Saturday, the 19th of February

The question...

How do you make a start in London's famously-tight market without breaking the bank?

Talking Points

We've got the broken school though it's unclear who shelled it. PHOTO: The Independent
  1. Russia accused a false-flag attack in Luhansk region
  2. Spain’s worst fishing tragedy in decades saw 21 sailors drown
  3. Hungary and Poland face billions in cuts after EU ‘rule-of-law’ case
  4. The man behind Pakistan’s most infamous honour killing was acquitted
  5. A rape trial ended in a life sentence for an Indonesian teacher
  6. Sandy Hook families won a $73m settlement from Remington
  7. An ex-Goldman banker testified in detail over 1MDB “house of cards”
  8. Google to end cross-app ad-tracking in response to Apple
  9. Prosecutors revealed a pattern of racism in Arbery murder trial
  10. A third person was cured of HIV with stem cell transplants

Dive deeper

Myth and reality in Los Angeles. PHOTO: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Super Bowl LVI was every bit as entertaining as we had hoped. The game was good. The ads were great. And the half-time spectacle was spectacular. Congratulations to the Cleveland-Los Angeles-St. Louis-Los Angeles Rams. Commiserations to the valiant Bengals.

We're done for yet another year. And so is one of the strangest institutional conspiracies in modern American life: the Super Bowl sex trafficking epidemic.

A spectre is haunting America

Given its role as our primary biological function, sex occupies a fairly prominent place in the minds of humans. That's all good and natural. But in the United States, something is askew. It's not just the sex that is keeping people up at night, but also the growing spectre of sex trafficking. This noxious crime, a form of modern slavery that entails the transportation of people, particularly women and children, for sexual exploitation, looms large in the American psyche.

In the internet-enabled fever dreams of QAnon circles, the powerful are trafficking children for their own depraved sexual predilections. The Pizzagate conspiracy theory c. 2016 even saw someone opening fire in a Washington DC pizza shop - because they thought the Clintons were abusing children inside. More recently, sex-trafficking accusations have been hurled at a Texan butterfly sanctuary. In unhinged online groups (on Facebook, where else?) people flag the presence of white vans in their suburb as possible abductors/traffickers. With characters like Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein helping stoke the view that the upper crust are all a bunch of nonces, the authorities are having a hard time dispelling myths about human trafficking.

Even the White House has flagged an update to its anti-human-trafficking plan. Joe Biden's homeland security adviser Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall said human-trafficking (which includes the transportation for non-sexual exploitation) is "an evil practice that contradicts who we are as Americans and the rights we cherish". Meanwhile, in a speech to the President's Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Vice-President Kamala Harris said, "in 2020 alone, there were 11,000 instances of human trafficking that were reported in the United States". This is not correct . Harris was citing data from the NGO which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, but the 11,000 figure is the number of calls the hotline received in 2020, not instances of trafficking. In fact, the vast majority of calls were made by people dobbing in consensual sex work. The hotline reported 3,353 incidents to the police that year, but even this figure is 4-5 times higher than the FBI's statistics. Even the government can't get this right.

Bible-thumpers and 'copaganda'

There's online lunatics, officials flubbing the numbers, and then there is the Super Bowl sex trafficking myth. The idea is this: tens of thousand of licentious men travel interstate for the big dance and to, win or lose, seek out sex workers. Being the land of plenty, local unsavoury elements rise to meet this demand with a supply of trafficked women and girls. No amount of evidence to the contrary has made a dent in this myth. Indeed, multiple studies have shown there is no causal link between major sport events and an increase in sex trafficking. Yet it persists, and there is little wonder why. Every year, there is a hive of activity in the lead up to the Super Bowl, to show Americans that all the relevant authorities are responding to this nonexistent threat.

This year was no different. LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva warned that the game, this year held in Inglewood, "ends up being one of the major events that draws human traffickers to the region". Local and state officials held a press conference at LAX to warn off traffickers. Police held symposia on disrupting human trafficking organisations. Then came the big sweep: a raid during Super Bowl week that netted nearly 500 arrests . The LA Sheriff's Department led the operation and Villanueva was joined on stage at the triumphal press conference with representatives from other agencies and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. But you can usually skip the top line number in any police press conference. Only 30 of those arrested were "traffickers or exploiters" (the latter term went undefined during the press conference). So who else was put in cuffs? Roughly 200 consensual clients (a misdemeanour charge) and a similar number of consensual sex workers (also a misdemeanour charge).

A co-founder of the Sidewalk Project, an advocacy group that works with LA's houseless population, was unequivocal — "sex work is not human trafficking and human trafficking is not sex work, and conflating the two... is incredibly, incredibly dangerous". But that's exactly what the police did. Why? In the first case, as the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote this week, "Panic over the sexual abuse of children and human trafficking is good for law enforcement business". There's more than just police budget boosting going on here: that official sounding National Center on Sexual Exploitation mentioned above isn't a government organisation, it's a hard-right Catholic non-profit formerly known as Morality in Media. The group is famed for campaigning against pornography, sex and toys, comprehensive sex education, and — you guessed it — sex work. Strange bedfellows indeed.


Valieva on ice. PHOTO: AP

Russia doping, again

Why was a Russian figure skater allowed to compete in Beijing despite failing a drug test? Kamila Valieva has been at the centre of a doping scandal at the Winter Olympics, after failing a drug test taken in December — the result of which was only returned on February 7, when she had already begun competing. Valieva said she accidentally took her grandfather’s heart medication, Trimetazadine. Despite this, the World Anti-Doping Agency labelled Valieva a “protected person”. And so, the Court of Arbitration for Sport allowed the 15-year-old to compete, as barring the “vulnerable” athlete from competing would "cause her irreparable harm".

But there was a catch: if Valieva placed, medals wouldn’t be awarded until the conclusion of the investigation. But the constant media attention and hours spent in arbitration hearings proved too much for the young athlete. It all came crashing down as she stumbled multiple times during her routine to finish fourth in the individual figure skating competition. Perhaps the most talented figure skater in the world, Valieva had been predicted to win with ease. But she finished the performance in tears, and was chastised by her coach for her mistakes when she left the ice.

This isn’t the first time Russia has found itself in the midst of a doping scandal of Olympic proportions. It began in 2014 at the Sochi Winter Olympics, when Russia conducted a state-sponsored doping scheme in which athletes’ urine samples were swapped. Then in 2019, further transgressions resulted in the Olympic Committee ruling that Russia must ditch its name, flag and national anthem for four years — and hence the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) appearances.

But like the ROC, Valieva was still able to compete. American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was quick to point out a double standard, given she was barred from competing at the Tokyo Olympics when she was found to have marijuana in her system. Richardson, a 21-year-old African-American, said she had used marijuana to cope with the pressure of the Olympics and the passing of her mother. The drugs used by both Richardson and Valieva are on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list. Richardson wrote on Twitter: "Can we get a solid answer on the difference of her situation and mine? The only difference I see is I'm a black young lady. It's all in the skin.”

Many would probably ask the same question Richardson did, particularly given Trimetazadine is a performance enhancing drug, while marijuana is not. But it seems we won’t know the full story, including whether the drug was taken intentionally and if Valieva’s team knew about it, until the investigation concludes. What’s unfortunate is that a 15-year-old was so broken by the process that she couldn’t perform. On Russian state television, commentator Andrei Zhuranko said: “Sports officials, you have broken the most talented figure skater in the world."

An aerial view of the devastation in Petropolis. PHOTO: Ricardo Moraes / Reuters

Petrópolis swept away

In 1821, the Brazilian Emperor Pedro I stopped his procession en route to Minas Gerais. It was barely a century old at that point, wedged up in the heavily-forested hills of the dramatic Serra dos Óragãos. Just a modest place to rest before continuing the journey into the famed mining region to the north. Pedro liked what he saw, but more importantly, what he felt. The weather in that region is simply divine: highs of 27°C in summer, lows of 11°C in winter. It does, however, rain a bit. So alluring was the climate, that Pedro I decided to build a summer palace there. He never got to enjoy it, it was built during the reign of his son Pedro II, the last emperor of Brazil who would leave both his remains and name to the city.

On Tuesday, the city of Petrópolis was struck by an almighty storm and flood. A wet summer was transformed into a torrent. 256mm (10 inches) — equal to the entire previous month's measure — pummelled the city in just three hours. Entire hillsides gave way and roared towards the valley floor. Hundreds of homes were taken in the tropical avalanche. At last count 117 people lost their lives , and hundreds of emergency workers from the region continue to comb through the muddy wreckage for the 100 still missing. The rain has persisted during the week, frustrating the responders. La Niña is partly to blame — heavy downpours in Brazil (which also claimed dozens of lives in December and January) are a result of the same atmospheric conditions that scorched Chile and Peru this southern summer. Climate change, it should not need to be repeated, is intensifying storms and downpours.

The best of times

Futaba. PHOTO: Koto Endo / AP / Guardian

Fukushima's last ghost town revived

There is still much damage to be undone from the disastrous meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Lawsuits snake their way through the courts. The disposal of contaminated water and soil remains a devilish conundrum. But in Futaba, the last of the Fukushima towns within the no-go zone, radiation has returned to a tolerable level for human habitation. While many former residents have no intention of returning — a brave few do. Futaba today boasts a population of 5: three people and Yoichi Yatsuda's two dogs .

Just another brick in the wall

Archaeologists are piecing together what daily life was like in the long-lost Egyptian city of Athribis with the retrieval of 18,000 shards of pottery. The vessels, ostraca, were ancient notepads inscribed with all manner of daily jottings: food prices, lists of names, details of work done by tradespeople. A large number of ostraca bore the same simple sums repeated over and over on both sides of the pottery. Researchers believe that these were 'lines' given to wayward students as punishment. If for some reason you are a school-aged child reading this: remind your parents that you are preserving a 2,000-year-old cultural tradition the next time you are in detention.

The worst of times

Boating in Lake Oroville is less fun every year. PHOTO: Patrick T Fallon / AFP

The Golden State is turning brown

The American West is experiencing a 'megadrought' — a period of drought spanning more than two decades. New research that gauges historical soil moisture in tree rings from Mexico to Montana has confirmed this is the worst dry spell in 1,200 years . And in bad news for creatures which are 60% made of water; drier decades are on the way. The study grimly notes, "the worst-case scenario already appears to be coming to pass".


In 2021, Juan Antonio Hernández was handed a life sentence for trafficking cocaine through Honduras into Miami. There were a few murder charges tossed in too. It caused something of a stink back in Tegucigalpa because "Tony" happened to be the brother of the guy who lived in the presidential palace. You'd have to suspend a hefty chunk of disbelief to think that President Juan Orlando Hernández was unaware of his brother's operation. This week that suspended disbelief collapsed like a bridge as the now-former president was taken into custody. Of course, these brothers were moving a fraction of the product that the US did during Iran-Contra but who are we to compare?

Weekend Reading

The image

Chowi El Fout is one of Tunisia's many herbalists. For 700 years they and their predecessors have mixed medicine plants in the famed Souq El Blat in Tunis. Interest in traditional remedies has risen steeply during the Covid pandemic. Photo supplied by The Guardian .

The quote

"Stop comparing me to Justin Trudeau

I had a budget"

– This was the text superimposed over Adolf Hitler's likeness in a post shared by Tesla CEO Elon Musk this week. These kinds of far-right memes are precisely what lends contrarian excitement to the Ottawa truckers protest. With each passing year Musk proves that he is our generation's Henry Ford in more ways than one.

The numbers

£12,000,000 from mummy

- The disgraced Prince Andrew, Duke of York settled with Virginia Giuffre this week. While he is not required to make an admission of guilt for allegedly sexually assaulting her while she was a minor, the £12m price-tag speaks for itself. Of course, Andrew is a bit short at the moment so Queen Elizabeth II is coughing up. What a family.

$100 a barrel

- At its ebb, in April 2020, the spot price for West Texas crude oil was $11 a barrel. Things, as you may recall, were going a bit ballistic in the global economy back then. Oil futures turned negative for the first time in history. Today, the black gold has come gushing back to just shy of $100 a barrel . This, sadly enough, will complicate the transition to renewable energy.

The headline

"Kashmir men spend over 100 days in jail for cheering Pakistan win" Al Jazeera .

"Scientists build robotic fish powered by human heart cells"

The Guardian .

The special mention

With all this Very Serious talk of war in Ukraine, our special mention this week goes to the boundless lessons of history. Smart military planners know that they are always preparing to fight the last war. This week we saw some columnists preparing to fight an 83-year-old war . Why not go deeper? What can Putin learn from the Great Northern War of 1700? Does Ivan the Terrible's conquest over the Kazan khanate offer any wisdom?

A few choice long-reads

  • There's only one real loser from the wage-price spiral: you. The Economist with a timely piece.
  • Get a whiff of this Bloomberg Businessweek headline: How Instagram's 'Billionaire Gucci Master' Sunk Nigeria's Super Cop.
  • How do you age happily? The Atlantic with a pearler — one of our most-read articles this week!

The answer...

By purchasing this seven metre square microflat . There's not enough room to swing a cat but it is ever so slightly larger than the average UK jail cell. All yours for just £50,000.

Tom Wharton