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Good news! There might be more than 36 contactable alien civilizations within our galaxy for us to declare war on! Scientists have refined what is known as ‘the Drake equation’ to ascertain a lower limit on the likely number of planets with intelligent life capable of establishing communication with. The less positive aspect is that because of the colossal distances involved on a galactic scale, we would need human civilization to exist for at least another 6120 years to establish two-way communication, of which it seems there’s a vanishingly small chance.

The Internet

Swing Low, Sweet CHAZiot (or, CHAZiots of Fire)

The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) seems to be meeting a rather un-glorious end, unfortunately. A rather hopeful experimental in anarchist utopian living has, in quintessentially American fashion, descended into senseless gun violence. A spate of shootings occurred and the mayor is pressuring the protestors out, with many having already left. The local businesses are suing the city over their handling over the whole thing, like they would’ve been doing just fine otherwise? Remember that pandemic? 

The self-appointed leader of CHAZ, Raz Simone, was/is not exactly an endearing Dr.Seuss style character despite the rhymes. When he’s not proclaiming leadership over an autonomous anarchistic group (anarchy: ‘rejects all involuntary, coercive forms of hierarchy’) he’s working on his rap career (his Twitter feed seemed to mostly be about the rap thing, that and this video of him playing with a flamethrower, fairly Trumpian – in that you’re not sure if it’s real or not…). 

First hand accounts from some who’ve visited CHAZ suggest Raz is not very popular among the inhabitants. 

The World

The Man Who Tried to Insure Pandemics

If you fancy a longer read this weekend this article from Wired wouldn’t be a bad pick. It tells a cautionary tale of humanity’s approach to risk, through the story of virologist Nathan Wolfe. Whilst studying cross-species virus jumps in Cameroon in 2006, he predicted a pandemic on the Covid-19 scale (as so many others did). 

Wolfe took an unusual change of course though, as he realised how huge the economic ramifications of social distancing would be: he found a reinsurance partner with whom to launch the world’s first fully-comp pandemic business interruption insurance package. The idea was to shift some of the risk of pandemic-related economic collapse from the state coffers to private investment.

The punchline? Nobody bought it. They’re desperate to now though.

Insurance isn’t just something that drives men like Kafka to write intellectually master-horrors like Metamorphosis… it’s also a means of managing risk. This week I learned what a reinsurer is. It’s the answer to the question, who insures the insurer? Who watches the watchmen? Reinsurers insure insurance companies. They’re usually global companies since highly unlikely catastrophes rarely afflict the entire globe at once… Insurance against something terrible, like a Nickelback concert happening within earshot, is supported by a cogent business model. Essentially because the insurance company only has to payout in locations experiencing Nickelback. However, if Nickelback was somehow transmitted from person to person over many months and knew no regard for geographical boundaries, the insurance company might well run out of cash. Wolfe’s strategy for circumventing this is actually pretty bright, though macabre, and worth reading in more detail. To offset the risk of global catastrophe you need to find someone who loses money on everything going well globally… pension funds. Pension funds are happy to hedge their bets. 

Happy Birthday to UN

As the United Nations approaches it’s 75th birthday it’s remarkable to learn that many people have more faith in it then they do their own national governments. This is according to a (admittedly pretty wooly) piece of research from a big American public relations firm (the usual purveyors of sociological insight?) surveying sentiments across 32 countries. While achieving more positive sentiment than a sitting government might not be the ultimate zenith of political and practical achievement, it’s a starting point. 

What with North Korea dramatically blowing-up buildings usually reserved for talks with their southern Neighbour (throughout the many-decade long war still technically ongoing), novel viruses touring the globe and the giant hot-and-bothered elephant that is climate change; we ought pause for an optimistic moment of reflection on all the UN could be over coming years. 

Sure, the UN has often been a benign force to the point of appearing actively malicious in it’s incompetence (Linda Polman’s We did Nothing recounts her embedding with UN peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda throughout the 90’s – this utterly sobering book drives home the human consequences of an organization no more powerful than the combined resolve of its constituent states), though it is a solid starting point for addressing the coming centuries challenges. 

Something resembling a global tax infrastructure would be great – with the proceeds going to help mitigate the imminent and current effects of accelerating global climate change on the southern hemisphere and the most vulnerable. The UN has been ambitious in its adaptation to changing circumstances in the past (there was no mention of peacekeeping missions in the original charter). Although my lofty left dreams of Billionaires paying their way might take longer to materialize then say, providing a suitable global conference space to help avoid a hot-conflict in the South China Sea within the near future. 

Damp Markets

“Abolition of wet markets! Now surely that’s something non-contentious we can all get behind to try and avoid the next species-crossing virus?” we all thought naively. As ever, with all of this ridiculous and seemingly increasingly complex world we inhabit, the case is a little more nuanced. (It isn’t black or white, or wet or dry… it’s more damp…)

‘Wet market’ is a pretty ambiguous term; in many cases wet markets are little more than a large farmers market, with traders selling their fare of fruit, veg, fish and meat, named as such for the melting ice used to preserve the fresh food. Some markets sell live animals, for slaughter at the point of purchase or at home should you choose.

This concept might sound barbaric if you shop at Tesco or Walmart, but for a good portion of the world, this is the most effective way to ensure you’re purchasing quality, fresh meat. Indeed ‘wet markets’ selling live animals can be found in large cities all around the world (there are 80 in New York alone) to cater for immigrant communities who are more used to seeing where their meat came from (one author of this blog bought a big ol’ salmon from a wet market in Brixton some months ago, in a slightly less virus-y time…).

More problematic is the markets such as Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan (the suspected source of Covid-19) which has sections devoted to the sale of wild animals, both for pets and food. This is where all manner of animal species intermingle and potentially transfer diseases that would be unlikely to be transmitted in the wild.

So why not ban the lot? ‘Wet markets’, or more accurately ‘live markets’, were where everybody bought their meat until refrigeration came along in the 20th century, turning the slaughterhouse process into a huge industry and putting the “shame of killing” behind closed doors.

Banning live markets across the board is unlikely to solve many problems; abattoirs and slaughterhouses still cause outbreaks of disease, and poor animal husbandry necessitates the washing of chicken in chlorine in the US (which for the record, basically doesn’t work, which is why the US has shocking rates of food poisoning – that and the E. coli lettuce… what’s that bacteria that’s usually found in the lower-intestines of animals doing on my veg? I don’t know, but it might have something to do with poorly regulated agriculture… if stopping cows from shitting on the lettuce counts as regulation in any meaningful sense… I mean, is it really regulation to not poo on your salad? Do you consider yourself to be self-regulating thusly? Anyhow, moving on). 

A more manageable measure would be international regulation and enforcement. And also not doing what the UK is doing by summarily dropping all your food regulations because you’re so desperate for a trade deal.

Rock of Ages

An individual small-scale miner in Tanzania has recorded the find of the biggest Tanzanite gems in history (weighing in at a combined 15kg, or ~33lbs), and has accordingly been paid approximately $3.3m by the government for them (“this is proof Tanzania is rich” President Magufuli said, strangely). For the rock nerds out there (not the head-banging kind), Tanzanite is a sorosilicate crystal coloured a rich blue by small amounts of Vanadium found only in a tiny mining area comprising a few square miles in Tanzania (hence the name).

The miner, Saniniu Laizer, wants to spend the money on a party, a shopping mall and, charmingly, a school.

The ‘Petite-Mort’ of the Raver

Cambridge University researchers working on drug therapies for Huntington’s disease may have stumbled upon the scientific explanation for the ‘K-hole’: a near-brain-death experience commonly reported by recreational users of the horse-tranquiliser Ketamine. Measuring sheep’s brain activity whilst they got a little ‘ketty’ showed that the brain effectively “completely stopped” for a period of a few minutes. It turns out it is literally a temporary brain-death.

Whilst I won’t go into details in case you’re eating or plan to within the next year, this comes as no surprise to me having worked as a fire-marshal at Leeds Festival as a naive 18-year-old. The things I saw. The smells I smelled. The bodily fluids. The teen who sat near-comatose in the centre of his own tent having just set it on fire.

(When aliens finally come to Earth and are confused at what it is to be a human, and ask the question “what’s your deal?”, I personally think we should respond with the sentence “recreational users of the horse-tranquiliser Ketamine”. It’s hardly Jean-Paul Satre, but it sort of sums up what you need to know.)

The US

What’s the worst that can happen?

One can only assume that Jurassic Park never made it to the cinemas of Florida. Otherwise surely they would be more reluctant to allow the release of 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes. The EPA looks set to do just that.

The concept is that the released insects are males (who don’t bite) which carry a protein that will prevent any female offspring from biting and reduce their chances of survival. Not in itself a bad idea; mosquitoes are the scourge of many countries and one of human’s biggest killers. However, the trial faces limited oversight, and negligible environmental impact assessments have been carried out, meaning that the implications are a bit of a crapshoot. That said, can it really make Florida worse?

The Department of Injustice

William Barr is to the concept of justice as WMDs are to constructive foreign policy. Let’s recap: Michael Flynn lied to the FBI multiple times, admitted it and is now set to be let completely off the hook after alleged pressure from the White House… 

“Attorney General William Barr said Thursday that he doesn’t believe President Trump has overstepped the boundaries between the White House and the Justice Department in a number of big recent cases.”

In the snowball’s chance in hellfire that the above statement has even the smallest grain of truth to it, it is still deeply alarming that it needs saying at all. 

For more on this thoroughly determined effort to erode public trust in government, see our coverage of this story as it stood, several scandals earlier, on the 9th of May: Barr None.  

The UK

Anticriticism Runs Rife

Okay, so I’m going to tread exceedingly carefully on this one (which is in itself the problem I’m trying to address here) because we have previously criticised the state of Israel on this very blog and many people have a rather tedious habit of conflating such commentary with anti-semitism. 

Rebecca Long-Bailey has been sacked from Labour’s shadow cabinet for retweeting an interview the actor (and former card-carrying communist) Maxine Peake gave with the Independent. During the interview, Peake makes the following claim: “The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”

That statement was not, by Peake’s own later admission, based in fact.

There’s a few jumps of logic to arrive at the conclusion that Long-Bailey was promoting anti-semitism. First, there’s the conflation of Mossad with Judaism. Does Mossad represent all Jews and their views? Isn’t implying that in itself anti-semitic? That’s akin to someone criticising MI6 and being called-out as anti-Christian.

Then there’s deciding that an actor spouting some ill-informed bollocks (which actors have a tendency to do) in a diatribe against systemic racism was intended as anti-semitic rather than Peake’s trademark blend of anti-capitalist, anarchist patter.

Lastly there’s the assumption that Long-Bailey tweeted this article with the intent of backing every facet of any argument contained in it (granted though, she should probably have read it more carefully and considered the impact). I may not be a fan of Long-Bailey, but this seems to have been shockingly poorly handled by Starmer and the Labour leadership team. More shocking though is the total lack of any real examination of whether this event has included any actual anti-semitism by any of the major news outlets.

Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said “it’s a horrendous situation”. I would say it’s horrendous that violent anti-semitic abuse in the UK was up 25% last year. It’s also horrendous that Israel is pushing ahead with plans to illegally annex huge chunks of the occupied West Bank.

In a moment of pure irony, I saw a friend share a tweet from the Jewish Solidarity Action twitter page (or something similar) to the effect of ‘We’re tired of being used as a political football by the right to undermine the left’. I don’t think the left-leaning friend was aware of their passing the football right back. 

A note on Apartheid: The situation of black Americans is in many ways akin to apartheid. With a rigid set of geographical, financial and other separations deeply ingrained in American life, meaningful comparisons can certainly be made to the experience of blacks in Apartheid era South Africa. This author would argue particularly so when one considers the millions of undocumented residents who cannot vote, work for criminally low wages and suffer continuous violence and harassment in myriad forms. It would shock many Americans to confront this reality – sufficiently so that there is a strong bias towards not intellectually grappling with this reality. Unsurprisingly, another settler colonial project (even more recent still) which absolutely hates the A word, is Israel. To pretend there aren’t similarities is intellectually dishonest. It is also much easier to shut out any conversation by simply crying ‘ethno-religious intolerance!’. That said, it makes me wince to read Peake’s inelegant tangling of issues, it seems lazy and grossly near an illuminati type conspiracy vein. What I forgot in initially reading about this story is that Long-Bailey didn’t actually say any of this, she retweeted an article covering an interview with Peake, and lost her job for it… 

Plane Farcical

What to do when your country’s health and economy is being ravaged by a pandemic, the nation is split over its racist, slave-trading past, and you’re willingly pushing ahead to a cliff-edge no-deal Brexit which will (already has) caused irreparable damage at mind-bending cost? Ah yes, let’s paint a plane red, white and blue!

The UK government and Royal Family has access to an RAF Voyager aircraft, a specially adapted Airbus A330 MRTT. It’s an extraordinarily flexible aircraft that can carry VIPs, but can also be used as a troop transport and even an air-tanker (for air-to-air refuelling) when not needed by the PM. The idea is that this vastly reduces the cost as it isn’t sat idle most of the time waiting for a global summit, but taking an active military role. It’s one of the only eminently sensible things David Cameron did.

This, however, meant that the plane was painted in a grey RAF livery (making it less obvious in the skies of war zones), which Johnson has been complaining about since he was foreign minister. Johnson wanted a ‘Brexit Plane’, so £900,000 has been spent repainting it to look like British Airways, but with a garish, gold ‘UNITED KINGDOM’ down the fuselage and an upside-down union flag (depending on which side you look at) on the tail.

Wind for When it’s not Windy

The biggest problem with renewable energy is that it’s really bloody difficult to turn off and on when you need it. Apart from demand-side management, the only other solution is large-scale energy storage; effectively gigantic batteries which are charged up when the wind blows and the sun shines and discharged at half time during football matches when everybody turns their kettles on.

One solution is to use excess electricity to compress air into a liquid which is stored until there is a peak in demand, then decompressed through a turbine to regenerate electricity.

Construction of the world’s largest liquid-gas battery has just started outside Manchester, with the potential to power 200,000 homes for up to 5 hours, but more importantly, to store energy in a stable, efficient and cheap manner for weeks if necessary.

One of the key benefits to the liquid-gas battery over something like the Electric Mountain in Wales is that such batteries can be built pretty well anywhere. This is as opposed to needing a literal mountain in which to put a 550m (~1800ft) channel between lakes in order to enable pumping of water up the hill and thereby converting the kinetic energy of the turbines into Gravitational Potential Energy.

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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