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The Weekly Wrap for Saturday, 30 July 2022

The Question

Is your beloved cat, a.k.a, Felix catus , an alien invader?

Talking Points

  1. The Pope apologised for Church abuses in Canada
  2. America's DOJ Jan 6 probe started investigating Trump
  3. Europe began painful gas rationing
  4. Hostage diplomacy worked: Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout
  5. Russia announced its withdrawal from the ISS
  6. Jack Ma handed over power in an act of self-preservation
  7. Covid's 'natural origin' was confirmed as Wuhan returned to lockdown
  8. Myanmar executed four pro-democracy activists
  9. The Earth overshot its natural resource limit for 2022
  10. New vaccines for monkeypox were announced

Deep Dive

We've got a bridge to sell you. PHOTO: The Independent

The crown prince of the world's biggest petrostate wants you to get excited about an experimental, zero-carbon city on the Red Sea.

Boondoggle in the boondocks

This week, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince (and de facto ruler) Mohammed bin Salman unveiled some gorgeously rendered images of his pet project: NEOM. The futuristic city is going to be the first carbon-free and "cognitive" metropolis. At least that's what the brochure says. Amongst its many wonders are a vertical village ski resort (snow pending), and the world's largest floating structure (purpose pending). But the centrepiece is The Line: a 500m-high, 200m-wide, 170km-long mirrored skyscraper . An eco-city home to 9 million people. It's inspirational blue-sky thinking of the highest order. Or an idea stolen from a C-grade science fiction show that got cancelled after one season.

The crown prince explained the project's raison d'etre thus, "We cannot ignore the liveability and environmental crises facing our world's cities, and NEOM is at the forefront of delivering new and imaginative solutions to address these issues. NEOM is leading a team of the brightest minds in architecture, engineering and construction to make the idea of building upwards a reality. The city's vertically-layered communities will challenge the traditional flat, horizontal cities. The designs of The Line embody how urban communities will be in the future in an environment free from roads, cars and emissions."

In a devastating blow to the genre, Mohammed bin Salman also described his preference for a "cyberpunk" aesthetic in the new city. The more outlandish elements of NEOM include an urban space-port and elevator cubes that whizz along horizontally sans cables. Early ideas (there were no bad ones, apparently) sketched out a city with cage-fighting robotic dinosaurs and an artificial moon.

Money for nothing

For those of you who have managed to suspend your disbelief this far: congratulations. Your reward is priority access, for a small fee, to a very large bridge that inkl has recently come into ownership of. For the rest of you cynics out there: where is your sense of wonder? This is isn't just a dream — it's been costed! NEOM is expected to take 50-years to build and will come in at $1tn . Adding their imprimatur to the best-laid plans are none other than McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, and Oliver Wyman. One consultant who had worked on the project said, "It was the least productive part of my whole life in terms of doing real things, and the most productive in terms of the money I got".

The people who didn't (and won't) get paid are the al-Howeiti tribespeople of the Red Sea coast. The lucky ones have received compensation for the land that has been forcibly acquired — albeit a tiny fraction of what their government promised. The not-so-lucky ones, numbering in the hundreds, have been jailed. And the truly unlucky ones, like Abdul-Rahim al-Howeiti, have been gunned down.

More recently, McKinsey released a statement that included the following line, "We are rigorous about the work we choose to do, and, before we accept a project, we follow a client selection process that takes into account all relevant issues, including the impact of our work on society".

The comeback tour

Until this week, the crown prince had not spent any time at all in the European Union since 2018. That year, the prince had endured a lot of bad press, on account of his personal guards travelling to Turkey to butcher Jamal Khashoggi with bone saws over a personal sleight. Properly laundering one's reputation takes time, money, a pliant press, and powerful friends. But most of all it requires having something that people want. Luckily for Mohammed bin Salman, he is not wanting for anything.

The crown prince travelled to Athens early in the week, to ink a stack of bilateral agreements. Energy security was the big one — the Saudis have it, and the Greeks need it. The Greek development minister was effusive, "We honour and admire his leadership, his vision for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the way the Kingdom is progressing to the new era of humanity in renewable energy, and new technology". Sadly this remarkable progress towards a sustainable planet does not include the prince's own travel plans. Mohammed bin Salman does not pack light: his 700-strong entourage exhausted the national stock of limousines in Greece and required many to be loaned from neighbouring countries. Next, he is off to Paris to break croissants with Emmanuel Macron.

Worldlywise

TikTok gridlock. PHOTO: Reuters

Meta fails its physical

Since its IPO in 2012, and up until last quarter, Meta (or Facebook, as the oldies call it) had not gone backwards in revenue for even a quarter. Now, inflation and competition are biting into sales , and Facebook reported its first-ever drop in both revenue and user numbers. Profits are down a shocking 36% year-on-year. The rivers of gold are dammed. In its first decade as a public company Meta's user-generated content kept our eyes glued to our screens, and Sheryl Sandberg's advertising engine kept vendors glued to us. For this next decade, Mark Zuckerberg has foreshadowed a "downturn" . He may be right because the earnings report wasn't even Meta's worst news of the week — that came in short-format videos.

TikTok is a better social media platform than Instagram. If that was not true, Meta wouldn't be burning cash and the attachment of its rusted-on users in trying to emulate the mind-numbing Chinese social network. First came Reels — a clone of TikTok's transient video and image sharing. Then, the full-screen video feed — TikTok's entire UI. The latter went down like an especially large lead balloon. Meanwhile Photos, apparently an antiquated concept in this day and age, had been relegated to a distant corner of the app. Instagram boss Adam Mosseri explained it like this, "I need to be honest, I do believe that more and more of Instagram is going to become video over time... So we're going to have to lean into that shift while continuing to support photos".

Unfortunately for Meta, their new plans received some serious pushback from a bunch of celebrities who made their names (and millions) on Insta. So much so that after a blistering two days (that probably felt a lot longer to Meta's blistered PR team), the company blinked. Mosseri, attempting contrition, said "I'm glad we took a risk — if we're not failing every once in a while, we're not thinking big enough or bold enough. But we definitely need to take a big step back and regroup." If you're parsing that statement for higher order reasoning, strategy or vision, don't bother. All it boils down to is that TikTok is eating Meta's ad revenue, and without that ad revenue Meta may as well be Myspace. So Mosseri has the unenviable task of trying to turn his product into TikTok - without his users catching on. Good luck!

Price-point politics. PHOTO: Mandel Ngan / AFP

Recession-proof or recession proof?

Data from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis is indisputable: the US economy contracted 1.6% in the first three months of 2022 and 0.9% in the quarter just gone . That, two quarters of negative economic growth, is the textbook definition of a recession. The party is officially over. Government spending is dropping across the board. And private buyers have lost their appetite for big ticket items like cars and houses. But thanks to all the free money handed out last year, this pull-back in spending is also occurring against a backdrop of soaring inflation. Which is why the Fed is pricking the balloon with aggressive interest rate hikes . Meanwhile, Covid is continuing to wreak havoc on global supply chains, the war in Ukraine is grinding on, and did we mention the ongoing / expanding lockdowns in China? There are few rays of light on America's (and the world's) economic horizon.

But on receipt of the grim figures, both Joe Biden and Janet Yellen firmly stated that they didn't believe the US was in a recession. On the face of it, they do have a case. Right now unemployment is at a rare low of 3.6%. And there are 11 million unfilled job vacancies — two signs that the labour market remains healthy. Of course, there is also a political element to their bullishness: the US midterm elections are just around the corner. Admitting to a recession now would be a godsend for those running against Democrats in November. Timing is everything. And so it was with great relief that Senate Democrats announced this week that Joe Manchin had come around on passing a slimmed-down inflation and climate bill.

The Best Of Times

A breakthrough. PHOTO: Getty

The cure

A 66-year-old man from California has become the fourth person in history to be cured of HIV. The patient, who wishes to remain anonymous, has been living with the disease since 1988. It was, in his words, “a death sentence”. But after a leukaemia diagnosis, he underwent stem cell therapy to replace cancerous cells with donated ones. The donor cells just happened to be HIV resistant and the patient went into remission.

Nessie

The discovery of small plesiosaur fossils in a 100-million-year-old freshwater system in the Sahara has caused quite a stir in Scotland . Previously the ancient beasts had been thought to be salt water dwellers. Loch Ness monster aficionados really, really want to believe that this is proof that the long-necked, sharp-toothed reptile may have been (or still is) hooning around Loch Ness.


The Worst Of Times

Not happy. PHOTO: AFP

Macaque madness

Japanese authorities are hunting a gang of marauding macaques which have attacked nearly 50 people in Yamaguchi. These monkeys are common across the country but this recent spate of attacks has forced locals to carry gardening shears as protection.

Dolphin teeth

Also in Japan, vacationers on the beaches of Fukui have been warned to stay away from a distinctly displeased dolphin . The creature in question has been biting swimmers — 10 so far — prompting authorities to ask beachgoers to stop trying to pat it.


Highlights

The Image

The war is part of everyday life in central Ukraine. The waiting, weirdness, and sudden violence. These missiles landed in Kyrovograd oblast — far west of the Dnipro. Image supplied by AFP .

The Quote

"We do not want to become peoples of mixed race."

Hungarian Prime Minister (for life) Viktor Orban said the quiet bit aloud during a speech in neighbouring Romania. The speech has been labelled as "pure Nazi" and even some of Orban's advisors have quit. We're all eager to hear what malignant nonsense he spouts at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas next week!

The Numbers

£1.19 cheeseburger

- The global inflation crisis has claimed another beloved British victim: the 99p McDonald's cheeseburger . For 14 years the inhabitants of those curious isles have had the cognitive and budgetary security of knowing that a snack was never more than 99p away. Having to hand over a quid, and then some, for this humble treat is just one more indignity for the listless nation to wear.

$4,000 tickets to see the Boss

- Dynamic g̶o̶u̶g̶i̶n̶g̶ pricing is one of those neat little tricks that vendors use to maximise profits . Its ubiquity in online transactions has helped transform the simplest of purchases into a confusing morass of shifting prices. This week, Bruce Springsteen fans in Tampa were asked to fork out up to $4,000 for mid-floor tickets thanks to Ticketmaster's pricing algorithm .

The Headlines

"Italian priest apologises for holding mass service in sea using lilo as an altar" The Mirror . Given the Pope is on an apology tour for the torture, rape, and cultural genocide inflicted by the church on Canada's Indigenous peoples we feel that we can let this infraction slide.

"Tom Hardy is the hardest actor for Americans to understand" The Independent . This checks out.

The Special Mention

When querying the time, Brits of a certain vintage will ask, "How goes the enemy?" This week, the Biden administration had its plan to change the clocks dashed. The push to make daylight savings permanent was quietly pushed off the legislative agenda this week because the relevant committee, er, ran out of time. The enemy is resisting our best efforts.

The Best Long Reads

The Answer...

Assuredly, yes — according to the Polish Academy of Sciences . The respected institute set the proverbial you-know-what amongst the pigeons this week with the 1,787th entry on its list of alien invasive species.

And 10,000 years of domestication have not dulled their instincts either. Your sweet YouTube-compatible companion is mowing down native birdlife and small furry things with aplomb when unattended. Sleep with one eye open.

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