Saturday, the 5th of February

Talking Points

Another 'bubble' Games are underway. PHOTO: Marl Schiefelbein / AP
  1. The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics began under a Covid cloud
  2. The LGBT+ dating app Grindr vanished from China's app stores
  3. Brutal fighting marked the first anniversary of Myanmar's coup
  4. India announced plans to tax crypto transactions at 30%
  5. Amnesty International accused Israel of "crimes of apartheid"
  6. The publisher of a scandalous Anne Frank exposé apologised
  7. Boris Johnson's Tory revolt showed no sign of ebbing
  8. CNN boss Jeff Zucker resigned over an office romance
  9. The New York Times snapped up cult game Wordle
  10. NASA revealed plans to "de-orbit" (crash) the ISS in 2031

Dive deeper

Elza Soares: the queen of samba. PHOTO: Ricardo Moraes

This week we visit South America — a continent on the precipice of swift change. In Brazil, protests and political music are alive as Bolsonaro faces a resurgent Lula. In Chile, a female-led cabinet is about to guide the country through the process of writing an entirely new constitution.

Elza and the junta-apologists

On January 22, Brazil lost one of its greatest musicians: 91-year-old Elza Soares . In a career that spanned well over half a century, the sambista elevated her beloved genre to new heights. In 1999, the BBC named her 'Singer of the Millennium' alongside Tina Turner. Do yourself a favour and find out why . In her first performance on a talent show, a young Elza draped in a ragged dress told the audience she was from "Planet Hunger". The singer , born in the favelas, demanded her audience hear the racism, sexism, and classism that hounded her. Her music, like all samba, is deeply political: a century-old tradition of rhythmic protest for Afro-Brazilians. During the 1964-85 military dictatorship, Elza and her husband were forced to flee to Europe after their house was shot up.

Elza has been laid to rest by a country not altogether different from the one she had fled under fear of death. The current President, Jair Bolsonaro, wistfully recalls the bloody years of the junta and the cruelty that upheld it. His policies have sidelined and dispossessed Indigenous Brazilians. And the "scum of the earth" African migrants Bolsonaro hounded at the last election continue to suffer grievously — one Congolese refugee was horrifically beaten to death in Rio de Janeiro just this week. So it's no wonder that Samba has once again become a political battleground. The dance floor at Rio's esteemed Renascença Clube teems with Bolsnaro's detractors, and some of his supporters. Meanwhile, inflammatory rhetoric from Brazil's far-right continues to grow ahead of the October election; perhaps because polling points to a win for the maligned-and-redeemed former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva .

If Lula does win — a fitting bookend to a disastrous decade in Brazilian politics — the protest music will not simply go quiet. 56 percent of the country identifies as Black, but they comprise just 4.5% of the executives in the top end of business, and 18% of the seats in Congress. Afro-Brazilians earn half of what non-Blacks Brazilians take home. Until this is addressed, the sorrow will continue to reverberate in the samba halls.

Chile and the winds of change

Isabel Allende, the number one Spanish-language novelist on the planet, recently told the press, "in Chile, the old fogeys of the political and financial world have got to go home — or to an asylum!" She won't need to wait long. 35-year-old Gabriel Boric assumes the presidency in March, and has announced a notable centre-left cabinet in the interim. 14 out of 24 ministers are women . Seven are under the age of 40. The average age of the entire ministry is 49. In a charming move, Boric elevated the granddaughter of Salvador Allende (the president killed in Pinochet's CIA-backed coup) to the defence portfolio. As one former foreign minister said of the announcement, "something has changed". Beyond the makeup of the cabinet, broader change after a divisive and close run-off will require delicate hands.

The major task before the legislature is preparing the groundwork for replacing Chile's Pinochet-era constitution. Specialist committees have been formed to propose new measures; if these pass the assembly, they'll appear in the referendum set for later in the year. Some suggestions are nothing short of radical. Last week, the environment committee finalised a proposal to annul every single extraction license on Indigenous land. This week, it approved a plan to nationalise the nation's extremely lucrative copper and lithium mines . Given Chile boasts some of the world's largest deposits of both these crucial elements, the extractive industry is beside itself (one spokesperson described the plan as "barbaric"). Various groups have begun waving about, somewhat prematurely it might be said, the threat of international tribunals if Chile does not fully compensate mining companies to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. Another proposal, to overhaul the country's absurd water rights laws , has also been floated.

Of course, these proposals need to win a two-thirds majority in the assembly before they even appear on a ballot. And given the hard-right candidate received 44% of the national vote at the last election it is difficult to see where the bipartisanship will come from. Even so, if you'll pardon the pun, this is blue-sky thinking from a country that has spent decades watching its natural wealth evaporate.


Facebook is shrinking. PHOTO: Bloomberg

The virtual reality goggles do nothing!

In 2018, Facebook had released an alarming set of numbers in its Q2 report. Its weaker-than-expected revenue was not a great place to start, but disappointing daily active users (perhaps Facebook's most cherished metric) were what really caused confidence to plummet. At the time, one analyst described the social media platform's core user growth as "stagnating". Mark Zuckerberg's network looked like it was beginning to go the way of MySpace, while fresher competitors like TikTok transfixed young eyes. Facebook's stock price crashed 19% in a day — the $119bn wiped off its market capitalisation was the worst single-day loss for any company in US history.

This week, that record drop was more than doubled. $251bn gone . Yes, the rebranded technology conglomerate managed to shed a quarter of its value in one day . Why? For starters, its user base is now shrinking, and the costs associated with its 'metaverse' bet are spiking. The competitive landscape has only gotten tougher, and Meta's old workhorse,, has been revealed to be a substandard platform ( Editor's note: have you used it recently? It's a lemon ).

The bleeding is likely to continue, given Apple has also jammed a spanner in Facebook's vaunted advertising engine. The privacy changes Apple introduced to kill off ad-trackers cost Meta a cool $10bn in lost sales last year. We thought these changes would be the end of cookies. But they might just be the end of the whole enchilada.

The partially-destroyed home in Idlib. PHOTO: Mohamed al-Daher / Reuters

Islamic State leader killed

Well, that was quick. The dust had barely settled after the Islamic State prison breakout in Syrian Kurdistan, when the group's nominal leader was bumped off in a US special forces raid .

We'll summarise the official version here: some months ago, America's vast intelligence apparatus tracked Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi to the village of Atmeh in Idlib province. There, tucked up against the border, in territory controlled by the local (rebranded) al-Qaeda outfit, the Islamic State leader hid with his family. Couriers came and went, delivering instructions for the terror group within Syria and abroad. On Tuesday, President Biden gave the order for an attack. In the dead of night, US special forces helicoptered into Atmeh and surrounded al-Qurayshi's house. They gave women and children the opportunity to escape, but before they could enter the property, the terror lead blew himself and some family members to pieces. 13 people were killed including six children and four women.

The sombre, purposeful shots of President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris, and a coterie of generals in the White House situation room are reminiscent of those that accompanied the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Catnip in an American election year. The unofficial version departs from the official narrative in at least one crucial area: the sequence of events leading up to the fatal bomb blast. Witnesses reported hearing heavy gunfire and multiple explosions after midnight. If that's the case, how many of those 13 deaths came at the hands of US special forces? Who triggered which explosive? There may be some sense of justice in ending the life of a militant who presided over the genocide of Yazidis in 2014, but the details do matter. Simplified narratives and childish moral dichotomies have not served US foreign policy well in the last few decades.

The best of times

Is this a cure for blood cancer? PHOTO: AFP

Leukaemia to half-marathons

In 2010, Doug Olson was one of two patients to try a radical approach to treat his chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. CAR T-cell therapy engineered white blood cells to attack cancer cells that had previously eluded the body’s immune system. He went into remission with months. Today he runs half-marathons. But crucially, a decade on, his body is still producing those cancer-killing T-cells . The longevity of the response has raised hopes that we’ve found a cure for certain blood cancers.

LSD under the sea

A new study has suggested that microdosing lysergic acid may be a powerful tool in managing mood-disorders. The subjects in this study? Zebrafish .

The worst of times

No respite. PHOTO: AFP

The seven spas

Extreme heat in the world’s oceans passed “the point of no return” in 2014. Research has confirmed that formerly rare temperature spikes are now occuring in some hotspots 90% of the time. It's going to take a whole lot of LSD to improve the moods of all our planet's sea creatures.

In a flap over nothing

A butterfly sanctuary on the banks of the Rio Grande home to more than 200 rare species has found itself plunged into conflict with QAnon supporters. The National Butterfly Center in Texas had previously filed a complaint to stop the construction of Trump’s border wall; it argued the wall would impede on the delicate habitat of their charges. Now it’s had to close its doors having received 30 “credible threats” from QAnon types who believe the private sanctuary is a cover for an illegal migrant crossing point.

Weekend Reading

The image

Peru's beaches remain covered in oil, weeks after a tsunami ruptured an oil platform. A monumental clean-up effort is underway. Image supplied by The New York Times.

The quote

"This is an action that you say that they have taken but you have shown no evidence to confirm that... I meant this is like crisis actors, really? This is like Alex Jones territory you are getting into now. What evidence do you have to support the idea that there is some propaganda film in the making?"

– Associated Press journalist and veteran diplomatic reporter Matt Lee duels with a White House press spokesperson over unsubstantiated claims of a planned Russian escalation in Ukraine. Watch this extraordinary exchange here .

The numbers

7 rings to rule them all

- Tom Brady retired this week with more Super Bowl rings than any NFL team has won . He was the superlative quarterback.

330,000,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases

- BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, has completed an audit of its climate impact. In 2020, it helped pump the equivalent of 71 million cars worth of greenhouse gases into the air.

The headline

"To Skate for the Dutch, first you must beat the Matrix" — The New York Times.

The special mention

In showbiz, the inkl special mention is considered second only to an Oscar. This year, the rakish North Korean character actor Kim Jong-un may win both. The locally-produced documentary 2021, A Great Victorious Year shows Kim’s dramatic weight-loss and implies he “withered” out of an abundance of concern for his countryfolk and a sense of sacrificial duty. Bravo.

A few choice long-reads

  • The Economist forecasts what is to come: interest rates rising sharply
  • The Atlantic asks Democrats to ponder whether Joe Biden has a second act in him
  • Businessweek comes in with an absolute pearler about nurses who are fighting back after facing lawsuits for quitting

Tom Wharton