silicon Valley, they met with “a lot of successful companies, big and small,” Sok said. “So we saw how they operate and manage their businesses, and we learned from their success.” 

Nicholas Geisinger, the IVLP program officer who oversaw the tech trip, said the program works when it encourages the cross-pollination of ideas among the exchange visitors and Americans.

“We [told] them about the development in our country,” Chea said, listing positives such as a fast, inexpensive internet infrastructure, an improving business environment, and the growth of an educated workforce “that show potential because it’s an advantage for us if they invest in Cambodia.” 

“Ideas were originated with the U.S. embassy … and furthering economic development in Cambodia was one of their objectives. … That’s why we did a program on this topic,” Geisinger said. 

It’s a bonus when the visitors learn “and have new ideas by talking with each other in this new environment,” Geisinger said. “That’s a huge win for the program, a win for the people of Cambodia and I can’t wait to see what they will do next.” 

Chankiriroth Sim, founder and CEO of BanhJi, a fintech startup, told VOA Khmer that while the participants learned more about the U.S. tech scene on their tour, the “important thing is that we got to know each other better.” 

Or as Rithy Thul, the founder of Smallworld, a collaborative co-working space, told VOA Khmer, the five learned “we can work together when we are back” in Cambodia.

Or can they? Each one has a tech business, so who will run their fintech collaboration, the details of which they’re not disclosing, other than to say it is in the payment space. That remains under discussion.

“The advantage is that, when we succeed, it can help Cambodia, it helps the next generation,” BookMeBus founder Chea said. “But I’m worried that if there are too many smart people in one group, it could be a disadvantage.” 

Opportunity and support

After three weeks, Chea said he was impressed with how various levels of government in the U.S. — local, state and federal — support startups.

“The opportunities I see, including the cooperation between the government, the enterprises, and the incubation, which helps small business to understand its own business, to make it standardized in order to raise fund(s) or find investors,” Chea said.

For example, the Cambodians and local tech types discussed how local firms and city government can support each other at the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation (MOCI).

It is the only operation of its kind in the U.S., said Siobhan Oat-Judge, a Pearson fellow in the department that “connects government agencies with startups to develop technology products that address civic challenges,” according to the MOCI website.

Helping startups to grow isn’t a one-way street, “the community as a whole gains from helping them since they bring solutions to problem. … It’s mutually beneficial,” Oat-Judge said.

“We are supporting startups, but we are also gaining from them because they are bringing in solutions for problems,” she added. “They are bringing new ideas, new technology that are helping us to improve the way we are doing things.”

Funding issues

It’s more difficult to obtain funding in Cambodia than it is in the U.S., said Visal In, co-founder of KhmerLoad, the first Cambodian tech startup backed by Silicon Valley investors.

For starters, there’s more U.S. money seeking potentially profitable ideas, something that In found when 500 Startups, a global venture capital based in San Francisco, invested $200,000 in his site.

“Some companies outside Cambodia totally depend on getting grants, and in Cambodia it would be difficult if we did that,” In said. For other companies outside Cambodia, “they can sustain themselves without profit, but because they have a good idea, they can be seeking outside funding for five or six years, the time it takes to become profitable. In Cambodia, that’s impossible.”

Kounila Keo, one of two female IVLP participants, said she would like to see the Cambodian government step up its support for startups.

Keo, a managing director at RedHill Asia and who was spotlighted by Forbes 30 under 30 Asia in 2017, said, “What I want to have in Cambodia in the future is a better and closer cooperation between the government and private companies in order to enhance the tech startup and tech entrepreneurship initiatives.”

In Fukushima Cleanup, It’s Human Nature vs. Science

More than six years after a tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Japan has yet to reach consensus on what to do with a million tons of radioactive water, stored on site in around 900 large and densely packed tanks that could spill should another major earthquake or tsunami strike.

The stalemate is rooted in a fundamental conflict between science and human nature.

Experts advising the government have urged a gradual release into the Pacific Ocean. Treatment has removed all the radioactive elements except tritium, which they say is safe in small amounts. Conversely, if the tanks break, their contents could slosh out in an uncontrolled way.

Fishermen protest

Local fishermen are balking. The water, no matter how clean, has a dirty image for consumers, they say. Despite repeated tests showing most types of fish caught off Fukushima are safe to eat, diners remain hesitant. The fishermen fear any release would sound the death knell for their nascent and still fragile recovery.

“People would shun Fukushima fish again as soon as the water is released,” said Fumio Haga, a drag-net fisherman from Iwaki, a city about 50 kilometers (30 miles) down the coast from the nuclear plant.

And so the tanks remain.

​March 11, 2011

Fall is high season for saury and flounder, among Fukushima’s signature fish. It was once a busy time of year when coastal fishermen were out every morning.

Then came March 11, 2011. A 9 magnitude offshore earthquake triggered a tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people along Japan’s northeast coast. The quake and massive flooding knocked out power for the cooling systems at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Three of the six reactors had partial meltdowns. Radiation spewed into the air, and highly contaminated water ran into the Pacific.

Today, only about half of the region’s 1,000 fishermen go out, and just twice a week because of reduced demand. They participate in a fish-testing program.

Lab technicians mince fish samples at Onahama port in Iwaki, pack them in a cup for inspection and record details such as who caught the fish and where. Packaged fish sold at supermarkets carry official “safe” stickers.

Only three kinds of fish passed the test when the experiment began in mid-2012, 15 months after the tsunami. Over time, that number has increased to about 100.

The fish meet what is believed to be the world’s most stringent requirement: less than half the radioactive cesium level allowed under Japan’s national standard and one-twelfth of the U.S. or EU limit, said Yoshiharu Nemoto, a senior researcher at the Onahama testing station.

That message isn’t reaching consumers. A survey by Japan’s Consumer Agency in October found that nearly half of Japanese weren’t aware of the tests, and that consumers are more likely to focus on alarming information about possible health impacts in extreme cases, rather than facts about radiation and safety standards.

Fewer Japanese consumers shun fish and other foods from Fukushima than before, but 1 in 5 still do, according to the survey. The coastal catch of 2,000 tons last year was 8 percent of pre-disaster levels. The deep-sea catch was half of what it used to be, though scientists say there is no contamination risk that far out.

​Not yet psychologically ready

Naoya Sekiya, a University of Tokyo expert on disaster information and social psychology, said that the water from the nuclear plant shouldn’t be released until people are well-informed about the basic facts and psychologically ready.

“A release only based on scientific safety, without addressing the public’s concerns, cannot be tolerated in a democratic society,” he said. “A release when people are unprepared would only make things worse.”

He and consumer advocacy group representative Kikuko Tatsumi sit on a government expert panel that has been wrestling with the social impact of a release and what to do with the water for more than a year, with no sign of resolution.

​More radioactive water

The amount of radioactive water at Fukushima is growing, by 150 tons a day.

The reactors are damaged beyond repair, but cooling water must be constantly pumped in to keep them from overheating. That water picks up radioactivity before leaking out of the damaged containment chambers and collecting in the basements.

There, the volume of contaminated water grows, because it mixes with groundwater that has seeped in through cracks in the reactor buildings. After treatment, 210 tons is reused as cooling water, and the remaining 150 tons is sent to tank storage. During heavy rains, the groundwater inflow increases significantly, adding to the volume.

Another government panel recommended last year that the utility, known as TEPCO, dilute the water up to about 50 times and release about 400 tons daily to the sea — a process that would take almost a decade to complete. Experts note that the release of radioactive tritium water is allowed at other nuclear plants.

Tritium water from the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States was evaporated, but the amount was much smaller, and still required 10 years of preparation and three more years to complete.

A new chairman at TEPCO, Takashi Kawamura, caused an uproar in the fishing community in April when he expressed support for moving ahead with the release of the water.

The company quickly backpedaled, and now says it has no plans for an immediate release and can keep storing water through 2020. TEPCO says the decision should be made by the government, because the public doesn’t trust the utility.

“Our recovery effort up until now would immediately collapse to zero if the water is released,” Iwaki abalone farmer Yuichi Manome said.

Some experts have proposed moving the tanks to an intermediate storage area, or delaying the release until at least 2023, when half the tritium that was present at the time of the disaster will have disappeared naturally.