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1 December 2021

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In the headlines

The omicron variant might prove much less virulent than other Covid strains, but highly transmissible, says Professor Michael Barrett in The New Statesman. This may be good news – in a best-case scenario, it would sweep the world without causing serious illness, generating immunity “of a more profound and lasting kind than that conferred by vaccination”. The Hastings & St Leonards Observer reports that a mob on Hastings beach took the law into their own hands by blocking the launch of an RNLI lifeboat last month. In a sign of how high feelings are running about the migrant crisis, the crowd screamed abuse at the crew and said “Don’t bring any more [migrants] home, we’re full up”, an eyewitness told the paper. Heinz has produced 200 jars of mayonnaise mixed with Terry’s Chocolate Orange as a weird festive treat. “This mayo come as a bit of a choc,” says The Sun.

The pandemic

It’s crazy to punish South Africa over omicron

South Africa is paying a heavy price for “the good deed” of telling the world about the omicron variant, says Peter Coy in The New York Times. Many countries, including the UK and the US, are restricting air travel, pummelling South Africa’s already Covid-weakened economy. This sets a bad precedent. Dangerous variants need to be identified as early as possible so they can be contained while scientists investigate. If we punish those who reveal their existence, we’re only incentivising poor countries not to go looking, or to hide evidence if they find it.

Society

Today’s young are as puritanical as the Victorians

Young people today are “sober and serious”, says Ed West in his Substack newsletter. Alcohol consumption has declined since the turn of the century, and my children are “shocked and scandalised” to see grown-ups occasionally smoke. The “raunchiness” of the 2000s is long gone: it feels unimaginable that businesses would take clients to strip clubs, as they occasionally did two decades ago. Puritanical as much of this seems, it has led to an undeniable improvement in social mores around racism and homophobia.

Snapshot

 

Nature

This infographic from the Euro Bird Portal shows recorded sightings of barn swallows across Europe in the 12 months to the end of November. Very sensibly, they head to South Africa when it starts to get chilly up north, then wing it back to Europe for a long, hot summer. For some reason they’re not keen on the west of Ireland. 

Quirks of history

Switzerland has accidentally invaded its tiny neighbour Liechtenstein three times since 1976, when troops got lost in the mountains and strayed over the border. The locals don’t seem to mind: in 1976 Swiss soldiers were offered drinks in the village they wandered into. “It’s not like they invaded with attack helicopters,” said a Liechtensteiner after the most recent incursion in 2007 – although there have been two accidental shelling incidents since 1968.

Zeitgeist

The University of Aberdeen has issued a trigger warning for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Kidnapped, stating that it contains depictions of “kidnapping”. You’d have thought the title would be a giveaway, says the Daily Star. Apparently not. In the university’s staff guidance pack, lecturers are advised to “verge on the side of caution” and provide “warnings about what may be considered obvious”. Quite. 

Noted

British artist Stuart Semple has made the world’s “whitest white paint”, says Alice Finney in Dezeen. It’s called White 2.0, reflects 99.98% of light and is 50% brighter than the bestselling white paint. Semple previously made the world’s pinkest pink and the blackest black, which he has said can be bought by anyone – except Anish Kapoor. The 67-year-old sculptor owns the rights to the previous blackest black and churlishly refuses to let anyone use it. 

Quoted

Quoted 01-12

“Science is not an exact science at the end of the day.”

Conservative MP Ben Bradley

Life

Adrian Fisher is the “world’s leading maze-maker”, says Nicola Twilley in The New Yorker. The 70-year-old Briton has created 700 mazes in more than 30 countries. They include the maze at Blenheim Palace (which features on £5 notes); a labyrinth inscribed with religious quotations for a megachurch in North Carolina; a maze with an artificial volcano and lake for a Middle Eastern princess; and a vertical maze for a 55-storey skyscraper in Dubai.

Snapshot answer

It’s a “soft robot”, invented by researchers at Princeton University to pick up delicate objects. It works by inflating bubbles in “fancy balloons” that can bend and move. Traditional “rigid robots” are useful on the production line, “but they will not be able to hold your hands… without breaking your wrist”, says lead researcher Pierre-Thomas Brun. “They’re not naturally geared to interact with the soft stuff, like humans or tomatoes.” 


30 November

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In the headlines

Boris Johnson says he wants to see “needles going into arms like a sewing machine stitching a quilt of protection”, after slashing the interval for Covid booster jabs from six months to three. “If we boost and make sure that as many people as possible are vaccinated, we will be okay,” former vaccine taskforce chief Clive Dix told the BBC. In the first day of her trial in New York, Ghislaine Maxwell was accused of devising a “pyramid scheme of abuse” with disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. MI6 boss Richard Moore told Radio 4’s Today that he only ever writes in green ink. His predecessors did the same: it’s a naval tradition that dates back to Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the first “C”. “The same is true of my typescript on my computer,” Moore says.

Society

Today’s young are as puritanical as the Victorians

Young people today are “sober and serious”, says Ed West in his Substack newsletter. Alcohol consumption has declined since the turn of the century, and my children are “shocked and scandalised” to see grown-ups occasionally smoke. The “raunchiness” of the 2000s is long gone: it feels unimaginable that businesses would take clients to strip clubs, as they occasionally did two decades ago. Puritanical as much of this seems, it has led to an undeniable improvement in social mores around racism and homophobia.

The pandemic

It’s crazy to punish South Africa over omicron

South Africa is paying a heavy price for “the good deed” of telling the world about the omicron variant, says Peter Coy in The New York Times. Many countries, including the UK and the US, are restricting air travel, pummelling South Africa’s already Covid-weakened economy. This sets a bad precedent. Dangerous variants need to be identified as early as possible so they can be contained while scientists investigate. If we punish those who reveal their existence, we’re only incentivising poor countries not to go looking, or to hide evidence if they find it.

Covid-19

Pandemics can topple governments 

Pandemics tend to make politics more “turbulent”, says Robert Guest in The Economist. When the Black Death wiped out a third of Europeans in the 14th century, the surviving labourers were able to negotiate higher pay. When influenza killed millions of Indians in 1918-19, the resulting misery helped kick-start Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign to end British colonial rule. A study of 133 countries between 2001 and 2018 found that political unrest tends to peak two years after an epidemic starts. “If so, 2022 will be a bumpy year.”

Climate change

Buy a coal mine to save the planet

Here’s a thought, says Tim Harford in The Financial Times: environmentalists should buy more coal mines. A colliery in West Virginia has reserves that could belch out about 20 million tons of carbon dioxide – and it’s on the market for just $8m. Snapping that up and keeping the coal in the ground is “an insanely good deal” for anyone serious about fighting climate change. Likewise, if you drive, but only a little, there’s much to be said for buying an ageing gas-guzzler. “Better for a thirsty old car to do 1,000 miles a year in your hands than 10,000 miles a year in someone else’s.”

Comment of the day

Climate change

Buy a coal mine to save the planet

Here’s a thought, says Tim Harford in The Financial Times: environmentalists should buy more coal mines. A colliery in West Virginia has reserves that could belch out about 20 million tons of carbon dioxide – and it’s on the market for just $8m. Snapping that up and keeping the coal in the ground is “an insanely good deal” for anyone serious about fighting climate change. Likewise, if you drive, but only a little, there’s much to be said for buying an ageing gas-guzzler. “Better for a thirsty old car to do 1,000 miles a year in your hands than 10,000 miles a year in someone else’s.”

Covid-19

Pandemics can topple governments 

Pandemics tend to make politics more “turbulent”, says Robert Guest in The Economist. When the Black Death wiped out a third of Europeans in the 14th century, the surviving labourers were able to negotiate higher pay. When influenza killed millions of Indians in 1918-19, the resulting misery helped kick-start Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign to end British colonial rule. A study of 133 countries between 2001 and 2018 found that political unrest tends to peak two years after an epidemic starts. “If so, 2022 will be a bumpy year.”

Snapshot

 

Gone viral

These are the dying moments of Eggborough power station, which once powered two million homes in North Yorkshire. Its final four smokestacks were reduced to rubble in a series of controlled explosions last month. These demolitions are so common, they’ve become a viral sensation on the website Gizmodo. “I’m absolutely addicted”, says Brian Kahn on the site. “There’s something soothing about the dull thud of explosions followed by a cloud of dust as fossil-fuel infrastructure comes tumbling down.” 

Inside politics

Why did the usually left-leaning Independent suddenly swing behind David Cameron’s Tories two days before the 2015 election? The answer, one “senior political source” tells The Mail on Sunday, was that its then editor, Amol Rajan, wanted Cameron to attend the 35th birthday party of the newspaper’s owner, Russian businessman Evgeny Lebedev. Rajan is now embroiled in another controversy – the royal family is threatening to boycott the BBC over his new documentary, The Princes and the Press.

Tomorrow’s world

Researchers at Harvard have invented a “living ink” that can be used in 3D printers. They used E. coli bacteria to create fibres that self-replicate, meaning they effectively grow when left to their own devices. One potential application is to print buildings that would not just expand but “heal” themselves if damaged – a possible approach to building homes on Mars. 

Noted

The WHO has been using Greek letters in alphabetical order to refer to Covid variants (including several you probably haven’t heard about). But in naming the omicron variant, the medical wonks skipped “nu” and “xi”, says The Wall Street Journal. “Nu” sounded too much like new and “xi” risked winding up the Chinese president.

Quoted

Quoted 30-11

“The nicest feeling in the world is to do a good deed anonymously – and have somebody find out.”

Oscar Wilde

Shopping

Billionaire pop star Rihanna is flogging “open bottom” pyjamas on her lingerie website, Savage x Fenty. The tartan trousers, which are only available in the US, cost $50; a matching top is available too. Judging by the comments on Twitter, they’re not going to sell out any time soon. “No offence to Rihanna, who has never once missed before,” wrote one fan. “But this is insane.” 

Snapshot answer

It’s the footpath at the Mopan Mountain Forest Park in Nanchang, China. The £24m “AI park” tracks citizens as they wander about, says local news website INF, sending data about their steps, speed and distance covered to their mobile phones – and keeping plenty for the state. Still, it looks fun.


29 November

In the headlines

As panic over the new omicron variant of Covid spreads, “there are real (and justified) fears that we are heading once again into a lockdown Christmas”, says Tom Chivers in UnHerd. This morning Wales and Scotland demanded an eight-day quarantine for all new arrivals to the UK and secondary-school students have been “strongly advised” to wear masks in classrooms. The fuss is overblown, says Trevor Kavanagh in The Sun. Nobody has been admitted to hospital with omicron, even in South Africa where the strain burst into life. “It is extremely mild,” says Dr Angelique Coetzee, the ­Pretoria medic who discovered it. “You are panicking.” Scientists will spend the next two weeks collecting data on the variant; in the meantime the UK will expand its vaccination programme, making every adult in the country eligible for a booster. After 400 years, Barbados will officially remove the Queen as its head of state this evening. In doing so, it will become the world’s newest republic.

Comment of the day

The pandemic

We can’t beat Covid if the West keeps hoarding vaccines

There’s a “grim inevitability” about the discovery that the omicron variant was identified in a developing country, says David Fickling in Bloomberg. The original strain was found in China, delta was picked up in India, gamma originated in Brazil and beta was found in South Africa – only the UK’s alpha variant bucked the trend. This is partly a reflection of the fact that these countries have huge populations. But the main reason is that richer countries are now so “heavily vaccinated” that opportunities for the virus to mutate are limited. The same can’t be said for the developing world.

Society

China hasn’t said farewell to the concubine

A high-flying Chinese businessman once told me his secret for happiness, says Cindy Yu in The Spectator: “Before a man is 35, women are tools; after 35, women are toys.” It’s far from an unusual attitude. Mistresses are “as old as sin” in China. In imperial times, the ruler would have hundreds. Polygamy was banned when the communists came to power in 1949, but in the late 1990s, “when China started to get very rich again”, big-shot businessmen and politicians revived the practice. Usually they picked young, pretty, uneducated girls, although one official in Chongqing required his lovers to have a bachelor’s degree. A neighbourhood in Shenzhen was dubbed “concubine village” because it was home to a reported 50,000 mistresses.

Snapshot

 

Noted

After decades of restoration, the Grand Avenue of the Sphinxes in Egypt has officially reopened, says Mirette Magdy in Bloomberg. The 3,000-year-old road, which connects the ancient temples of Karnak and Luxor, is 1.7 miles long and lined with 1,050 statues. The restoration project – and its glitzy opening ceremony – are part of President Sisi’s plan to win back tourists after the pandemic. 

On the way out

School detentions, which a Labour councillor in Nottingham thinks should be replaced with meditation sessions. Shuguftah Quddoos told a committee meeting that a half-hour meditation class would be more beneficial than traditional punishments.  

Tomorrow’s world

British start-up Cyberselves has designed a “robot that can send your hug around the world”. Put on a VR headset, grasp a set of joysticks, and clever software allows you to simulate the weight or texture of any object the robot is holding. Co-founder Daniel Camilleri used his creation to give his grandmother a birthday hug in Malta when he was stuck in Lisbon, more than 1,000 miles away.

Quoted

Quoted 29-11

“It has been said that a pretty face is a passport. But it’s not, it’s a visa, and it runs out fast.”

Julie Burchill

Snapshot answer

It’s the Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s highest pub, where more than 50 revellers have been stranded for three days. Customers arrived at the Yorkshire Dales establishment on Friday to see an Oasis tribute band, only to be trapped after Storm Arwen dumped 3ft of snow in the area. Fallen power lines have blocked the road in and out. “I’m quite chilled about being stranded,” Stephanie Overton told the BBC. Her husband, Martin, agreed. The atmosphere is “very good” and there’s “plenty of beer”.

Zeitgeist

You’d think the revelation that a 63-year-old presidential candidate had got his 28-year-old mistress pregnant would scupper his election chances. Not in France, says Gavin Mortimer in The Spectator. Gossip magazine Closer’s scoop that far-right firebrand Eric Zemmour is “going to be a dad in 2022” with his personal assistant has only strengthened admiration among older voters who used to support the Republicans. “This generation still believes in old-fashioned privacy and they will see Zemmour as a victim of a scurrilous celebrity magazine.” What’s more, they’ll have “a healthy respect for his vigour – and for him giving hope to all swinging sixtysomethings”.