Category: Progressive

Quiet heroes of the US-Cuba deal: Pope Francis and Canada

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The historic deal to begin normalizing relations between the US and Cuba, after 50-plus years of hostility, is being credited primarily to President Obama and Raul Castro, Cuba’s current de facto leader and the brother of Fidel. That is with good reason: Obama has been working on this issue throughout much of his presidency and Castro is taking a significant risk by allowing wider Internet access into Cuba as part of the deal.

But there are two actors that quietly played a major role in this: Canada and Pope Francis.

The negotiations that led to today’s announcement, in which the US and Cuba will take major steps toward normalization, took 18 long months, according to a report in the New York Times. And many of those negotiations were held in Canada, formally but secretly hosted by the Canadian government.

Canada was helping to solve two crucial problems. First, the talks needed to remain secret to have any hope of succeeding — had they leaked, the political backlash in the US would have almost certainly killed the deal.

Second, for diplomatic reasons, the talks could not be held on US or Cuban soil, but the negotiators needed a physical meeting place. The Canadian government, which unlike the US does have ties with Cuba but is also extremely close to the US government, was an obviously attractive broker for the US. While Canadian officials did not officially participate in the talks, their role in providing a secret and official channel was crucial, according to US officials.

If Canada was essential for providing the Americans with a safe and secure forum for talks, then Pope Francis played a similar role in helping to bring the Cuban leaders to the negotiating table. And, unlike Canadian officials, who did not sit at from the formal talks, Vatican officials participated actively in discussions.

Pope Francis’ role included sending a personal letter to both Obama and Raul Castro over the summer urging them to reach a deal (talks were already ongoing at that point). Francis also reportedly raised the issue repeatedly in his meeting with Obama in March. And Francis hosted the final negotiation session at the Vatican, where Vatican officials participated in the talks…

Nice to see a couple of competent, worldly participants take the lead in bringing the United States into reforming a diplomatic and political stance originated by thugs like the United Fruit Company in the era of Banana Imperialism. A half-century of embargo and blockade hadn’t dragged Cuba into subservience. Continuing the policy only reinforced the world’s perception of the United States as a bully.

Pope Francis continues to impress. I hope he has as much success bringing the Roman Catholic church into the modern era as he has – individually – as a representative of Christianity beginning to discover a bit of enlightenment.

Nice at least to see that Harper’s mean-spirited conservatism hasn’t yet affected Canada’s traditional leadership role in diplomacy among the Americas and beyond.

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Catholic bishops at U.N. conference call for end to use of fossil fuel

Catholic bishops attending a U.N. meeting on climate change in Peru have called for an end to the use of fossil fuels.

The group also urged Catholics to become involved in efforts to secure a new treaty on climate change. In a statement, they called for a “deepening of the discourse at the COP20 in Lima, to ensure concrete decisions are taken at COP21 to overcome the climate challenge and to set us on new sustainable pathways.”

The statement from Peruvian bishops and their colleagues from other countries attending the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is the first by a group of Catholic prelates. Catholic leaders joined with those from other faiths to sponsor a seminar on the religious response to climate change.

At the seminar, Msgr. Salvador Pineiro, president of the Episcopal Conference of Peru, described how his own concern with the issue developed. Pineiro said that growing up in Lima he had little reason to worry about climate change, but when he became archbishop of Ayachucho in the Andes in southern Peru he heard from a poor potato farmer how his crop was being damaged.

Who knows? Times may be a’changing sufficiently to find myself sharing a cell – again – with a priest after a demonstration for civil rights. for the rights of people before profits.

It’s only been fifty years since the last time.

Gizmag’s Top 10 sustainable houses

You can click over to the article to wander through all ten. I’d like to feature a few I really like.

The ZEB Pilot House

International architecture firm Snøhetta has partnered with Norway’s Research Center on Zero Emission Buildings (ZEB) and to design and build a remarkable experimental house that helps move the development of very efficient buildings forward. The ZEB Pilot House is claimed to generate almost three times the amount of electricity it requires, with the significant surplus available to help run an electric car, for example…

A lot of sustainable technology was used on the build. The roof sports a 150 sq m (1,614 sq ft) photovoltaic array, and a 16 sq m (172 sq ft) solar thermal panel array, in addition to a rainwater collection system that provides water for toilet and garden use. In order to ensure all available rays are caught, the roof also slopes 19 degrees toward the southeast.

A Snøhetta representative told Gizmag that the photovoltaic array is expected to produce 19,200 kWh annually, while the home’s total electricity needs are calculated at just 7,272 kWh per year.


Pop-Up House

Whatever kind of home you live in, the chances are it took longer to build than the Pop-Up House, by French architecture firm Multipod, which was erected by a team of builders in just four days with no more tools than a screwdriver. The firm likens the construction process to building with Lego.

The Pop-Up House is a prototype prefabricated home that Multipod aims to bring to market for around €30,000 (roughly US$41,000). Thanks to its excellent insulation and near-airtight thermal envelope, no heating is required for the home in its location in Southern France, and it meets the very exacting Passivhaus energy standard.


The S House

Vietnam’s Vo Trong Nghia Architects has been tinkering away at the issue of providing practical, sustainable, and most importantly, cheap, homes. The result is the S House, a US$4,000 dwelling part-built using local, easily-obtained materials, including Palm leaf thatching and bamboo.

The interior of the S House is very basic and measures just 30 sq m (322 sq ft), with one large interior space. The building is prefabricated and can be disassembled into multiple small pieces for easy transport by local builders. Vo Trong Nghia Architects is still working on the design of the S House but the eventual plan is to mass market it.

I could wander off into the tech of these three. I shan’t. Wander through the series and reflect on your own choices – and why.

The last two, the S House and the Pop-Up are my favorites of these three because of size. I firmly believe smaller is usually better. My wife and I [and a dog, of course] first lived together in a 2-bedroom guesthouse that encompassed 650 sq.ft. – and we didn’t use one of those bedrooms. We lived day-to-day in about 450 sq.ft. and that still was more than we needed.

We live in more space, now, and once again have a room we don’t use at all. The guesthouse is back to being a guesthouse. A functional design when you live within a destination. It’s convenient to have two bathrooms; but, still, the main room could be smaller and that would simply encourage sitting closer to the TV set watching a football match or a movie. :)

Lessons Jony Ive learned from Steve Jobs


Early days at Apple

“Steve [Jobs] was the most remarkably focused person I ever met in my life,” Apple’s senior vice president of design Jonathan Ive told Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter during the closing event of Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit in San Francisco.

“The thing with focus is that it’s not this thing you aspire to, like: ‘Oh, on Monday I’m going to be focused,’” said Ive, who rarely gives interviews. “It’s every single minute: ‘Why are we talking about this when we’re supposed to be talking about this?’”…

In addition to learning from Jobs about the importance of focus and of prioritizing the product over emotions, Ive said he “learned the whereabouts of a lot of rubbish hotels when we traveled…”

The wide-ranging conversation also touched on the size of Apple’s core design team (just 16 people, and they still begin their process with drawings), the new iPhone (Ive said its rounded edges make the bigger screen feel “less wide”) and the new Apple watch, which Ive described as the culmination of hundreds of years of function-first thinking.

“Why a watch and why not a pendant?” asked Carter.

Over the years, Ive replied, people learned that time pieces work best when they’re worn on the wrist. “It’s a really great place to glance quickly, for information,” Ive continued. “When we started working on it, it seemed like a natural, obvious place for the technology to end up…”

Ive said his team was focused on the here and now. “I don’t think we think about designing for a point in time. We hope that if it is truly simple, and we do a good job, then it will endure…”

I guess I’ve cared about design going back to early years as a motorhead. I followed Formula One racing, gran premio, since the early 1950’s – through the transition from pre-war concepts of engineering and aeronatutics into the grace and function of the Mercedes Silver Arrows. The same happened with sports cars in the period starting with Cisitalia and the bodywork of Bertone.

I still own an early aluminum-framed Olivetti portable typewriter. There are other examples. It starts as simply as looking at something made by human design, respecting functionability, understanding the blending of the two as design.

There’s lots of crap masquerading as industrial design. It falls by the wayside over time. Most of what’s discussed in the article stems from the interaction of Ive and Jobs. Some, of course, goes back to school days and beyond. It’s all of interest.

Alaskan same-sex couples line up for marriage licenses


Click to enlargeAnchorage Daily News/Getty Images

Gay couples began applying for marriage licenses in Anchorage on Monday, 15 years after Alaska helped touch off a national debate with a ban on same-sex unions…

Ann Marie Garber and her partner, Koy Field, were among the first gay couples seeking a license to wed in Alaska. “I had no idea this would happen in my lifetime,” she said.

They decided to apply immediately after the ban was overturned by a federal judge Sunday.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess ruled that ban violated both due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. His ruling came over the objection of gay marriage opponents, including Alaska Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, who has promised to appeal, saying blah, blah, blah, blah.

The ruling in favor of five couples who sued the state in May overturns a constitutional amendment approved by Alaska voters in 1998, defining marriage in the state as between one man and one woman.

It bars enforcement of any state law that keeps gay couples from marrying or refuses to recognize same-sex unions performed elsewhere…

The landscape has changed very quickly for gay marriage in the U.S. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from several states seeking to retain their bans on same-sex marriage. The Oct. 6 move effectively legalized gay marriage in about 30 states and triggered a flurry of rulings and confusion in lower courts across the nation, including the Alaska decision.

The lead plaintiff in the Alaska lawsuit was Matthew Hamby, who helped other couples through the application process Monday before completing his own.

He and his husband, Christopher Shelden, plan to renew vows they made in their 2008 marriage in Banff, Alberta, Canada. They haven’t set a date yet, but the $60 licenses are good for three months.

Congratulations from the lower 48 to all the happy couples.

Any other Alaskan whose bigotry and hatred has their knickers bunched — take it and work it, chump!

Lindsay and Edward together in Moscow

The mystery of the whereabouts of Edward Snowden’s long-time girlfriend is solved in a documentary that premiered in New York on Friday night: she has been living with the national security whistleblower in Russia since July.

The surprise revelation in the documentary, filmed by Laura Poitras, upends the widespread assumption that Snowden had deserted Lindsay Mills and that she, in a fit of pique, fled Hawaii where they had been living to stay with her parents in mainland US.

Since Snowden, a former NSA contractor, outed himself last year as being behind the biggest leak in US intelligence history, Mills has remained silent, giving no interviews or any hints of her feelings on the subject of her boyfriend or his actions.

The two-hour long documentary, Citizenfour, shows Mills living in Russia with Snowden…

Citizenfour offers a fly-on-the wall account of Snowden. Poitras filmed him at the Mira hotel in Hong Kong last year during interviews with journalists that resulted in a series of stories in the Guardian about the extent of surveillance by the US and British intelligence agencies as well as the internet and telecom companies. The revelations started a worldwide debate about the balance between surveillance and privacy.

Poitras captures the tension in his room at the Mira – where then-Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald and I interviewed him – and in his final minutes at the hotel before he fled after being tipped off that hordes of media were about to arrive. She also filmed at the Guardian in London ahead of publication of one of the most explosive of the stories arising from Snowden’s revelations, and in Moscow, where Snowden is now in exile.

Snowden has been reluctant to talk about his personal life, preferring the media focus to be on wider debate about surveillance rather than him. But Poitras’s portrayal is both personal and sympathetic.

In his first comment about the documentary, which Poitras had shown to him in advance, Snowden told the Guardian: “I hope people won’t see this as a story about heroism. It’s actually a story about what ordinary people can do in extraordinary circumstances.”

I wish more Americans had the courage of Edward Snowden. I’ve known a few, folks who became left-wing activists on behalf of civil rights, peace and national liberation BITD. Two in particular who worked for military intelligence, who left the military and returned to the United States to become active in very different ways. Like Snowden, revulsion at the lies and deceit of our government, our “leaders” patronizing attitude towards the American people, lies in support of an imperial foreign policy – turned them into activists against political corruption.

And Lindsay Mills – I know nothing more than what little I read in newspapers like the GUARDIAN. Most of what appears here in the States, from the TIMES to TV talking heads, you can presume to be crap, lies and more crap. Mostly motivated by dedication and subservience to the Washington establishment. I accept her private life with Edward Snowden as her own.

I accept their life together as a reflection of the proto-existential dicho, “what is done out of love takes place beyond good and evil”. Snowden, for love of his country and its Constitution. Mills, for love of her man.

Which country just abolished college tuition — hint: Not in North America

Prospective students in the United States who can’t afford to pay for college or don’t want to rack up tens of thousands in student debt should try their luck in Germany. Higher education is now free throughout the country, even for international students. Yesterday, Lower Saxony became the last of seven German states to abolish tuition fees, which were already extremely low compared to those paid in the United States.

German universities only began charging for tuition in 2006, when the German Constitutional Court ruled that limited fees, combined with loans, were not in conflict the country’s commitment to universal education. The measure proved unpopular, however, and German states that had instituted fees began dropping them one by one…

Free education is a concept that is embraced in most of Europe with notable exceptions like the U.K., where the government voted to lift the cap on university fees in 2010. The measure has reportedly cost more money than it brought in. The Guardian reported in March that students are failing to pay back student loans at such a rate that “the government will lose more money than it would have saved from keeping the old $4,865 tuition fee system.”

UK students often compare their plight to their American counterparts, but most Americans would be fortunate to pay as little as the British do: a maximum of $14,550 per year. High tuition fees in the U.S. have caused student loan debt, which stands at $1.2 trillion, to spiral out of control. It is now the second-highest form of consumer debt in the country. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, two thirds of American college students will leave their alma mater in significant debt (averaging at $26,600).

While there are many government measures that could ease the massive burden of student debt, some straightforward steps could make higher education accessible to all. Tennessee, for example, recently voted to make two-year colleges free for all high school graduates. The U.S. as whole could take a note from Germany and make public universities free with relative ease. The government spends around $69 billion subsidizing college education and another $107.4 billion on student loans. Tuition at all public universities comes to much less than that, around $62.6 billion in 2012. By restructuring the education budget, the cost of attending public universities could easily be brought down to zero. This would also put pressure on private universities to lower their cost in order to be more competitive.

We might even consider [gasp!] doing without a few shiny new tanks, F35 fighter aircraft or Littoral Attack Seacraft. All that would be required is to cancel the next couple of countries Congress and our two political parties plan to invade.

Tip o’ the hat to Mike — Great minds and etc…

Is Neil deGrasse Tyson sexier than Stephen Hawking?

When you think of astrophysicists, you probably don’t think standing ovation.

But more than 1,000 people rose and cheered for Neil deGrasse Tyson on Friday night in Omaha — and that was even before he started speaking.

The response is another sign of Tyson’s status as a rock star scientist. He is known for his ability to share his passion and knowledge about science with everyday people, and this year hosted the award-winning Fox series “Cosmos…”

Tyson hit some serious topics during his talk, such as the importance of the scientific method. But he drew laughs and applause throughout the evening as he riffed on things, including People magazine once proclaiming him the “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive.”

“You don’t get big headed about that,’’ he said. “I don’t know who I beat — Stephen Hawking?”

During his talk, called “Science as a Way of Knowing,” he suggested there are some positive signs about science in the United States today.

He noted that “Cosmos” was a 13-part documentary, on network TV during primetime…“That told me science is trendy,’’ he said…

Scientists, he said, carry bias and other shortcomings of judgment just like everyone else. The scientific method provides important “checks and balances.”

“That’s how we roll,’’ he said.

He was opening night speaker at Apostacon, a conference for atheists and other nonbelievers.

Best reason I ever heard of for visiting Omaha. I don’t need to go to Nebraska to find peaceful and windy. We have plenty of that in New Mexico.

Meanwhile, Stephen Hawking jostles mundane culture -

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Fossil fuel electricity under real threat from solar and wind power

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Click to enlargeStiftung OFFSHORE-WINDENERGIE

Of all the developed nations, few have pushed harder than Germany to find a solution to global warming. And towering symbols of that drive are appearing in the middle of the North Sea.

They are wind turbines, standing as far as 60 miles from the mainland, stretching as high as 60-story buildings and costing up to $30 million apiece. On some of these giant machines, a single blade roughly equals the wingspan of the largest airliner in the sky, the Airbus A380. By year’s end, scores of new turbines will be sending low-emission electricity to German cities hundreds of miles to the south.

It will be another milestone in Germany’s costly attempt to remake its electricity system, an ambitious project that has already produced striking results: Germans will soon be getting 30 percent of their power from renewable energy sources. Many smaller countries are beating that, but Germany is by far the largest industrial power to reach that level in the modern era. It is more than twice the percentage in the United States.

Germany’s relentless push into renewable energy has implications far beyond its shores. By creating huge demand for wind turbines and especially for solar panels, it has helped lure big Chinese manufacturers into the market, and that combination is driving down costs faster than almost anyone thought possible just a few years ago.

Electric utility executives all over the world are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans. Fights are erupting across the United States over the future rules for renewable power. Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset.

A reckoning is at hand, and nowhere is that clearer than in Germany. Even as the country sets records nearly every month for renewable power production, the changes have devastated its utility companies, whose profits from power generation have collapsed.

Professional naysayers, bought-and-paid-for skeptics, conservative ideologues rooted to political failures like Ayn Rand see the fruit of their labors rejected by economic reality – as usual. Solid facts, real advances are beginning to progress as predicted – or better. That won’t shut them up. The money tap remains wide open. But, ordinary folks, working class, middle class, however you slice and dice your class analysis, are starting to reap the benefits of the new means of renewable energy production.

No one is more tradition-bound than public utilities. They function like constipated manure machines. They’ve been producing cowshit for research and analysis for so many generations they are incapable of changing their business model to match a dynamic economic landscape.

Meanwhile, globalized competition encouraged by the group of nations acting responsibly to counter climate change are affecting the cash flow and profits of corporations sitting around like children in a temper tantrum – demanding the people who recognized the need for change now spend tax dollars to bail them out of their self-generated disaster.

They should be replaced by common sense, scientific, economic solutions. Send them away. Build them a leaky rest home next to one of the Koch Brothers coal heaps.