Talking Points

Please try to conceal your excitement. PHOTO: AFP
  1. Germany voted to restart the Bundesliga next week (thank you)
  2. Which is expected to soften Europe's imminent recession
  3. A report found George Pell knew of child sex abuse for decades
  4. Iraq and Israel moved closer to having functioning governments
  5. A chemical gas leak in India killed 11 and hospitalised 350
  6. Rick Bright did not pull his punches on Trump's pandemic response
  7. Duterte switched off the largest television network in the Philippines
  8. Uber and Airbnb laid off significant fractions of their workforces
  9. The murder of a black Georgian jogger captivated America
  10. Samsung chaebol heir Jay Y. Lee made a rare public apology

Deep Dive

An artist's impression of the unusual system. PHOTO: ESO / Reuters

The recent spate of bad news has left us all feeling helplessly terrestrial. So let's raise our eyes and spirits. The yawning void of space is a wonderful place to regain perspective and consider the momentary, infinitesimal nature of the problems on Earth. So what did we learn from space this week?

There goes the neighbourhood

Researchers at the European Southern Observatory in Chile (they've always had a rather expansive view on what's classified as 'Europe') published a paper this week, outlining the discovery of a nearby black hole. Lead astronomer Thomas Rivinius was cheerful about our new neighbour (HR 6819) , saying that in relative terms it is, "just around the corner". But you can relax, there's no need to call the police (or NASA) just yet. The black hole is 1,000 light years away. Some back-of-the-napkin maths will reveal that this is 9,500,000,000,000,000 kilometres away. Or, in the common vernacular, far enough.

In addition to its proximity, this black hole also has a few other notable characteristics. The first is its size. It was once a star 20 times the size of our own, but has since collapsed to a more manageable 4.2 times the mass of the sun. The second interesting feature is that this ludicrously dense stellar phenomenon is joined at the hip by not one but two additional stars. What's most unusual is its good behaviour . Despite the proximity of its closest partner, there has been no disintegration – the black hole is not swallowing it. There are at the very least 100 million black holes lurking around the Milky Way, most of them munching their way through planets and stars, but clearly, not all black holes should be tarred with the same brush.

Scraping the moonscape

For decades the scientific consensus has held that La Lune was born when a Mars-sized planet collided with a young and newly-crusted Earth. We emerged from that dust-up with a satellite in tow. This belief, known as the giant-impact hypothesis, has been evidenced by lunar surface samples which are chemically similar to our own rocks. But the idea is now being challenged by a study published in the journal Science . The new study relies on data collected by Japan's Kaguya lunar orbiter in 2007, which measured lunar carbon ion emissions. The ubiquity of said emissions suggests that carbon has existed on the Moon for billions of years. If so, it adds credence to two alternate theories: either the Moon was created at the same time as the Earth and from the same material, or it was just a big lost rock that got stuck in our gravity well!

But Donald Trump isn't concerned about where the Moon came from. He wants to know where it's going. And what he can get for it. It's been confirmed now that the United States is drafting an international pact to divvy up the Moon's resources . The Artemis Accords, named for the NASA mission aiming to establish a permanent base there in 2024, have yet to be shared with other space-going nations. Sources close to the matter let slip that the accords will outline mineral rights for companies that start digging up the Moon. The plan is already well underway to start exploiting those resources: SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics have all been commissioned by Nasa to build prototype Moon landers for the Artemis mission.

And, finally: for centuries, poets, artists, and theologians have taken inspiration from the dazzling night sky. And what could be more inspiring than seeing the bright flash of the International Space Station passing overhead and knowing that Tom Cruise is up there , looking back at you? The Hollywood star has revealed that his next role will be shot 408km above the Earth – aboard the International Space Station. If it goes ahead, astronaut training will represent the final frontier for an actor who is known for insisting on doing his own stunts. Incidentally, it will also bring him closer to the intergalactic tyrant Xenu who Cruise and other Scientologists believe created our species.


Worldlywise

What's Spanish for "useless mercenary"?. PHOTO: AFP

Bay of Pigs redux

There have been many attempted coups of Nicol á s Mad uro’s regime in Venezuela in recent years. The latest may be the most bungled. Last Sunday, dozens of mercenaries tried to enter Venezuela by sea. To overthrow Maduro. On a speedboat. They were part of Operation Gideon: a group of 300 heavily armed volunteers on a mission to enter Venezuela, kidnap Maduro, take control of the airport and fly him to the US . Apparently, the mercenaries had been training for months in Colombia, under the command of former Green Beret Jordan Goudreau, and a bunch of Venezuelan military deserters . They undoubtedly had their eyes set on the America's $15m bounty on Maduro (for drug-trafficking charges).

But the coup d’amateurs was doomed from the start. Venezulean authorities foiled it at the outset, killing eight of the mercenaries, and arresting 13. Among them were two Americans who are now being held hostage. It didn't help that Venezuelan intelligence had known about the mission even before it began; they have long had eyes among Venezuela's extremist opposition in Colombia.

Maduro paraded the two Americans’ passports on national television, and blamed the Colombian and American governments. While Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo have denied any involvement, analysts find that hard to believe. This is partly because the US has a naval deployment just off Venezulean waters, quite possibly to retrieve the kidnapped Maduro. And partly because Goudreau discussed Operation Gideon with Trump’s longtime bodyguard, Keith Schiller. Goudreau is now pointing the finger at Juan Guaid ó – the man who has support from some 60 nations as Venezuela’s rightful leader. And he’s shown a document Guaid ó signed to prove it. Guaid ó , who has been watching from the US for months, doesn’t seem entirely innocent either. One of his advisors claimed that he had previously signed an exploratory agreement with Goudreau’s company, Silvercorp – to capture members of Maduro’s government. It is a mess from every angle, and another solidification of Maduro’s regime in a nation languishing under food, medical and now oil shortages .

The consequences of effective borders. PHOTO: AFP

Beneath the city walls

A great deal of human history can be told through walls: Ur, Constantinople, Hadrian's Wall, Jerusalem, the Great Wall of China, the Iron Curtain, the Apartheid wall. But despite the entire history of our species proving otherwise, there continues to be a persistent belief among some people that erecting a high-enough physical barrier can somehow preserve an unstable status quo. And so, we continue building walls, fortifying borders, and restricting movement. And with every year that passes, there are new technologies to help make those obstacles more formidable. But now, during the global shutdown associated with the coronavirus pandemic, we're seeing the other side of this problem: the damage wrought by walls.

Migration has all but stopped. This has left tens of millions of people stuck in limbo, often in a transit country that does not want them, almost certainly vulnerable – in some form of makeshift camp. Even before the pandemic sucked all the attention out of the room, Turkey was using the lives of asylum seekers to bargain with Europe. And the Greek border in 2020 was not the porous fence it used to be a decade earlier.

Now, migrants mark the terrestrial boundaries of our maps just as clearly as water does the coastlines. As we shelter in our homes, they shelter under tarps. Take, for example, the region south of the Rio Grande. The 'Remain in Mexico' policy of the Trump administration has flipped the burden of proof for those who would seek asylum in the US. They are illegal unless proven otherwise. 60,000 hopefuls (a number that grows with every passing day) now wait in camps just shy of the border.

In recent weeks, boats with dozens of Rohingya refugees have also drifted across the Bay of Bengal. That's all they can do. These victims of Myanmar's genocidal campaign can launch their boats and drift – but there is nowhere to go. Thankfully, some were rescued this week, but only to be relocated to the flood-prone Bangladeshi island of Bhashan Char. Hardly a safe haven.


The Best of Times

1,000 words. PHOTO: Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters

2020 Pulitzer Prizes

We're proud to be bringing you award-winning reportage from the world's great, agenda-setting news organisations. Reuters won the Breaking News Photography category for its work covering the Hong Kong protests (see above). Molly O'Toole from the Los Angeles Times shared the inaugural Audio Reporting award with This American Life for their work on US border policy. The New York Times unsurprisingly took home a swag of prizes. Read their work. It's the best of the best.

Fighting malaria with... mosquitoes?

A plan so crazy it might just work .


The Worst of Times

Why? PHOTO: Daily Mirror

A luxurious cruise down the River Styx

Jaws hit the floor this week when Carnival Cruise Lines suggested that eight of its ships would begin sailing from Miami, Port Canaveral, and Galveston on August 1. Yes, as American states rush to reopen amid rising infection rates, Carnival would like to restart its lucrative plague ship business. Mind-boggling.

Punished at the ballot box

In other less-than-rosy news, this new paper describes how the backlash to the influenza pandemic of 1918-20 helped pave the way for the rise of the German Nazi party. Cities with higher mortality rates were more likely to vote for extreme candidates, in particular the burgeoning National Socialist movement in later years. Take note, New York!


Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"Has your mother shown you the goal?"

– Footballer Andres Iniesta celebrated the 11th anniversary of his historic goal against Chelsea (and Barcelona's last-gasp Champion's League win) by calling some special children. The mood in Barcelona that night in 2009 was exciting enough that the city's hospitals saw a dramatic spike in childbirths nine months hence. The beautiful game is full of happy accidents.

Headline of the week

"India police baton-charge huge crowds as alcohol stores open for the first time since lockdown began" The Independent .

Special mention

WeWork founder and worrisome air traveller Adam Neumann wins our special mention for the week. Neumann, of now-imploding WeWork fame, is suing his one-time backers in SoftBank for reneging on a lifeline deal that would've seen none other than one major shareholder (guess who!) walk away with nearly $1b . Pushing shamelessness to new heights.

Some choice long-reads

Tom Wharton

@trwinwriting