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Welcome back to this week’s installment of the all-new What Just Happened?!, a semi-comical weekly digest of the most important news from the UK, US and the World from Will Marshall, and Alistair Simmonds-Yoo. Look out for us every weekend, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

The World

Return of WeCompany

The purported value of WeWork and associated initiatives has been about as stable as a bipolar cat on a roller-coaster, with 10’s of billions of dollars apparently materializing and disappearing at the whim of underwriters or other scandalous bullshit. 

Adam Neumann did well to drag us all further into the murky depths of corporate-bastardy; among other things, using the WeCompany as a multi-million dollar ATM. Neumann rebranded the company, sold his trademarked brand name to it and charged the company $6 million for the service. Which is about as subtle and elegant a way of giving yourself $6 million dollars as… well… being a $6 million customer to your own company. 

Rather than making solid efforts to support jobs and post-pandemic recovery, WeWork is instead suing it’s anticipated saviour. Softbank have ostensibly been prepared to buy WeWork stock for less and less money incrementally, parallel to the gradual unravelling of an impressive web of inflated expectation.

Additionally, as those of you who’ve been following our newsletter (or just the boring old news… but who reads that anyway?) for a while might realize, this isn’t the only lawsuit WeWork is involved in. What Just Happened?! had this to say about Neumann in November of last year: 

WeWork lays off thousands of employees as ex-CEO Adam Neumann apparently tries to slither off with billions in his pocket. A tip of the cap to the righteous bringing of a class-action lawsuit against WeWork’s directors, Neumann and Softbank (who bought WeWork out, for some reason…). The lawsuit is a result of allegedly “using their control of The We Company to benefit themselves to the detriment of the company’s minority shareholders.”

Here’s an update on an ‘ongoing investigation’ into The We Company (as if they shouldn’t be sued for the choice of name alone) for violation of securities laws. (In case you’re interested, selling off your trademarks and other IP to a ‘different’ company which just so happens to be in a tax-friendly jurisdiction and licensing their use in order to siphon profits, is a remarkably common way to do business, and the reason why 285,000 businesses are based in one building in Delaware.)

The US

If you can’t beat em’… quit

The superior of captain Cozier (the commanding officer of the USS T.Roosevelt who blew the alarm regarding over 100 COVID-19 cases on his aircraft-carrier) has resigned for his handling of captain Cozier’s firing. Just another day in the life of a reality-TV show, where the stars are senior members of the army, and there’s a pandemic which the state’s leadership thoroughly misunderstands. Here’s Trump talking about antibiotics not working against ‘the germ’, apparently still not grasping the difference between bacterial and viral things. 

Freedom of Belligerence

In a post satire moment, anti-government extremists call a meeting to protest government restrictions on gatherings. If you think this seems in violation of both: common sense during a pandemic; and the idea that a leader (calling meetings) is somehow not a governing force… then you would be right on two counts. 

“It is all of us going to the governor’s house, right? Literally, and saying ‘You will not do this.” We’re going to his house. We’re going to this director of Health and Welfare’s house. Okay?”

These remarks from Bundy, as reported by the AP, were coupled with an offer to provide ‘physical defense’ of those wanting to champion their right to freedom of movement etc. under Idaho’s Stay-at-Home order (the vast majority of states have implemented similar orders).

While this whole saga basically proves that white men in the still-pretty-wild-west can get away with a hell of a lot without the police seriously challenging them (although, in fairness, there is almost agreement that achieving political ends via violence or threats of violence is exactly what terrorism is), the fact remains that Bundy cannot protect people from the novel coronavirus. 

References to the U.S. constitution and acts of domestic terrorism notwithstanding, it is still a bad idea to gather in large groups during a pandemic.

 I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!

“Things have got so ridiculous, they’re like an unbelievably low-budget sci-fi movie” I hear you say. But wait! Trump has signed an executive order encouraging US mining of the moon! But wait, there’s more! It makes clear that the moon should not be considered a ‘global commons’ (and thus fall under the jurisdiction of international law) and that the US will object to any attempts by the international community to prevent those gosh-darn crazy Yanks carving off chunks of it. To which I can but exclaim: “You’re just a bastard from a basket!”

The UK

Elusive Stability?

The UK is teetering… but which way it will fall seems uncertain. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition that the chaos of a pandemic that leaves the Prime Minister in intensive care, might actually be an important component in the recipe for some restoration of political normality in the UK. Since 2008 (and arguably before), the country has been a victim of some sort of inescapable entropic fall into chaos and disorder, culminating in polarised politics, populist pricks and a dangerous fear of expertise and competence.
This week though saw the election of Keir Starmer as the leader of the Labour party, the de facto leader of the opposition, marking a dramatic swing back towards centrism from a party that has seemed uneasy, yet fervent, in its recent experimentations in ‘Corbynism’. Sir Keir Starmer is a true establishment man, the former Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service, whilst also being steadfast in his centre-left ideals. It’s a return to a leader with charisma, experience, competence, and cross-party respect. Many in the party fear that it marks a return to the era of Blairite neo-liberalism that sparked the parties veer to the left. He’ll have a battle convincing some die-hards to come along with him, but the reception seems tentatively positive.

More important, is what this does to the wider picture at Westminster: we now have an effective opposition once again, one which has realistic leadership appeal to the electorate, who won’t cower from holding the government to account, but are also far more likely to seek cross-party consensus and compromise in an incredibly challenging time.

Then add in the rare intervention of an address to the nation from the Queen, and it’s all felt alarmingly stable, considering the PM has been in ICU. This doesn’t mean the government shouldn’t be held to account for its ongoing cock-ups in the handling of this crisis, the NHS is still woefully under-equipped and under-funded, but it does feel like we’ve dropped a level of political squabbling and set a new course to pull together and deal with this as a country.

The question is now: what country will we be left to deal with at the other end?

(And now, let the cynicism and sarcasm resume…)

Falling from Different Heights

One area in particular we should be forcibly holding the government to account is some of the language they have chosen to use in this context. Politicians around the world have come under fire for suggesting that the coronavirus is some sort of ‘great-leveller’, Michael Gove claimed the virus “does not discriminate”, whilst Dominic Raab stated that Boris Johnson would survive the virus because he is a “fighter”. Well the virus doesn’t discriminate, but the structure of society around it certainly does, and to suggest that it can be fought through “fortitude” as if those who have died weren’t fighters, is not just insensitive but bordering on the obscene.

Emily Maitlis has been rightly lauded for her cutting opening monologue to Newsnight on Wednesday: “it’s much, much harder if you’re poor”.

Of course, this should be obvious, but somehow it isn’t! It’s all very well for those of us who can bunker down in our family homes, working remotely, only stressing about when the local micro-brewery might close. But this does not reflect the situation of so much of the country, who are highly exposed, working front-line jobs, or have been made redundant and literally don’t know where their next meal will come from as they join the 5-week waiting period for universal credit. Our leaders urgently need to acknowledge that some parents taking their children out of private school and others not being able to eat, is not levelling!

ProPublica did some research on how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting ethnic minorities in the states. 

“In hard-hit Louisiana, more than 70% of the people who have died of Covid-19 are black, despite African Americans making up 32% of the Gulf state’s population.”

source

It’s obvious to me that the Americans tolerate far greater human suffering than the British. Couple of tangible examples of what I mean: 

In the UK ~1 million people use food banks in a year, compared to some 37 million in the U.S.. Meaning that if you’re American you’re about 10 times (a literal order of magnitude) more likely to be food-insecure then if you’re British (~1/67 being the UK’s ratio of food bank users to the entire population; compared to 37/320 for the U.S., or 1 in 7 people according to The Washington Post). 

This is before one considers the 2.3 million people in prison in the states, who are ‘protected’ by this (the 13th) amendment to their constitution which explicitly allows the enslavement of prisoners: 

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.[1]

Anyway, the reason I remind you of all of this is because there is a persistent myth among people who really ought know better (i.e. those who’ve had a small fortune expended on their education to, evidently, little to no avail). The myth is that socioeconomics doesn’t really factor into susceptibility to the virus. 

One of these people (let’s call her Karen) was recently propounding on social media about how susceptibility to the virus is determined by genetics… this isn’t necessarily wrong… however, using genetics as a key distinguishing factor between Sweden and New York’s response to a (novel) virus before considering any of the very real physical factors extrinsic to the fragile, white-American ego (like, I dunno’, fucking population density) is precisely the kind of self-serving-internet-assembled-philosophy that takes the burden of guilt off poor Karen for enjoying peace and calm in their countryside escape while the mass graves are dug down the East River. 

Curtain Twitchers

Britain has been transformed into a nation of keen snitchers, and the police are fucking delighted. Before I go any further, may I say that I do not condone being a selfish little shit and breaking the rules regarding lockdown, do your bit and stay home. However… We must remain alert to Police overreach and desperately resist any efforts to take these short-term draconian measures forward after the coronavirus crisis.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the British middle-classes hate the idea of somebody getting away with something, and police forces are being inundated with reports of neighbours going on a second run in a day. These same forces are now building websites to allow ‘concerned citizens’ to report any possible misstep by your fellow citizens, not in order to act on it, but to amass data and to “inform” their policing strategies. A nasty strain of this pseudo-vigilantism pervades our culture, as key workers have found threatening notes on their cars that they were spotted leaving without uniforms, whilst a nurse in the Lakes, who was self-isolating from her family had her car tires slashed.

In fairness, these hastily written new laws are in some ways vague, leaving police forces to interpret them in whatever way they please (until Downing St made some clarifications), which is an alarming prospect. Recent days have seen the chief of Northamptonshire police threatening to search shoppers’ supermarket trolleys for items they deem ‘non-essential’, and a family who were reprimanded for using their own garden. It should be said that the forces responsible for both of these transgressions have since apologised, but we all need to keep a bloody close eye on this, lest lockdown be released into a full-on police state.

Market Highs

It’s a challenging time for many businesses, but spare a thought for your friendly neighbourhood crack dealer in this time of crisis. The global drug supply chain is, naturally, being somewhat hampered by the pandemic, but junkies still need their fix, leading to stockpiling and huge price rises. Meanwhile, millions of people sitting on their arses at home want to smoke more weed. But how does the enterprising British drug dealer continue their lifeline service amidst travel bans? Try supermarket and nurses uniforms, and using taxis as delivery vehicles, naturally.

(So far this pandemic has had a notable lack of zombies, however, give it a few more weeks with dwindling opioid supplies…)

The Internet

Twit Storm

In a sterling example of how Twitter is the best, worst social media platform; The U.S. surgeon general, Jerome Adams, speaks at a press conference directly to America’s hispanic and black communities. In a confused effort to show that he’s ‘down with the kids’ Adams uses a series of stereotypical names for family members, including “big mama” and “pop-pop”. 

Regardless of whether or not this is just an attempt to claw back some credibility after the CDC’s U-turn on deciding people ought wear cloth masks after-all (only a few months into the pandemic), there were mixed responses to his choice of language. Some found it endearing and humanizing, others consider it racist.

Partly in an attempt to keep above the fray, I will say only this: The challenges facing America’s ethnic minorities are fundamentally greater then those facing the majority of the upper-middle classes and suggesting otherwise is seriously inappropriate.

In fairness, was Adams suggesting otherwise? 

There’s a general vibe of shifting responsibility away from the powerful by encouraging specific ethnic groups to ‘step up’, because the government isn’t going to help. 

Additionally telling those who don’t have the luxury of working at home to keep 6-feet from one another, when this is hardly possible between the aisles of shops or some walkways of warehouses (obviously non-exhaustive list), suggests one isn’t exactly tuned into their audiences’ challenges. 

Although, in fairness, Adams did make the following acknowledgment: “It’s also possible, or even likely, that the burden of social ills is also contributing.”

Signal Liability

If you aren’t already on Signal, please download it, use it and (if you’re American) support the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s efforts to protect secure communications. What is Signal you ask? And why is it worth protecting from, what exactly? I’m glad you asked. Signal is a messaging (+ voice calls) app with end-to-end-encryption (E2EE), meaning every message is encrypted and can only be read by the recipient and sender. 

The U.S. government wants to make messaging apps liable for their user’s messages. The ‘Earn It’ bill, introduced to the Senate last month, is a fine bit of intellectual contortionism. Whereby companies must earn their legal protection (under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act) from their users, and thereby keep the lights on and continue to provide a service, by following government guidelines and most-likely removing E2EE. So the argument is essentially reminiscent of a mob-boss imploring a shopkeeper that in order to take inventory of the stock he must be given a key to the storage room, which he can hold onto… 

Encryption is essentially mathematical computation designed to protect messages from prying eyes. Differing encryption protocols exist; Signal choose to use one which is open-source (unlike other, lesser messaging apps *coughs* Telegram) so experts can tinker and confirm that it works as intended. Signal is used by the U.S. Senate and army; and as of recently, EU commission staff, so we’re not just talking about securely sending toilet selfies here…

Here’s a great overview of how Signal’s encryption protocol actually works. It essentially involves generating private keys on the client side, storing them there, and those communicating pairwise mutually authenticating public keys. 

Brian Acton (co-founder of WhatsApp) bankrolled Signal with $50 million and walked away from almost 20 times that amount in Facebook stock as he left WhatsApp citing privacy concerns. 

“In an email to WIRED, Acton writes that since leaving WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook last September, he’s now free to pursue his long-held ideals: transparent, open-source development and uncompromising data protection.”

Yesterday, senior representatives from the US, UK and Australian governments asked Facebook to delay rolling-out end-to-end encryption across its various messaging platforms:

“without including a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens.”

source

So this tells us two things… not all of Facebook’s messaging apps encrypt messages between sender and received (you have to turn encryption on in Messenger)… & secondly, the government is (as usual) asking for backdoors into the systems. This second point is remarkable because it requires both: trusting the government to surveil you responsibly; and no other (3rd,4th,nth) parties also being able to read your messages. Backdoors have a tendency to be left open. Governments have been beating the same drum for decades, essentially desiring an ability to hold onto a copy of (cryptographic) keys and maintain an ability to read anyone’s messages at any point. As is evident in this story from the 90’s where the government butted heads with experts over, essentially, whether or not backdoors can be built without intolerable privacy and security concessions.

And now for something completely different

It’s all getting a bit much isn’t it? Well fear not, our everlong saviour Dave Grohl brings us his pandemic playlist, carefully picked with a charming explanation for each choice. Have a gander.


Thanks for reading! We’ll be back next week, get in touch with the authors Will Marshall and Alistair Simmonds on Twitter and let us know what you did and didn’t like.

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