Month: August 2017

Miley Cyrus, Beyonce Join Harvey Storm Relief Effort

Pop star Miley Cyrus and Oscar-winning actors Sandra Bullock and Leonardo DiCaprio pledged funds to help victims of storm Harvey, while Beyonce on Thursday said she was sending a team to her Houston, Texas hometown to help with relief efforts.

A donation drive organized by Houston Texans NFL star J.J. Watt had reached $10 million in pledges from celebrities and ordinary people by Thursday, and singer Solange Knowles, Beyonce’s sister, announced benefit concerts in Boston and New York for September and October.

A tearful Cyrus, 24, announced a $500,000 contribution in an emotional appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

“It just really makes me just really upset… I go home to my seven dogs and if I didn’t have that anymore, it would just be really hard. So I am really happy to help in any way I can. And I hope people understand and can put themselves in those people’s shoes,” Cyrus said.

Some 779,000 Texans have been ordered to evacuate their homes and another 980,000 fled voluntarily amid concerns on Thursday that swollen reservoirs and rivers could bring new flooding. Harvey roared ashore late last week as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in a half-century but has now been downgraded to a tropical depression.

“Gravity” star Bullock, and DiCaprio’s foundation said this week they will each contribute $1 million to organizations helping people recover from the devastating floods.

Beyonce, one of Houston’s best-known celebrities, launched BeyGOOD Houston on her website. A statement said a team from her BeyGOOD philanthropic foundation was headed to the city to help with relief efforts, and the website asked fans to make donations to two local groups working there.

The “Lemonade” singer, who now lives in Los Angeles, has not said whether she is making a personal donation, but her pastor Rudy Rasmus said she tends to keep her charitable efforts quiet.

“Beyonce is extremely private and has done a lot that she has requested we don’t announce and publicize over the years, Rasmus told celebrity website TMZ.com in an interview this week. “She has really stepped up and it has been a big blessing for us,” added Rasmus, who launched the non-profit Bread for Life in Houston in 1992 to feed homeless people.

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Like Destiny’s Child, Fifth Harmony Bounces Back After Drama

It’s been a year of transition for Fifth Harmony: The pop stars parted ways with member Camila Cabello, switched management teams, negotiated a new contract with their label and won greater creative control of their brand.

 

Luckily the newly-minted quartet, who released their third album last week, had the fairy godmother of girl groups to guide them through the tumultuous times: Destiny’s Child alum Kelly Rowland.

 

“We were advised by THE Kelly Rowland,” Dinah Jane, 20, said with reverence. “She just told us to, like, let the music speak for itself … and just know your worth, believe in yourself and just be there for each other. So we’ve definitely honed into that. And for her to advise that, like, that says a lot because, you know, she’s gone through the same things.”

 

“And she said that she was really proud of us,” beamed Normani Kordei, 21.

 

Destiny’s Child went through similar changes before settling on the final and most famous formation, the trio of Rowland, Beyonce Knowles and Michelle Williams.

 

Fifth Harmony said they looked to the “Bootylicious” hitmakers when deciding to fill the spot left by Cabello, who exited in December to pursue a solo career.

 

“We kept referencing that while we were in the moments of that whole thing happening. … Like people, teams or whatever, suggesting, ‘Oh maybe we get a fifth member?”’ Lauren Jauregui, 21, recalled. “Like no, dude. If we’re going to do this, it’s the four of us. Period.”

 

“It’s been us. It will be us,” echoed Kordei.

 

The group doubled down on that decision during Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards, where a stand-in fifth member was quickly tossed from the stage as they began to perform. The dance-heavy performance, which came two days after the release of their new album, was well-received and boosted sales of the single “Down.” The girls also won best pop video for the song’s video, which features rapper Gucci Mane.

 

Naming their third album after the group drives the point home — though they’ve downsized, they feel stronger than ever.

 

“[The album] is more edgy and mature, of course, but the most harmonious we’ve ever been,” Jane said.

 

They say they are most comfortable now because they’re in the driver’s seat. They pushed for more creative control with their labels, Epic Records and Simon Cowell’s Syco imprint, and sought legal counsel to gain ownership of the Fifth Harmony trademark.

 

“When we hired our lawyer, Dina LaPolt, that’s when our real transformation began because she really informed us about our business and informed us about our rights as artists,” Jauregui said. “And we really, I feel, gained this sort of inner power that we didn’t have before and this control and ownership of our music, of our brand, of our business.”

 

Fifth Harmony was formed on the U.S. version of “The X Factor” in 2012. In 2015 they released their full-length debut, “Reflection,” finding chart success with the upbeat hit, “Worth It.” They reached greater heights with the slick and sexy song “Work from Home” — the lead single from last year’s “7/27” — peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

 

But behind closed doors, the girls were struggling.

 

“There are just so many crazy things that happen behind-the-scenes. So many honestly horrific situations that happen and we had to step up and say, ‘You know what? We demand the respect that we deserve,”’ recalled Ally Brooke, 24. “We need to write on this album. We need to be part of that process and that’s exactly what we did.”

 

“Fifth Harmony” delivers more of the group’s signature provocative pop/R&B sound along with an eclectic mix of messages. The women writhe on motel beds and showcase saucy parking lot dance sequences in the video for “Down.” They touch on politics and encourage inclusivity in the uplifting album-closer “Bridges.” And they issue a stern warning to those who misjudge them in the darker, F-bomb-fueled “Angel,” produced by Justin Bieber collaborator Poo Bear and grungy EDM star Skrillex.

 

“Honestly it’s a breath of fresh air,” said Kordei of the group’s new dynamic. “We’re just so grateful and we thank God, like, literally every single day.”

 

“Even in those times where the storm was really, really heavy and we didn’t know if it was going to end … now I recognize what goodness actually feels like,” she added.

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US Agency Names 4 Firms to Build Border Wall Prototypes

U.S. Customs and Border Protection selected four construction companies Thursday to erect prototypes of the Mexican border wall that President Donald Trump has said he intends to build to deter illegal immigration and smuggling.

The four firms, from four different U.S. states, are to build solid-concrete prototypes of the border wall within 30 days, once they are given a notice to proceed. Those four sample walls will then be tested for strength and “permeability,” according to the agency’s acting deputy commissioner, Ronald Vitiello.

The border protection agency is separately screening applicants for other contracts to build prototype walls made from alternate materials.

Trump has said he thinks the 10-meter-tall wall should have windows, or even be fully transparent, so Border Patrol officers in the United States can observe suspicious activities on the other side of the barrier.

“We’re going to use all the things that we think will work the best,” Vitiello said.

Thursday’s announcement was the latest step forward in a bureaucratic process that has been delayed multiple times. The administration once said construction of the full border wall would begin in June, but it was not until mid-March that the first requests for proposals went out to contractors, seeking conceptual designs for the border barrier, which has been shrouded in political controversy.

Congress has appropriated $20 million to CBP for use in preparing the prototypes, both of concrete and other materials. No funds have yet been budgeted for the full border wall, likely a multibillion-dollar undertaking that would be one of the largest public works projects in U.S. history.

The four companies selected Thursday to build concrete prototypes were Caddell Construction of Montgomery, Alabama; Fisher Industries of Tempe, Arizona; Texas Sterling Construction of Houston; and W.G. Yates & Sons of Philadelphia.

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Tesla Starts Production of Solar Cells in Buffalo, New York

Tesla Inc. is starting production of the cells for its solar roof tiles at its factory in Buffalo, New York.

 

The company has already begun installing its solar roofs, which look like regular roofs but are made of glass tiles. But until now, it has been making them on a small scale near its vehicle factory in Fremont, California.

 

Tesla’s Chief Technical Officer, JB Straubel, says the company now has several hundred workers and machinery installed in its 1.2 million-square-foot factory in Buffalo.

 

“By the end of this year we will have the ramp-up of solar roof modules started in a substantial way,” Straubel told The Associated Press Thursday. “This is an interim milestone that we’re pretty proud of.”

 

The Buffalo plant was originally begun by Silevo, a solar panel startup, on the site of an old steel mill. Solar panel maker SolarCity Corp. bought Silevo in 2014. Then Tesla acquired SolarCity for around $2 billion late last year.

SolarCity was run by cousins of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who sat on SolarCity’s board.

 

“This factory, and the opportunity to build solar modules and cells in the U.S., was part of why this project made sense,” Straubel said.

 

Tesla’s partner, Panasonic Corp., will make the photovoltaic cells, which look similar to computer chips. Tesla workers will combine the cells into modules that fit into the roof tiles. The tiles will eventually be made in Buffalo as well, along with more traditional solar panels. Panasonic is also working with Tesla at its Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada.

 

Straubel says Tesla eventually hopes to reach 2 gigawatts of cell production annually at the Buffalo plant. That’s higher than its initial target of 1 gigawatt by 2019. Straubel said Tesla has been working on making the factory more efficient.

 

One gigawatt is equivalent to the annual output of a large nuclear or coal-fired power plant, Straubel said, “so it’s like we’re eliminating one of those every single year.”

 

Straubel wouldn’t say how many customers have ordered solar roof tiles, but said demand is strong and it will take Tesla through the end of next year to meet its current orders. Both he and Musk have had the tiles installed on their roofs.

 

Tesla shares were up less than 1 percent to $355.65 in afternoon trading.

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Del Toro’s ‘The Shape of Water’ Makes Waves in Venice

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is an aquatic Beauty and the Beast, a transgressive fairy tale about a young woman’s love for a scaly creature from the Amazonian depths.

Like the best fables, it’s also rooted in the real world: the story of a migrant from the south facing a hostile reception in a security-obsessed United States.

“I think that fantasy is a very political genre,” del Toro said Thursday at the Venice Film Festival, where The Shape of Water had its red-carpet world premiere. It’s one of 21 films competing for the coveted Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize.

“Fairy tales were born in times of great trouble. They were born in times of famine, pestilence and war,” he added.

Part monster movie, part noir thriller, part Hollywood musical, the film defies categorization, though Del Toro took a stab, suggesting it’s “like Douglas Sirk rewriting Pasolini’s Theorem with a fish.”

Some critics are calling it del Toro’s best film since Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006. The Daily Telegraph summed it up as “an honest-to-God B-movie blood-curdler that’s also, somehow, a shimmeringly earnest and boundlessly beautiful melodrama.” Screen International called it “exquisite … del Toro at his most poignant and sweet.”

Set in early-1960s Baltimore, the film stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute orphan who works as a cleaner at a high-security lab. She forges a bond with a captured creature who is at the center of a Cold War tug-of-war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

“It’s a movie set in 1962, but it’s a movie about today,” del Toro told reporters at a Venice news conference. “It’s about the issues we have today. When America talks about America being great again, I think they are dreaming of an America that was in gestation in `62 — an America that was futuristic, full of promise … but at the same time there was racism, sexism, classism.”

Del Toro said the creature — played with fittingly fluid movements by Doug Jones — is the only character in the film without a name, because he represents “many things to many people.”

For lonely Elisa, “it’s the first time somebody, something is looking at her, looking back the way you look back at the person you love.” For Michael Shannon’s ruthless U.S. government agent Strickland, the creature is “a dark, dirty thing that comes from the south” and must be eliminated.

“I am Mexican, and I know what it is to be looked at as `the other’ no matter what circumstances you’re in,” the director said — and the character of the creature embodied that otherness.

The film features warm performances from Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s friends — and a mesmerizing turn from Hawkins, who creates a character of depth, passion and compassion without saying a word.

Hawkins said that when del Toro first told her about the movie, she was working on her own project about “a woman who doesn’t know she’s a mermaid.” Some of those ideas fed into the character of Elisa.

“It was just synchronistic,” she said. “It was very odd. Those things rarely happen and when they do you know it’s something special.”

The Shape of Water features del Toro’s usual rich mix of ingredients: everything from Russian spies to musical interludes. Its overriding message, the director says, is “to choose love over fear.”

“We live in times where fear and cynicism are used in a way that is very pervasive and persuasive,” del Toro said. “Our first duty when we wake up is to believe in love.

“It’s the strongest force in the universe,” he said. “The Beatles and Jesus can’t be wrong — not both of them at the same time.”

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NAFTA Nations Plan Talks Progress Under Barrage of Trump Threats

Trade negotiators plan to take small steps forward in a second round of talks to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) this weekend, trying to ignore daily threats from U.S. President Donald Trump

to tear it up if he does not get his way.

Trump has used Twitter, press conferences and speeches to attack NAFTA in recent days, a ploy Mexican and Canadian officials regard as a negotiating strategy to wring concessions, but which has heightened uncertainty over the accord.

“Hopefully we can renegotiate it, but if we can’t, we’ll terminate it and we’ll start all over again with a real deal,” Trump told cheering workers at a factory in Missouri on Wednesday, as Mexico’s foreign and trade ministers met their U.S. counterparts in Washington to keep relations on track.

Away from the diplomatic noise, trade experts from the three NAFTA nations hope to advance the revamp during the five days of talks in Mexico that start on Friday by working through areas of greater consensus before turning to trickier issues.

“We want to see positive signs of progress at the

negotiating tables,” said Moises Kalach, head of the

international negotiating arm of Mexico’s CCE business lobby, which is leading the private sector in the talks. “Hopefully we’ll get it, even if it doesn’t have to be stated publicly. Hopefully we’ll start getting closure on some issues.”

Overall, the Mexican round, which follows talks two weeks ago in Washington, is expected to define more clearly the priorities of each nation rather than yield major breakthroughs.

The emergence of detailed positions on the tougher points looks less likely in this round, officials said.

Kalach and one Mexican negotiator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saw broad agreement between the NAFTA members on how to improve conditions for small businesses, as well as in salvaging elements of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord that Trump ditched after taking office.

Some agreement but hurdles remain

Some consensus was forged between the three countries when the TPP was finalized in 2015 on issues including the environment, anti-corruption, labor rules and digital trade.

More divisive issues that could enter the talks range from exploring the scope to raise NAFTA content requirements for autos to the contested U.S. demand to scrap the so-called Chapter 19 dispute settlement mechanism for resolving complaints about illegal subsidies and dumping, officials say.

A key plank of the U.S. strategy is how to reduce its trade deficit with Mexico, which has sent negotiators scrambling for creative ways to rebalance trade, Kalach said.

One hope is that Mexico’s incipient oil and gas sector opening will result in more imports and infrastructure investment from U.S. companies, some of which have already entered the market, such as Exxon Mobil Corp and Chevron Corp.

Folding that reform into NAFTA in a way that would make any attempt to unwind it politically costly for a future Mexican government would give U.S. and Canadian investors more security, Kalach and the Mexican negotiator said.

The risk the reform will stall has preoccupied officials in the region because the current front-runner for Mexico’s July 2018 presidential election, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, opposed the opening of the energy industry.

“The best thing [the United States and Canada] can do is protect NAFTA because this essentially protects their investments,” said Kalach.

Throwing words around

Trump has accused Mexico and Canada of being “very difficult”, and officials from both countries say his words come as little surprise given his confrontational negotiating style.

Still, Mexico’s government has touted a back-up plan, seeing a “high risk” that NAFTA could unravel.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday shrugged off the threats and Canadian officials close to the process said they remained fully focused on the talks.

“There are always going to be words thrown about here and there but … we will continue to work seriously and respectfully to improve NAFTA to benefit not just Canadians but our American and Mexican friends as well,” Trudeau said.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer declined to comment directly on how Trump’s comments would affect the talks. However, trade experts say they are unlikely to foster a spirit of cooperation.

“I think his tweets and statements are just complicating what’s already a difficult negotiation,” said Wendy Cutler, a former deputy USTR and lead U.S. negotiator for the TPP. “I think it will embolden the naysayers in Canada and Mexico who don’t want to move in certain areas by telling the negotiators, ‘don’t move on these issues because the president has already said he probably won’t sign off on this deal’.”

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French Labor Reform Gives Firms Flexibility

The French government said on Thursday it would cap unfair dismissal payouts and give companies more flexibility to adapt pay and working hours to market conditions in a labor reform France’s biggest union said was disappointing.

The reform, President Emmanuel Macron’s first major policy step since his election in May, is also the first big test of his plans to reform the euro zone’s second-biggest economy.

For decades governments of the left and right have tried to reform France’s strict labor rules, but have always diluted them in the face of street protests.

The government said in a document presenting the reform that it will make it possible to adapt work time, remuneration and workplace mobility to market conditions based on agreements reached by simplified majority between employers and workers.

Workers compensation for dismissal judged in a labor court to be unfair would be set at three months of wages for two-years in the company with the amount rising progressively depending on how long a worker was with the firm, unions said.

However, normal severance pay would be increased from 20 percent of wages for each year in a company to 25 percent, Liberation reported.

The government consulted with unions for weeks as it drafted the reform, and only the hardline CGT union, the country’s second biggest, said from the start that it would hold a protest, set for Sept. 12.

France’s biggest union, the reformist CFDT, said that it would not call a strike against the reform but described the reform as a missed opportunity to improve labor relations.

“CFDT disappointed,” the union’s leader Laurent Berger told reporters after a meeting with the government, but he added: “Taking to the streets is not the only mode of action for unions.”

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Studying Black Holes in a Bathtub

Mysterious black holes, thought to reside in the center of every galaxy, are difficult to study because even the closest one, in the center of our own Milky Way, is still some 27,000 light years away. But researchers at the University of Nottingham’s Quantum Gravity Laboratory have found that some of the physical phenomena linked to black holes can be studied in an ordinary bathtub. VOA’s George Putic has more.

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Trump’s Immigrant Crackdown Could Slow Houston Rebuilding

In the coming weeks, as Houston turns its attention to rebuilding areas devastated by Tropical Storm Harvey, people like Jay De Leon are likely to play an outsized role — if they stay around.

De Leon, 47, owns a small construction business in Houston, and he and his 10 employees do exactly the kind of demolition and refurbishing the city will need. But like a large number of construction workers in Texas, De Leon and most of his workers live in the United States illegally, and that could make things complicated.

The Pew Research Center estimated last year that 28 percent of Texas’s construction workforce is undocumented, while other studies have put the number as high as 50 percent. Construction employed 23 percent of working undocumented adults in Texas at the end of 2014, higher than any other sector, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Undocumented immigrants nervous

However, undocumented immigrants are growing increasingly nervous in Texas because of an immigration crackdown by the Trump administration that has cast a wide net.

In addition, a new Texas law that would have taken effect later this week bars cities from embracing so-called sanctuary policies, where they offer safe harbor to illegal immigrants, and allows local police to inquire about a person’s immigration status. A federal judge Wednesday temporarily blocked most of the law from taking effect.

De Leon, who has lived in the country for 20 years and has two citizen children, says the changes have spooked the city’s migrant workforce. In recent weeks, he said, one of his employees left the state and another returned to Mexico. Both feared that if they stayed they risked arrest.

Departing workers, he says, pose a problem for Houston in the wake of Harvey, which has caused flood damage to commercial buildings, houses, roads and bridges expected to run into tens of billions of dollars.

“The situation that Houston is going through now with the hurricane is going to be the trial by fire for the Republicans and the governor that approved these radical laws,” De Leon said. “They will need our migrant labor to rebuild the city. I believe that without us it will be impossible.”

Undocumented workers perform a wide range of construction jobs, from framing and dry-walling to plumbing and wiring.

Shortage of U.S. trained workers

Stan Marek, chief executive of Marek Construction in Texas, said his company doesn’t hire undocumented immigrants and has long had difficulty finding enough trained U.S. workers.

“It’s a crisis,” Marek said. “We are looking at several thousand homes that have flood damage. There is no way the existing (legal) workforce can make a dent in it.”

Marek would like to see the federal government grant emergency work authorization for undocumented workers in the rebuilding effort, he said. Otherwise, those immigrants are likely to be hired by firms that do not pay payroll taxes or provide benefits like workers’ compensation and legally mandated overtime.

It isn’t yet possible to estimate how many construction jobs will be added in Texas as it rebuilds, but in the 12 months after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Louisiana added 14,800 jobs in the sector, U.S. government data shows.

About 25 percent of the construction workers involved in the cleanup of New Orleans were undocumented, according to a study by researchers at Tulane and UC Berkeley universities. Those without papers were “especially at risk of exploitation,” the study found.

Worker exodus

The labor shortages are likely to grow worse, many builders warn. Earlier this year, a group of Hispanic contractors sent a letter to Texas Governor Greg Abbott warning that the pending ban on sanctuary city policies would make it “difficult to find and retain experienced workers.”

Javier Arrias, chairman of the Hispanic Contractors Association de Tejas and one of the letter’s signers, told Reuters that “many construction workers are already moving to other states.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the role undocumented workers might play in the recovery.

Elizabeth Theiss, president of Houston-based anti-immigration group Stop the Magnet, sees another option besides looking to workers in the country illegally. She says the rebuilding effort should be used to help train U.S. veterans and other citizens who need jobs.

Theiss acknowledged that reconstruction might proceed more slowly, at least initially, if immigrants without work documents are not part of the effort, but she noted that rebuilding would be slow under any scenario.

Personal hardships

Whatever role undocumented people play in rebuilding Houston, they could face hardships rebuilding their own lives.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides emergency food, water and medicine to anyone, regardless of immigration status, cash assistance and other longer term aid is only available to citizens and immigrants in households where at least one family member has legal status.

Immigrant advocates are launching private fundraising drives to help fill the void.

“It is deeply tragic and un-American that so many of those working men and women who will be rebuilding Houston and the rest of the state will be doing so while facing tragedy in their own lives,” said Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project.

De Leon said his family was lucky and did not suffer flood damage. He is now busy rounding up supplies for immigrant families stuck at shelters who are afraid to seek out more help from authorities.

In the end, he says, President Donald Trump has to know “it’s going to be impossible to rebuild Houston without the labor force of immigrants. It is illogical, what he says with his words and what really has to happen.”

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Record-setting NASA Astronaut Ready to Come Home

Records are made for breaking, and NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson is breaking them in droves. When she returns to Earth on Sept, 2, she’ll have earned a place among the nation’s greatest space explorers. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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