Saturday, the 26th of June

Talking Points

Leaving prison unbowed. PHOTO: Albert Gea / Reuters
  1. Anti-trust reforms targeting Big Tech advanced in Washington
  2. Google delayed a seismic advertising cookies ban until 2023
  3. A study suggested China's first Covid case was in Oct. 2019
  4. Shin-shin the giant panda gave birth to a pair of cubs in Tokyo
  5. The British and Russian navies puffed their chests off Crimea
  6. The Dutch PM told Hungary to exit the EU over anti-LGBTQ laws
  7. Spain freed nine Catalan pro-independence party leaders
  8. Ebrahim Raisi was rubber-stamped as Iran's new president
  9. An Ethiopian airstrike killed 64, and wounded 180 in Tigray
  10. 300 Yemeni migrants are feared dead after their boat capsized

Dive deeper

Glimpse of a recent heatwave in Encinitas, California. PHOTO: Mike Blake / Reuters

Florida is reeling from the Surfside condo tower tragedy. It may be a harbinger of what is to come for the Sunshine State.

Surfside shattered

On Wednesday evening, a 12-storey condominium tower collapsed in Surfside, a barrier island town just minutes north of Miami Beach. Residents reported the sound of "a flash of lightning or thunder" that lasted for half a minute as an entire wing of the Champlain Towers South complex pancaked. At time of writing there was a single reported death though over 90 residents remained missing. 35 people have been pulled from the rubble, and emergency services are conducting a search with sonar and sniffer dogs for any more survivors. Hopes were raised as sounds of banging were heard deep within the two-storey-high wreckage. But the mood darkened as Thursday dragged on. The Miami-Dade police director refused to "set false expectations" over the chances of those trapped beneath the rubble.

But how did a 40-year-old building (the complex was constructed in 1981) just collapse? Well, Surfside is wedged between Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic. And experts were quick to point out that ocean-fronting properties have to contend with the corrosive effects of salt water that permeates their foundations. At least one resident had, in 2015, sued the owners corporation when water breached the walls and flooded her apartment. It was, according to her lawyer, a matter of "structural integrity and serious disrepair." And yet, a recent engineering review did not find anything that would suggest the possibility of collapse.

Watching the week's events with a sense of great unease was Shimon Wdowinski, the head of Florida International University's Department of Environment. When tragedy struck, he recognised the Champlain Towers South building immediately. Wdowinski had led a 2020 study which revealed that the building had been sinking at an "alarming rate" ever since the 1990s. Using space-based radar data, he and other researchers had mapped levels of subsidence along the Floridian coast. And Champlain Towers South had been described as "unstable" – dropping 2mm per year from 1993 to 1999.

It could take months for a final report on the cause of the collapse. But it's broadly acknowledged that subsidence is accelerating in the area: the sand bars, barrier islands, and cays that Miami's best real-estate is constructed on are disappearing. The reasons are three-fold.

The water has come

Let's take a quick step back to the last ice age, when enormous glaciers weighed heavily on the continent. These glaciers pressed the centre down towards the planet's mantle, and lifted the edges – the coasts – higher. When the glaciers started to melt (around 11,500 years ago), the opposite happened: the middle of America popped up and pushed the coasts – particularly the East Coast – under water. This process of postglacial isostatic rebound continues today, and it pushes Florida a little further under water every year. And that is the only part of this problem that is not directly the result of human behaviour.

The second reason for subsidence is that Miami is drinking itself to death. Barely 10% of Florida's fresh water supplies come from above-ground sources. The rest is furnished by drilling for groundwater which, while slaking the thirst of 20 million people, requires extensive and deep drilling. And as the water table is lowered, so too is the ground. To borrow from Daniel Day Lewis: they are drinking their own milkshake.

Finally, and most conspicuously, is anthropogenic climate change. Miami is the second-most vulnerable city on the planet for sea-level rises (Guangzhou has the dubious honour of first place). The ocean there is rising three times faster today than it was three decades ago. Miami floods during hurricanes, it floods during severe weather, and it even floods on sunny days. The regular cycle of lunar 'king tides' sends water rising up through the sewers and drains, creeping over lawns, and flooding basements. Severe king tides can dump comparable quantities of water to recent hurricanes.

Florida needs to spend billions raising its roads and constructing more pumps. Networks of huge underground pipes and injection wells are on the cards. A 20-ft sea-wall straight across the Bay of Biscayne has been touted. That may buy the luckiest residents of Miami some time – perhaps a handful of decades. But the unlucky, the un-walled, will have disappeared along with the suburbs they now occupy. As a leaked draft of the upcoming IPCC report states, the Earth will be fundamentally reshaped in the coming decades. And coastal cities like Miami are on the "frontline" of climate change .


Apple Daily goes out swinging. PHOTO: AFP

Bitten to the core

Apple Daily, Hong Kong's last pro-democracy newspaper has ceased operations. In the dimming twilight years of the "one country, two systems" principle, the paper has stood out like a bonfire. Its seemingly irrepressible founder, the media tycoon Jimmy Lai , will spend at least the next 20 months in jail for taking part in the 2019 protests. In reality he could face a lifetime behind bars on the mainland. The vibrant, popular newspaper he founded published its last edition on Thursday. It was a sellout – a million copies went as Hong Kongers rushed to claim a slice of history. In it was a searing farewell letter from deputy editor Chan Pui-man, "Apple Daily is dead. Press freedom became the victim of tyranny."

The seizure of Apple Daily's assets, and Lai's arrest (plus those of 100 others) were enabled by the draconian national security law passed in Hong Kong's legislature last year. The punishments place an eye-watering price on dissent. One man, Tong Ying-kit, faces a life sentence for knocking police officers over with his motorbike during the 2019 protests.

How will the history of Hong Kong be told, years from now? Will it be one of an open society that slid, fettered and demoralised, into a closed one? Or will it offer substantiation for the revanchist dream of a Greater China? At the centre of both histories, one lived and one official, is the Chinese Communist Party. Next week its cadres celebrate their centenary . The world's most successful autocrats have, in the first century of existence (and 72 years as one-party rulers) achieved the impossible. It will in all likelihood be the largest economy on the planet before the decade is out – a complete turnabout from the later era of the Qing Dynasty. Humiliating territorial losses, foreign interventions, colonial dispossession, the blood-letting of Japan's wars in Asia. All of that avenged, and more.

Historical materialism remains embedded at the core of the CCP's philosophy. We prefer Faulkner's line, 'The past is never dead. It isn't even past.'

The death of an iconoclast and prolific Twitter user. PHOTO: AFP

Too weird to live, too rare to die

And now, to the death of a salesman, ladies-man, and alleged murderer: John McAfee. The founder of the ubiquitous anti-virus software company that bore his name was found dead in a Barcelona jail cell on Wednesday. He was 75. His death capped off a lurid two decades in the public eye.

The billionaire lost a fortune during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and hightailed it to Belize to reinvent himself. His lavish (often shirtless) lifestyle and questionable medicinal company drew significant negative attention from the local authorities. This marked a turning point for McAfee. His version of events moved from verifiable (the government of Belize contains corrupt and violent elements) to unverifiable (they had a vendetta against him and wanted to have him bumped off). McAfee surrounded himself with hired guns and struck an antagonistic stance. In 2012 McAfee's neighbour, Gregory Viant Faull, was shot in the head – presumably because he had poisoned McAfee's unrestrained dogs.

McAfee fled, was arrested in Guatemala, and sent back to the United States. He would brush off all the cases that were ever bought against him, instead challenging for the Libertarian party's presidential nomination. After being captured once more off the coast of the Dominican Republic with heavily-armed mercenaries , McAfee settled down on a megayacht with four dogs. There were more charges, this time for failure to pay $4m in taxes and fraud, and so he fled again. In Barcelona, the authorities caught him trying to board a flight to Istanbul on a British passport. On Monday, a Spanish court ruled in favour of his extradition to the United States.

He left us with one last mystery , a tweet from October 2020: "I am content in here. The food is good. All is well. Know that if I hang myself, a la Epstein, it will be no fault of mine." He was, of course, found hanging in his cell.

The worst of times

Another disaster breaks over the horizon. PHOTO: AP

Vaccine supplies dwindle

At least half of the COVAX vaccine distribution scheme’s recipients do not have enough doses to continue their rollouts. The scheme’s creators vowed to deliver 1.8b doses by early 2022, yet only 88m have been shipped . As a result, some countries have run out of Covid vaccines entirely, leaving them vulnerable to successive outbreaks. Africa’s Covid cases have risen since the beginning of May. With just one in 100 vaccinated across the continent, outbreaks are likely to continue.

Canada's cultural genocide

751 unmarked graves were found at another of Canada’s former residential schools this week. Local authorities say it is the largest number of unmarked graves found in Canada’s history. It is not known how many of the remains are of children, or indeed their identities, as the site’s headstones were previously removed. The find comes just weeks after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at another site. As a result of Canada’s cultural genocide, current Indigenous populations experience increased rates of violence, death, and suicide.

The best of times

Wet and wild. PHOTO: PA

Turn on, tune in, Download

Live sports events have been going ahead for months, yet the return of live music festivals has been slow. This week, Britain provided a blueprint for how the world can bring them back. All attendants of the Download Festival were required to provide negative Covid tests upon arrival. As a result, 10,000 people were able to mosh, crowd surf, and dance without social distancing or masks.

Carl Nassib, you champion

This week, Las Vegas Raiders player Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to come out as gay . In an Instagram post Nassib said he has agonised for 15 years about the idea of coming out publicly. He said he ultimately decided to do so because of the importance of visibility and representation. Alongside his announcement, Nassib donated $100,000 to the Trevor Project, which helps prevent suicide among LGBTQI+ youth.

Weekend Reading

The image

Brothers Daniel (pictured) and Moises Monterrubio smashed the record for the longest highline walk in Yosemite. The pair completed the 850m walk, suspended half a kilometre above the canyon below. Gulp. Photograph supplied by The Telegraph.

The quote

"And that’s why I’m telling you this again two years later, after I’ve lied and told the whole world “I’m OK and I’m happy.” It’s a lie. I thought I just maybe if I said that enough maybe I might become happy, because I’ve been in denial. I’ve been in shock. I am traumatised. You know, fake it till you make it. But now I’m telling you the truth, OK? I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry it’s insane. And I’m depressed. I cry every day.

And the reason I’m telling you this is because I don’t think how the state of California can have all this written in the court documents from the time I showed up and do absolutely nothing — just hire, with my money, another person and keep my dad on board. Ma’am, my dad and anyone involved in this conservatorship and my management who played a huge role in punishing me when I said no — ma’am, they should be in jail."

– Britney Spears challenges her father's draconian rule under a conservatorship in a Californian court . The details of the control are extraordinary and scarcely seem believable let alone legal.

The numbers

$2.3b to $1.3b

- US President Joe Biden has got his infrastructure bill – it's just missing one billion dollars . Congressional Democrats bent and scraped to win bipartisan support, and their political opponents cut the bill to the bone. But with Biden unwilling to raise taxes on anyone earning under $400k, and GOP senators spurning any corporate rate rise, a question arises: who is paying for it?

1b doses

- China has injected one billion coronavirus vaccines nationally. While concerns have been raised about SinoPharm's efficacy , the endeavour itself is nothing short of monumental.

The headline

"Chinese monk who saved 8,000 strays is dog's best friend" AFP . Not just a great headline – Zhi Xiang's tale is well worth a read.

The special mention

A heartily-deserved special mention goes to the US defence contractor Tier 1 Group and its owners at Cerberus Capital Management. Wouldn't you love to have been a fly on the wall at the meeting when staff from Tier 1 Group explained that they had trained four of the Saudi throat-slitters who murdered Jamal Khashoggi in 2018? It's unknown whether the assassins were brushing up on their torture techniques or completing a short-course on building the mental fortitude required to saw through human limbs.

A few choice long-reads

  • "Captain Krishnan Kanthavel watched the sun rise over the Red Sea through a dusty haze." Then it all went wrong. Bloomberg Businessweek with the definitive account of the Ever Given Suez disaster. A must read.
  • A story from Financial Times told with great sensitivity and nuance. Between chaos and control: China's century of revolutions.
  • And, another from Financial Times: The tyranny of spreadsheets. Say no more.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting