Has Social Media Eroded Meaningful Relationships?

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Social technology has enabled young Americans to be constantly connected, but has it defeated its purpose by eroding their ability to form meaningful personal relationships?

Ninety-seven percent of Americans aged 18 to 34 have access to smartphones, and almost 90 percent of them say they use at least one social media site. The millennial generation, also known as the social generation, is the most digitally connected. On average, they spend more hours texting, calling and using social media on their smartphones than any other group.

Recent research by psychologists and neuroscientists has given insight into why people, in particular adolescents and teenagers, are so hooked on social networking. The reasons are both psychological and biological. Engagement with social media releases Dopamine—the feel-good neurochemical that our brain produces after exercising, or after getting a compliment. It is the driving force behind our motivation to seek for pleasure and it is also the biggest culprit behind gambling behavior. In brain scans, the thrill that digital social interaction gives is comparable to a slot machine payout.

Researchers in a UCLA experiment last year found that a part of the brain’s reward circuitry called the nucleus accumbens becomes especially active when teenagers see large numbers of “likes” on their photos in a social network. It was the first experiment that scanned teenage brains while using social media. The nucleus accumbens is particularly sensitive during adolescence, explaining why pain and pleasure are most intensely felt during teenage years, and why gaining social approval and validation become highly important, whether online or offline. According to Neuroscientist Dar Meshi of the Free University of Berlin, the strength of the nucleus accumbens’ response to positive social feedback could even predict how intensely a person will use social networking sites.

Individualism and independence are traits highly celebrated in our modern society, but human beings are by nature social animals. For as far back as we can trace the origin of our species, we have always lived in tribes. Our most unique characteristic is our ability to cooperate flexibly and effectively on a massive scale. We create and act on collective fictions of religions, nations and money on the same basis that we find it secure to be in groups. As interdependent beings, we rely on our connections with others not just for survival, but for our well-being.

Danah Boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, wrote, “Most teens aren’t addicted to social media; if anything, they’re addicted to each other.” Being constantly connected has caused a dependence on the presence of others for validation in the most basic ways, yet many of them have yet to learn that building trust, intimacy and depth in relationships beyond the screen takes time. It also requires the courage to be vulnerable in building genuine relationships. It has become all too easy to resort to the illusion of companionship given by electronic devices, to turn to a smartphone and to exchange the emotional risks that come with interacting with others for a constant supply of chemical rewards. Many teens say they don’t know how to have a face-to-face conversation, that they prefer to communicate over text because actual conversations reveal too much. They become overwhelmed with anxiety over not having control over what they want to say. How did communication, the most fundamental nature of human behavior, suddenly become so complicated?

These phenomena are precisely what makes social media so impactful on millennial culture and so exploitable for modern businesses. A digital marketing agency can use such research for targeted advertising, while politicians leverage such information for political campaigns (Trump and Twitter, for example). The young generation now lives in a “perfectionist culture” where people’s identities are reduced to retouched photos and perfectly-crafted narratives at the expense of their raw and authentic selves–and at the expense of genuine human connection. It is the same culture that Brene Brown, a research professor who studies human connection, blames for the sense of emotional disconnection pervasive among young adults, especially Americans. As a result, “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history.”

In letting a false sense of connection rob young people of their solitude and self-reflection, they rob themselves of their capacity to grow and form genuine and meaningful relationships. Millennials have the most preoccupation with themselves and how they are perceived, but they have yet to explore themselves fully and accept their flaws. They are the most addicted to each other, but they don’t know how to form real relationships. They seek to be constantly connected, but they feel unworthy of human connection. Millennials are perhaps the embodiment of the modern day paradox: they are so connected, yet so disconnected.

Booming Cybersecurity Industry Highlights the Threat of Cyber Crimes

Young hacker in data security concept

Digital technologies have become a critical enabler for economic growth and societies now place heavy reliance on the internet. The digital world has brought not only enormous benefits, but with these benefits also come significant vulnerabilities. Cybersecurity incidents are increasing at an alarming rate and are impacting on societal norms, essential services, and organizational welfare. The rate of cyber crimes has grown exponentially and is consistent with the expansion and evolution of technology.

The proliferation of cyber attacks is causing widespread damage to companies, governments, and individuals. Cyber-attacks range from denial of service attacks, website defacements, to access to sensitive information and attacks on critical infrastructure. The recent WannaCry malware incident affected many, affecting over 230,000 computers in over 150 countries in the span of a day. WannaCry targeted computers running Microsoft Windows by encrypting data and demanding ransom payments in Bitcoin cryptocurrency. Large organizations with presumably good cyber security were affected – among them, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), Spain’s Telefónica, FedEx and Deutsche Bahn were affected. A particularly high profile incident that arguably had an impact on the recent election campaign, was Hillary Clinton’s private emails becoming front-page news in the midst of her presidential campaign.

A screenshot of the malicious WannaCry message that sent cyberspace into disarray.
A screenshot of the malicious WannaCry message that sent cyberspace into disarray.

The ever-increasing number of cyber attacks are costing organizations large amounts of money to address and prevent them. However, the delay in operations and the potential domino effect it will have on their customers could cost the company much more in money and reputation. It isn’t just the number of cyber security attacks that is increasing. The degree of these attacks is on the rise as well. PwC reported that these attacks are “becoming progressively destructive and target a broadening array of information and attack vectors.”

Digitization is quickly increasing the impact that these cyber attacks can have and the channels in which they propagate. With the expanding number of services available online, businesses are particularly vulnerable to increasingly sophisticated attacks. An example is a vulnerability as a result of the trend toward migrating data to the cloud. A publication by White & Case outlines some of the vulnerabilities as a result. The migration of data to third-party cloud providers creates a centralization of data – this creates more opportunities for misappropriation of stolen data from a single attack. Similarly, the emphasis on mobile services has opened up corporate systems to more users, exposing sensitive data that can have regulatory, reputational, and financial impacts. With the boundaries between digital and physical realms being increasingly blurred – particularly so with the evolution of the Internet of Things, the possibility that appliances and physical objects we interact with every day can be compromised. Hackers can exploit these devices to conduct data breaches, corporate or government espionage, and damage critical infrastructure like electrical grids.

With US federal agencies and other governmental agencies around the world under pressure to increase their levels of security to defend against crippling cyber attacks, businesses are expected to follow suit when regulatory pressure increases in response to increasing public awareness. Governments are already tightening regulation to ensure businesses take greater responsibility to prevent and detect cyber security breaches, for examples through tackling malicious VPN use. In the United States alone, 47 states have laws requiring breaches that result in the theft of customer data. A key policy that governs this area in the United States is the Data Security and Breach Notification Act of 2015, a companion to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2015 that governs the collection and dissemination of consumer data. The European Union have also introduced similar regulations.

“Similar to other compliance areas, board directors can be held liable for not discharging their duty to prevent harm to the corporation. In performing their oversight role, directors should stay informed about the corporation’s cyber security defenses. They must ask what the risks are and determine what needs to be done to mitigate them. In today’s connected world, it is, unfortunately, becoming a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ some sort of data breach will occur.” Detev Gabel, a partner at White & Case in Frankfurt and leader of the Firm’s Data, Privacy and Cyber Security Group.

New technologies and services such as dual authentication, phishing detection, and advanced encryption improve the defence against current threats. However, as these have become widespread, cyber criminals will look to shift their focus to other unidentified vulnerabilities. While the focus has predominantly been on purchasing and deploying technical controls, a risk culture around cyber security is key to fortifying cybersecurity in the organisation. A strong risk culture enables the organization to actively identify and prevent threats. Cybersecurity culture is defined by Rod Turk (Director of Ofefice of Cybersecurity) as “making sure that users — top to bottom, right to left — [are] keeping cyber security in their thought process no matter what they’re doing in the IT world”. Organizations need to ensure focus on individual responsibility and spread awareness of the role that each individual employee plays in ensuring that the organization is protected against cyber attacks. They need to address the need to educate employees on how the cyber security dots are connected to the organization’s ability to achieve its business objectives and avoid financial loss, regulatory implications, and reputational impacts.

Cyber crime is a threat to all organisations – it is up to business leaders to recognise the potential threat to ensure that their organisation is adequately prepared and protected from the risks associated with it.

How The Digital Age is Globalizing Business

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The expansion of trade has existed for millennia. Academics and economists contend that globalization, which has only gained relevance as a concept in the last decade, is as old as civilization itself. The concept of exchange, the underlying basis of market dynamics, was founded in primitive human societies. Markets began to merge as trading networks expanded and access to resources was made easier. As the Mercantilist and the Industrial revolution took place, growth and productivity continued to escalate. However, the a new commercial reality sparked by the digital age has emerged , characterized by widespread, and readily accessible sharing of information. This new era has transformed the commercial landscape into one which allows for unparalleled acceleration of globalization like never before.

According to a study conducted by Mckinsey, one in three goods now crosses national borders, and more than one-third of financial investments are international transactions. Time and geographical boundaries cease to be limiting factors in today’s business environment. The tremendous technological advances in transportation have reduced the barrier of distance a main catalyst in the development of global economics over the course of history. Over time, this has also steadily decreased the cost of distribution. A second major force shaping today’s economy is the internet, which has reduced barriers to communication. Through focusing on the online market and SEO, business is now borderless. Sales, inventory, competitor’s prices and new products now no longer have to rely on physical and unpredictable means of communication. More recently, is information communication in real-time.

One great example is the Internet of Things (IoT) which gives businesses the ability to monitor and manage objects in the physical world, digitally. This has remodeled logistics and supply chains, increasing efficiency. The technology of which the IoT is founded on, is Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID). RFID is now widely used for tracking and collecting information about a product, place, time or transaction. RFID uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects. Manufacturers and oil and gas companies, among others have improved their operating efficiency and reduce costs by implementing IoT technologies in their operations.

The development of information technology has also given rise to different digital platforms that makes cross-border production and exchange a lot more possible than they previously had been. In 2014, global e-commerce sales reached over US$1.3 trillion—nearly 2 percent of global GDP. About 40 percent of Amazon’s net sales in 2014 came from sales outside North America, and China’s leading e-commerce platform that includes marketplaces for business to business (B2B); business to consumer (B2C); and peer to peer (P2P) e-commerce, declared gross merchandise value of a whopping US$370 billion during the same year. These platforms allow smaller companies to participate in exporting and importing, and even compete with the largest multinationals. An MGI survey revealed that 86 percent of tech-based startups report some type of cross-border activity. Even global labor markets are being impacted by online marketplaces. Websites like freelancer.com and UpWork reduces yet another barrier in today’s unified global community by bringing jobs to talents abroad without requiring them to relocate or go through immigration.

The growth of the digital trade has thrusted us into yet another different era of knowledge economy, characterized by increase in high-technology and intangible investments, high-technology industries, more highly-skilled labor and associated productivity gains, rather than on the means on production and tangible capital (oecd.org). This has led to the emergence of new technology giants in industries where they had not previously been viewed as competitors. Consider Airbnb’s entry into the hospitality industry. The multi-platform technology platform has served over 30 million guests since its inception in 2008. Its current value of $10 billion now exceeds well-established global hotel chains such as Hyatt.

Today, over 2.3 billion people have access to the internet and this figure is expected to grow to five billion in the next few years. Some of the most valuable companies in the world have been underpinned by its existence. In developed countries, availability of the internet results in increased standards of living and job creation. The innovation of digital technology has become a key contributor to economic growth in developed countries. The potential for digital and information technologies is limitless, and will play a key role in the development of humankind’s potential.

The Untold Story of Silk Road and America’s Devastating Online Drug Industry

Ross Ulbricht: the mastermind behind America's grimacing online drug industry.
Ross Ulbricht: the mastermind behind America’s grimacing online drug industry.

The business environment has been drastically transformed by the rise of digital technology. Today, the name ‘Silk Road’ no longer depicts the textbook definition of the ancient network of trade routes. To tech-savvy millennials, ‘Silk Road’ refers to a massive online marketplace for illicit trade, mostly drugs. The website was hidden in what is called the Dark Web—a part of the internet that can’t be accessed through search engines like Google. To enter this mysterious cyber realm, you need special cryptographic software that obscures your online identity. But aside from that, the right amount of dedication and perhaps access to Reddit, it doesn’t take much else for anyone to enter and navigate the deep web.

The mastermind behind Silk Road was a 26-year-old kid from central Texas. After earning a scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas, Ross Ulbricht landed a graduate scholarship at Penn State, where he studied materials science and engineering. A carefree idealist, he adhered to a libertarian philosophy and spent his college days exploring Eastern philosophy. Bright, handsome, and edgy, Ross Ulbricht was a Pablo Escobar in the digital age. At the peak of his success, Ulbricht lived in Glen Park, San Francisco where he would run his virtual drug empire out of little coffee shops and libraries. Only that the magnitude of his startup’s success justifies his comparison against the Colombian drug kingpin. Through a combination of Tor (The Onion Router) anonymous browsing and enticing web design, Silk Road managed to rack up more than $1 billion dollars in sales in two years.

A screenshot from Silk Road's glory days. The site is now shutdown.
A screenshot from Silk Road’s glory days. The site is now shutdown.

The combination of an anonymous interface with traceless payments allowed thousands of drug dealers and nearly 1 million eager worldwide customers to connect —The internet has not only affected how business is conducted, it has also reshaped the criminal landscape. As the first online platform for the drug trade, Silk Road represented an unexplored intersection between technology, commerce, and drugs. This was a serious threat to law enforcement agents. Various governmental organizations spent over a year attempting to infiltrate the organization. When the site was taken down in 2013, the closure took out 13,648 different drug deals.

Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Fast-forward five years later now, and the explosive growth of the industry is proof that the giant crackdown was ineffective as a deterrent for illicit activity on the dark web. The online black market continues to evolve and now turns over $100 million of illegal substances a year. This “invisible” network now boasts dozens of boutique single-vendor sites selling high-quality cannabis, LSD, or cocaine to a closed network, and some offer membership discounts to regular buyers. Adam Winstock conducted the Global Drugs Survey, the largest inquiry into drug-user habits, and revealed that “convenience, product choice, price and user ratings make buying drugs online attractive to some users”, and growth in this industry is reflective of the growth of e-commerce as a whole.

With fatal adulterants found in recreational drugs off the street, the communal nature of many of the sites which assist in the regulation of drug purity provides users a safer way of obtaining drugs. This was exactly the idea which had inspired Ulbricht to create ‘Silk Road’. Like most libertarians, Ulbricht believed that drug use was a personal choice and that the war on drugs was entirely futile. The problem lied in the drug business that was opaque and violent, and that a website like Yelp would make exchanges more transparent and reduce fatal overdoses. Ulbricht also wrote that his intention was to reduce the power of cartels by empowering nonviolent, small-time dealers. According to a paper published online by academics, the crypto market may have prevented bloodshed that would have occurred in the street. Online drug trade focused far more on less addictive and harmful drugs than might have been previously assumed: “Drugs typically associated with drug dependence, harmful use and chaotic lifestyles (heroin, methamphetamine and crack cocaine) do not much appear, and generate very little revenue”.

The full effect of the online drug industry on society is still unknown. The key question is how this industry is governed in the future. Loopholes in legislation were arguably the catalyst for this industry to begin with.

Why America’s Tech Industry has the Responsibility of Solving Global Development Challenges

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Forbes contributor Gary Shapiro wrote an article expressing his insistence on America’s greatness as a nation, despite its flaws in response to a clip from the HBO series, The Newsroom. Titled the “most honest three and a half minutes of television ever”, the short clip delivers a harsh soliloquy on America’s decline. Aside from addressing the inaccurate statistics, Shapiro brought up multiple premises for his argument – one of them being the high numbers of immigrants that the United States attracts for its quality education.

Government officials of China strive to send their children to US schools, with 160,000 of their youth enrolled in American colleges or universities as a result of the “culture of innovation that we imbue”. This is self-explanatory even to those who have never stepped foot in the country— with Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood, and 17 of the world’s top 20 universities, Shapiro argues that the United States is a world leader in every aspect. Like it or not, the country is the most dominant in the key categories of power, even if there is denial by American citizens themselves – a testament to their righteousness. The economic, military and influential strength of the United States is unmatched by any other country in the world. At USD $16 trillion, its GDP is more than twice the size of China’s. Spending 560 billion dollars a year on military, the country has the most powerful military in the world and maintains good diplomatic and trading relations with almost every major nation.

No other country has the same authority in the international community and global footprint as the United States. I hold a strong belief in the importance of global cultural diversity that can be attributed largely to my years of study in the United States. With much of the world under the influence of Western society, few other places would have granted me the same educational and cultural background to appreciate diversity.

The United States’ influence can be attributed to two driving forces: vast natural resources that created opportunities for individual initiative and enterprise, and the country’s investment in science, engineering, aerospace, and technology as a result of competition with the Soviet Union. Both public and private sector investment contributed to employment, industrial growth, and innovation that placed it as a world leader in many different fields. In terms of domestic goals, the country is unrivalled. In the later years, plenty of their efforts had been directed towards people of other nations striving to fight for their liberties and democratic freedoms against the assault of power by those who would have chosen to forsake democracy in pursuit of forced dominance in the world.

The dynamism of America’s tech industry backed by its deep involvement with research and development and STEM will be key to a sustainable future. In the next two decades, the human population is expected to rise by 2 billion, with 95 percent of them in developing or underdeveloped countries. This growth will create unprecedented demands for basic needs of for water, sanitation, nutrition, health, safety and meaningful work. As globalization takes hold, a paradigm shift must occur which sees the world as a single unit rather than separate nations. Currently, countless American tech giants concentrate almost exclusively on developed markets – with a large focus on advertising and pay-per-click campaigns (PPC) to drive profit from mostly Western regions. Although these are the fundamentals of any business, Americans must work towards a new goal of contributing to the building of a more sustainable, stable and equitable world. These people will hold a critical position in fulfilling the basic needs of the global community and addressing more complex problems in regards to refugees, displaced populations, and the large-scale movement of populations worldwide resulting from political conflicts, famine, shortages of land, and natural hazards. These issues call for American education in science, engineering, and technology to solve the problems of developing countries. An example would be the Engineering for Developing Communities (EDC) founded by The College of Engineering at the University of Colorado. The program has an overall mission to globally educate students in providing sustainable, appropriate technology solutions to the endemic problems of developing communities worldwide. Such collective efforts will ultimately determine the well-being of future generations to come.

Tags: International Development, Engineering for Developing CommunitiesGlobalization

Why America Needs to Consider Education as a Right, Not a Privilege

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Few people oppose the idea of compulsory K-12 education, but nationwide access to free public schools would not have turned into reality without populist pressure from the progressive movement that began during the 1980s. As of 2013, America’s high school graduation rate hit 81%—  a steep comparison from the year 1940, when only half of the young population graduated with a high school diploma. But with today’s “qualification inflation” combined with the economy increasingly turning into one of knowledge rather than labor, it is becoming more and more difficult for young Americans to get a job without college education. Long gone are the days when a high school degree meant a golden ticket to a decent-paying career with good benefits.

US senator Bernie Sanders mentioned during his campaign, “An important pathway to the middle class now runs through higher education”. Yet only 30% of Americans who start college or university end up graduating. With a steady increase of tuition rates in private universities and the defunding of community colleges, this hardly comes as a surprise. Last year, tuition and fees at a four-year public university averaged $9,410; and the student loan debt statistics for 2017 states that Americans owe over $1.4 trillion in student loans — $620 billion more than the total U.S. credit card debt. Today it would take a minimum wage worker an entire year to earn enough to cover the annual in-state tuition at a public university. This explains the high drop out rate.

Education reform has long been an issue in nation-level politics in the United States, beginning in 1877 when Rutherford B. Hayes became the first president to endorse tuition-free education. “Universal suffrage should rest upon universal education,” he said in his inaugural address, adding that “liberal and permanent provision should be made for the support of free schools”. During his presidency, Obama made his case for universal, free tertiary education, stating that it is “a prerequisite for prosperity”, and that “the single most important thing we can do is to make sure we’ve got a world-class education system for everybody”. Even after paving its way to the fore of American politics during the last presidential election, not many concrete steps have been taken to alleviate the financial burden that overshadows 44 million graduates in America, and the idea remain to be seen as a mere dream of idealists by many.

The estimated cost of making all public higher education free in America would be between fifteen and thirty billion dollars. While this number might sound staggering, it could be the only hope of restoring the American dream and the economic patterns of the country that have been crushed by the soaring college debt. When the government decides to cut their budget on public college and university funding, the entire educational process is affected; the full-funding of large numbers of students would reduce the likelihood of college administrators resorting to migrant laborers and underpaid part-time and full-timers in temporary positions. It would also provide them with the backbone to resist the growing takeover of education by wealthy individuals and corporations that are reshaping education in favor of their own interests. 

Even during this time when the long-term value and job potential of a college degree are obscured by persisting economic uncertainty, 89% of Americans still believe a college education is worth the money, and is one of the best investments one can make in a lifetime. Aside from making up the country’s educated workforce, college graduates need less government assistance. During their lifetime they pay more taxes, are healthier, are less likely to be involved in criminal activity, and more likely to volunteer in their communities and to vote. When the dreams of individual citizens are met, the social and economic fabric of the country is strengthened—that is the beauty of American higher education.

Now over 60% of Americans back tuition-free college, according to a survey by Bankrate, which polled 1,000 people in late July 2016. Seventy-seven percent of people ages 18 to 29 supported tuition-free college while roughly half of people 50 and older did. Not surprisingly, universal access to higher education was more popular with millenials than baby boomers, who suffer most from the enormous hike in tuition fees. 

Social progress is not linear, and it has never been. Where we stand today is not without decades of oblivion, moral struggles and political activism. With hindsight, it is easy for us to point out the moral illness of genocide, slavery, gender discrimination, and other social issues. Perhaps the future will come where the denial of a person’s full participation in society due to their circumstance at birth will be looked back at as part of history.

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Trump Repealism Rolls Back Obama’s Cuba Reforms

Grunge Cuban flag, image is overlaying a detailed grungy texture

Donald Trump’s push to repeal many of the Obama administration’s foreign policy initiatives has extended to the landmark lifting of the embargo against Cuba. Will the new hardline approach be effective in achieving its goal of encouraging political reform and economic liberalisation? 

On 16 June, US President Donald Trump announced a long-expected change in US foreign policy towards Cuba. The new policy will roll back many of the Obama administration’s reforms including travel liberalisation, while imposing further restrictions.

The exiles and dissidents here today have witnessed communism destroy a nation, just as communism has destroyed every single nation where it has ever been tried. But we will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer. You have seen the truth, you have spoken the truth, and the truth has now called us—this group—called us to action.Last year, I promised to be a voice against repression in our region—remember, tremendous oppression—and a voice for the freedom of the Cuban people. You heard that pledge. You exercised the right you have to vote. You went out and you voted. And here I am like I promised—like I promised.Remarks by President Trump on the Policy of the United States Towards Cuba 16 June 2017, Manuel Artime Theater, Miami, Florida, US.

Specific elements of the Trump policy include restrictions that prohibit individual travel (with the exception of Cuban Americans who will continue to be able to visit relatives in Cuba and send remittances) and limit non-academic educational travel to organised groups. While the US embassy in Havana will remain, the policy effectively reaffirms the statutory embargo of Cuba.

The stated objectives of the Trump policy are to:

  • “enhance compliance with United States (US) law—in particular, the provisions that govern the embargo of Cuba and the ban on tourism”;
  • hold Cuba “accountable for oppression and human rights”;
  • further US “national security and foreign policy interests”; and
  • empower the “Cuban people to develop greater economic and political liberty”.

The policy changes seek to prohibit business, trade and financial transactions between US companies and entities linked to the Cuban military’s holding company Grupo de Administración Empresarial (GAESA). Instead, it seeks to promote direct economic ties between US individuals and entities and the private sector in Cuba. According to the White House, the policy will promote commerce with “free Cuban businesses and pressure the Cuban government to allow the Cuban people to expand the private sector”.

The Trump policy was announced at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami, Florida, before a gathering of Cuban Americans. The new policy fulfilled a commitment made by the Trump campaign several weeks before the 2016 election in which Donald Trump pledged to roll back the Obama administration’s reforms. It was made in order to secure the presidential endorsement of the Brigade 2506 Veterans Association—the organisation of veterans of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Florida Republicans Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, both influential advocates for the continuation of the US embargo against Cuba, supported the Trump initiative.

On the day of the announcement, the Cuban government responded in the strongest terms. In a statement published in Cuba’s official newspaper Granma, the government condemned Trump’s action as a “setback in the relations between both countries”.

“Once again, the US government resorts to coercive methods of the past when it adopts measures aimed at stepping up the blockade, effective since February 1962, which not only causes harm and deprivations to the Cuban people and is the main obstacle to our economic development, but also affects the sovereignty and interests of other countries, which arouses international rejection…

“The Government of Cuba condemns the new measures to tighten the blockade, which are doomed to failure, as has been repeatedly evidenced in the past, for they will not succeed in their purpose to weaken the Revolution or bend the Cuban people, whose resistance against aggressions of all sorts and origins has been put to the test throughout almost six decades….”

With the exception of hardline anti-communist Cuban Americans, the Trump administration’s approach to Cuba has limited support within the US. For example, a December 2016 Pew Research Center poll found that 75 per cent approved of the 2015 Obama administration decision to re-establish US relations with Cuba, while approximately 73 per cent favoured ending the trade embargo against Cuba.

Following the Trump announcement, the Engage Cuba Coalition—a US lobby group which advocates for the lifting of the embargo—published a statement noting that the directive would negatively impact Cuban entrepreneurs and that the new restrictions could cost the US economy “billions of dollars and affect thousands of jobs”.

In the days leading up to the Trump announcement, human rights groups, such as Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watchand the Washington Office on Latin America, also expressed concerns about the implications of the proposed changes.

Many Republicans also don’t support the policy. On 16 June, Senator Jeff Flake (R-AR), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a statement in which he criticised renewed restrictions on US citizens’ ability to travel to Cuba. Other Republicans known to be critical of the policy include Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Senator John Boozman (R-AR), Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS), Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN), Representative Rick Crawford (R-AR), Representative Ted Poe (R-TX), Representative Justin Amash (R-MI), Representative Mark Sanford (R-SC) and Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL).

Several conservative organisations and think tanks are also critical of the Trump approach, including the Cato InstituteReasonCampaign for Liberty and the Federalist.

While some dissidents in Cuba reportedly support a hardline policy approach, it is difficult to ascertain—on account of restricted access to the internet and social media in Cuba—whether the policy has any support among moderates who might be critical of the regime. However, some Cuban academics and entrepreneurs have expressed concern about the implications for Cuba of the election of Donald Trump.

Following the Trump announcement, one academic commented privately that “what happened in Miami… was imaginable”. She added, however, that it would be difficult to reverse what had hitherto been achieved in terms of bilateral engagement and closer ties between the two countries. That said, it was necessary for Cuba to continue to implement political and economic reforms; Cuba “must make deeper and better paced transformations”.

A Cuban entrepreneur commented separately that the Trump policy would impact adversely on tourism and, in particular, on individuals and small businesses involved in the provision of hospitality and accommodation in private dwellings, the so-called ‘casas particulares’. Another academic noted that while the Cuban government and many Cubans had expected the announcement, they were angered to see Trump surrounded by the “most radical members of the Miami hard-right exiles, some of [whom are] associated with the old mafia and wanted by the Cuban police”. Irrespective of whether or not this was the case, there is little doubt that the Trump announcement angered both stalwart supporters of the Cuban government and Cubans of more moderate persuasion.

The new Trump Cuba policy will be implemented through a series of regulations in coming months, the full impact of which remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the policy is another example of the isolationist approach of the current US administration and will likely enhance nationalist and anti-US sentiment among key players within the region, such as Mexico and Venezuela. In terms of its impact on business, US companies and their Cuban counterparts are taking a wait-and-see approach to ascertain how and to what extent their interests will be affected.

The new Trump foreign policy towards Cuba may have additional unintended consequences. It would provide a strategic opportunity for China to enhance its relations with, and influence in, Cuba. China is already Cuba’s third destination for exports after Canada and Venezuela, and its second source of imports after Venezuela. During a 2016 visit to Cuba, where approximately 30 bilateral agreements were signed, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang spoke of the need to deepen their “traditional friendship”, enhance “pragmatic cooperation” and maintain “close cultural exchanges”.

China has previously taken a cautious approach to Cuba. However, in the wake of the Trump announcement, China is likely to assess potential trade and investment opportunities, which may be created by the US vacating the proverbial field, and seek to build on its existing interests, including with the provision of foreign loans.

The coming months will reveal the full extent of the rollback of the Obama administration’s initiatives to liberalise US-Cuba bilateral relations and its implications for the region and beyond. As always, the devil will be in the detail.

[Original published at http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australian_outlook/trump-repealism-rolls-back-obamas-cuba-reforms/]

A Closer Look at the GRE

For those planning on embarking on a journey through graduate school in the US, a necessary stepping stone is taking the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) as a part of your application. For the uninitiated, the GRE is a standardised admissions’ test for postgraduate study; a clear analogue to the Scholastic Aptitude Test’s (SAT’s) required for undergraduate study in the US. Like the SAT, the GRE is designed to measure the verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking skills that have been nurtured over the length of one’s learning years.

While the GRE is designed to serve as a predictor for postgraduate success, whether it does this job properly is another question entirely. Like the SAT’s, IQ tests, and all self-contained tests of ‘intelligence’, the GRE shares in their criticisms in being an outdated and flawed measure of ability. A common critique is that the GRE merely measures how well a person can master GRE test taking procedures. Like any examination, it is self-contained in that there is a syllabus, past papers and professional tuition serves that one can approach in order to prepare for it.

Furthermore, one can take the GRE up to five times a year. This arguably cheapens the GRE as a measure of ability compared to an examination in University as success would be a function of not only ability but how many times one is willing (and able) to take the exam to improve their score. For example, if you get a poor result then one can just seek out more tuition and, to an extent, be coached into success. In recent years, there have been a number of businesses seeing success in providing consulting services for individuals applying for universities especially for US universities given the perceived worldwide prestige of a member-institution of the Ivy League. Affluent parents would be willing to pay to ensure that their kids get a degree from Yale as opposed to Ohio State for example.

This confidence (or lack thereof) in the GRE is reflected in the varying weightings of importance one’s GRE score has in the admissions process of graduate schools across the US. In some institutions, it may just be a formality while in others it may treated as an important selection factor in the admissions process. A common practice is required students to achieve a minimum GRE score in order to reduce the number of applicants to an institution; a fairly crude but effective method in reducing the number of applications.

What further undermines the credibility of the GRE is that these examinations are written not by distinguished professors, renowned scholars, or even admissions’ officers. Instead of leaning individuals that ply their trade in the world of academia, it is ETS (the for-profit organisation that develops and administers the GRE alongside tests like TOEFL) employees that write these examinations.

Despite these criticisms of the GRE, no one has been able to offer a suitable alternative. Hence why the GRE, and tests like the SAT’s, remain a part of the admissions process for higher education. If the GRE results are viewed in the context of a candidate’s entire application – to determine whether or not the results make sense – in corollary to their undergraduate GPA or past research experience would be more appropriate.

Given that the GRE does not look like it will be going anywhere anytime soon, we will explore how you can start to prepare to take the examination. The best preparation for the GRE will comprise of revising with official GRE practice material made available by ETS, solidify a plan of study in the lead up to the actual GRE test and rounding off your knowledge by internalising third-party practice materials for the GRE.

Revise with the official material provided by ETS

When preparing for the GRE, or any examination for that matter, working with material directly from those who are responsible for writing and administering the exam is always a good way to go. There are a number of resources that ETS recommend one revises with, but arguably the most important one that is available for purchase is the Official Guide to the GRE General Test, Third Edition. To find the full list of products (both free and paid), look on their website.

Develop a plan of study

In order to maximise the value from all of the resources available in the field of GRE preparation, there needs to be a considered plan of attack. The first step would be to create a realistic schedule for daily study. While it is all well and good to aim for two hours a night of preparation, that will more likely than not fail to eventuate. Since many people will be juggling GRE prep alongside full-time work, it is essential to develop a plan from at least a couple months out of the actual GRE test date. This includes weekends set aside for study as well as on which evenings during the week you can block out for study. Preparing this timetable for study is an essential first step.

Browse through third-party practice resources.

While the official material should be the first port of call, once you have exhausted that resource it would be wise to seek out additional GRE resources made available by third-party providers, there are a lot of online websites that provide such services, but you need to make sure you are landing on a secure and authentic website so that you don’t fall prey to any malicious activity. GRE essays and practice tests could be useful to round off your knowledge after having internalised all of the official content made available by ETS. You can also outsource a GRE tutor who was previously successful in the exam.

While the aforementioned strategies are necessary in the lead up to the actual sitting of the GRE exam, preparation will go more smoothly if you make every attempt to hone the general skills that the GRE is designed to test. This means that during the course of your undergraduate study, interview preparations, professional placements, and work experience, it would serve you well to adopt an attitude that strives for improvement. This means always seeking out feedback, actively identifying and working on your areas of improvements. By making a habit of these behaviours, you will be hitting two birds with one stone; not only will you be showing your professors/boss that you are making every attempt to better yourself but you will also be giving yourself a leg up in the GRE.