Saturday, the 29th of September

Talking points

Cosby's lawyer compared his client to Jesus Christ after the hearing. PHOTO: The Atlantic
  1. Fallen American icon Bill Cosby was sentenced to 3-10 years for violent sexual assaults
  2. The death toll in South Sudan's civil war was revised upward by an order of magnitude, to 382,000
  3. One of the accused Skripal poisoners was revealed to be a decorated colonel in Russia's intelligence apparatus
  4. The SEC sued Elon Musk for his misleading tweet about privatising Tesla
  5. Instagram’s co-founders left the company citing differences with Facebook's Zuckerberg
  6. Uber agreed to pay nearly $150m in penalties for its 2016 data breach cover-up 
  7. A new IMF deal will see $57b provided to Argentina so it can drag its economy out of recession
  8. Sweden’s Prime Minister lost a vote of no-confidence ending four years of Social Democratic rule
  9. The recently ousted Maldives president foreshadowed a legal challenge to the electoral results
  10. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte continued his expletive-filled march to despotism by jailing a senator critical of him

Deep Dive

Do we want a world without mosquitos?. PHOTO: AFP

According to the World Health Organisation disease-carrying mosquitos kill over 700,000 people each year. This would explain our innate revulsion to the blood-sucking airborne assassins. For everyone who has at one time or another cursed the very existence of the mosquito, we have some interesting news.

Forget the mosquito repellant
Scientists at the Imperial College in London have successfully used gene-editing to wipe out an entire mosquito population - under laboratory conditions. The 'gene drive' process employed altered the DNA of the mosquitos and targetted an area of the genome that is responsible for female development. The change was self-sustaining in that it passed down through subsequent generations and prevented females from laying eggs as it spread through the breeding pool. The result was that the entire population collapsed within 11 generations. This is no small feat. It means we can circumvent nature and eliminate undesirable genetic characteristics.

The mosquitos in question were Anopheles gambiae, the species responsible for the spread of malaria in sub-Saharan African. Malaria experts have hailed the decision as an important breakthrough in a fight that (despite the eye-watering sums spent) has ground to a stalemate. Rapidly deploying a gene drive process in the wild is an attractive proposition, particularly if you currently have Malaria, or Zika, or Chikungunya.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is pouring millions into its Target Malaria campaign, a program that also seeks to utilise gene drive technology. Surely no one would mourn the passing of a species that has killed well over 400,000 people in 2016. Yet, there is a dissenting view to consider.

Playing god
Detractors of the technology argue that genetic changes are irreversible. As is extinction (at least for now). They argue that we simply don't know what the effects of such an extinction event would be. Mosquitos may well be agents of human misery, but that’s not all they are. They are also pollinators, and food for other species. This means that eliminating mosquitos could disrupt complex ecologies. There is also the possbility that the disease would simply find other paths through the eco-system. And of course, there is always a chance of intentional misuse. Some have also queried why such a potentially damaging technology is being pursued when other, gentler tactics have proven successful.

A study has been commissioned to explore just what we'll gain from losing the Anopheles gambiae. But it is not likely to consider the deeper moral question of whether human beings should wield such power. 

Conservation through extinction
Many of these arguments are also playing out right now in New Zealand. It seems everything, including gene drive technology, is on the table in NZ’s bid to be free of invasive predators by 2050. Here the ethics become even more difficult: the hundreds of millions of rats, possums and weasels in Wellington's crosshairs don't threaten human life. But they were introduced to the islands by humans. So eradicating them to stop the hunting and killing of New Zealand’s beautiful and vulnerable natural wildlife may seem justifiable. And yet, all it might take is for one single rat from New Zealand to find its way to Australia, and the entire global rat population could be at risk.

As with any new technology, one thing is clear about gene drives. Our keenness to use it far outstrips our ability to understand the implications of (and to regulate) its use.


A powerful day on Capitol Hill. PHOTO: Michael Reynolds / Matt McClain
Ford v Kavanaugh
On Thursday US senators heard testimony from Supreme Court hopeful Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, one of the women he stands accused of sexually assaulting. Ford's testimony outlined how a heavily-inebriated Kavanaugh attempted to rape her at a high-school party. Despite the traumatic nature of the event her recollection was consistent and moving. Kavanaugh's own testimony was very different. He angrily remonstrated with senators, decried the besmirching of his reputation, and alleged a conspiracy against his nomination.

Regardless of either testimony, the GOP is determined to get their man. They calculate that the cost of confirming such a compromised nominee is acceptable in the pursuit of a Supreme Court majority. Wielding such constitutional heft is arguably even more important than winning the White House. Meanwhile, the looming midterms have energised Democrats who believe they can win back the Senate. They are now desperately trying to stall the confirmation vote until after November.

A minor kink in the plan materialised late in the week: two Republican senators proclaimed that their 'yes' votes were contingent on a week-long FBI investigation into Ford's claims.

The exigencies of politics have driven this debate to a dark place. Without a full investigation one may never find out exactly what happened. The proposed week-long investigation risks being perceived as a fig-leaf or an after-thought. One wonders about the ratification of anyone with such a big question mark hanging over them. What lesson might this teach those who are sexually abused by men in (or destined for) high office?
Strange bedfellows indeed. PHOTO: EPA
The Pope and the Politburo
The pejorative "godless communists" - a mainstay of western Cold War literature - never quite made sense in China. After all, eastern spirituality is thousands of years old and persists to this day (whether Beijing likes it or not). Now, a newer, foreign religion is grabbing all the headlines in China.

Beijing and the Vatican have signed an official accord to recognise one another's authority in different areas of faith and life for China's 10 million catholics. While most catholics have traditionally practiced their faith in the shadows this agreement brings them into the open - and under the party's authority.

Until now the presence of 'unofficial' senior clergy in the country had earned the ire of Beijing. Under the new deal the Pope will still have the final say on appointing bishops in China. The catch is that those bishops will have to have been pre-approved by Chinese authorities. This is undoubtedly a win for Xi Jinping.

However, it’s also a win for the Vatican - coming at a time when religious groups have been facing serious and increasing discrimination inside the People's Republic. In a recent crackdown some church crosses were burned, and religious iconography was replaced with images of Xi and Mao Zedong.

The Best Of Times...

The floating fish trap. PHOTO: A/P 

An Indonesian teenager lost at sea for seven weeks was rescued this week to the delight of his family. Aldi Novel Adilang was employed alone to light candles on a floating fish trap (called a rompong) some 125km off the coast of Sulawesi. But strong undersea currents snapped the anchoring ropes and he spent 49 days adrift. With no means to propel himself, Aldi sustained himself on caught fish and sea-water drunk through his shirt (to filter out salt). Incredibly he was picked up nearly 2,5000km away off the coast of Guam and has been returned to his family. This is the third time Aldi's rampong has come untethered.

Scientists can now prove what the largest bird of all time was. The recent study found that the Madagascan Elephant Bird (it's all in the name you see) takes the crown. The Aepyornis maximus stood at over three metres tall and weighed a whopping 860 kilograms. It ends a curious (and curiously-heated) two-century-long debate as to who could lay claim to the most tremendous feathered creature. 

The Worst Of Times...

An ebola treatment camp in Beni. PHOTO: Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro / AP
The World Health Organisation faces multiple overlapping challenges in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Corralling a recent Ebola outbreak was already proving difficult in the isolated communities - that was before it spread into a war zone. To the dismay of aid workers the disease has now spread further into territory where armed militias are in contest with government troops. The confluence of civil strife, disease, poverty and crime has led to what one official described as a "perfect storm".

Arab separatists attacked a military parade last weekend in the south-western Iranian city of Ahvaz. The gunmen killed 25 and wounded a further 70; it was a stinging blow for the vaunted Republican Guard. Lying just a short drive from the Iraqi border and Basra, Ahvaz has a sizeable and at times restive Arab population. Tehran instantly blamed the United States and their enemies across the Gulf. It's yet to be seen whether there are Saudi or Emirati links to the massacre, but the very perception of influence can be deeply destabilising itself (see: Iran's role in Yemen).

Weekend Reading

Featured long-reads from inkl publishers:
Tom Wharton


Quote of the week... 
"The fake news said people laughed at President Trump. They didn't laugh at me. People had a good time with me. We were doing it together." - It'll take more than mockery from the international community to faze Donald Trump.

What to follow this weekend...
For our readers with an interest in etymology (or Balkan politics for that matter) there is only one thing to follow: the Macedonian name-change referendum.

Everyone else should either watch the Australian Football League Grand Final or the Ryder Cup (but not both).

One last thing
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