1 US, Cuba in historic patch-up (San Francisco Chronicle) After a half-century of Cold War acrimony, the US and Cuba moved on Wednesday to restore diplomatic relations — a historic shift that could revitalize the flow of money and people across the narrow waters that separate the two nations.
President Barack Obama’s dramatic announcement in Washington — seconded by Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana — was accompanied by a quiet exchange of imprisoned spies and the celebratory release of American Alan Gross, a government contract worker who had been held in Cuba for five years.
The shift in US-Cuba policy was the culmination of 18 months of secret talks between the longtime foes that included a series of meetings in Canada and the personal involvement of Pope Francis at the Vatican. It also marked an extraordinary undertaking by Obama without Congress’ authorization as he charts the waning years of his presidency.
Obama’s plans for remaking US-Cuba relations are sweeping: He aims to expand economic ties, open an embassy in Havana, send high-ranking US officials including Secretary of State John Kerry to visit and review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The US also is easing restrictions on travel to Cuba, including for family visits, official government business and educational activities. But tourist travel remains banned.
Obama and Castro spoke by telephone Tuesday for nearly an hour, the first presidential-level call between their nations’ leaders since the 1959 Cuban revolution and the approval of a US economic embargo on the communist island that sits just 90 miles off coast of Florida. The response from around the world was far more welcoming, particularly in Latin America, where the US policy toward Cuba has been despised.
2 The truth about smart cities (Steven Poole in The Guardian) The smart city concept arguably dates back at least as far as the invention of automated traffic lights, which were first deployed in 1922 in Houston, Texas. But in the last decade, thanks to the rise of ubiquitous internet connectivity and the miniaturisation of electronics in such now-common devices as RFID tags, the concept seems to have crystallised into an image of the city as a vast, efficient robot.
So what challenges face technologists hoping to weave cutting-edge networks and gadgets into centuries-old streets and deeply ingrained social habits and patterns of movement? This was the central theme of the recent “Re.Work Future Cities Summit” in London’s Docklands.
Many of the speakers took care to denigrate the idea of the smart city itself, as though it was a once-fashionable buzzphrase that had outlived its usefulness. This was done most entertainingly by Usman Haque, of the urban consultancy Umbrellium. The corporate smart-city rhetoric, he pointed out, was all about efficiency, optimisation, predictability, convenience and security. “You’ll be able to get to work on time; there’ll be a seamless shopping experience, safety through cameras, et cetera. Well, all these things make a city bearable, but they don’t make a city valuable.”
“The smart city was the wrong idea pitched in the wrong way to the wrong people,” suggested Dan Hill, of urban innovators the Future Cities Catapult. “It never answered the question: ‘How is it tangibly, materially going to affect the way people live, work, and play?’” In truth, competing visions of the smart city are proxies for competing visions of society, and in particular about who holds power in society. “In the end, the smart city will destroy democracy,” Hollis warns. “Like Google, they’ll have enough data not to have to ask you what you want.”
One sceptical observer of many presentations at the Future Cities Summit, Jonathan Rez of the University of New South Wales, suggests that “a smarter way” to build cities “might be for architects and urban planners to have psychologists and ethnographers on the team.” That would certainly be one way to acquire a better understanding of what technologists call the “end user” – in this case, the citizen. After all, as one of the tribunes asks the crowd in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: “What is the city but the people?”
3 Down Under not free from terror (Julia Baird in Straits Times/NYT) We Australians liked being cut off from craziness. We are, in the main, undisturbed. There have been some exceptions; in World War II, Japanese planes bombed us in the north, and their midget submarines slunk into Sydney Harbour in the south, sinking a ferry. But generally, we are safe.
Until now. For 16 excruciating hours this week, we all watched anxiously as Iranian refugee Man Haron Monis, 50, held 17 people hostage in a Lindt cafe in Sydney’s central business district, just blocks from the state Parliament. Three people died, including the hostage taker.
As the prime minister said, this was one disturbed man carrying out a “sick fantasy”. Perhaps the most heartening part of the Australian response was the enormous wave of concern that arose expressing fear that the siege would result in aggressive behaviour towards Muslims.
Australians can no longer rest on our remoteness, and our laid-back identity has been punctured. But if tolerance can seep through the holes, it will be a triumph for all who oppose the pall of terror, and the pull of the sick violence that can capture the imagination of a madman.