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Yellen: Fed Committed to Easing Regulations on Smaller Banks

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said Wednesday that the Fed is committed to making sure that the regulations it imposes on the nation’s community banks are not overly burdensome, noting a proposed rule issued last week to simplify requirements governing how much capital these banks must hold.

 

In remarks to a community banking conference in St. Louis, Yellen said the proposed new rule on capital requirements was the latest effort by regulators to ease burdens on smaller banks. She says the Fed is seeking to increase the number of community banks eligible for less frequent examinations and loosen requirements for property appraisals on commercial real estate transactions.

 

Yellen has defended the tougher regulations imposed following the 2008 banking crisis but has said there is room to ease regulatory burdens on smaller banks.

 

“For community banks, which by and large avoided the risky business practices that contributed to the financial crisis, we have been focused on making sure that much-needed improvements to regulation and supervision are appropriate,” Yellen told the conference.

 

During last year’s election campaign, Donald Trump attacked the Dodd-Frank Act passed by Congress in 2010 to prevent future crises as a disaster that he said had stifled the economy by limiting bank lending. Yellen, however, has said that the major parts of Dodd-Frank have made the financial system safer and should be retained.

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US Business Groups Say WTO Unable to Curb Many Chinese Trade Practices

U.S. business groups expressed frustration on Wednesday with what they said are China’s efforts to tilt the economic playing field in favor of domestic companies, adding that World Trade Organization rules are insufficient to police all of Beijing’s trade practices.

U.S. companies face increasing threats from Chinese investment rules, industrial policies, subsidies to state-owned enterprises, excess manufacturing capacity, cybersecurity regulations and forced technology transfers, the groups told a public hearing held by the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

The session will influence an annual report on China’s WTO compliance by the U.S. Trade Representative’s office as well as a USTR investigation into China’s intellectual property practices that could lead to imposition of trade sanctions by President Donald Trump.

China has woven a ‘tapestry’

Josh Kallmer, senior vice president of global policy at the Information Technology Industry Council, said China had woven a “tapestry” of rules and policies that places foreign companies at a disadvantage and incentivizes the transfer of technology.

“It just in general puts a thumb on the competitive scale in a way that significantly and profoundly affects U.S.-based and foreign companies,” said Kallmer, who was representing a coalition of technology groups from semiconductors to software.

The concerns are not new. They were highlighted in the USTR’s last report to Congress on China’s WTO compliance issued on Jan, 1, 2017, and raised in subsequent meetings by Trump administration officials.

USTR Assistant Secretary Edward Gresser told the hearing that there was a growing recognition that WTO rules did not cover all of China’s practices viewed as unfair. The United States and other WTO members needed “to find effective ways to address those Chinese government practices that may violate the spirit of the WTO that nevertheless may not fall squarely within the WTO disciplines,” he said.

For investors, China less attractive

Jeremie Waterman, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for Greater China, said China’s restrictive investment regime and other industrial policies requiring technology transfers in recent years have made China a less attractive place to invest for foreign firms, and not all of these policies can be changed with full WTO compliance.

This has been made worse by China’s “Made in China 2025” plan, which aims to supplant foreign products and technologies with domestic ones and new cybersecurity regulations that put foreign information technology products at a disadvantage, Waterman said.

“The ballast has become less stable in recent years” in the U.S.-China economic relationship, he added.

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Tourists Trickle Back to Tunisia After 2015 Militant Attacks

Dozens of tourists pack beach chairs at a Tunisian luxury hotel, where everything from the swimming pool to the wall paint, the furniture at the shiny reception hall, the police post at its gate and even its name is new.

Nothing reminds holiday-makers of the day in June 2015 when an Islamic State militant shot dead 39 foreigners in this beach resort, triggering an exodus of tourists from the country and severely damaging its economy.

Now some of those tourists are coming back, thanks to a massive security presence and advertising abroad. Tourism revenues rose 21 percent to $851 million in the first nine months of 2017 compared with last year, central bank data show.

The rise is helping the government weather an economic crisis as it prepares an austere budget and tax increases. The reforms were agreed to with the International Monetary Fund in return for a new $350 million loan.

Hotels fill up

Westerners are still reluctant to come back, even though most countries have lifted travel warnings. But hotels have managed to fill rooms, mostly with Algerians and Russians — the latter avoiding Egypt since Islamic State downed a Russian plane in 2015.

“It’s great here. Security is better than in Egypt,” said Galina Rasputov, a vacationer from Moscow. “I’ll come back.”

Rasputov was taking a break from the beach at the bar of the hotel where a Tunisian gunman trained in Libya opened fire with a Kalashnikov in 2015. The hotel was called Imperial Marhaba then; it reopened this summer after undergoing a facelift and changing its name to the Steigenberger Kantaoui Bay.

“We are fully booked,” said Zohra Driss, who owns this and other hotels in Sousse, a tourist beach town 150 kilometers (90 miles) south of the capital, Tunis. “Many are Russians but we also have Algerians, Germans.”

Attacks in 2015

Tourism accounts for about 8 percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product, provides thousands of jobs and is a key source of foreign currency, but it has struggled since two major attacks in 2015.

The first, at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, left 21 tourists dead. The Sousse attack killed 39, mostly British vacationers.

And risks remain. Jihadists are returning from Syria, Iraq and Libya after Islamic State lost most of its territory there.

But the number of foreign tourists rose by 23.4 percent to reach 5.366 million up to September, compared with the same period last year. Officials hope 6.5 million will come in all of 2017, which would be a return to the normal level.

The number of European visitors, however, rose by just 16.5 percent. Major tour operators like Thomas Cook have resumed bookings in select hotels, but the European tourists remain far below their pre-2015 levels.

That has left the industry relying on Algerians, whose numbers rose by 44 percent to 1.8 million up to September.

Almost half a million Russians also came.

“We seek to attract more tourists next year from new destinations like China and Canada while we will still focus on our traditional markets like U.K. and Germany,” said Neji Ben Othman, director general of the tourism ministry.

More security

Tunisia has increased security in Sousse and other tourist spots. Checkpoints were erected on the main roads and at hotels, ancient sites and airports. After police were criticized for a slow response to stop the hotel gunmen, security forces have cracked down on militants, dismantling dozens of cells.

With hotels resembling fortresses, many tourists book “all inclusive” tours that benefit chains and tour operators. But they stay indoors, leaving souvenir traders and cafes idle in the old city. Russians and Algerians, who come by car, also tend to spend less than Germans or Brits, the former clientele.

“Most come only to watch, like in a museum,” said Lutfi Laoun, a vendor who sells traditional pottery. “I haven’t had a single customer today.”

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Will Your Job Be Automated? 70 Percent of Americans Say No

Most Americans believe their jobs are safe from the spread of automation and robotics, at least during their lifetimes, and only a handful says automation has cost them a job or loss of income.

 Still, a survey by the Pew Research Center also found widespread anxiety about the general impact of technological change. Three-quarters of Americans say it is at least “somewhat realistic” that robots and computers will eventually perform most of the jobs currently done by people. Roughly the same proportion worry that such an outcome will have negative consequences, such as worsening inequality.

“The public expects a number of different jobs and occupations to be replaced by technology in the coming decades, but few think their own job is heading in that direction,” Aaron Smith, associate director at the Pew Research Center, said.

More than half of respondents expect that fast food workers, insurance claims processors and legal clerks will be mostly replaced by robots and computers during their lifetimes. Nearly two-thirds think that most retailers will be fully automated in 20 years, with little or no human interaction between customers and employers.

 

Americans’ relative optimism about their own jobs might be the more accurate assessment. Many recent expert analyses are finding less dramatic impacts from automation than studies from several years ago that suggested up to half of jobs could be automated.

Skills will need to be updated

 

A report last week, issued by the education company Pearson, Oxford University, and the Nesta Foundation found that just one in five workers are in occupations that will shrink by 2030.

 

Many analysts increasingly focus on the impact of automation on specific tasks, rather than entire jobs. A report in January from the consulting firm McKinsey concluded that less than 5 percent of occupations were likely to be entirely automated. But it also found that in 60 percent of occupations, workers could see roughly one-third of their tasks automated.

 

That suggests workers will need to continually upgrade their skills as existing jobs evolve with new technologies.

Few have lost jobs to automation

Just 6 percent of the respondents to the Pew survey said that they themselves have either lost a job or seen their hours or incomes cut because of automation. Perhaps not surprisingly, they have a much more negative view of technology’s impact on work. Nearly half of those respondents say that technology has actually made it harder for them to advance in their careers.

 

Contrary to the stereotype of older workers unable to keep up with new technology, younger workers — aged 18 through 24 — were the most likely to say that automation had cost them a job or income. Eleven percent of workers in that group said automation had cut their pay or work hours. That’s double the proportion of workers aged 50 through 64 who said the same.

 

The Pew survey also found widespread skepticism about the benefits of many emerging technologies, with most Americans saying they would not ride in a driverless car. A majority are also not interested in using a robotic caregiver for elderly relatives.

Self-driving cars

 

 Thirty percent of respondents said they think self-driving cars would actually cause traffic accidents to increase, and 31 percent said they would stay roughly the same. Just 39 percent said they thought accidents would decline.

 

More than 80 percent support the idea of requiring self-driving cars to stay in specific lanes.

 

The survey was conducted in May and had 4,135 respondents, Pew said.

 

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Cambodian Virtual Reality Helps Train Bomb-disposal Techs

A lab in Cambodia is using cutting-edge technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, machine learning, swarm robotics and 3-D printing to try and revolutionize bomb disposal.

The suite of products developed by Golden West Humanitarian Foundation’s Phnom Penh lab, in collaboration with universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Villanova, are designed to mesh all these technologies together into a “total knowledge” toolkit for deminers.

Replica bombs created on 3-D printers in Phnom Penh that reveal the precise inner mechanics of a growing range of killing machines have already been sold to clients around the world, including the United Nations and the United States military.

Before that, Cambodian teams pioneered explosive ordinance harvesting, in which material recovered from unexploded bombs is recast into detonators used in the field to destroy mines and UXO, or unexploded ordnance.

Now Golden West, which is funded by the U.S. State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, has turned its sights to the virtual world.

Cambodian-American Alan Tan, a former U.S. army bomb disposal tech and director of applied technology at Golden West, said Cambodians are using their country’s painful experience to become world leaders in solving the crippling problem of explosive war remnants disposal.

“We’re bringing this deeper and more thorough knowledge to our field, and I like to say democratizing explosive ordinance disposal so any country that has that need can have that need addressed even if they don’t have a multibillion-dollar military budget to do it,” he said.

Virtual bomb disposal

On a sunny afternoon, Tan throws large, unexploded bombs around in a (virtual) burned-out industrial park with reckless abandon.

The factory complex is an electronic canvass he is painting with familiar objects from the kind of bomb sites he regularly encountered in Iraq.

Thanks to a glitch in the matrix, a conga line of Humvees he’s picked up and hauled across the concrete enclosure are stuck awkwardly in the sky.

“That looks like a glitch,” the former deminer said, as he moved around in his virtual reality headset while others watched what he was seeing on a nearby monitor.

His virtual reality team, led by a Cambodian engineer, is debugging ahead of a launch of the Virtual EOD Training Room software at Ravens Challenge, the world’s biggest bomb disposal expo in Thailand.

Tan is walking around in a Virtual EOD Training Center — a program his lab has created to speed up the process of teaching the most critical skill in the field: rapid risk assessment.

He changes mode to show observers generic objects from daily life available in the simulation, then accidentally drops a rubbish bag on one of the bombs he has thrown on the ground in front of him. Ka-boom!

But Tan is still alive, and that is one of the great assets virtual reality training brings to instructors — safe but immersive practice grounds.

Shifting scenarios

The other major benefit is that instructors can rapidly create a vast number of completely different bomb disposal scenarios to train students on various pressures they might encounter in the field — in a similar way to flight simulators.

Edwin Faigmane has trained U.N. peacekeepers in many of the world’s worst conflict zones, including Afghanistan, South Sudan and Angola.

Faigmane says the software would be particularly useful in training explosive ordinance disposal techs working as peacekeepers outside of their country, such as the Cambodians currently deployed in South Sudan.

“Virtual reality would let them feel, would let them experience, would let them see the surroundings for themselves and let them prepare their minds, so when they actually get into South Sudan, they know what they can expect,” he said.

To help visualize the inner mechanisms of the many different bombs and land mines that EOD techs have to diffuse, Golden West has also developed augmented reality animations.

Using a smartphone and a roughly $10 bifocal headset, a user views a live feed — captured by the phone’s camera and mimicking the viewer’s natural point of view —projected to-scale onto an object in front of him or her.

With the aim of eventually pairing these technologies, one of the world’s largest databases of explosive ordnance, with very high-resolution imaging and “open source” access for EOD techs, is being built.

Machine learning systems that work off these images are also under development to automate the identification of different types of explosives, although this technology is still in its infancy.

Al Johnston is a former U.S. army EOD tech and director of Ravens Challenge, which serves as both a testing ground and marketplace for technology manufacturers like Golden West.

Tools like these are particularly important, Johnston said, because traditional alternatives such as cutting open real versions of devices or accessing classified U.S. databases are prohibitively expensive and difficult to negotiate.

“That is really good because that gets the knowledge into more hands at the level that are actually encountering the UXO all over the world,” he said.

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Arts & Entertainment
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Lights, Camera, Action – London’s Film Festival Opens

Red carpets are being unrolled as the British capital prepares to play host to some of international cinema’s big names for the 12 days of the London Film Festival.

The opening night gala is the European premiere of “Breathe,” the directorial debut of Andy Serkis, who came to fame as an actor for his motion-capture portrayals of CGI characters such as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films.

Stars including Oscar-winner Emma Stone and Bryan Cranston will be at the event promoting films – the tennis drama “Battle of the Sexes” and the Richard Linklater-directed comedy “Last Flag Flying” respectively.

The 61st edition of the festival will show 243 feature films from 67 countries, as well as a slew of shorts and documentaries.

“It is a delight to welcome some of the most thrilling storytellers from across the world to the Festival – we love to watch and engage with the extraordinary conversations that the Festival brings,” said Amanda Nevill, chief executive of the British Film Institute.

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Science & Health
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UN Chief: Scientists Say Extreme Storms Will Be ‘New Normal’

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is heading to the hurricane-battered Caribbean, where he said Wednesday that scientists predict the extreme storms during this year’s Atlantic hurricane season “will be the new normal of a warming world.”

The U.N. chief told reporters that Hurricane Irma, which devastated Barbuda, was a Category 5 storm for three consecutive days — “the longest on satellite record” — and its winds that reached 300 kilometers per hour for 37 hours were “the longest on record at that intensity.”

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma marked the first time two Category 4 storms made landfall on the United States mainland in the same year, Guterres said, and Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm, followed up by decimating Dominica and devastating Puerto Rico.

The secretary-general said “scientists are learning more and more about the links between climate change and extreme weather.”

A warmer climate “turbocharges the intensity of hurricanes,” which pick up energy as they move across the ocean, he said. “The melting of glaciers, and the thermal expansion of the seas, means bigger storm surges” and with more people living along coastlines “the damage is, and will be that much greater.”

Guterres said the world has “the tools, the technologies and the wealth to address climate change, but we must show more determination in moving towards a green, clean, sustainable energy future” — and in stepping up implementation of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

The secretary-general said he will travel to Antigua and Barbuda and Dominica on Saturday to survey the damage and assess what more the United Nations can do.

Stephen O’Malley, the U.N. resident coordinator for Barbados and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, said Tuesday that the United Nations, World Bank and Antigua government have conducted a post-disaster needs assessment for Barbuda, whose 1,800 residents were evacuated to Antigua before Hurricane Irma damaged 95 percent of its structures on September 14.

He said a similar assessment will be done in Dominca, which was ravaged on September 18 by Hurricane Maria, probably in about three weeks.

Guterres said the response to the $113.9 million U.N. appeal to cover humanitarian needs in the Caribbean for the immediate period ahead has been poor and he urged donors “to respond more generously in the weeks to come.”

He also stressed that “innovative financing mechanisms will be crucial” to enable these small islands to recover, rebuild and “strengthen resilience.”

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‘Florida Project’ Shines Bright Light on Hidden Homeless

Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” takes place in a blindingly purple low-budget motel named the Magic Castle, just down Route 192 from Disney’s Magic Kingdom. For the children of single parents who live there, the Kissimmee, Florida, motel is a playground — even if they’re living in poverty.

 

“The Florida Project,” which opens in theaters Friday, is an ebullient, candy-colored movie wrapped around the very real issue of hidden homelessness. Families nationwide are living below the poverty line and eking out an existence in cheap motels, but the problem is particularly acute — and ironic — in the shadows of Walt Disney World.

 

“When Chris Bergoch, my co-screenwriter, brought it to my attention, I was like: ‘This is happening? There are literally kids who are homeless outside of what’s considered the most magical place on the Earth for children?’” said Baker, the 46-year-old independent filmmaker.

1,700 homeless families

 

Studies and investigative reports, including one in 2014 by The Associated Press , have found that an estimated 1,700 families are homeless in Florida’s Osceola County, with most living in the motels surrounding one of the country’s top tourist destinations. Efforts in recent years have been stepped up to get mentally ill homeless people off the streets around Orlando, yet the county still lacks shelters. Many simply find their low-paying service industry jobs don’t cover rent.

But if you’re expecting a stern lesson from “The Florida Project,” you’ll be surprised to find one of the most vibrant, spirited and heartbreaking films of the year. “The Florida Project” stars Willem Dafoe as the kindly father-figure manager Bobby, but its central characters are played by newcomers. The feisty, scamming Halley (Bria Vinaite) is the 23-year-old mother to Moonee (7-year-old Brooklynn Prince), a free-spirited troublemaker who, with her friends (including the 6-year-old Valeria Cotto), are a delightful menace to Bobby and the motel’s residents.  

 

“We wanted it to be a throwback, in a way. What I mean by that is: Little Rascals 2017,” said Baker. “I wanted to do something very similar where it was presenting the kids as kids, first and foremost — and have the audience embrace them, love them, laugh at them. And then hopefully at the end, the audience is sitting during the credits, and the issues have had a light shined on them that will have them talking on their way home.”

Films focus on the overlooked

In stories ranging from pornography actresses in the San Fernando Valley (“Starlet”) to immigrants in New York (“The Prince of Broadway”), Baker has made films depicting the lives of those Hollywood often overlooks a specialty. His last movie, “Tangerine,” was a micro-budgeted breakthrough, winning a Spirit Award and earning the praise of Francis Ford Coppola. Baker shot the transgender prostitute tale on iPhones with a mix of professional and non-professional actors, including the celebrated leads Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez.

 

“When I made ‘Tangerine,’ I moved to Los Angeles and I thought that Los Angeles was shot out, meaning that there’s no other stories to tell,” said Baker. “Then I found there’s a whole other world south of Olympic that we haven’t even seen in film unless it was ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ You realize who’s telling these stories. They’re not thinking outside their box, and often their sugar-coated visions of who they are.”

“My films are a response to what I don’t see,” added Baker.

Issue film as entertainment

 “The Florida Project,” the director says, was an effort to go further in packaging an issue film as an entertainment. The approach drew the interest of Dafoe, a veteran actor eager to appear as a “non-actor,” he says. Especially appealing was the opportunity to work among non-professional performers on location in Orlando.

 

“It was one of those experiences where you able to riff off what was there. You were able to deal with what’s in the room,” said Dafoe. “My dressing room was not a trailer. It was one of those rooms. Troy lived down the hall. Troy became my friend. Troy was a resident who lived there for many years. That adds a dimension. It makes you learn things and gives you an experience.”

Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, “The Florida Project” — as well as Dafoe and Brooklynn’s performances — has been widely lauded as among the best of the year. No one has enjoyed the ride more than Brooklynn, a natural performer who has tweeted and Instagramed her adventures. Making the movie, the Orlando native said, was like summer camp. She and her young co-star, Val, now consider themselves best friends.

 

“Me and my mom and dad went over this,” Brooklynn said of the film’s more adult nature. “They weren’t really sure about this movie. But I came to them and I said, ‘I want to bring awareness to these kids and show people the light — my light for Jesus.’”

Movie an eye-opener

The low-budget production was for both Brooklynn and Dafoe an eye-opener: an up-close view of the homelessness most never see.

 

“I learned things about a certain kind of poverty, a certain kind of cycle of homelessness and hopelessness,” said Dafoe. “It’s a rich movie. It’s a poor little rich movie.”

 

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