Saturday, the 7th of September

Talking points

A masterclass at Flushing Meadows. PHOTO: The Guardian
  1. Serena Williams closed in on her 24th Grand Slam
  2. Former Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe died, aged 95
  3. Italians got a new Matteo-Salvini-free government
  4. Bangladesh cut off mobile coverage access for 1m Rohingya refugees
  5. Saudi Arabia illegally bombed a prison in Yemen, killing 100
  6. After a Texas massacre Walmart announced it will stop selling ammunition
  7. Clashes erupted in Kashmir after the first (officially confirmed) death
  8. A string of deaths were linked to contaminated vape juice
  9. 419m phone numbers were exposed in Facebook's latest privacy breach
  10. A tragic boat fire claimed at least 25 lives in California

Deep Dive

Utter devastation in the Bahamas. PHOTO: Daniel Sorabji / AFP

The first major hurricane of the 2019 season has obliterated much of the Bahamas. At its worst, Dorian was a Category 5 cyclonic storm; whipping the oceans into a frenzied, rising spectre. A major humanitarian operation is underway.

A lingering terror

Some of the most violent weather systems on Earth are created with nothing more than the warm equatorial waters of the Central Atlantic and a wind blowing westward from Africa. Dorian, the latest incarnation, started life as a tropical disturbance, depression, and storm. It then intensified, rapidly. On August 31st it was classified as a Category 4 hurricane. By the time it made landfall at Elbow Cay in the Bahamas the following day, it had picked up speed and was reclassified as Category 5. With sustained windspeeds of 185mph, and gusts of up to 220mph (that's 350kph for fans of the metric system), Dorian flattened the Bahamas .

The eyewall tore at Grand Bahama for 40 straight hours; a scarcely believable amount of pressure lifting the sea up onto the islands. A storm surge of more than 20ft was reported across multiple parts of the island. In its aftermath, images show suburb after suburb without a single surviving house, and entire buildings that have been smashed to smithereens. On Abaco Island, one resident described watching Dorian peel the roofs off his neighbours' houses. At least 30 are confirmed dead, though this number is expected to rise.

Hurricane Dorian's terrifying windspeed was only half the story. The damage it wrought, particularly on Grand Bahama and Abaco Island, was exacerbated by the fact that while most hurricanes move through a region quickly, Dorian had slowed down to a crawl. This is no exaggeration: its forward movement speed was recorded as just one knot, or 1.2mph over the main island. This prolonged the blistering assault on buildings and multiplied the misery. Heavy rainfall, as in this case, is becoming an increasingly common feature (in 2017, Hurricane Harvey dumped 60 inches on Texas).

Mapping a tragedy

Dorian's next stop was the United States. Luckily its expected direct hit on Florida did not eventuate; the weakening hurricane veered north after clipping the eastern seaboard. By the time it came ashore in Cape Fear, North Carolina, winds had slowed to 100mph (Category 2). Even so, shearing winds uprooted powerlines and heavy rains precipitated flash floods across the Carolinas. Extraordinary footage shows the ocean rushing inland through coastal suburbs. The water is coming. But by the time you read this, Dorian itself will be tracking its way back out into the Atlantic, damage done.

As a sign of the times we live in, while the danger approached, Donald Trump decided to launch another prolonged attack against US news media. Earlier in the week he had mistakenly said that Dorian imperilled Alabama. No one knows whether that was a slip of the tongue, a conflation of several pieces of information, or pure imagination. What we do know is that when he was corrected by the Alabama headquarters of the National Weather Service, the president dug his heels in. It was vintage Trump: a meaningless trifle elevated to scandal-of-the-week status, merely because he could not acknowledge a mistake. We usually avoid stories like this – because once all the hype dies down they are often of limited consequence – but in this case the US President left us no choice.

In an Oval Office briefing, Trump produced what he claimed was a map of Dorian's projected path across Florida. Take a look for yourself . Journalists quickly noted that it looked like someone had (rather amateurishly) doctored the map – to extend the hurricane's projected path into Alabama. Under the glare of a bemused media, the episode perfectly encapsulated the tenuous grip on reality and wanton disregard for facts that have become hallmarks of this self-absorbed White House.

All the while, millions of Americans waited fearfully in emergency shelters or boarded-up homes.


Boris is in election mode even if no-one else is. PHOTO: The Independent

Defeat, after defeat, after defeat

What a difference a week makes! British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plan to prorogue the parliament and silence his enemies may have worked, but his efforts to force an early election collapsed in shambolic fashion. The gamble to bring on an October 15 election failed when Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn refused to take him up on it without a guaranteed Brexit extension. With the minor parties on his side, Corbyn snatched away the two-thirds majority required to sign off on a snap election. In fact, Johnson lost all four of his first votes in parliament.

It was a historic embarrassment for the new PM as a total of 21 Conservative MPs crossed the floor to vote against him. But the sting came later, when the PM's own brother, Jo Johnson resigned as Tory MP and minister. Jo fairly claimed that he was torn between family loyalty and his country. Labour and the Scottish National Party are now in negotiations to avoid a no-deal Brexit by pushing it back to November. Johnson said that he'd "rather be dead in a ditch" than delay Brexit again , but his prospects are muddy to say the least.

And it wasn't just the Boris show in Westminster this week. Arch-Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg also had a blinder. As his government's majority and mandate collapsed, Rees-Mogg reclined languorously across the cushioned green front bench (in repose that was instantly memeified of course). He then followed up by comparing neurologist Dr David Nicholl (who has repeatedly warned that a no-deal Brexit could lead to widespread medicine shortages) to the anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield . What a time to be alive.

More clashes are expected this weekend. PHOTO: Winson Wong

Independence demanded, denied, and won

Hong Kong executive Carrie Lam at last relented and formally withdrew her much-reviled extradition bill from the government's agenda. Why it took months of violent protests for this obvious and relatively pain-free decision to be made is anyone's guess, but it has finally happened. This could be viewed as a sign that the protest movement was effective in its goals. Or, more cynically, as a masterstroke by Beijing: the concession eliminates the primary reason for the protest – positioning any further unrest as unjustified.

Further south, Indonesia intensified its crackdown in the restive province of West Papua. Reports have emerged that six people were killed and several more were wounded after a Jakarta-aligned paramilitary group fired on an independence demonstration in Deiyai. The government has denied the allegations, while simultaneously cutting internet access in West Papua to quell the spread of information.

As the violence has worsened in West Papua, Timor-Leste has offered itself as a foil; a vision of what West Papua could be. Last Friday, the tiny nation marked two decades since the fateful independence referendum that ended Indonesia's bloody occupation. During the second half of the 20th century the Timorese petitioned (and fought) both the Portuguese, and Jakarta. Between 100,000 and 200,000 were killed, lost to famine, or disappeared during that struggle – a stark reminder of the high cost of self-determination.

The Best of Times

Looks pretty good. PHOTO: Leonhard Foeger / Reuters

The Danube is always bluer

Vienna has been named the world's most liveable city . Again. And while it might be nice for all of us to move there, it must be noted that the last group of people to try that (the Ottoman Empire, 1683) weren't all that well received.

Through the looking glass

Our insatiable lust for new technology produces mountains of ephemera. Cast your mind back to the Apple Newton, to Betamax tapes, and to those little printers that clipped onto Game Boys. Another product headed for the scrap-heap of human history was Google Glass, a breathtakingly-intrusive and commercially unviable pair of smart glasses. Amazingly, these have now been rescued from oblivion by Stanford researchers , who are using them to teach autistic children to recognise facial expressions and attendant emotions. Visionary stuff.

The Worst of Times

The worst level in Age of Empires. PHOTO: The Independent

Please stop buying bottled water

We've discarded so much plastic that it's now in the fossil record . The Plastic Age doesn't sound as nice as the Bronze Age, does it?

The eleventh hour

Even as a peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban takes shape, a wave of bombings has killed dozens across Afghanistan. Twin bombings tore through secure areas of Kabul during the week. It's reminiscent of all those unlucky lives lost in the First World War in the hours between the Armistice being signed and it taking effect. The end to hostilities cannot come soon enough in this battered country.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"This is a technology that would have sounded exotic in the extreme 10 years ago, now being well within the range of any lay criminal who's got creativity to spare. "

– Andrew Grotto of Stanford's Cyber Policy Centre warns the world of voice-mimicking software. In one memorable heist, the managing director of a British energy company wired $240,000 to a Hungarian bank account believing his boss was instructing him to. Turns out that it was actually thieves using artificial-intelligence-powered software in a new take on blagging.

Headline of the week

British man leaves rowing machine at top of Mont Blanc 'because he did not have the strength to take it down' The Independent

Special mention

Goes to a very, very old Japanese rugby player.

Some choice long-reads

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Pope was trapped in an elevator this week and needed to be rescued by firefighters. Days later a Catholic school in Nashville removed J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series from the library for fear that the magic depicted could lead to evil spirits being conjured in the real world. Coincidence?

Tom Wharton