Saturday, the 19th of January

Talking points

Top-seed Simona Halep after a gruelling second round win. PHOTO: Getty
  1. John C. 'Jack' Bogle, inventor of the index fund, died aged 89
  2. Malaysians got a carefully-worded apology from Goldman Sachs 
  3. Huawei's reclusive founder gave a rare interview to defend his company
  4. The partial US government shutdown passed the 28-day mark
  5. An ISIS suicide-bomber killed 4 US soldiers and mercenaries in Syria
  6. Microsoft announced a $500m fund for affordable housing in Seattle
  7. A huge breach saw 800m email passwords posted online
  8. ICC delayed the release of chequered Ivory Coast ex-leader Gbagbo
  9. Lawsuits unveiled OxyContin manufacturer's troubling tactics
  10. Tennis fans flocked to Week 1 of another sweltering Australian Open

Deep Dive

One small seed for humankind. PHOTO: ABC

There is a jade rabbit on the moon, and it brought some cottonseed with it. This week a lunar experiment opened up the possibility of a human space base. It also showed us that the race to Mars will be a crowded field. 

A rabbit grows cotton

As of this week humans have grown plants on the surface of the Moon. This is a historic achievement; it's from these short-lived shoots that we may blossom into an interplanetary species.

China's Chang'e-4 lunar exploration mission first touched down on the far-side of the Moon on the 3rd of the month. The Yutu (Jade Rabbit) 2 rover - equipped with all manner of cameras and ground-penetrating radars - quickly began its exploration of the pock-marked lunar surface. But it was back on the lander that the real action was happening. The Chang'e-4 mission was equipped with biospheres containing six organisms in soil: cottonseed, rapeseed, potato, rock cress, yeast and fruit flies. The biospheres were watered and kept at 24°C. On Tuesday we received the first images - beamed from the relay satellite Queqiao - of the cottonseed sprouting into life. 

Unfortunately, the very next day the lander failed to stabilise temperatures in humankind's first attempt at lunar biology. As night fell the temperature plummeted to -170°C and the young sprouts died. Although the experiment was intended to last 100 days, it is still being described as a success. One of the lead researchers of the Chang'e 4 mission laid bare the team's ambition, "Learning about these plants' growth in a low-gravity environment would allow us to lay the foundation for our future establishment of a space base".

The new space race

A changing of the guards is happening, and this week we got a perfect distillation of it: while China was conducting lunar experiments and talking up a Moon base, NASA's facilities were eerily quiet. The partial US government shutdown has required non-essential NASA staff to be furloughed. Thucydides posited that a rising power would inevitably prompt conflict with any great power that it sought to displace; but what if that displacement happens while the great power is at home without pay?

Li Keqiang's "Made in China 2025" plan provides a roadmap to technological and manufacturing dominance, but above and beyond this Beijing has spied prestige amongst the heavens. The mythos attached to the US-Soviet space race alone is enough to propel any earthly hegemon out past the atmosphere. And as if a lunar base wasn't enough, Chinese officials are talking an even bigger game - collecting rock and soil samples from the Moon with a returnable lander by the end of 2019. And 2020? A probe to Mars

If we truly are entering a new space race, one to Mars, then who is China competing with? The United States, the European Space Agency, Russia's Roscosmos, the United Arab Emirates and even some non-state actors. 

Interplanetary branding exercises

NASA is planning a mission to Mars by the mid 2030s, but chances are it won't be the first to put Americans there. That mantle might be held by SpaceX. Elon Musk's company enjoyed 21 successful launches in 2018 and there is every chance this will be a banner year. Just this week the entrepreneur posted to Twitter a photo of a dazzling silver rocket; the Starship. This planet-hopper is just a test model for sub-orbital flight, a feat made possible by SpaceX's Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) technology. The full-scale Starship is intended to ferry people to Mars.

Over the next few years America's skies will be full of rocket launches. Joining SpaceX in launching US spy satellites into orbit will be the relative newcomer Relativity Space. Then there's the grandly-named United Launch Alliance (composed of America's two largest military contractors, Boeing and Lockheed Martin). ULA is ramping up operations too, as are those with more 'gentle' intentions - the space tourism operators Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.

Which is not to say that Nasa is just sitting on its hands. As soon as the shutdown is over its staff will undoubtedly pick up the strands and once more venture boldly where no man has gone before: decoding ageing by sending mice into space, discovering bizarre new planets, and testing the age of the rings of Saturn.


No solutions enjoy anything close to majority support. PHOTO: The Independent

Back to square none

Britain's elected leaders are learning - in the most excruciating fashion - about the importance of contingency planning. Prime Minister Theresa May went all-in on Brexit Plan A - offering concessions to everyone and pleasing no one. This week it was proffered (sacrificed) before the House of Commons. Suffice it to say that Plan A's life was nasty, brutish and short. The lower house (including 118 of May's Tory colleagues) voted 432-202 against the bill. We don't wish to put too fine a point on it but this was a humiliation of historic proportions.

In ludicrous scenes (that only begin to reveal the sheer absurdity of this moment in Britain's history) both the Remain and Leave camps gathered outside Westminster to cheer the defeat. Labour's Jeremy Corbyn, torn between a personal desire to leave the EU and an energised base that wants a second referendum, tabled a vote of no-confidence that was doomed to fail. It did.

And so May must continue to endure as she follows the only path now available to her - allowing MPs to submit their own proposals for Plan B. These include, in no meaningful order: leaving without a deal, variants of the so-called "toe-dipping option" (e.g., 'Norway Plus'), a second 'Final Say' referendum, or kicking the can down towards the rapidly-approaching end of the road. Reports have emerged that some European leaders are willing to give May until 2020 to come up with a solution. Others have been less charitable. A vote on Plan B has now been set for January 29 but who really knows what could happen between now and then? Word from Whitehall has it that civil servants have been advised to prepare for the possibility of another (another!!!) snap election.
The twisted airframe of Hammarskjöld's plane. PHOTO: AP

A plot in the Congo

Last week we described the significant doubts that hung over Felix Tshisekedi's victory in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Those doubts solidified into an investigation that has revealed - as many expected - huge electoral fraud. It's becoming apparent that the second-placed Martin Fayulu won by a significant margin. But this story is not about present-day DRC.

Between 1960 and 1965 what was then the Republic of Congo was torn apart by civil strife. Although freshly emancipated from its rapacious colonial ruler, Belgium, the new country was dogged by ethnic and tribal insurgency. Complicating matters was the presence of both Cold War powers, jostling for influence. By 1961 the country was fast collapsing into violence and a substantial United Nations peacekeeping mission found itself pitted against the secessionist state of Katanga. The mineral-rich breakaway state had the backing of Belgium and of white governments in South Africa and Rhodesia.

UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld personally intervened to stop the fighting. On September 18, 1961 he boarded a flight to the rebel capital to sue for peace. He never made it: the wreckage of his plane - and the bodies of all onboard - was discovered soon after in the jungle near Ndola. Some evidence suggested that Hammarskjöld's plane was shot down but there has been no conclusive proof showing whether the crash was due to sabotage or equipment failure.

This week new evidence emerged that a Belgian mercenary pilot (in Katangese employ) shot down the plane. Curiously, Jan van Risseghem also had lifelong ties to Britain, having trained with the Royal Air Force and married a British woman. It is a fascinating piece of information in this old, cold case.

The Best of Times

Is this an advertisement? PHOTO: AFP

A big week for Big Macs

The humble McDonald's Big Mac has been the talk of the town this week. Several towns in fact. In Washington, Donald Trump hosted a lunch for the victors of the college football season, the Clemson Tigers. However, due to the ongoing government shutdown the White House was operating with a skeleton staff. Trump overcame the lack of cooks by ordering 300 fast food burgers for the star athletes. In slightly worse news, McDonald's actually lost the trademark 'Big Mac' in the European Union due to a challenge from a small Irish burger joint called Supermac's!

An offer you can't refuse.

The Sicilian town of Sambuca has an embarrassment of cultural and historical riches. The one thing it is missing is people. Many of the older homes lie empty and in varying states of decay. So wanting are the townsfolk of extra tenants that they are selling homes for just €1. Yes, there is a catch, the prospective owners must spend at least €15,000 renovating these old homes, but unlike other fairytale European home prizes, it is open to everyone! If you can stump up the cash, you should.

The Worst of Times

The rescue operation on Tuesday. PHOTO: Kabir Dhanji / AFP

Nairobi assault

The Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab once again struck deep in the heart of Kenya. In the middle of the week a team of five militants detonated a series of explosives in a leafy street outside the DusitD2 hotel and commercial complex in Nairobi. One suicide bomber blew himself up in the lobby and the others stormed in with assault rifles. What followed will be terrifyingly familiar to those who recall the 2013 Westfield shopping centre attack in the same city: room-to-room slayings and a prolonged siege. What differed from that earlier al-Shabaab assault was how effectively the police evacuated people from the centre, saving hundreds of lives in the process. Even so, when dawn rose the following day 21 victims lay dead along with all five assailants.

Presidential gift registry

Of all the revelations of the 'El Chapo' trial, this week's bombshell may well be the spiciest. Associates of the famed Mexican drug lord testified in a New York court room that he had paid a $100m bribe to Mexico's then-president Enrique Peña Nieto. If that eye-watering figure astounds you, we're obliged to advise you that it doesn't surprise anyone in Mexico. So entrenched is corruption in the country's political sphere, and so common - that this story hasn't even broken through the major news cycles in the Mexican press. For his part, Nieto has denied the accusation. 

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"Don't look for the needle in the haystack. Just buy the haystack."

- Vanguard Founder Jack Bogle explains his guiding philosophy when creating the indexed funds that would one day take over the world. He was nothing if not pithy.

Headline of the week

I am looking for friends - perhaps marriage - in an Uber pool, but nobody will talk to me - The Guardian

Featured long-reads from inkl publishers:

Tom Wharton

P.S. Last week we gave a nod to Pink Floyd's 'The Dark Side of the Moon' when discussing Chang'e-4. It merited further investigation, particularly the track 'Breathe' which contains lines that ring familiar (given the week's news):

Run, rabbit run
Dig that hole, forget the sun

And, don't forget to follow inkl on Twitter and Facebook.