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Archive Monthly Archives: May 2017

Mass Rally in Moscow Against Home Demolition Challenges Putin

Thousands of people jammed the Russian capital to protest a plan to demolish decades-old apartment blocks housing more than a million people, delivering a new challenge for President Vladimir Putin as he gears up for re-election in less than a year.

About 20,000 people rallied Sunday in Sakharov Prospect in Moscow’s downtown, according to an activist group that monitors attendance at demonstrations. Police, who stopped Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny from joining the protest, said 8,000 took part.

Demonstrators march during a protest in Moscow on May 14.

Photographer: Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Russia in March witnessed the biggest anti-government demonstrations in five years, with 60,000 people turning out in more than 80 cities to protest corruption amid falling living standards after the longest recession in two decades. The rise in civic activism comes as Putin, 64, who’s expected to seek a final six-year term next March, faces an uphill task to retain people’s support because of the economic squeeze.

Faced with resistance to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s initiative to tear down 8,000 aging apartment buildings with 1.6 million tenants, the authorities cut the scale of the demolition to 4,500 buildings with one million residents. But protesters say the law working through Parliament to enact the resettlement is so vague, any house can be designated for demolition.

They accuse authorities of rushing the legislation, which has already won preliminary approval on first reading, to favor the interests of Moscow property developers that are traditionally close to City Hall and have suffered from a recent slump in real estate prices.

Business Aim

“The main aim is business, to seize the land and make money by selling apartment buildings,” said Vadim Glushkov, a 44-year-old engineer who like many at the rally said that this was the first time he had taken part in a protest.

Under the draft law, property owners will get apartments in new housing of the same size — but not the same value — in their district or a neighboring one. This is feeding fears that instead of living in low-rises homes in green, residential spaces in Moscow they’ll be rehoused in vast skyscrapers on the outskirts of the city.

The so-called Khrushchevki were built in a construction program that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev began in 1955 to rehouse families in apartments of their own rather than sharing crowded communal flats. While many buildings are in disrepair, owners have spent money on renovating their properties.

Tatiana Malova, 54, one of the protesters, said she’s been a loyal Putin supporter but will choose how to vote next year based on whether he listens to the people and cancels the proposed law.

Forced Evictions

“What’s scary is the speed at which they’re doing it,’’ she said, pointing out that residents will have only a month to vote on the plan from mid-May. With officials distributing glossy brochures showing elite modern blocks that people can move into, if the plan is backed by a majority of homeowners, those who refuse to move out will be forcibly evicted.

Putin, who would get less than half of the vote in the presidential election according to a survey last month by the independent Levada Center, down from 62 percent two years earlier, is in a difficult situation according to the research group’s deputy director, Alexei Grazhdankin.

“Especially after the March protests, it’s important to avoid stirring up the country’s population in a pre-election year,” he said. “These people who are rallying aren’t only from educated circles but all sections of society and social protests are what the authorities need to avoid.”

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Inside Owlchemy Labs, the indie game studio that’s betting it all on virtual reality

Its the year 2050, and robots have taken over what was once the human labor force. Theyve created a virtual reality simulation to help people remember what it was like to job.

Thats the premise of Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives, presented in the bright, colorful, cartoon-like graphics that define the games developed by Owlchemy Labs. A demo of Job Simulator offered at the Game Developers Conference in 2015 had players stand behind a counter in a restaurant where food was prepared. They could remove ingredients from a refrigerator, turn around to face another counter, and pick up cookbooks that could be thrown around the roomvirtual hands projected into the simulation tracking perfectly with players actual movements via prototype SteamVR controllers.

Working as a short-order cook isnt exactly the sort of escapism most would expect out of virtual reality, but Job Simulator became one of the stand-outs of the conference. It realized the kind of immersive experience science-fiction authors and technology visionaries have been dreaming of for decades.

Now one year later at GDC 2016 this week, the small Austin, Texas-based company will be leading the conversation about game development for VR hardware, which will finally ship to consumers in the next few months. The technology has almost universally impressed tech industry insiders, researchers, and early adopters with its ability to transport users into alternate worlds. But it remains to be seen if consumers will spend $600 on the Oculus Rift or $800 on the HTC Vive in large enough numbers to make the platforms viable.

Alex Schwartz, the 29-year-old founder and CEO of Owlchemy Labs, is confident that, with untold billions already spent on the development of VR hardware and software, its too big to fail. In fact, hes betting everythinghis professional reputation, his company, and the livelihoods of his 14 employeeson it.

Born under fire

When you talk to Schwartz, you can see an amused glint in his eyes behind his corrective lenses. He looks like hes always on the verge of laughing and breaks frequently into a smileand he loves a bad pun.

Hes been working with computers for most of his life, getting his start at his fathers licensed Apple retail and repair store, installing clients new computer systems at age 12. In high school, he recreated levels of Halo: Combat Evolved in his spare time, and later studied at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, eventually running its Game Development Club.

If you observe Schwartz closely, you might notice a nervousness under his good-natured demeanor, as if he is occasionally unsure of his footing.

Owlchemy Labs founder and CEO, Alex Schwartz Owlchemy Labs

Schwartz founded Owlchemy Labs in October 2010, and found himself marred by controversy shortly thereafter. Owlchemys first title was an irreverent and politically incendiary game where players had to keep a group of undocumented immigrants from bouncing out the back of a pick-up truck as it headed for the finish line, i.e. the U.S. border. Comedian George Lopez found the game amusing. Groups like the New York Immigration Coalition did not. Apple rejected Smuggle Truck when it was submitted to the App Store that March.

To our discredit, we hadnt quite put enough of the satirical elements into the game at that point, Schwartz reflected. The obvious thing we were building was a statement about how the American legal system was so fucked, the immigration process in America was so terrible that its easier to get yourself over the border in a truck than it is to get a real visa.

Owlchemy, which at that point consisted of Schwartz and some contractors, spent two days swapping out graphics, turning the illegal immigrants into fuzzy bears, and renamed the game Snuggle Truck. Apple accepted the game the following month. Owlchemy ported the game to Android devices and also sold a version of the game for PC on Steam. Between the three platforms, Schwartzs company made enough money on Snuggle Truck to fund the development of its next game, Jack Lumber, which for small indie developers is sometimes the best they can hope for.

“He made a prediction at the moment that this Kickstarter was happeningand very few people could see the writing on the wall at that pointthat this was a major paradigm shift.”

The blockbuster success of Oculus Rifts Kickstarter campaign in August 2012, however, dramatically changed the companys direction. Owlchemys chief technology officer, Devin Reimer, for years had been passionate about virtual reality technology. He made a prediction at the moment that this Kickstarter was happeningand very few people could see the writing on the wall at that pointthat this was a major paradigm shift in the future, Schwartz said. The creation of a new medium: VR.

Schwartz and Reimer pledged to the Kickstarter and thought about which of their games could be most readily ported over to VR when they received their Oculus development kit. They discovered that fans of Aaaaa! for the Awesomea collaboration with Boston-based indie studio Dejobaan Games in which players base-jumped and performed mid-air stunts for pointshad been begging to see the game ported to the Oculus Rift.

Alex Schwartz, wearing a development version of the HTC Vive virtual reality hardware. Owlchemy Labs

It took one day to integrate the Oculus software development kit, Schwartz said, and then 29 days to remove things that made us sick and redesign the user interface and the interactions to be more VR-focused. Aaaaaculus!a pun name for which Schwartz claims creditwas released in August 2013 and was the first game on Steam, the digital distribution PC game service owned by Valve Software, that had VR support and was not made by Valve.

That nimble dash to the front of the pack put the tiny studio in position to capitalize. Aaaaaculus! garnered Schwartz and Reimer an invitation to Steam Dev Days, a two-day game developer conference in February 2014 held at Valve Softwares headquarters in Seattle. They were received as authorities on VR, sharing stage space with Oculus wunderkind Palmer Luckey and other legendary developers. Owlchemy was one of the first indie studios that had moved past the theoretical stage with VR and actually built a game people could play.

Joe Ludwig, developer from Valve Software; Devin Reimer, Chief Technical Officer of Owlchemy Labs; Palmer Luckey, Oculus founder; and Michael Abrash, developer at Valve Software (left to right) presenting at Steam Dev Days. Owlchemy Labs

Schwartz and Reimer were also among the developers at Steam Dev Days who tried new virtual reality hardware in development at Valve. The new tech prioritized the users ability to stand up and walk around a small room while wearing the headset, using new position-tracking technology.

I walked out of that room having had a religious moment, and thought, I wish we could just not ship Dyscoursea story-driven game about a group of people who survived an airplane crashand drop everything were doing and make VR games starting today, Schwartz said. And I just knew thats what we wanted to do, but we had these obligations and we had all the sunk cost, and had a game that was almost done. And so we needed to finish up the game, but it was painful because we were so sold on where we needed and wanted to go, right then.

Dyscourse was in mid-development when Schwartz and Reimer heard the siren call of VRand it was the most expensive game Owlchemy had ever developed, to the point where the studio had turned to Kickstarter to raise the funds. Whether Dyscourse would become a success was almost irrelevant when it was shipped in March 2015. Owlchemy was already moving in a new direction.

Owlchemy Labs

Turning enthusiasm into authority

The next turning point for Owlchemy came when Valve tapped Schwartz and Reimer to organize the Boston VR Bender game jam from May 31 to June 2, 2014. Developers use game jams to develop a prototype of a new game, often over a single weekend, while working off a given theme. Valve wanted to know what game developers could make for their hardwareand it trusted Owlchemy to help them find out while keeping under wraps that the jam was actually Valves idea.

They were taking their hardware that they were working on internally and bringing it outside their walls for the first time ever at that jam, Schwartz said. Valve revealed the Vive room-scale virtual reality system, created with hardware manufacturer HTC, to developers a few months later and announced it to the public at the 2015 Game Developers Conference. It was for Valves showcase at the conference that Owlchemy developed its breakout hit, Job Simulator, but the game almost didnt happen.

This is high stakes. This box has to be on our doorstep by this day, or were fucked.

The success of the game jam helped Owlchemy convince Valve to give the little studio a shot at developing a game demo for GDC 2015even though Valve was taking a huge gamble sending the company one of its precious few hardware prototypes. But Reimers wife was expecting twins at the time, preventing him from leaving his home outside Winnipeg, Canada. Like only a small studio could, Owlchemy decided to bring its prototype development session to him, accepting the significant risk of shipping the hardware.

I remember talking about Canadian customs, and shipping weird hardware with lasers in it, Schwartz said. Valve was like, Yeah, we shipped something to the U.K. a few days ago and it got stuck in customs. Were buying flights to go to fucking Canada for a week so that we can . If its off by three days, four days, no game will get made. This is high stakes. This box has to be on our doorstep by this day, or were fucked.

Graeme Borland, Developer (left); Carrie Witt, Senior Artist (middle); and Devin Reimer (right), during the Winnipeg game development session Owlchemy Labs

We were so close to this not working, Schwartz continued. By the time we started, there were teams who were already showing their work to Valve.

The Vive development kit did arrive in time for Owlchemy to work up a demo, and Valves faith in the studio paid off. Word about Job Simulator spread at the conference when the game was shown as part of a collection of demos for the debut of the HTC Vive hardware.

Owlchemys shock-value put it on the map with Smuggle Truck. Five years later, it was leaving industry insiders slack-jawed in a completely different way.

The future of VR

Owlchemys early adoption of VR continues to make Reimer and Schwartz leading voices in the space. They were the only developers discussing the rules of room-scale VR in September at the Oculus Connect 2 developers conference in Los Angeles, and Schwartz is an advisor for the Virtual Reality Developers Conference at GDC 2016, which starts today in San Francisco.

What put Owlchemy ahead of the curve in the VR development space cant just be chalked up to lucky breaks and its agility as a small operation. Its been propelled by an unrelenting faith in the success of VR, and a keen sense of where the company fits into the broader industry.

We realized that without us, without great content, these companies were building pieces of plastic that did nothing, right? Schwartz said. When we rode that wave with Valve on that first, initial GDC announce of Job Simulator, and the world went insane and the press reviews were My life was changed, I threw a tomato and I saw Jesus, whatever the fuck That led to phone call from Sony, a phone call from Oculus, OK, we need to get your game on our platform, how does this work?

Owlchemy has to be diplomatic about how it deals with all three companies, as there are notable distinctions between them. Schwartz has gone on record that he thinks room-scale VR, which only HTC and Valve are currently pursuing, is where developers want to be. Their approaches are all still evolving, though, and Owlchemy has a front row seat to the process.

Devin Reimer and Alex Schwartz presenting at the 2016 Vision AR/VR Summit. Owlchemy Labs

All three of these companies understand and know that they have to be in it for the long game, and that making a VR hardware play is a long-term strategy, and you dont make money in the early days selling super high-end hardware to a small group of people, Schwartz said. You can easily miss the boat if you dont make a play like this.

Of course plenty of companies have no desire to be on the first boat traveling into virtual realitys uncharted waters. Major publishers like Blizzard and Electronic Arts have declared that theyre sitting VR out until the market proves itself. The problems facing VR are so terrifying because they are so fundamental. If you havent tried VR, you cant possibly understand it. If you dont attend events like technology conferences, or have friends in the software development business, you probably wont get a chance to try VR for yourself for years. And why would you spend $600 or $800 on a VR rig if you dont understand it or have never tried the product?

The challenge is multiplied by the fact that gaming is the gateway industry for VR. Hardcore gamers have notoriously short attention spans. The cycle of new, hyped technology thats supposed to revolutionize gaming comes and goes quickly, as seen by 3D gaming monitors and motion-control systems like PlayStation Move and Microsofts Kinect. Hardcore gamers could relegate VR to the same fate if the technology doesnt prove itself quickly enough. Some industry experts like John Riccitello believe VR wont be raking in huge profits until 2020.

I can see a version where gaming and entertainment dont become as big a part of VR as we thought it would be, Schwartz said, and our talents in designing virtual reality experiences get applied to other areas. Either way, I think theres going to be a big future in the kinds of things were doing, and I dont see that ending in a direction where this doesnt support us or make us money.

Thats a backup plan that still revolves around the assumption that VR goes somewhere. Schwartz doesnt see the point of worrying to the contrary. It doesnt matter. I dont have to think about that side of things because its not going to happen, and if it somehow does we go out of business, and thats the end.

The end of working in VR, in any case. Even then, Schwartz believes that Owlchemys time spent pioneering in the VR industry will prove valuable.

VR is the confluence of optics, rendering, hardware and input, extremely fast graphics technology, all of this comes together, and all of these are very fast paced industries that have other applications. VR is the medium that brings together all these other industries, Schwartz said. Our work in the entertainment/gaming space could be applied to the medical field, the simulation field, military, training, travel, architecture, various visualization fields… The list goes on.

The lessons learned there extend far beyond a silly game about work.

Photo via Owlchemy Labs

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Why You Should Legit Worry About Google’s Latest Achievement

Google’s playing games that could have a major impact on your life.

Its AlphaGo artificial intelligence program on Tuesday triumphed over one of the world’s greatest Go players. This was the fifth and final game in a series that began last week, and the win proves in no uncertain terms that the search giant has made great leaps in its ability to predict human behavior.

This is notable because Go is such a complex game — much more so than chess — and because the sort of AI technology used to master the game could impact how people experience life online.

It’s going to be used for ads. There’s no question,” John Havens, a well-known AI expert and author of Heartificial Intelligence, told The Huffington Post. “I’m not trying to demonize, but for me, the writing is so on the wall.”

A video from January gives an overview of the AlphaGo program.

The basis of this type of AI is “machine learning.” AlphaGo is designed to “discover new strategies for itself” by playing and analyzing thousands of virtual rounds of Go. But it’s only good at this specific thing — it can’t apply its learnings to a new skill, like playing a video game.

The technology is fascinating — software that can train itself! — but follow the money and you might come to an unsettling conclusion. When Havens says the technology will be used for advertising, he’s referring to the tens of billions of dollars Google makes on ad revenue every year. Google is obviously a tech company, but more precisely, it’s an ad tech company — the majority of its revenue comes from its marketing services.

Machine learning of the sort that informed AlphaGo is definitely applicable to that corner of Google’s business — the company can essentially use software to learn from your personal data in much the same fashion, which increases the efficacy of its marketing efforts by targeting your interests with razor-sharp precision.

Google’s far from alone in this effort. Facebook already uses AI to target its users with content. The social media giant has also been working on an AI that could master Go.

So, if you were being cynical, you might say that AlphaGo’s ability to outwit a world-class opponent could translate into Google’s ability to, in a sense, outwit you and get you to interact with its ads. Are there positive uses for the technology? Of course — machine learning could, for example, improve weather predictions and save you tons of grief when traveling. But business is business, some would argue.

ED JONES via Getty Images
A commentator in a media room positions pieces forming a replica of a game between ‘Go’ player Lee Se-Dol and the Google-developed AlphaGoprogram, in Seoul on March 13, 2016.

To even think for a nanosecond that they’ve invested the billions of dollars primarily to help — that’s when I get very upset,” Havens told HuffPost.

The problem isn’t so much that you might see more effective ads: It’s that the same sort of technology could shape your life in very meaningful ways. Noted robotics expert Illah Nourbakhsh recently told HuffPost about how political campaigns could leverage similar technology to control voter behavior, for example.

“It leads you to question whether we still have free will,” Nourbakhsh said.

No one’s arguing that you need to break out the tinfoil hats. In reality, Havens is optimistic about the future of AI — but experts commonly suggest that citizens and companies need to define the limits of what society will accept before it’s too late.

For its part, Google formed an ethics board when it acquired DeepMind. Critics, however, complain that it’s secretive. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment from HuffPost about machine learning and ad targeting.

We have to trust that what [DeepMind is] doing is the best thing for humanity. And that’s not fair,” Havens said. “Because they’re owned by Google and [its parent company] Alphabet or whatever, one has to assume the big push behind it is to make money.”

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How Sarah Ashcroft turned her Instagram account into a money-making business – (UK) (UK)

How Sarah Ashcroft turned her Instagram account into a moneymaking business (UK)
Blogging is so saturated with people who do it because they want to make loads of money, they want to be sponsored; not because they love it. For me, I wanted to work in this industry from the very beginning, whereas now that's not always the case with …

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Blogging BottleRock: Hair of the dog – Napa Valley Register (blog)

Napa Valley Register (blog)

Blogging BottleRock: Hair of the dog
Napa Valley Register (blog)
After adding the last chunk of the night to yesterday's blog — which you should read — I made my way to BottleRock around 2 p.m. to try and catch a vibe on Day 2. But first, I've got to lose this headache. +2. Lagunitas Beer. Buy Now. I went back to

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Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, and the Year of the Instamodel

The young duo, along with Cara Delevingne, have shown the celebrity world how to parlay influence through the carefully curated prism of social media.

Tinkerbell-sized waists and other impressive measurements are still important, but a models social media following may be her most valuable asset.

In September, model Gigi Hadid–she of the bombshell curves and recent Victorias Secret waves–took to Instagram to defy online trolls among her then-6.5 million followers who criticized her voluptuousness.

She reminded them of something people often forget about the genetically blessed: Im human, and Im not going to lie, I did let the negativity get to me a bit.

It was a bold admission of body insecurity from the 20-year-old beauty who, in the last two years, has become one of most buzzed-about supermodels, up there with her model friends Cara Delevingne and Kendall Jenner.

It was also a defining moment in our age of Instagram and celebrity modelsone of many instances of a famous face taking control of her celebrity narrative, establishing herself in a position of power even as she exposes her vulnerability. And it represents a huge shift of power between celebrities and the media. 

Gigi, Cara, and Kendall are their generations Cindy, Christy, and Naomi: the new It Girl models who have become their own brands, dominating the industry with their striking looks, family lineage, andmost of alltheir social-media influence. 

Among the surfeit of celebrity Instagram photos posted by celebrities, frequently with newsworthy text or captions like Hadids, these models are running their own PR machines. Their Instagram posts are fodder for hot takes and think pieces in mainstream media websites like this one.

Indeed, models are more influential now than ever before because they operate predominantly outside the traditional realm of celebrity influence. Theyve seized control of their image and personal brand from agents and PR reps and the media.

In the three months since Gigi Hadid posted to Instagram about being body-shamed, shes debuted on the Victorias Secret Fashion Show and accrued 4 million more followers on Instagram. Her social media influence has ballooned as shes become a poster girl for body positivity.

Cara Delevingne, the 23-year-old British modeling sensation, was perhaps the first model of her generation to develop her personal brand on Instagram.

Shes been a fixture on the catwalk and in fashion editorials for nearly five years, but it was on social media where she distinguished herself as a personality and a role model in the past two years or so.

She posts goofy, unglamorous photos and videos of herself to her (now 24.1) millions of Instagram followers, with dry, self-deprecating captions. Her feed is filled with inspirational quotes and cheeky jokes; family pics and cute animal photos.

Nothing is unfiltered on Instagram, but Delevingne has managed to portray a seemingly authentic image of herself as the silly, fun-loving girl everyone wants to be friends with.

Kendall Jenner has twice as many followers as her bestie Cara, who has cut back on modeling gigs to focus more on acting.

Jenner, meanwhile, has become the biggest face of fashion in addition to being part of the ubiquitous Kardashian clan. Her Instagram feed is more sex bomb than goofball, though she occasionally shows us she cares about feminism, family, and friends, too.

This is the Celebrities: Theyre Just Like Us stuff that the tabloid US Weekly has been selling for years–only now it comes directly from celebrities themselves. 

Tinkerbell-sized waists and other impressive measurements are still important, but a models social media following may be her most valuable asset.

Brands pay models to feature their products on their Instagram accounts, where they have a bigger, more quantifiable audience than they do in fashion magazines and billboards.

Jenner, for instance, is the global ambassador for Este Lauder, whose president has described her as the ultimate Instagirl. Jenner and Hadid both plugged Victorias Secret numerous times on Instagram during and after this years show.

Lesser-known models are attempting to make a living (and hopefully become famous) on Instagram and other social media platforms alone. This doesnt always end well. 

Take 19-year-old Essena ONeill, a former Instagram model and YouTube star who recently captivated the Internet with a video of herself mid-breakdown, announcing she was quitting these gigs after wasting her teenage years being addicted to social media, social approval, and my physical appearance.

The video was disturbing to watch, not only because ONeill was so visibly distressed but because she was seeking social media fame even when renouncing it.

She redirected her fans to a new website,, where shed rebranded herself as an anti-social media activist.

That site now redirects to ONeills personal website, which advertises her latest project: a book titled How to Be Social Media Famous. Even after quitting social media, shes still trying to make money off of it. 

ONeill is one of a handful of little-known models who have enjoyed fleeting moments of mainstream fame after taking up cudgels against the fickle fashion and modeling industries.

Many of them say theyre inspired by models like Delevingne, who quit runway modeling because her health suffered amidst the pressure to stay thin.

In September, days before Hadids Instagram post about body-shaming, Agnes Hedengrd, a 19-year-old Swedish model, made headlines after posting a video to YouTube and Facebook claiming shed been rejected from multiple modeling jobs for being too big.

In October, 23-year-old Charli Howard cursed out her modeling agency in a Facebook rant that went viral: Heres a big FUCK YOU to my (now ex) model agency I will no longer allow you to dictate to me whats wrong with my looks and what I need to change in order to be beautiful (like losing one fucking inch off my hips), in the hope it might force you to find me work.

Howard had in fact been inspired by outspoken models who have distinguished themselves from the parade of walking coat hangers. Cara Delevingne and [model] Ashley Graham have brought agencies treatment of models to light and the stress they can cause, Howard told the Daily Mail.

It says everything about the perverse Internet bubble we live in that most of us only hear about these models when they mount their own body-positivity publicity campaigns.

We are seeing a new kind of celebrity and celebrity model, and a new set of power dynamics between them and the media.

The celebrities, rather than the publications that write about and link to their social media feeds, have become the primary source through which people consume news and entertainment on the Internet.

The Insta-models have blazed a trail in managing their own images for public consumption. Whether they can parlay this skillful self-curating into new levels of power and influence remains to be seen.

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Hong Kong: Twenty years later – BBC News

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from the UK to China. The BBC’s Helier Cheung, who sang in the handover ceremony, shares her personal reflections on the last two decades.

As a child, you don’t always appreciate when you’re witnessing history.

On 1 July 1997, I was part of the choir singing in the handover, in front of China’s leaders and millions of viewers around the world.

It was a historic day. But I was nine at the time, so my most vivid memories were:

  • the sandwiches we ate backstage – they were disgusting
  • the heavy rain – although I glimpsed a rainbow too
  • singing some songs I could only half understand because they were in Mandarin.

All of us in the choir had grown up speaking Cantonese. So singing in Mandarin felt both familiar and unfamiliar – it signified a culture we recognised, but did not grow up with.

Image caption In 1997, I (second from left) got to sing in the handover ceremony
Image caption Nearly 20 years later, I was back in Hong Kong reporting for the BBC

There were lots of dancers with pink fans, and I remember China’s then-President Jiang Zemin holding up a piece of calligraphy that read “Hong Kong’s tomorrow will be better”.

But that night, I saw on TV that some had been protesting against the handover. It was one of my first lessons about Hong Kong’s divisions – some were happy to be part of China again, but others were afraid.

I didn’t always follow politics then, but politics still affected me. Some of my friends emigrated ahead of the handover, because their parents weren’t sure about life under China.

And 1997 was also the start of the Asian financial crisis, so I overheard adults talking about stock market crashes, and suicides.

As a child, it was more comforting to be oblivious about the news.

Even as my friends and I went to secondary school, we rarely thought about developments in mainland China – we were teenagers after all.

This all changed in 2003. Hong Kong was hit by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) which travelled over from southern China.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption People started wearing face masks to protect themselves from Sars

Suddenly whole buildings were being quarantined. School was cancelled – shortly before our exams – as well as our junior high ball.

To some, it almost seemed unfair – the virus had spread here after officials in mainland China covered up the outbreak.

Yet Hong Kong, which handled the outbreak more transparently, was the focus of a lot of international coverage, and was the city with the most deaths – nearly 300.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Temperature checks were a must

My friends and I became more pragmatic. We did everything we were told to – wearing face masks, disinfecting our hands and taking our temperatures before school each day.

But we kept meeting up in McDonald’s after class, as we always did. One friend told me: “If you die, you die, there’s nothing you can do. You just need to do the best you can.”

By summertime, Hong Kong was Sars-free. But another crisis, this time political, was rumbling.

The government wanted to introduce national security legislation, known as Article 23.

It would have outlawed treason, secession and sedition – words I had to look up – and allowed our government to outlaw groups banned in mainland China.

The bill struck a nerve. Although many countries outlaw treason and secession, to many Hong Kongers it reminded them too much of mainland China.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Activists feared Article 23 would threaten human rights

On 1 July 2003, half a million people, including some of my classmates, marched against the bill.

A few days later, the government was forced to shelve Article 23, after one of its political allies, a pro-business party, withdrew its support.

My friends were jubilant, telling me they had “made history”. Many felt that, although there was no democracy, it was possible to vote with their feet.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Many people wore black to show their opposition to Article 23

The Sars outbreak and Article 23 row made local and Chinese politics seem more relevant to our daily lives.

And by the late 2000s, mainland China felt more entwined with Hong Kong than ever.

When I was a child, some of my classmates, somewhat cruelly, mocked “mainlanders” as people who squatted and were poor. But now, more people were learning Mandarin, and Hong Kong’s economic future seemed to depend on China’s.

China loosened travel restrictions, making it easier for mainland tourists to visit Hong Kong.

It gave the economy a much-needed boost, but resentment was also growing.

I was studying abroad by then, but whenever I flew home I would hear people gripe about the sheer number of tourists, and how rude some appeared.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mainlanders’ shopping trips to Hong Kong have been a source of irritation to people in the city

Some tourists bought up huge quantities of baby milk powder, leaving local parents without enough.

I could no longer recognise many of the shopping malls my school friends and I used to frequent. We grew up with cheap jewellery stalls and snack shops – but now shopping centres were dominated by designer brands that wealthy Chinese tourists preferred.

The other big change was in politics. When I was at school, expressing an interest in politics was more likely to get you teased than admired.

But by 2012, students were holding hunger strikes to oppose a government attempt to introduce “patriotic education” classes.

And in 2014, something surprising, almost unthinkable, happened. Tens of thousands of people, led by students, took over the streets, demanding full democracy.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Protesters staged sit ins in Hong Kong’s financial district

Growing up, it was easy to avoid talking about politics.

But with protesters sleeping in the streets for weeks, the subject was suddenly unavoidable.

Families and friends started arguing – in person and on Facebook – and “unfriending” people they disagreed with.

Supporters felt it was worth sacrificing order and economic growth for true democracy, but critics accused the protesters of “destroying” Hong Kong.

One woman told me her relatives were angry she took part in the protests and now, two years later, they still didn’t want to meet her for dinner. “Hong Kong’s become so split,” she said.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hong Kong was split between “yellow ribbons” who supported the protesters, and “blue ribbons” who supported the police

Recently, after years in the UK, I got to return to Hong Kong as a reporter.

A lot feels the same. The territory is still clean, efficient, and obsessed with good food.

But young people seem more pessimistic – with politics and soaring house prices their main bugbears.

Surveys suggest young people are the unhappiest they have been in a decade – and that up to 60% want to leave.

Recently, some have even started to call for independence from China, frustrated with Beijing’s influence and the lack of political reform.

Image copyright Getty Images

Their resentment stems from Hong Kong’s handover or even the Sino-British negotiations in the 1980s.

“We were never given a choice,” one activist said. “No-one ever asked Hong Kongers what they wanted.”

Protests have become angrier. Most demonstrations I witnessed growing up were peaceful – even festive.

Now, some rallies are more confrontational and prone to clashes, while the government seems less willing to make concessions.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Pro-Beijing and pro-democracy protesters sometimes end up clashing

It’s not surprising that, in an online poll run by a pro-government party, people chose “chaos” as the word to describe Hong Kong’s 2016.

From violent protests, to legislators swearing and scuffling in parliament, politics has definitely been chaotic at times.

But, chaotic or not, what really strikes me about Hong Kong is how alive and adaptable it is.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hong Kong’s streets are busy late into the night

Whether in business or politics, Hong Kong is full of people fighting to be heard.

Local entrepreneurs are constantly devising controversial or creative ways to make money – such as renting out “capsule units” in their homes, or starting a rabbit cafe.

And, even as artists complain of pressure to self-censor, pop music has become more political and fresh news websites and satirical news channels have popped up.

Hong Kong may be a relatively small territory with a population of 7.3 million, but I love the fact it has never lost its ability to surprise me.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The city is full of life

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Kids dream of following in the footsteps of YouTube star Zoella… they don't aim to be police or firefighters – The Scottish Sun

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Jobs like police officer didn't even make the top ten most desired vocations. Kids said they are attracted to the creativity, fame and … “There will be a commercial focus and if that is your job or career you will need to be concerned with who is

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Blogging BottleRock: When worlds collide – Napa Valley Register (blog)

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So, that brings me to this blog. This year's BottleRock will be my third weekend at this incredible event that has given a new meaning to live music in the Napa Valley. I'm going to provide a first-person glimpse at what it's like, drinking the good

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WTF To Buy Your Beauty Obsessed BFF For Christmas

There’s always that one betch in your friend group who takes her obsession with beauty to the next level. Although people from the outside definitely judge her for owning over 250 different contour kits, you totally get it. Honestly, she’s probably your BFF because you both know what it’s like for people to be jealous of you.

But WTF are you going to get the beauty betch that has everything? Glad you asked. Here’s a list of the things she’ll love/need/resent you for discovering first. (Organized from $$$$ to $.)

1. Rouge Louboutin Lip Colour Collection, $270

A very chic “look at all the excess money I have now” gift for any of the times that your BFF doubted you’d make money as an “instagram model.”

2. Karin Herzog The 7 Creams of the Week, $100

The perfect, subtle way to show your BFF how little you know about her skin care preferences. Comes with exfoliation products, collagen products, oxygen masks, etc.

3. Tory Burch Lip Color Set, $72

Encased in gold, each lipstick will look gorgeous on your BFF’s vanity or in her holiday clutch, but also gorgeous on your vanity, and in your holiday clutch…so, nevermind. Buy this one for yourself. Tis the season!

4. NARS Despair Palette, $65

To gift if your BFF is being annoying/full of despair.

5. Smithfolio Brush Set, $60

If her blending capabilities have been lacking as of late, you can passive aggressively remind her with these high quality, enviable brushes.

6. Burberry Eye Color Cream, Festive Gold, $30

Festive. Fun. Flirtatious. Feliz Navidad.

7. Caudalie Favorites Winter Set, $29

Caudalie makes you feel like you’re in a spa, even when you’re in the middle of a family function and there’s no alcohol around and you want to die. Perfect for her daily struggle, post AA!

8. butter LONDON Nail Lacquer, in any festive color$15.00

Only gift this is if you’re poor.

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