Saturday, the 29th of January

Talking Points

Barty breezed into the women's singles final. PHOTO: AFP
  1. Ash Barty and Danielle Collins advanced to the Australian Open finals
  2. Children from Fukushima sued TEPCO, the nuclear power company
  3. Beijing ramped up virus detection ahead of the Winter Games
  4. US and China raced to recover a downed jet from disputed waters
  5. Gas producers lined up to benefit from the Ukraine crisis
  6. A 'spooky' spinning object was discovered in the Milky Way
  7. Supreme Court Justice Breyer announced his retirement
  8. A US hospital denied an unvaccinated patient life-saving surgery
  9. Dozens died when a people-smuggling boat capsized off Florida
  10. The Fed indicated a March rate hike to combat inflation

Dive deeper

Gather round, children. PHOTO: YouTube

Free speech. Covid misinformation. Spotify. Joe Rogan. Neil Young. This scandal is a Search Engine Optimisation specialist's dream come true. The latest victim of the culture war is culture itself.

An experience like no other

If you've just come to from a decade-long coma, you may need an introduction to Joe Rogan. He is the consummate media personality: a former reality TV host and comedian who provides colour commentary for UFC matches. In 2009, he launched the Joe Rogan Experience , a no-holds-barred interview podcast. With time to burn — some conversations lasted five hours — Rogan and his guest would meander from politics to mixed martial arts to philosophy. The exaggerated form challenged the clipification of news interviews. The subject matter, as often inane as insightful, an antidote to the polish and scripts of modern media products. The host's views suffused the show with faint whiffs of libertarian political philosophy, realpolitik, spiritualism, and psychotropic drug use. It was a huge hit.

In 2013, Rogan's producer began posting filmed episodes to YouTube and the show snowballed. YouTube, a natural reservoir for — let's put this as charitably as possible — iconoclastic thought, delivered a new kind of audience. Slots on the Joe Rogan Experience became coveted opportunities. But it wasn't just Lance Armstrong, Anthony Bourdain or Neil deGrasse Tyson. The show, a kind of safe-space for free speech, appealed to the likes of Ben Shapiro and Dan Bilzerian. Substantive guests like Edward Snowden or Oliver Stone would offer meaningful critiques of power, while firebrands like Alex Jones or Steve Bannon would advocate pure lunacy. Given that America's public life is delineated by media consumption, Rogan's perceived trend to the right earned him few plaudits from liberals.

Allowing guests to say what they want in mostly-unchecked interviews does, as one might expect, stir controversy . The Joe Rogan Experience is both a battlefield in an interminable culture war, and a signifier of American public life as a whole. What's on offer is a live exercise in reifying the abstraction of free speech into a talk show — and the people are listening. In 2019, Rogan boasted of 190m monthly downloads; a stupendous, if slightly rubbery, figure. The following year, Spotify made him the jewel of their growing podcast offering; the price for going exclusive - a cool $100m.

Neil Young and Crazy Thoughts

One day, Spotify executives will be able to look back at the decision to bet the ranch on Rogan and laugh. No doubt they'll have made good coin off him either way, but first they'll have to weather a few storms. Right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, Rogan's predilection for less-than-scientific views is making Spotify's flak-catchers earn their keep. In recent months, Rogan's guest list has included renowned anti-vaxxers like Drs Peter A. McCullough and Robert Malone. The former published a journal supporting the use of hydroxychloroquine in which he incorrectly cited a study that said the exact opposite. The latter recently compared the US government's vaccine drive to Nazi Germany. On Thursday, Rogan's guest was MMA fighter and amateur epidemiologist Julianna Pena, who said this of the coronavirus pandemic. " I'm like, this is just a money grab . This is, they're trying to kill us, you know, and this is ridiculous".

The misinformation was so egregious in Rogan's Malone interview (ie: that Moderna and Pfizer vaccines made Covid infections worse) that even YouTube took the videos down . That's when you know you've really cooked the goose. Spotify culled no less than 40 episodes with Rogan's less-hinged guests. This kind of material being spread across a famously devoted audience set off alarm bells everywhere . Public health figures described it as "extraordinarily dangerous". And the backlash wasn't limited to the medical profession. The legendary Canadian-American singer-song writer Neil Young sent the following note to his label "I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform. They can have Rogan or Young. Not both."

Spotify chose: Young's 50-odd albums are now gone . In his announcement on Wednesday, the iconic rocker called for other artists and labels to leverage their presence on the streaming platform. But that call has gone largely unheeded: few artists are in Young's enviable financial position (65 million albums sold between Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills, Nash and Young; and a solo career). There was never going to be any support from his own label. Warner Records' parent company owns a 4% stake in Spotify. In Young's departing shot, he correctly described Spotify's stance as "lies being sold for money".

It's a typically media-saturated and name-droppy stoush for our times — all good dinner table chatter. But for those who refuse to get the needle, the damage isn't nearly done.


A resurgent ISIS strikes into Syrian Kurdistan. PHOTO: AP

Breaking and entering

In the years since the territorial defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the fate of the vanquished has been unwritten. Tens of thousands of fighters, and their families, still languish in makeshift prisons scattered around Kurdish Syria. The Western victors continue to hum and haw about what to do, all while steadfastly refusing to repatriate their own nationals. Prison camps had been slapped together and placed under the guns of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. They are still there — years later. There is no real chance for a trial, let alone clemency. The Syrian state won't take them (going on prior form, Damascus would probably just let them go again), and despite their de facto rule, the Kurds don't have a state in which to prosecute them. And so they fester.

Last weekend, in the absence of any novel suggestions from the victors, ISIS took the initiative by launching an assault deep inside Kurdish territory. A pair of car bombs announced the arrival of fighters at the main gates of the prison in al-Hasakah. Scores of them fought their way into the prison to release 3,000 of their erstwhile comrades. The guards at the prison were overwhelmed — many were taken hostage along with 700 boys detained in a separate ward. But the successful seizure was not capped off with a great escape. The SDF response was slowed by ISIS sleeper cells fighting a suicidal rear-guard in surrounding suburbs. It's unclear how many fighters escaped on the chaotic first day. By Monday, the al-Hasakah prison was encircled and US jets were hammering ISIS positions . Over the next three days, the Kurds battled their way into the prison, keen to avoid the wing full of child hostages.

On Thursday, the inevitable was realised. Outgunned and hopeless, thousands of prisoners surrendered . Reports vary drastically, but hundreds of ISIS fighters and prisoners are believed to have died. The SDF reported 50 of their own casualties. This bloody, fruitless endeavour is a clear signal that the victors are losing the peace.

The 'owner' of this digital image paid $272,000. But you can right-click and save it for free. PHOTO: Benzinga

Non-fungible benefits

As keenly media literate readers, you'll know that news organisations tend to bunch up on emerging topics for fear of losing their edge. There's a good chance you are simply overwhelmed with the amount of crypto, NFT, and DeFi news bobbing about the place at the moment. The pace of technological change — and the fervour of its advocates — makes for curious reading. And while we await the blockchain-enabled sunlit uplands, we should at least have a good laugh at the grifts that are going down.

Let's start with OpenSea, the number one marketplace for those who prefer their tokens non-fungible. It's simple: you jump on your computer and buy a blockchain-secured piece of code that corresponds to a digital art file. The most desirable pieces can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Ethereum. The Silicon Valley startup boasted a $13.3bn valuation after its latest funding round (proving venture capitalists are not too dissimilar from news organisations). But in 2022 OpenSea has struggled with a loophole that allowed savvy users to purchase hundreds of NFTs at massively discounted prices and then resell them at top dollar. OpenSea has reimbursed its aggrieved customers for their jpegs, but a new loophole is revealed in this tech stack every other week.

Those who aren't speculating in this unregulated zone of commerce are simply using it to launder titanic amounts of cash. This study ventured that criminal enterprises washed $8.6bn through cryptocurrencies last year. NFTs are perfect vehicles for money laundering and its scarcely believable that they actually serve any other purpose.

Lastly, the International Monetary Fund is begging El Salvador to stop accepting Bitcoin as legal tender, and Mark Zuckerberg has given up on his cherished stablecoin Diem.

The best of times

A wild apparition appears. PHOTO: TAP

Look but don't touch

The World Wildlife Fund has identified 224 new species in the Greater Mekong region. Ghostly monkeys , slug snakes, and colourless cavefish.

Life under caps

In 2018 a European probe snapped a bright radar reflection at the Martian south pole. Was it a giant liquid lake beneath the ice cap? Or, as some researchers argued, simply volcanic rock below. A team of Australian researchers has spent four years painstakingly studying different rock, saline ice, and brines under sub-zero temperatures. This week they published their results: it is more likely water than not . It throws the door wide open to the prospect of finding microscopic life in under the ice caps.

The worst of times

A resident of Ouagadougou reads about the latest coup . PHOTO: AFP

Changing of the guard

We can add 2022 to sizeable list of Burkinabé coup d’etats. Public sentiment had turned against the democratically elected President Roch Marc Christian Kabore in recent months. The military campaign against islamist insurgents has failed to stem the violence. This week one Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba from the Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration decided the best way to safeguard and restore was by mutinying and seizing power.

Tennessee no evil

A school board in McMinn County unanimously voted to ban a graphic novel over its “curse words”. The novel in question, ‘Maus’, is Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece that recounts his own fathers experience in the Auschwitz death camp. Civility over reality at any cost.

Weekend Reading

The image

Athens was unexpectedly blanketed in snow this week. Scenic shots of the Acropolis aside, the blizzard caused widespread chaos in the capital. Some have called on the prime minister to resign which hardly seems fair given climate is not his portfolio. Image supplied by The Independent.

The quote

"It was not a premeditated, organised party. He was, in a sense, ambushed with a cake."

British Conservative MP Conor Burns elevates sophistry to new heights with his defence of Boris Johnson. Another crowd favourite came from Tory MP Andrew Rosindell, who mused, "well, he didn't rob a bank".

The numbers

81 years old

- Nancy Pelosi , the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, announced she would stand for reelection this year. It would be her third consecutive (and fifth overall) term presiding over the lower house. America is shuffling towards a gerontocracy.

500,000 cars

- America’s gas stoves are leaking 28,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases every year even when they are turned off. That’s the equivalent to half a million extra cars on the road.

The headline

"Israel's "top priority" mission to discredit UN human rights probe" Axios . What a world.

The special mention

A well-earned special mention goes to Beijing's censors. If David Fincher’s Fight Club had been released when China was still a Communist country, it would have been required watching. The film sharply ridicules consumerism of modern America and ends with a dramatic attack on the financial institutions that uphold capitalism. But it came out in 1999 when China was well on the road to state capitalism itself. Today Fight Club has been censored in China; it’s dramatic ending reimagined (the police intervene before the toppling of insurance and bank skyscrapers). A sign of the times.

A few choice long-reads

  • Bloomberg identifies an unlikely saviour of the global economy: the People’s Bank of China.
  • The Economist imagines the global repercussions of a war in Ukraine.
  • Businessweek ponders what’s real and what’s not in this unpredictable bubble economy.

Tom Wharton