Saturday, the 1st of June

Talking points

Tornadoes tore through Dayton, Ohio. PHOTO: John Minchillo / AP
  1. An unprecedented string of tornadoes, storms and floods struck the US
  2. Israel headed for a snap election after Bibi failed to form government
  3. Japan reeled from a deadly knife attack on school children
  4. A boat collision in Budapest killed perhaps 24 tourists
  5. The latest Syrian-Russian offensive in Idlib killed dozens
  6. South East Asia sent Western garbage back where it came from 
  7. Oklahoma began its opioid-epidemic case against Johnson & Johnson
  8. Baltimore was crippled by a stolen NSA cyber weapon (whoops!)
  9. New Zealand's budget prioritised 'well-being' over economic growth
  10. An Autism study suggested a link to gut microbes

Deep Dive

!!! PHOTO: The Washington Post

You may have glanced by stories last week about UFOs, and wondered why this 80s C-grade film reference was making the news again. That's because the United States Navy has released guidelines for pilots who have been reporting "unexplained aerial phenomena". The Navy won't call them that but what they're talking about are "UFOs". Yes, the Pentagon is concerned about the frequency of UFO sightings in American airspace. There's a normal sentence. 

Tin foil pilot helmets 

From 2007 to 2012 the US Defence Department ran an Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. The program was formed in response to a growing number of UFO sightings being reported by members of the armed services. It's the kind of story that is tailor-made for rapid-fire internet jokes and increasingly absurd headlines, but if one peels away the conspiracy theories, it's all there in the title: threat identification.

As we all know, the primary purpose of any military force is to identify and neutralise threats. And as we also know, American pilots have some of the world's most powerful weapons at their disposal. But pilots also need to know which tool is right for each occasion. You can't use a 30mm auto-cannon against another plane, or drop a thermonuclear bomb on a frigate. So when pilots report threats from UFOs, they also need to know what weaponry they might be able to deploy against them. And that means the unidentified objects first need to be identified. Fortunately military aircraft are equipped radar, lidar and any number of heat-seeking and colour-spectrum sensors. And advanced onboard computers that can lock and track targets.

The program – a pet project of then senator and UFO-sympathiser Harry Reid – was created to sift through all this data in an attempt to create profiles of the UFOs being spotted by USAF and Navy pilots. Unfortunately, it ran out of money. But the UFO sightings continued apace

So you've seen a UFO, now what?

Four Navy pilots have gone on record to reveal that in 2014 and 2015 there were almost daily contacts with UFOs by pilots on training missions. Almost daily. What the pilots regularly saw was beyond their comprehension – objects shaped like discs and rotating like spinning tops. Others that were oblong. Some travelled at hyper-sonic speeds. Others changed direction violently, carving through the air as if unaffected by g-forces. The frequency itself was alarming, but the details of the reports were so unbelievable that the pilots were (understandably) stigmatised. 

At first the UFOs only appeared on the sensory arrays of planes, leading to them being written off as software glitches. But in one occurrence a pilot actually fired a test missile, and it locked on to the unidentified flying object. That meant it must have had a physical presence, even though there was no engine heat-signature. The breaking point came when another pilot revealed that an object had flown between him and another plane that was in formation, just 100ft away – dangerously close. It appeared to have been a sphere. The rightly furious pilots bailed up their superiors, filing incident reports for what they perceived to be advanced drone technology used dangerously closely to Navy pilots.

The problem was that no one was able to (or at least elected to) provide a satisfactory explanation for any of these events. So the Navy, being the bureaucratic and increasingly HR-bound beast that it is, has instituted new guidelines for how to report UFO sightings. Step one, don't call them UFOs.

A spokesperson said, "For safety and security concerns, the Navy and the [U.S. Air Force] takes these reports very seriously and investigates each and every report". That doesn't help clear anything up, but it also doesn't sound like just an occupational health and safety issue. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Throughout this Deep Dive we've assiduously avoided mentioning the word 'alien', because we're not crazy. And because it would be ludicrous to assume the provenance of whatever these pilots have been dealing with. But let the record state: we want to believe.


It was a bumpy night for the Tories. PHOTO: Getty

What to make of the European election? 

This rather odd democratic exercise has come and gone – leaving many of us none the wiser to the machinations of European Union politics.

Let's work through the salient points together. First off, let's give credit where credit is due: 51% of EU residents aged 18-and-over turned out to elect candidates for a supranational body that ostensibly sits above their own national governments. The high turnout surprised many commentators and reversed a decades-long decline.

With that in mind, who won? Well, a cursory scan of the headlines would leave you with a dizzying impression. There were swings to the liberals, to the Greens, and to the right-wing nationalists. The dominant alliances, the EPP (comprising centre-right parties) and the S&D (a coalition of social democratic parties), both suffered a roughly 25% swing against them, and were robbed of their joint majority. But these were flesh wounds (and not of the Monty Python variety). Both major alliances are still by far the largest. 

The voters that left these groups went exactly where you'd imagine they would: to fringe parties like the Greens and to whatever Marine le Pen's National Front has rebranded itself as. Perhaps that sounds predictable. But we need to be careful. The vote was not an analogue for each member state's own politics, even though its results must be taken seriously - a collapse in votes for Greece's ruling party in the EU election has precipitated a real-life snap election at a national level, and there has been an inversion of power in Italy's ruling coalition that will spell trouble in Rome.

So... what does it all mean, Basil? In a nutshell, the European Parliament has fragmented. And now even more alliances must be struck. This places a significant strain on all the claims to the top jobs in the bloc that are currently up for grabs.

And if all this has you confused, spare a thought for the Brits. In the midst of Brexit, Theresa May's hara-kiri, and the Tory leadership race, both major British parties got flogged at the EU elections. And an equal-but-opposite reaction has led to the rise of not only Nigel Farage's Brexit Party, but also like a phoenix from the ashes, the anti-Brexit Lib Dems. In short, it's all clear as mud.
The time is now. PHOTO: Marco Bertorello / AFP

A true European union

The automobile industry is going through an era of compressed margins and soaring development costs (farewell cars that are simply nicer versions of the Model T, and hello electric vehicles). The time is ripe for mergers and acquisitions. As in so many industries, the incumbents are awakening to the fact that technology innovators like Waymo (why is it always Google?) pose an existential threat: it's time to merge, or die. Which is why the Italian-American Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles is cozying up to the French carmaker, Renault. Their proposed tie-up would create the third-largest car manufacturer in the world, after Volkswagen and Toyota. But first, Renault needs to get the blessing of its junior partners, Nissan and Mitsubishi. And they, as you would recall, already have their hands full dealing with Mr. Ghosn.

And of course, the story wouldn't be complete without some European cross-border friction. France owns a 15% stake in its beloved Renault, and President Emmanuel Macron has made it clear that there must be no politically damaging job losses (no doubt fearing an uptick in the sales of yellow vests). But keeping costly manufacturing plants open just to please the French leader will likely not be the top priority for the auto makers.

On the other side, there is Italy's would-be leader (and frequent troll of Macron) Matteo Salvini. Salvini is insisting that the Italians too must take a meaningful stake in the new entity. Like that's going to help! 

Bonne chance and in bocca al lupo to all involved.

The Best of Times

A marvel of the natural world. PHOTO: The Conversation

One for the scientists

Naked mole rats aren't fussy. Despite their appearance, they are highly social critters who live in subterranean nests in such density that they deplete oxygen supplies to the extent that the air becomes acidic from heightened levels of carbon dioxide. This would cause unbearable stinging for most mammals, but somehow not for our nude little friends. Au contraire, they are also quite partial to eating the stinging roots that other animals eschew.

And all of this is now understood to be the result of the naked mole rats' ability to switch off certain pain receptors at a genetic level. The implications for human pain-relief medication are titanic.

One for the aesthetes 

The Venice Biennale is on. It looks nice.

The Worst of Times

Fleeing the Rakhine pogrom in 2017. PHOTO: AFP

Repatriate games

This week Myanmar's ruling junta announced to the international media that it was ready to 'welcome' Rohingya Muslims back into the country. The pronouncement was met with faint praise and clear scepticism. Two years have elapsed since three-quarters-of-a-million residents of Rakhine State were forced to flee to Bangladesh – their villages smouldering. Myanmar's leaders would have us all believe that much has changed, but a quick sweep of the news this week would disabuse anyone of that notion. 

We'll start with the low-hanging fruit. Amnesty international has accused Myanmar's military of committing fresh 'war crimes' in Rakhine State. Having gone on a shopping spree for military hardware, the same units implicated in the massacres of Rohingya have now turned their guns on a largely-Buddhist local insurgency. On top of this, state-based violence in Myanmar has apparently proven to be a negligible crime. The seven soldiers and officers found guilty of butchering Rohingya during the pogrom have already been released from prison – having served just seven months of their 10 year sentences.

Clearly, nothing has changed.


Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"Increasing export capacity from the Freeport LNG project is critical to spreading freedom gas throughout the world by giving America’s allies a diverse and affordable source of clean energy."

– U.S. Undersecretary for Energy Mark W. Menezes certainly pushed the envelope of language and common sense with that utterance. In the same press release he also described liquid natural gas as "molecules of freedom". That said, the commentariat's accusations of Orwellian overtones are, well, a little overblown. Today's petty officials can only dream of embodying that kind of autocratic flintiness. What we're witnessing seems more 'Team America' than 'Animal Farm'.

 Headlines of the week

Michael Gove insists he has 'evolved' since saying he was 'incapable' of being PM 
Evening Standard

Owner of Noah's Ark theme park sues insurers over refusal to cover rain damage 
The Washington Post

Special mention

The United States Navy. During President Donald Trump's visit to Japan this week that navy was kind enough to obscure the name of the warship USS John McCain. An unnamed White House official had requested that the destroyer bearing the name of Trump's deceased conservative rival be out of sight when the president visited Yokosuka naval station. Pentagon figures denied this, although multiple sources confirmed that sailors of the ship in question (whose uniforms bear its name) were given the day off and turned away from Trump's speech.

Some choice long-reads

EDITOR'S NOTE: Having read The Weekly Wrap you can switch off the news for the weekend - you now know everything that matters. 

Instead, there is a ludicrous amount of great sport on this weekend. Madrid hosts the Champions League final on Saturday evening. Game 2 of the NBA is on Sunday. And of course the Cricket World Cup is on. There's something for everyone. 

And, if you are at a loss for who to follow, the correct answers are; Liverpool, Toronto, and whoever is playing England.

Tom Wharton