Collaboration

North Korea: the last frontier

In today’s world, where borders seem to have surrendered to the phenomenon of globalization and communism disappeared with the opening of Cuba and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s, it remains an isolated Stalinist state.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea occupies the northern portion of the Korean peninsula. It is headed by the only case of a communist dynasty in the history established by the supreme leader and eternal president of Korea, Kim Jong-Il and is rule under the “Juche” ideology whose vocation regulates every aspect of the citizen’s life. It is a totalitarian regime based in the cult of personality of their leaders. After the death of supreme leader in 1994, came to power his son Kim Il-Sung and after his death in 2011, the current ruler Kim Jong-Un.

It is a heavily militarized regime with one of the largest armed forces in the world. This is so because the country is since ever in  state of war as a peace was never signed after the Korean War.

South Korea, a democratic and liberal regime has reached a high level of development is the south of the peninsula with support from the United States and Japan. Meanwhile the North Korean regime has seen its existence compromised with the fall of the Soviet regime and the inclusion of China in the economy and world order. While Beijing remains its mainstay, criticism from its biggest ally do nothing but increase.

It is in this context and with the coming to power of the supreme leader’s grandson, the positions and the rhetoric of the regime have been radicalized. The pursuit of nuclear weapon and the missile development has become a priority for the regime and its existence.

 

Current status

2017 has been a challenge year so far to the international community. North Korea feels its own existence in danger and it shows it with provocations and threats.

In March Koreans conducted a four missiles trail. The missiles traveled nearly a thousand kilometers, three of them reached Japanese waters. It is estimated that the exercise goal were US bases in Japan. China interceded in United Nations to calm down the reaction of the United States, South Korea and Japan. Since then the United States called to end the strategic patience towards the regime and South Korea expressed concern at the progress of North Korean missile program.

Two others missiles test were made, one in late March and another in April. Both of the without success. The issue was addressed at the meeting between President Trump and President Xi Jinping. Koreans threatened an unforgivable reaction to what they saw as an american provocation as the US announced and increasement of its presence in the peninsula.

The North Korean press made threats of nuclear attacks on American soil after the US announcement. Indeed it is estimated that a nuclear test site is operable since April.

In this context the Japanese reported that the North Koreans have the ability to launch warheads with sarin gas. North Korea announced that they will respond to any attack with total war. The regimes showed its potential during a military parade in occasion of the commemoration of the 105th anniversary of the birth of the Supreme Leader.

The Vice President of the United States,Pence, said that all options are on the table regarding the Korean crisis and recommended the regime not to test the determination of President Trump.

Japan meanwhile urged North Korea to refrain from further provocations and claims to the role of China in the conflict.

However, North Korea did another missile test unsuccessfully as it exploded after launched. Pope Francis called for a peaceful solution to the Korean crisis.

In May North Korea announced that it can conduct a nuclear test at any time and call for the immediate suspension of US anti-missile shield.

A new President in South Korea assumed after a political crisis and corruption scandal, saying o be ready to travel to North Korea if the conditions were acceptable. It was the end of 10 years of conservative government in South Korea. Nevertheless North Koreans tested the new South Korean president with another missile test. The White House called for tougher sanctions to the regime. Moscow and Beijing were concerned at the escalation of tension. The European Union considered North Korea as a threat to international peace.

Furthermore the United States and Japan called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council after two missiles tests in less than 15 days. Russia called to stop intimidation to North Korea.

In this context  a massive cyberattack occurred and there were strong versions that It could have been originated in North Korea. At the United Nations, Washington and Beijing prepare a resolution with sanctions against the regime. 18 companies and regime figures were sanctioned. In response North Korea conducted a new missile test. UN called North Korea a threat to international security.

In June the North Koreans again tested a missile showing significant progress. The death of the US extradited prisoner, Otto Warmbier, created new tensions between the administration and the regime Trump. It was first accused of stealing a propaganda poster during his visit to North Korea.

 

An agenda for Korea

The evolution of the first half of the year shows that North Korea feels threatened and it believes that the only solution is the development of technology: a kind of technology that will make extremely dangerous a possible invasion.

The only deterrent will be the nuclear weapon as well as the missiles to reach South Korean, Japanese and even American soil and so neutralize any threat to the regime.
The objective of the North Korean regime is causing a high cost to any military intervention on its territory. And there is not one greater than the nuclear, so it is difficult that they will give up the development of this technology.

The sanctions have not been effective as in the case of Iran, as the North Korean economy is not integrated into the international economy and the North Koreans seem not revealed by harsher condition. The famine between 1995-1997 is a clear example of this.

The role of the Chinese and Russian governments is critical to achieving a resolution to the conflict as they have a certain influence in the regime.

Any attitude and demonstration of force will only reinforce the alleged weakness experienced by the regime. It will increase the regime desire of the nuclear weapon.

Only dialogue and multilateral negotiations will find the solution to the Korean problem.

Will the international community give an opportunity to build bridges of trust and to avoid what it looks like a inevitable all-or-nothing confrontation?

Chechnya: Rethinking the bonds that bind us

Leaving aside the need for subtitles in order to understand Russian, there is nothing keeping us from instantly empathizing with the words of Vyacheslav: one of the victims of the decadent state of the fight for human rights in the Russian Federation. A couple of months ago, hundred of men have been kidnapped, tortured and even murdered by Russian security forces in the Chechen region. All of them men suspects of “homosexual behaviours”. The first ones to report this terrible situation were members of Novaya Gazeta, a Russian organization specialized in human right investigations. A unique and discrete report, that follows the long tradition of censorship towards opinions that oppose the official ones, and particularly the ones calling out on the terrible state of LGBTG+ rights in the Russian Federation, fearing retaliation, kidnaps and more tortures.

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International (1) and Human Right Watch have manifested their concern towards the situation and have called on the Russian authorities to set in motion investigations and programs to ensure victim’s safety. The level of disinterest and denial of the authorities is unbelievable. Everything comes together while hearing the terrible speech (2) of the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, who not only denied the existence of homosexuals in the Republic but also added that: “If there were, their families would take care of sending them somewhere they would never come back from.” The homophobia in the region reaches tremendous levels, with evidence of the so called honor murders in which the families are the ones who murder the victims, for putting on the tight rope not only their honor but also their most firm ideals.

Vyacheslav and the rest of the Russian citizens, share a culture, a language, and a history. They have lived surrounded by the same smoke. Regardless, an Argentine a thousand kilometers away with whom he doesn’t share almost anything, understands his perspective more clearly than the rest of those Russian citizens, who did not doubt for one second to shoot him, kick him in his ribs or yell at him: “Where are you going fagot?”. How can all the shared history and culture be forgotten only to focus on a much more irrelevant aspect of the identity, such as sexuality, that is currently the only bond binding Vyacheslav to that Argentine a thousand kilometers away.

Two persons, that apparently do not share anything, that live on two different sides of the Earth, that do not share the same language or think in terms of the same culture, can bond over one miniscule portion of their identity. That detail of our identity can be used to find a starting point, a place where we can begin building something together. This detail was more important than what the main pieces of anyone’s identity, like their national identity, their religion, their history or their culture were. How many details such as this can be found in order to build bonds that cross frontiers and challenge the limits settled by the most obvious and traditional pieces of our identity? It is important to take a moment to question and explore each of the things that influence our way of thinking. To go through that drawer full of little bricks, recognizing them and understanding why they are there and which role they play in our upbringing. By doing this we can find points in common with the rest of the people. We just need one shared detail, even though it is lost among thousands of other pieces that seem irreconcilable.

After reading about the situation in Chechnya, a quote I heard in a Ted talk a couple of years ago came back to me.

…because, aren’t you lucky that you don’t live in Uganda (3)

Privilege? Yes. Luck? Yes. But even if I lived in Uganda, Chechnya or Argentina, there are obviously bonds that bind people that go much further than geography, religion of national identity. Even though it is true that I do not live in Chechnya, and that I do not suffer first hand the terrible atrocities that Vyacheslav had to suffer, there is a bond that binds us and that allows me to share the suffering. The suffering that serves as power to make everything better, to fight for a better reality. The suffering that we both share but that the rest of the Russian citizens that perpetuate these atrocities don’t. The suffering that ignores frontiers and that allows us to cooperate regardless of our differences. Once more the national identity is diminished by another not so irrelevant aspect of our identity. Once more it comes to evidence that the traditional frontiers are left behind, that there are new ways of connecting thoughts and perspectives. It is a new way of understanding cooperation and building new starting points.

Diversity in tech and why we need it

It is a wide known fact within the industry of IT that there’s not a lot of diversity among people who build the internet. Why is this a problem and why should we address it?

Technology is everywhere. We use technology to communicate with our peers at work, with our families, with our friends. We use technology to search for information, we use it to get our news, we use it to learn and to grow. Being such an omnipresent factor in our lives, in everyone’s lives, it is imperative that technology is built for everyone. Moreover, it’s important that technology is built by everyone.

While it is true that most people are born naturally empathetic, there’s only so much our empathy can go. To give a silly yet relatable example, last weekend we forgot to purchase vegan sweets for an event. The reason being: it’s always been our (then absent) vegan friend who thought about those things. One can make an extra effort to be empathetic and walk in someone else’s shoes, but not sharing their reality only allows us to do it to some extent.

Of course, the lack of empathy when building a product can go beyond sensitivities and affect functionality as well. A clear example of that are facial recognition algorithms. Take the case of Joy Buolamwini, an African-American MIT student, whose face was not being consistently recognised by the face-detection algorithms she was using to complete her studies. In order to test her assignments, she even had to recur to wearing a white mask to increase contrast in low-light environments and have her face detected.

Does this mean that whoever created the face detection algorithms is racist, or that the algorithm has a racist bias? Not at all. Most face detection programs use artificial intelligence, where a neural network needs to be trained with a set of samples (in this case, faces), that will allow it to determine patterns to match against. The main cause for black faces not being recognised, or Asian eyes detected as closed, is that the set of samples used for training the neural network was not diverse enough.

While it can seem hard to, as individuals, influence how a phone screen blocker detects Asian eyes or how crime prevention algorithms identify suspects, the truth is that we all have a part to play. Diversity is key, and we all can start by encouraging others to become involved. Examples of this are Rails Girls and Django Girls among others, which are organisations aimed at increasing the proportion of women in tech, and Black Girls Code, which aims to increase the number of women of color in the digital space. Another great example is the Algorithmic Justice League, created by the aforementioned Joy to highlight algorithmic bias.

If you feel identified with any of these stories, get involved. If you ever found it difficult to use an app or website due to your ethnicity, age or disabilities, get your community involved. Educate them, attract them to the industry. Increase diversity in the development teams and in the test groups. If you didn’t, if you’ve never had any struggles at all, make a special effort to become aware of social bias. Start by looking at your surroundings. Inspect the company you work at and analyse whether it’s diverse enough. Encourage diversity. Improve tech.

Disinformation Era

Imagine the following situation: it’s Tuesday, it’s late, and you’re just arriving home. The day has been dreadfully long, so you choose to browse your favourite social network to unwind for a while. Your feed is full of the same old: funny jokes about the latest mediatic politician, videoclips of some corny pop artist, memes about some Turkish chef, and an avalanche of baby pictures and first wedding anniversary memorabilia. You scroll, scroll, scroll, until you find a video of a cat. Now, that’s relaxing.

This behaviour is hardly surprising. The excess of information creates an overload of our receptors, causing us to shut down our senses. There is so much of it around, that it really is an effort to take it all in. We tend to absorb only the information that’s preprocessed, the easy bits. This could be tightly bound to the fact that laziness is an evolutionary trait in humans[1]. We’re built to save energy in a calorie-restricted environment. Of course, that’s not our current reality, but the evolutionary trait still remains.

Which leads us to the main causes of disinformation: the lack of diversification and the lack of verification of sources.

Let’s start with lack of diversification of sources. Believe it or not, there are people who rely exclusively on social media to keep informed on current events. Facebook, Twitter, even 9gag! One of the main issues with this approach is that the information found on such media is highly biased. The feed is composed by people we choose to follow, people we choose to befriend. With that in mind, the information and points of view we will be presented with are limited.

“Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you what you know”

Not only are we conditioned by our choice of people to follow, or people to be friends with, but also social media will keep feeding us only a subset of the available information. Social networks will determine what to show us in our main feed based on what we have searched, what we have liked, and whose profile we’ve opened in the past[2], thus creating a retro-feeding loop of related content. We’re therefore being presented only with information that an algorithm calculated that we’ll like. The posts we see, the ads, and clickbaits, all relate to our history and encase us in a pattern which in itself provides the algorithm with more detailed information about our perceived preferences.

In addition to that, some social networks give you the option of hiding a certain type of posts, either by author or, more dangerously, by content similarity. In this case, people choose to ignore information. Of course, you might want to block content from someone you dislike (just unfollow/unfriend them, trust me on this one), but an alternative reason for it might be that the information we’re wanting to block makes us uncomfortable. We experiment cognitive dissonance: mental stress caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously[3], or when being presented with evidence that contradicts our beliefs. The ways of solving this discomfort is by either changing our beliefs, which is the most difficult and unlikely solution of all, ignoring the new information that causes our discomfort, or seeking sources that coincide with our beliefs and allow us to deem the new evidence erroneous. This last solution is what is called Confirmation Bias[4].

This ultimately leads us to the second main cause of disinformation: the lack of verification of sources. On one hand, our need to get rid of our cognitive dissonance through confirmation bias will predispose us to believe whatever sides with our beliefs, regardless of the source. We will gladly accept the words of whoever confirms our theories and ideas, even when we might be wrong (there are still people who believe the Earth is flat). It’s quite unlikely for someone to seek alternative sources of truth, trying to find points of view that contradict our truth. On the other hand, our lazy nature will lead us to believing any plausible information presented to us blindly, without going to the extent of cross-reference checking with reliable sources.

Of course, not all the information we find on the Internet is true. The best way of finding reliable information is by consulting reliable sources. A potential sources reliability ranking could be the following (from most to least reliable):

  1. Official documents, laws, and decrees (true by their enunciative nature)
  2. Scientific papers (highly reliable due to the supporting research and scientific evidence, slightly less reliable because each research opens the challenge of disproving it)
  3. Highly renowned newspapers (you would expect serious newspapers to verify their sources and have editors who make a sanitization of the publications)
  4. Less renowned newspapers (articles are less serious and sometimes more oriented at sensationalism)
  5. Social media (absolutely unreliable, where every John and Jane can write whatever they please)

In this schema, information can only be as reliable as the least reliable source that’s been quoted as a reference (i.e. if a major newspaper shares news from a less renowned newspaper, the information will only have reliability of level 4). With this in mind, anything found on social media has to be regarded as highly unreliable information. And yet, some people end up believing even the most ridiculous Alternative Facts[5].

While there doesn’t seem to be a way of fixing the disinformation globally, there is a way of solving it on a personal level: inform yourself, look for reliable sources that confirm what you have read or heard, look for alternative points of view, try to avoid the confirmation bias. If you’re too lazy to do it on your account, get a reliable fact checker (like Chequeado.com or Politifact). Do not stay with the apparent truth.

Keep informed.

 

[3]: Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.

Success and the power of mentorship

 

“And you ask any successful person how they got to where they are today, chances are they’ll tell you about a mentor they had somewhere along the way.”– Barack Obama[1]

People are complex but, in a great way, we are defined by our environment and ambitions.  Having clear objectives, is the first step towards success, because after that moment you can work towards them.

Today, looking backwards, having gone through university and some first professional experiences I’m convinced that a mentor can bring down obstacles.  The first time I came across a mentor formally was during my participation in the SABF team and I will always be grateful for her dedication.

A mentor gives you the means to improve personal and professional skills. It raises awareness of your strengths and weaknesses to better align yourself towards your goals. It inspires you and brings more confidence when facing challenges.  It´s important to be open minded to receive advice and be willing to work on it.

To find a mentor the most important thing is to learn to approach people for advice.  And to take the most out of the relationship, you have to be honest about your own personal and professional objectives.

Without doubt, if you seek for a mentor you will win opportunities to meet interesting people and enrich your experiences.  Always be open to give advise, people are amazing!

The 3 most important questions to ask yourself about goals

We all want to make the world a better place in one way or another. We are receiving a great education, we put this knowledge to use solving real-world problems, and we are using the fact of being in a very privileged position to serve a good purpose. We are seven billion people ready to cooperate and collaborate in order to solve the world’s most biggest problems.

The 7 keys to teamworking

It is often said that if you want to arrive fast, you should walk alone and if the objective is to arrive far, you should do it in a team. Beyond any philosophical issue, the truth is that few people are self-sufficient, especially when the target is one of high impact and big objectives. We should work in teams! No way! Even, if the team is just of two people. There are certain clues to be taken into account.

Continue reading…