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In Reporting on North Korea, Tech Helps Break Through Secrecy



As our Korea correspondent, what are some challenges you face reporting on North Korea, and how do you use tech to overcome them?

North Korea is a difficult topic to report for a simple reason: Journalists are not allowed to visit and do independent reporting there. Even when they get there with a tourist visa, they are not allowed to travel, visit places and interview people the way they do in democratic countries. So journalists try to figure out what is going on inside North Korea and interpret it the best they can from the outside.

And they monitor North Korea’s official news media.

In fact, the North’s state-run news outlets, especially the websites of its ruling Workers’ Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun and its Korean Central News Agency, are the single most important sources of information. When North Korea has something to say to the outside world, it almost invariably speaks through K.C.N.A. The official news media is filled with propaganda. Still, if you read it over a period of time, you can develop insights into the country’s ideology, policy goals and world views.

South Korea blocks its people, or anyone using the internet in the country, from accessing North Korean websites. If you try to open the K.C.N.A. website, a government warning pops up. It’s the same warning the government issues to internet users when it restricts access to pornographic materials online.

I use the Tor browser to circumvent the government firewall. Web pages open slower on Tor than on Chrome and other regular browsers. Still, it’s a godsend for journalists reporting on North Korea from the South, where Cold War-era fears still drive the local government to censor the internet.

What’s your favorite tech tool for doing your job?

I use Evernote to help organize my life as a journalist.

With a few clicks, you can clip a news article, commentary, analyst paper, PDF file, video link and other contents you find on the web and want to save for a later reference, and store them in a designated online “notebook.” I find this “Web Clipper” function particularly useful when researching a certain topic, say North Korea’s market reforms, for weeks or longer; I create a “North Korea Economy” notebook and save related contents there for easy access.

What is Samsung’s influence on South Korea, since the tech company’s revenue accounts for a significant portion of the country’s gross domestic product?

Samsung is the biggest among the chaebol, a handful of family-run conglomerates that have dominated the South Korean economy for decades. The country’s top 10 chaebol generate the equivalent of more than 80 percent of the country’s G.D.P. Samsung’s flagship company, Samsung Electronics, alone is responsible for 20 percent of the country’s exports.

One can’t talk about how well or badly South Korea’s economy is doing without talking about Samsung. Samsung has a pervasive presence in the country. It produces best-selling smartphones, TV sets and refrigerators. It runs insurance, shipbuilding and construction companies, to just name a few of its dozens of affiliates. If she likes, a South Korean can live in a “Republic of Samsung”: She can get married and honeymoon in Samsung hotels; have her baby delivered in a Samsung hospital; take him to a Samsung amusement park; send him to a Samsung university; and stock her Samsung apartment with Samsung home appliances bought with a Samsung credit card.

But the name Samsung also has a darker side among Koreans. Six of the 10 top chaebol leaders, including Samsung’s chairman, Lee Kun-hee, have been convicted of white-collar crimes, including bribery, although they have never spent much time in jail. If Samsung symbolizes wealth and technological savvy, many Koreans also accuse the corporate behemoth of corruption and excessive power.

Mr. Lee’s son, Samsung’s vice chairman, Lee Jae-yong, who has been running the conglomerate while his father remains bedridden after a stroke, is now under arrest and on trial on charges of bribingPark Geun-hye, the impeached and ousted former president of South Korea.

How does Samsung affect the way you live and work?

I use only three Samsung products in my office — a Samsung TV set, a Samsung fax/printer and the Samsung monitor for my Dell desktop — though many of the tech products around me at home and in my office may contain Samsung components, like computer chips.

I used to use a Samsung Galaxy Note smartphone until I switched to an iPhone three years ago. I like my iPhone, but I have a major complaint about it: It doesn’t allow you to record your phone conversations. What if a spokesman calls you back and dictates a statement while you are driving a car or standing in a crowded subway car? With my old Samsung phone, I could just tap the screen a couple times to record the conversation. You can’t do that with an iPhone.

Recording phone conversations is legal in South Korea, and journalists and others routinely do it. Samsung and others market smartphones with a built-in phone-recording function. Apple doesn’t. I am thinking seriously of switching back to an Android phone when I retire my iPhone.

Beyond your job, what tech product are you obsessed with in your daily life?

I’m not savvy with tech products. I have my desktop, my company-issued MacBook Air and my iPhone. That’s about all the tech hardware I use. Online, though, I use the Naver and Daum maps all the time when I travel and go to an appointment. They are like Google maps, but more convenient to use in South Korea. Naver and Daum are the country’s two biggest web portals and search engines. Google holds only a minor share in the search engine market of South Korea.

Kakao Talk, the country’s most widely used messenger app, is a must-have for anyone who wants to stay connected in South Korea. Government spokesmen send news releases and media notices through Kakao Talk. Reporters put in queries through Kakao Talk.

I used to use my Kindle a lot, but not anymore. I have switched back to paper books. But Kindle is still very convenient when I am traveling and want to keep my bag light.

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Tech Stories

2019 Google Play Award winners highlight top Android apps and games




Google on the eve of I/O 2019 announced the Play Award winners to celebrate the top Android apps and games. The nominees in nine categories were unveiled late last month, with the ceremony this evening in Mountain View, California.

There are nine categories with criteria factoring overall quality, strong design, technical performance, and innovation. The nominees were first selected by various teams across Google. Winners during the May 6th event also received a silver Play trophy, and are featured on the Play Store.

We’re sharing the winners that rose to the top for providing the best experiences for fans, making an impact on their communities and raising the bar for quality content on Google Play.

Standout Well-Being App

Apps empowering people to live the best version of their lives, while demonstrating responsible design and engagement strategies.

Best Accessibility Experience

Apps and games enabling device interaction in an innovative way that serve people with disabilities or special needs.

Best Social Impact

Apps and games that create a positive impact in communities around the world (focusing on health, education, crisis response, refugees, and literacy).

2019 Google Play Award winners

Most Beautiful Game

Games that exemplify artistry or unique visual effects either through creative imagery, and/or utilizing advanced graphics API features.

Best Living Room Experience

Apps that create, enhance, or enable a great living room experience that brings people together.

Most Inventive

Apps and games that display a groundbreaking new use case, like utilize new technologies, cater to a unique audience, or demonstrate an innovative application of mobile technology for users.

Standout Build for Billions Experience

Apps and games with optimized performance, localization and culturalization for emerging markets.

Best Breakthrough App

New apps with excellent overall design, user experience, engagement and retention, and strong growth.

  • Slowly by Slowly Communications Ltd.

Best Breakthrough Game

New games with excellent overall design, user experience, engagement and retention, and strong growth.


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My Samsung Galaxy Fold screen broke after just a day




Look closely at the picture above, and you can see a small bulge right on the crease of my Galaxy Fold review unit. It’s just enough to slightly distort the screen, and I can feel it under my finger. There’s something pressing up against the screen at the hinge, right there in the crease. My best guess is that it’s a piece of debris, something harder than lint for sure. It’s possible that it’s something else, though, like the hinge itself on a defective unit pressing up on the screen.

It’s a distressing thing to discover just two days after receiving my review unit. More distressing is that the bulge eventually pressed sharply enough into the screen to break it. You can see the telltale lines of a broken OLED converging on the spot where the bulge is.

Whatever happened, it certainly wasn’t because I have treated this phone badly. I’ve done normal phone stuff, like opening and closing the hinge and putting it in my pocket. We did stick a tiny piece of molding clay on the back of the phone yesterday to prop it up for a video shoot, which is something we do in every phone video shoot. So perhaps a tiny piece of that snuck into a gap on the back of the hinge and then around or through its cogs until it lodged in between the screen and the hinge. It’d be sort of like Charlie Chaplin getting caught in the gears in Modern Times.

Or maybe something got in another one of the little gaps somewhere else. Or maybe it was pieces from the hinge itself breaking loose and working their way up into the screen. I don’t know. I just know that the screen is broken, and there was no obvious proximate cause for the bulge that broke it. I certainly haven’t used it on a beach or shook it in a bag of chips or anything wild. Just normal use.I DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENED; I JUST KNOW THE SCREEN IS BROKEN

We’ve seen worries about scratches on expensive phones and debris breaking the keyboard on expensive MacBooks, but a piece of debris distorting the screen on a $1,980 phone after one day of use feels like it’s on an entirely different level.

I reached out to Samsung right away to get a statement, but it took about 24 hours for the company to put one together. Here it is, and the gist is that Samsung is looking into our unit and also warning users not to try to peel off the protective layer on the top of the screen.

Also, I have, however, received a replacement review unit from Samsung. I think the first one is on a jet to South Korea for Samsung’s engineers to take apart and diagnose.

By the way, it appears I’m not the only reviewing the phone who has had a problem with the screen. Here’s Steve Kovach:

Mark Gurman of Bloomberg also broke his, but that’s perhaps because he removed a protective layer that looks like a screen protector, but definitely isn’t meant to be removed.

And here’s Marques “MKBHD” Brownlee confirming he, too, had to get a replacement unit after peeling off the outer layer (which, again, wasn’t our issue):

It looks like retail units of the Galaxy Fold will include a warning about not removing the protective layer, but review units don’t seem to have included this one:

Like everybody else, I said in my original hands-on with the Galaxy Fold that I absolutely am able to see the crease between the two sides of the screen. But when I’m using the phone, I don’t actually notice it much. It’s easy to talk about it as a small first-generation compromise you have to make for what is otherwise a wonder of engineering: a tablet that folds in half.

I took a photo in my hotel room when the bulge first appeared. The next morning, that same bulge finally broke the screen.

Another thing people are worried about is the plastic screen scratching or picking up nicks easily. There are already a couple of minor dings on my unit, but they’re minor enough that I didn’t see them until our photographer zoomed way in to show them to me. If you look closely at the edges of the screen, there’s a sort of built-in screen protector on the front of the device. Samsung calls it a “polymer layer.” It is not designed to be removed. (Please don’t try it if you get your hands on a Fold.)

But while the crease and the nicks feel like compromises you could live with, a mysterious bulge that breaks the screen is something else entirely — especially one that appears just a day after pretty normal use. It’s a problem that is unacceptable on a phone that costs this much.

Every phone with movable parts is going to have more points of failure than a fully sealed, static phone. So it’s natural to say that you need to treat it with more care than usual. Before I saw this bulge, my impression was that this phone was much more durable than I expected. The hinge always felt solid and well-built. That impression of (relative) durability is obviously as broken as the flexing screen now.

If I’m right and it’s debris, it means that not only do you need to treat your phone with care, but you also have to worry about stuff getting in underneath the screen. If I’m wrong and it’s some kind of defect in the hardware, well… then we’re in entirely different territory. Either way: yikes.

Hopefully Samsung lets us know the results after it takes my original review unit apart to see what happened.

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Tech Stories

This is the best time to purchase an iPhone XR in India




Apple is discounting the iPhone XR by a massive 22% from Friday.

Apple is kicking off a massive discount on the iPhone XR in India that will bring the device down to just ₹59,900 ($870). That’s a staggering ₹17,000 ($250) discount from the phone’s retail price of ₹76,900 ($1,120). What makes this particular deal even better is that HDFC is getting in on the action, offering an additional 10% cashback on top of the discounted price.

That effectively brings the price of the 64GB iPhone XR down to just ₹53,900 ($780), which is a fabulous deal. The promotional price extends to all three variants of the iPhone XR, and you’ll similarly be able to avail the HDFC cashback on all three models. The deal will go live from Friday, April 5, and will be valid until stocks last.

Here’s the breakdown of the new pricing:

CategoryMRPNew priceFor HDFC customers
iPhone XR (64GB)₹76,900₹59,900₹53,900
iPhone XR (128GB)₹81,900₹64,900₹58,400
iPhone XR (256GB)₹91,900₹74,900₹67,400

The HDFC cashback is valid for both debit and credit card holders, and if you don’t have an eligible card yet, you can pick one up to avail the discount on the iPhone XR. I’m partial to the Regalia for the airline benefits and low markup on international spends.

This is Apple’s most aggressive move yet in the Indian market, and it’s clear that the company is positioning the iPhone XR against Samsung’s Galaxy S10e, which retails for ₹55,900 ($810). The discount will be a huge driver for iPhone XR sales in the country, and should give Apple some much-needed momentum in the premium segment.

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