Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Greece agrees to austerity, triggers street protests; After 80 years, Mexico opens up oil sector; At Japanese hotel, robots 'man' reception

1 Greece agrees to austerity, triggers street protests (The Guardian) Five years into the worst crisis to hit their country in decades, Greek MPs voted by a large majority in the early hours of Thursday morning to accept draconian austerity as the price of further bailout funds but at great personal cost to prime minister Alexis Tsipras.

In a vote that saw tensions soar in and outside parliament, the embattled leader’s radical leftist Syriza party suffered huge losses as 40 MPs revolted against the measures. A total of 229 lawmakers voted in favour of the internationally mandated measures, 64 against and six abstained.

As expected, it was backed by pro-European opposition parties, including the former ruling party New Democracy, as well as the Syriza’s coalition partners, the rightwing Independent Greeks. But it was rejected en masse by MPs from the hardline Left Platform grouping within Syriza.

The outcome will significantly weaken Tsipras as the scale of the rebellion sinks in. Stripped of its working majority, the Syriza-dominated two-party coalition will struggle to enforce the pension cuts and VAT increases outlined in the deal or implement any other legislation outside.

But there was also relief that the Greek parliament had overwhelmingly supported reforms to ensure that talks on a third bailout for the debt-stricken country can begin.

The prospect of Greece plunging into political turmoil will be heightened by speculation that Tsipras may be forced to call early elections after a cabinet reshuffle expected on Thursday. He is likely to remove objectors within his party but could struggle to govern effectively. The threat of Athens being forcibly ejected from the eurozone appeared to focus minds with more MPs voting in favour of austerity reforms than at any other time in the crisis.

2 After 80 years, Mexico opens up oil sector (BBC) For the first time in nearly 80 years, Mexico has opened up its oil industry to foreign investors, selling off 14 exploration blocks in the Gulf of Mexico. However, only two of the blocks were sold in the auction, falling short of the government's expectations.

Bidders were expected to sign new contracts with the Mexican state to explore, produce and refine oil. Mexico has fallen from the world's fifth biggest oil producer to tenth. Private oil contracts were being awarded for the first time since the industry was nationalised in 1938.

The auctions are part of the government's plan to encourage private investment and boost oil production. Only nine companies took part in the auction, fewer than the 25 originally planned.

3 At Japanese hotel, robots do check-in, check-out (San Francisco Chronicle) The English-speaking receptionist is a vicious-looking dinosaur, and the one speaking Japanese is a female humanoid with blinking lashes. "If you want to check in, push one," the dinosaur says. The visitor still has to punch a button on the desk, and type in information on a touch panel screen.

From the front desk to the porter that's an automated trolley taking luggage up to the room, a hotel in southwestern Japan, aptly called Weird Hotel, is "manned" almost totally by robots to save labor costs.

Hideo Sawada, who runs the hotel as part of an amusement park, insists using robots is not a gimmick, but a serious effort to utilize technology and achieve efficiency. Another feature of the hotel is the use of facial recognition technology, instead of the standard electronic keys, by registering the digital image of the guest's face during check-in. The reason? Robots aren't good at finding keys, if people happen to lose them.

Staying at Henn na Hotel, as it is called in Japanese, starts at 9,000 yen ($80), a bargain for Japan, where a stay in one of the nicer hotels can easily cost twice or three times that much. The concierge is a doll-like hairless robot with voice recognition that prattles breakfast and event information. It cannot call a cab or do other errands.

Japan is a world leader in robotics technology, and the government is trumpeting robotics as a pillar of its growth strategy. Robots have long been used here in manufacturing. But interest is also high in exploring the potential of robots in human interaction, including helping care for the elderly.
Robotics is also key in the decommissioning of the three reactors in Fukushima, northern Japan, which went into meltdowns in 2011, in the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl.

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