Thanksgiving: Craftsmanship in the 21st Century

alternative title: Plastic siding. . .

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Annapolis Patch: Another Church Creek Restoration

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Good Statement About E-Mail-Gate

This column from the respected Matt Iglesias, a commentator at Vox.com is the way the whole e-mail thing seems to me, based on my pretty extensive experience with internet tools over the past 20 years.

from <http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/4/13500018/clinton-email-scandal-bullshit>

The real Clinton email scandal is that a bullshit story has dominated the campaign

If you agree with her on policy, vote with a clear conscience about the server.

Updated by matt Nov 4, 2016, 9:35am EDT

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Some time ago, Hillary Clinton and her advisers decided that the best course of action was to apologize for having used a personal email address to conduct government business while serving as secretary of state. Clinton herself was, clearly, not really all that remorseful about this, and it showed in her early efforts to address it. Eventually aides prevailed upon her to express a greater degree of regret, which they hoped would lay the issue to rest.

It did not. Instead, email-related talk has dogged Clinton throughout the election and it has influenced public perceptions of her in an overwhelmingly negative way. July polling showed 56 percent of Americans believed Clinton broke the law by relying on a personal email address with another 36 percent piling on to say the episode showed “bad judgments” albeit not criminality.

Because Clinton herself apologized for it and because it does not appear to be in any way important, Clinton allies, surrogates, and co-partisans have largely not familiarized themselves with the details of the matter, instead saying vaguely that it was an error of judgment and she apologized and America has bigger fish to fry.

This has had the effect of further inscribing and reinscribing the notion that Clinton did something wrong, meaning that every bit of micro-news that puts the scandal back on cable amounts to reminding people of something bad that Clinton did. In total, network newscasts have, remarkably, dedicated more airtime to coverage of Clinton’s emails than to all policy issues combined.

This is unfortunate because emailgate, like so many Clinton pseudo-scandals before it, is bullshit. The real scandal here is the way a story that was at best of modest significance came to dominate the US presidential election — overwhelming stories of much more importance, giving the American people a completely skewed impression of one of the two nominees, and creating space for the FBI to intervene in the election in favor of its apparently preferred candidate in a dangerous way.

Why Hillary Clinton used a personal email account

When Hillary Clinton took office as secretary of state, she, like most people, already had a personal email account. Like most people who started a federal job in 2009, she was also disheartened to learn that the then-current state of federal IT departments was such that she could not connect her personal smartphone to a State Department email address. If she wanted ready access to both her email accounts, she would need to carry twosmartphones.

As any reporter in Washington knows, this indignity was in fact visited upon a huge number of DC denizens for many years. Everyone working in government felt that this was kinda bullshit, but nobody could really do anything about it. (Meanwhile, Chief Justice John Roberts has opined that carrying two phones could be reasonable grounds to suspect someone is a drug dealer.)

Clinton decided to do something about it. Namely, she told her top aides to just email her at her personal address so she could keep using whichever devices she wanted. This violated an internal State Department policy directive, known as a Foreign Affairs Manual, which stated that while it was okay to use personal digital devices to do work occasionally, “normal day-to-day operations” should be conducted on standard State Department equipment. Clinton chose to ignore this guideline and because she was the boss nobody could stop her. Career foreign service officers and other State personnel have every right to be peeved that Clinton opted out of an annoying policy rather than fixing the underlying issue, but it’s hardly a matter of overwhelming public concern.

And, indeed, it turns out Colin Powell also used a private email address for routine work. Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright didn’t use email, and back before Albright only weird nerds even knew what email was. So at the time Clinton took office, only one previous secretary of state had ever faced the question of what email account to use, and he reached the exact same conclusion Clinton did — just use your personal email address.

Why Hillary used a private email server

When Hillary tried the eminently sensible “I was following precedent” defense, Politifact dinged her answer as “mostly false” on the grounds that while Powell did use a personal email account, he didn’t use a private email server.

This distinction has attracted a lot of attention. And it’s proven politically damaging — because while lots of people maintain two email addresses and sometimes do work stuff on their personal email, very few Americans use a private email server as opposed to relying on a commercial email service. But legally speaking, this is completely irrelevant. As the State Department inspector general concluded in its report on Clinton’s conduct, the guideline Clinton violated was a principle that “normal day-to-day operations should be conducted on an authorized Automated Information System.”

Using a private server violates that rule, but so would using a Gmail address or simply checking your State.gov email address from your personal laptop rather than a Department-issue one.

But while the use of a private server is legally irrelevant, it’s certainly unusual. And it leaves people wondering: Why did Clinton go out of her way to set up a private server?

Clinton, as you may have heard, is married to former president Bill Clinton, who stepped down from office in January of 2001. Clinton was in the White House throughout the 1990s when the rest of us were being bombarded with AOL signup CD-ROMs, so he didn’t have a personal email when he left. Gmail didn’t exist back then, and his new job was, in effect, running a Bill Clinton startup. He launched a charitable foundation, he established his presidential library, and he made big bucks on speaking tours. He had a staff and he needed IT infrastructure and support. So he paid a guy to set up an email server that he could use.

Hillary Clinton — who is, again, his wife — also set herself up with an account on the same server. This is a bit unusual, but a lot about being married to a former president is unusual. What it’s not is suspicious.

The private server was not a transparency dodge

It’s become a bit of an article of faith among journalists frustrated with public officials’ constant FOIA-dodging that this is all obviously dissimulation and Clinton was really trying to evade the Freedom of Information Act.

Many people, for example, point to the fact that Clinton would routinely travel with multipledigital devices as debunking her supposed convenience argument. But this is silly. I’ve been known to travel with an iPhone, an iPad, a Kindle, and a laptop all at once. That doesn’t mean needing to carry two separate iPhones (one to check my work email and one to check my personal email) wouldn’t be inconvenient. After all, what if I was replying to a work email while a text came in to my personal phone and I wanted to check it.

I’d be left juggling phones and looking like an idiot, exactly how federal employees tended to look in the heyday of the double-fisting phones era.

I would not want to do that. Colin Powell did not want to do that. Hillary Clinton did not want to do that. Because that would be terrible.

By contrast, it’s a terrible solution to a desire to avoid having your emails disclosed to the public via FOIA. One way you can tell it’s a terrible solution is that Hillary Clinton’s work emails have been disclosed to the public. You can read them right here.

The specific timeline is that the House Select Committee on Benghazi requested Clinton’s emails in the summer of 2014, at which point the relevant State Department personnel realized they did not have the emails because Clinton had been using her personal address. State asked Clinton for the emails, and she handed them over later that year. It was only in March of 2015 that the New York Times broke the story of Clinton’s private server in a scoop by Michael Schmidt, which reported that the emails had been handed over to the State Department “two months ago.”

This is fairly clearly not an optimal approach to government record-keeping, as Thomas Blanton of the National Security Archive at George Washington University told Schmidt at the time:

It’s a shame it didn’t take place automatically when she was secretary of state as it should have. Someone in the State Department deserves credit for taking the initiative to ask for the records back. Most of the time it takes the threat of litigation and embarrassment.

According to the Inspector General’s report, Clinton “should have preserved any Federal records she created and received on her personal account by printing and filing those records with the related files in the Office of the Secretary.”

There are two possible interpretations here. One is that Clinton hatched the private email account plan as an elaborate dodge of federal record-keeping laws, but then months before the public became aware of the server’s existence complied with requests to turn them over. The other is that the federal records rule on the book was antiquated and a bit absurd, requiring officials to turn over paper copies of emails for no good reason, and simply got ignored out of sloppiness.

But she deleted 33,000 emails!

Suspicion at this point is then supposed to focus on the fact that she had her lawyers delete more than 30,000 emails from her server.

After Hillary left office, the State Department told her she had to turn all her work-related emails over to them, so she tasked a legal team with determining which emails were work emails and which were not. She turned the work emails over because that’s what she was legally required to do. She deleted the others, presumably because she did not want Trey Gowdy and Jason Chaffetz to rummage through her inbox leaking whatever they happened to find amusing to area journalists.

Now, is it possible that Clinton’s legal team simply decided to entirely disregard the law and delete work-related emails?

In some sense, sure. But there’s no evidence that this happened. Generally speaking, in life we assume it would be moderately difficult to hire a well-known law firm to destroy evidence for you without someone deciding to do the right thing and squeal.

Besides which, it would be almost comically easy to catch Clinton in the act of systematically destroying relevant emails. The vast majority of the work-related email correspondence of an incumbent secretary of state, after all, is going to be correspondence with other government employees. Maybe she shoots a note to the Pentagon about Benghazi, or circulates ideas for a speech draft with her communications team. Any message like that, by definition, would exist on a government server as well as on her private one. This means it would be fully accessible via FOIA and also means that if Clinton’s copy were found to not be in the pile of emails she turned over, she’d be caught red handed.

The available FOIA workarounds are available to everyone

Now what’s true is that Clinton could, in theory, have conducted work-related email conversations using another person’s personal email address.

She could, for instance, have emailed Jake Sullivan on his Gmail address then deleted the email from her private server. We’d be in the dark and she’d get away with it.

The key thing to note here, however, is that the availability of this option has nothing to do with Clinton’s decision to use a personal account as her exclusive account and also has nothing to do with her decision to host her personal email on a private server.

At any given time, any federal employee can use her personal account to email any other federal employee at his personal account. If they receive a Freedom of Information Act request, they are legally obligated to hand that correspondence over. But in a practical sense, if they want to break the law they can probably get away with it. And as Ezra Klein has noted, there are a lot of workarounds here:

As every reporter knows, when official sources want to tell you something particularly delicate, they email you from a personal account — or, much more often, they call.

A lot of my reporting happens by email. But virtually none of my reporting with the White House happens by email. There, emails for clarification, or comment, quickly lead to phone calls. The reason — unsaid but obvious — is that phone calls don’t leave an official record. White House officials can talk freely on the phone in a way they can’t over email.

Similarly, the White House keeps a visitor’s log. If you make an appointment to meet with someone, your entrance and point of contact are recorded for posterity and searchable online. When someone who shouldn’t be meeting with you wants to meet with you, they tend to suggest an off-site location: a restaurant downtown, or a nearby coffee shop. Peet’s Coffee doesn’t keep a list of everyone who walks in or out.

We do not, however, generally treat all federal employees as having a massive ethical cloud over their heads just because they could probably use this workaround to break the law. There is zero reason to apply heightened scrutiny to Clinton just because she also couldbreak the law.

Besides which, when you are secretary of state there is a much simpler and easier way to mask your correspondence: classification.

Here, for example, is an email Sullivan sent to Clinton on June 4, 2011, that was duly handed over to the State Department and made available by the FOIA office:

I’m not saying the contents of that message don’t deserve to be redacted for security purposes. The fact is that I have no idea. But the reality is the American national security state is really, really good at using official channels to avoid disclosure of information. Nobody needs a private email server to pull that off.

Indeed, the allegation that the server setup was an elaborate con to evade transparency law is doubly ridiculous. On the one hand, a private server would not be necessary to carry it out. (All you need is to have a private email address on the side, which everyone does.) While on the other hand, the exclusive use of a personal email account means that Clinton’s personal account has come under an exceptional level of security.

The classification thing is a red herring

It’s precisely because nothing about the basic setup of the email account was in any way wrong that the investigation ended up focusing on the question of mishandling classified information.

The key point here is that using a State.gov email account would not have changed anything. When US government officials have conversations about classified matters, they are not supposed to use email. They are supposed to use special secure channels.

Nonetheless, mistakes happen in part because classification standards are vague and ever-changing. Technically speaking, forwarding a Washington Post article detailing things revealed by Edward Snowden could constitute an improper discussion of classified matters.

As FBI Director James Comey concluded, “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring a case against Clinton over this matter. Almost all of the relevant statutes require an intent to mishandle classified information in order to bring a prosecution, a standard that Clinton’s conduct clearly does not meet. Critics have thus chosen to focus on 18 USC § 793, a statute that sets a lower “gross negligence” standard.

However, as Jack Goldsmith, one of the top lawyers in George W. Bush’s administration explains, such a prosecution “would be entirely novel, and would turn in part on very tricky questions about how email exchanges fit into language written with physical removal of classified information in mind.”

Ben Wittes, a veteran legal journalist and Brookings fellow who has spent the past several years specializing in national security law, wrote that Comey’s characterization was clearly correct:

For the last several months, people have been asking me what I thought the chances of an indictment were. I have said each time that there is no chance without evidence of bad faith action of some kind. People simply don’t get indicted for accidental, non-malicious mishandling of classified material. I have followed leak cases for a very long time, both at the Washington Post and since starting Lawfare. I have never seen a criminal matter proceed without even an allegation of something more than mere mishandling of sensitive information. Hillary Clinton is not above the law, but to indict her on these facts, she’d have to be significantly below the law.

It’s true that too a layman the Espionage Act’s reference to “gross negligence” sounds similar to Comey’s characterization of Clinton’s actions as “extremely careless.” But as Philip Zelikow, a counselor to Condoleezza Rice during the Bush administration and currently the Director of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia explains they only sound alike “unless you do a tiny bit of homework” on the history and caselaw of the Statute.

As the Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez writes, attempting a prosecution for non-malicious mishandling would likely result in the statute being held unconstitutional: “the Supreme Court’s opinion in Gorin v. United States (1941), which suggests that the Espionage Act’s intent requirements are an important feature that save it from unconstitutional vagueness.”

This legal analysis is important because it makes it clear that even if the Weiner laptop emails aren’t simply client-side copies of the exact emails the FBI already has, there is essentially no chance it will change the ultimate verdict. The reason Clinton isn’t getting locked up is that there was no malign intent. Finding another email with classified information on it won’t change that conclusion.

A bullshit scandal amidst a serious election

Network newscasts have, remarkably, dedicated more airtime to coverage of Clinton’s emails than to all policy issues combined.

Cable news has been, if anything, worse, and many prestige outlets have joined the pileup. One malign result of obsessive email coverage is that the public is left totally unaware of the policy stakes in the election. Another is that the constant vague recitations of the phrase ‘‘Clinton email scandal’’ have firmly implanted the notion that there is something scandalous about anything involving Hillary Clinton an email, including her campaign manager getting hacked or the revelation that one of her aides sometimes checked mail on her husband’s computer.

But none of this is true. Clinton broke no laws according to the FBI itself. Her setup gave her no power to evade federal transparency laws beyond what anyone who has a personal email account of any kind has. Her stated explanation for her conduct is entirely believable, fits the facts perfectly, and is entirely plausible to anyone who doesn’t simply start with the assumption that she’s guilty of something.

Given Powell’s conduct, Clinton wasn’t even breaking with an informal precedent. The very worst you can say is that, faced with an annoying government IT policy, she used her stature to find a personal workaround rather than a systemic fix that would work for everyone. To spend so much time on such a trivial matter would be absurd in a city council race, much less a presidential election. To do so in circumstances when it advances the electoral prospects of a rival who has shattered all precedents in terms of lacking transparency or basic honesty is infinity more scandalous than anything related to the server itself.

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Story About Reef Restoration in San Andres (Colombia) After Hurricane Matthew

from El Isleño <http://www.elisleño.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=12195:acciones-de-choque-y-sanadoras-en-little-reef&catid=41:ambiental&Itemid=83>

Acciones de choque y sanadoras en Little Reef

Miércoles, 19 de Octubre de 2016 04:19 Jorge Sánchez

Un grupo de buzos compuesto por personal de la corporación Coralina, jóvenes buzos de colegios de la isla, empresa privada y la ONG Help 2 Oceans hicieron presencia en la zona norte de la isla llamada ‘Little Reef’ respondiendo al daño causado efectos del Huracán Matthew que perjudicó en buena parte la vida en dicha formación arrecifal.

Las acciones combinadas se presentaron a raíz de la evaluación preliminar de la zona ordenada por el ingeniero Durcey Stephens Lever director de Coralina realizada la semana pasada y dirigida desde la Subdirección de Mares y Costas de esa misma entidad.

En efecto, como lo informó EL ISLEÑO en su portal web, la importante barrera secundaria sufrió daños y “la tarea es mitigar los efectos por medio de la replantación de fragmentos encontrados”, explicó Nacor Bolaños, biólogo que dirige las acciones.

La labores no se hicieron esperar y con un tiempo de inmersión cercano a las dos horas sumadas en tres inmersiones, estos buzos han cubierto gran parte de la barrera. Se actuó a tiempo y se espera aprovechar la ocasión ‘, además, para implantar algunas ‘semillas’ en La Pirámide, otro lugar que ha sufrido gran deterioro.

Los logros obtenidos durante las labores adelantadas han sido signifcativos. “Es maravilloso observar la resistencia en los pólipos marinos de los (corales) ‘cuerno de alce’ que aún se conservan en buen estado salud ya que no presentan signos de blanqueamiento, a pesar de las fracturas de la estructura de carbonato de calcio”, explicó Daniel Florio, operador de buceo local.

Se aguarda que las acciones conjuntas se mantengan guiadas e impulsadas por iniciativas similares.

El célebre buzo ambientalista Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) afirmó alguna vez que frente a las consecuencias de los fenómenos de la naturaleza, “estamos capacitados para reducir de forma drástica su gravedad y consecuencias actuando con celeridad, conocimiento y con unidad de criterio”. Manos a la obra.

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Eastern Caribbean Whales: Conservation as Cultural Preservation

[An extraordinary essay by Shane Gero, the co-founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, about the cultures of whales, specifically those in the Eastern Caribbean Clan. This essay and the background research more extensively reported in PLOS One, are powerful arguments against the maintenance of the ceremonial Windward Island whale hunting. Read it and share. bp ]

… from the Sunday New York Times Sunday Review section <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/09/opinion/sunday/the-lost-cultures-of-whales.html?ref=opinion>

SundayReview | OPINION

The Lost Cultures of Whales

By SHANE GEROOCT. 8, 2016

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Photo

CreditPing Zhu

Aboard the Balaena, Caribbean — I am alone on deck, my headphones filled with the sounds of the deep ocean. I have been tracking the sperm whales since 4 a.m. Now the island of Dominica imposes its dark shape in front of the rising sun.

“We have whales!” I shout down to Hal Whitehead, who founded the Dominica Sperm Whale Project with me a decade ago. He puts the kettle on and asks who it is as he comes on deck.

I tell him it’s Pinchy and her calf, Tweak. Tweak is making small suckling dives alongside his mother. Then Pinchy dives, and we move the boat into the calm spot she left behind — the “flukeprint.” We are collecting the whales’ skin and fecal samples and recording the sounds they make on a hydrophone, an underwater microphone. Soon after Pinchy dives, we hear the clicks of her codas — whale social calls; she is talking with Tweak. Then the echolocation starts as she hunts for squid. Tweak slides below the surface in search of his babysitter, Fingers, who is Pinchy’s aunt. Hal and I have breakfast, then wake the crew.

Audio
Play

A Whale’s Coda 0:25

A recording of the 1+1+3 coda that is made only by sperm whales in the Eastern Caribbean Clan. Dominica Sperm Whale Project

The whale families we work with, members of the Eastern Caribbean Clan, are shrinking. Their population is declining by as much as 4 percent a year, as we reported last week in the journal PLOS One, largely a result of climate change and the increasing human presence in these waters. (Whales can be hit by ships or become entangled in fishing gear.) We are not just losing specific whales that we have come to know as individuals; we are losing a way of life, a culture — the accumulated wisdom of generations on how to survive in the deep waters of the Caribbean Sea. They may have lived here for longer than we have walked upright.

Sperm whales live rich and complex lives in a part of the world we find difficult to even explore. And many aspects of their lives appear remarkably similar to our own. Grandmothers, mothers and daughters babysit, defend and raise calves together. Family is critical to surviving in the open ocean, and each has its own way of doing things. The whales live in communities of neighboring families in a multicultural oceanic society.

Behavior is what you do, culture is how you do it. All sperm whales do the same things — feed, swim, babysit, defend, socialize — but how they do them is different around the world. Just as humans use forks or chopsticks, they, too, differ in how they eat, what species of squid they eat, how fast they travel and where they roam, their social behavior, and probably many other ways we still do not understand.

They seem to mark these cultural differences with different dialects — or distinct sets of codas. Families that share the same dialect we call a clan. The whale families in the Eastern Caribbean Clan use 22 different coda patterns. When two sperm whale families meet at sea, they need a way to recognize one another; those from a similar culture are more likely to cooperate. It turns out that sperm whale families in the same clan will spend time together, while families that speak different dialects, from different clans, will never interact.

Audio
Play

Sounds From a Gathering 0:28

When a family of whales from the Eastern Caribbean socializes they make up to 22 different types of codas, some of which can be heard in this recording of several whales. Dominica Sperm Whale Project

Whales’ codas appear to broadcast their identities. One coda pattern distinguishes individuals, a set of others identifies their families, and a special one marks the cultural clan. The 1+1+3 coda (click pause click pause click click click) is unique to the Eastern Caribbean, is made by all the whales in the Eastern Caribbean Clan, and has remained identical for at least 30 years. Calves spend at least two years learning to make it correctly. And they learn to produce it with great fidelity, which most likely ensures that their clan membership is recognizable over their large geographic ranges and across the diversity of other whales they encounter.

The whales in the Caribbean are distinct, and they appear to identify themselves as distinct. Unfortunately, as a result of a changing climate and human impacts, these urban whales, who live in nearshore waters, are at risk. One in three baby whales born off Dominica will not survive to its first birthday. Tweak’s cousin, Digit, had just begun hunting on her own when she got rope from a fishing net tangled around her tail; now she can no longer dive as well, and is struggling to survive.

Losing a large number of individuals is a tragedy, but what happens when we lose an entire whale culture? What do we lose when we lose a way of life?

Every culture, whale or otherwise, is its own solution to the problems of the environment in which it lives. With its extirpation, we lose the traditional knowledge of what it means to be a Caribbean whale and how to exploit the deep sea riches around the islands efficiently. And that cannot be recovered, not even if the global population of sperm whales was robust enough to support remigration into the Caribbean. These would be different whales, from elsewhere, who do things differently. This region would be profoundly impoverished for the new whales, who would be more vulnerable here. The species as a whole would lose some of its repertoire on how to survive.

Interactive Feature: A Conversation With Whales

Species conservation should not be just about numbers. The definition of biodiversity needs to include cultural diversity. All sperm whales around the world are similar genetically. In fact, recent research suggests that all sperm whales may have descended from a single whale some 80,000 years ago. But genetics may not be particularly helpful when conserving populations of cultural whales. “Genetic stocks,” which we have traditionally used to manage and protect much of the world’s wildlife, simply cannot preserve the diversity of life. Diverse systems are more resilient, and the most important diversity in sperm whales, as in humans, is in their cultural traditions.

I could point to many reasons to protect whales, like the way they mitigate the effects of climate change by cycling nutrients that enable the ocean to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, or how top predators regulate marine food chains. But if we are to preserve life, ours and theirs, we must find ways to succeed together, and value diversity in our societies and in our ecosystems.

Shane Gero, a behavioral ecologist, is a founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion), and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 9, 2016, on page SR5 of the New York edition with the headline: The Lost Cultures of Whales. Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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How to Increase the Integration of Cuban Science and Technology with the Global Community

[In my experience both working with Cuba in UNEP’s Global Environmental Outlook program, and during birding trips to the island, I’ve been greatly impressed by the depth of Cuban expertise in many science and technology fields. There is a major challenge, crucially involving civil society networks (like CIVIC) both inside and outside of Cuba, to find ways to translate some of this expertise, developed in relative isolation for the past half century, to contexts and language that is understood and appreciated in the wider Caribbean and global science and technology communities. [Not to ignore the several outreach efforts made by the Cuban university scholarships provided for most Caribbean residents, and the many professionals (especially in medicine and engineering) that the Cuban government has provided for technical assistance to Caribbean island states for decades. bp]

from a post by Yacine Khelladi <yacine at yacine dot net>, moderator of the CIVIC [Caribbean ICT stakeholders Virtual Community <https://dgroups.org/_/84ydpl2j>] :

Can Cuban science go global?
http://www.nature.com/news/can-cuban-science-go-global-1.20694

Tensions between Cuba and the United States are easing. But researchers still struggle to join the scientific world.

Sara Reardon 28 September 2016

Image caption: Students collaborate on a physics experiment at the University of Havana.
The western edge of Havana hides a side of Cuban society that tourists rarely see. High fences and thick vegetation wall off the grand estates and embassies where the elites congregate. And amid these enclaves of privilege lies a cluster of concrete buildings belonging to the Polo Científico del Oeste — the ‘scientific pole’ of Cuba’s capital city. Here, a cluster of biotechnology research institutions are protected from the chaos and poverty of a city in transition.

For a country whose entire gross domestic product (GDP) is just half of what the US government spends on research, Cuba punches above its weight in some areas of science. Fuelled by relatively generous government support, biomedical researchers have managed to excel at creating low-cost vaccines, developing cancer treatments and screening infants for disorders. Other areas of science get more meagre funding, but Cuba still boasts some bright spots. As the largest and most populous island in the Caribbean, it is a key node in international networks monitoring hurricanes and infectious-disease outbreaks. And because there is so little trade and tourism, the country has nearly pristine coral reefs and mangroves, which attract attention from researchers worldwide.

The productivity and quality of some research in Cuba surprises those from other countries. “We had the same thought about Cuban science as everyone else did: that it was stuck back in I Love Lucy days,” says Kelvin Lee, invoking the 1950s TV show. Lee, an immunologist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, is organizing the first US clinical trial of a Cuban vaccine.

Yet the success stories don’t outweigh the profound challenges facing scientists in Cuba. Research jobs pay poorly, and the number of students getting science doctorates has not risen in the past decade. Internet access is scarce, and those who have it find the service so sluggish that it can be next-to-impossible to e-mail a scientific paper. An energy shortage this summer forced government buildings to shut off their electricity for large portions of the week. During a temporary ban on air conditioning, scientists at the University of Havana sweltered over their laptops in 35 °C temperatures.

Image: Desmond Boylan for Nature
caption: Inside a laboratory at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana.

Another problem looms above all others: the US trade embargo. For the past half-century, the embargo has severely restricted the ability of Cuban researchers to buy scientific equipment, win international grants and travel in the United States.

But in December 2014, US President Barack Obama announced his intention to restore full relations between the two countries and began lifting travel restrictions. On 31 August 2016, a JetBlue Airways plane flew directly from Florida to Cuba — the first commercially scheduled flight between the two countries in five decades. This softening of relations has led to an era of evolution: it has opened up opportunities for researchers, such as easier travel to international meetings, and raises the prospect of many future benefits through collaborations and purchases. Yet the pace of progress has been much slower than many had hoped, and the future of US–Cuba relations remains uncertain. A decision to lift the embargo entirely requires action from a hostile Congress and lies in the hands of the next US president.

And in the meantime, Cuban researchers are stuck with many of the same problems as their counterparts in other developing nations: an exodus of young scientists, difficulty finding collaborators and an inability to afford increasingly specialized scientific equipment. This sets Cuba back years from where it could be, says Sergio Jorge Pastrana, executive director of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba. “The changes are coming but they change too slowly.”

Old School
In the heart of Havana’s Old Town, the academy is a cool, marble respite from the humidity. It is in the midst of remodelling: librarians sort century-old books of its proceedings, and Pastrana says that he plans to install solar panels. Outside, people pick their way along streets strewn with construction rubble while shops hawk Che Guevara shirts, cheap cigars and mass-produced paintings of cars.

Like the colourful, iron-railed buildings that surround it, the science academy is a grand institution, the first of its kind established outside Europe. In its 155 years, it has hosted greats such as Albert Einstein and one of Cuba’s most famous scientists, epidemiologist Carlos Finlay, who discovered that mosquitoes transmit yellow fever in the late 1800s. Until the revolution, the Cuban academy shared close ties with the US National Academy of Sciences and with its European counterparts. Even under the embargo restrictions, the organization has forged ties with US scientists at institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Pastrana says that science got lucky when Fidel Castro took over (see ‘How Cuban science stacks up’). Cuba could have ended up with “a very bad leader for science”, he says. Instead, one of Castro’s first acts was to create and enforce a universal-literacy requirement, and he prioritized knowledge building and discovery. “The future of our country has to be necessarily a future of men of science,” Castro said in a 1960 speech. The now-famous quote is engraved in Spanish on the wall of the science academy’s lecture hall.

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ARE BIOFUELS WORSE FOR THE CLIMATE THAN PETROLEUM?

from Conservation Magazine

Biofuels have for years divided energy experts and environmentalists. Critics say that they displace farmland and cause deforestation. Proponents argue they are a green, low-carbon alternative to petroleum-based fuels.

A new analysis adds fuel to the incendiary topic. Researchers report in the journal Climatic Change that biofuels might harm the climate more than petroleum. Substituting petroleum fuels with biofuels in American vehicles has led to an increase in net carbon dioxide emissions over the eight years covered by their study, they calculate.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard has set an annual production target of 36 billion gallons of biofuel in 2022. The push for biofuels is based on life-cycle analyses, which assume that fuel crops absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, and this carbon negation effect adds up over time.

For the new study, researchers at the University of Michigan Energy Institute analyzed real-world data from 2005–2013 on crop production, biofuel production, gasoline production, and vehicle emissions. They analyzed how much carbon dioxide corn and soy plants pull from the air while growing, and how much of it they release when burned.

The result? Growing fuel crops only absorb 37 percent of the carbon dioxide that burning biofuel releases. “This shows that biofuel use fell well short of being carbon neutral even before considering process emissions,” said lead researcher John DeCicco.

The research, funded by the American Petroleum Institute, has garnered both criticism and praise. Praise came from researchers who say traditional life-cycle calculations of biofuels’ climate impact have been flawed, and that biofuels don’t need national growth targets and subsidies. Critics, meanwhile, pointed out that the study does not take into account the long timescale it takes for crops to soak up carbon emissions.

Plus, as a news story in Wired pointed out, the researchers only looked at corn ethanol and soy biodiesel. Fuels made from cellulosic sources such as grasses, stems, and leaves are widely accepted to be less carbon intensive in addition to not competing with farmland. —Prachi Patel | 8 September 2016

Source: John M. DeCicco et al. Carbon balance effects of U.S. biofuel production and use. Climatic Change. 2016.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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