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Sensemaker: End of the soap opera

Sensemaker: End of the soap opera

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Joe Biden slapped down a tweet from Donald Trump saying the US ban on travel from Europe and Brazil would be lifted; it won’t be.
  • More than 600 rioters have been arrested in Tunisia ten years after it became the birthplace of the Arab Spring.
  • Hungary said Shanghai’s Fudan University will open a campus in Budapest in 2024, the first Chinese university in the EU.

End of the soap opera

Welcome to the last day of the Trump presidency. With typical thoughtfulness and understated grace, Trump yesterday announced further parts of his plan for a statuary garden of American heroes – including names to go in this park. The list is long, and odd. Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock make the cut, along with Alex Trebek, the host of the quiz show Jeopardy!. All three were naturalised Americans, so might be pleased to have been fully accepted (though I suspect Bergman, in particular, would be a little puzzled). But even their greatest admirers might be bemused to have them deemed national heroes.

Kobe Bryant, the basketball player who died in a helicopter crash last year, is on the list, as is the singer Johnny Cash. Trump ignored the pleas of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late Supreme Court justice, not to have her seat on the court filled in a hurry, but she’s on the list too. The list is odd enough – and long enough – that I wonder if its true intention is to lower the bar for a national monument so that even a twice-impeached president can be deemed a hero and get his name in lights somewhere.

At the same time the New York Times ($) reports that a wave of pardons is expected in the next day – probably more than 60, maybe over 100. Lil Wayne, a rapper caught with a firearm, might be on the list, having supported Trump. Sheldon Silver, a crooked New York state politician, may be pardoned, apparently because Trump dislikes the prosecutor who put him away. And Sholam Weiss, a fraudster who stole $450 million from an insurance scheme, might be allowed out – seemingly because his lawyer is also Trump’s lawyer.

State capitals and Washington itself are preparing for potential violence tomorrow, on Inauguration Day. In a sense, it is all rather fitting end for Trump: a final 48 hours of worrying about racists on the march in the streets, odd alliances with crooked associates, disregard for the niceties of the law and weird odes to American exceptionalism that confuse entertainment with achievement and almost reach the level of high camp.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

UK vaccine roll-out
One of Britain’s deepest anxieties in national policy is the idea of the “postcode lottery”: that people should not receive wildly different treatment just for living in a different area. The success of the vaccine roll-out, which is second only to Israel’s in relative scale, is now hitting the bumpers because of fear that some areas are being left behind – unable to get jabs into arms fast enough. The Times reports that some places in England have done markedly more injecting per head of eligible population than others, and so may be asked to pause while resources are diverted to the slow-coaches (£). This may mean England’s vaccine roll-out will start slowing down relative to its peers – notably Wales and Scotland.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Money over morals
On 3 December the former pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmaker Ted Hui announced he’d sought exile from his homeland’s draconian National Security Law in Denmark. The next day, HSBC froze his and his family’s bank accounts. Noel Quinn, HSBC’s CEO, wrote regretfully to Hui on 11January to say his bank “had no choice” and was following police instructions. HSBC is tied to Hong Kong in more than name, making most of its profit in China. If it is asked to choose between liberal values and Chinese cash, it is, so far, no contest.

New things technology, science, engineering

Plugging in
There’s a pretty remarkable report in the Guardian that an Israeli company has made a car battery that can be recharged in five minutes. The downside is that we do not have an electricity infrastructure that is quite up to it: for now, StoreDot’s plan is to try to roll out chargers that can deliver 100 miles of driving in five minutes by 2025. The cost, the company says, will be the same as for existing batteries. But even this breakthrough may not be enough to move them up into mass ownership: the central problem with electric cars is that they are still very expensive to buy. The price, not the performance, is the core problem facing consumers.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Emma Jacobs has a really interesting piece from in the FT (£) on a crisis in creativity caused by home confinement and school closure during lockdown. Alf Rehn, professor of innovation, design and management at the University of Southern Denmark, describes children as “creativity’s terrorists” – quite a funny escalation from the British critic Cyril Connolly’s description of the “pram in the hall” being his own personal “enemy of promise”. Productivity may be a rather modest problem, however, compared with the mental health problems accruing among young people

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

The Egyptian authorities have uncovered 50 sarcophagi from between the 16th and 11th centuries BC in the ancient necropolis of Saqqara. Zahi Hawass, the lead archaeologist, said the funerary temple of Queen Naert, the wife of King Teti, as well as three warehouses made of bricks, were also found on the site. This is all in the area around the stepped pyramid at Djoser – an extraordinary site that reopened to visitors this year. They are opening a new museum at Giza, too. Egypt’s tourist trade has suffered a lot – from fears of terrorism, from domestic politics and, of course, the pandemic. 

Stay safe, wash your hands, open windows when you can. 

Chris Cook

Additional reporting by Ellen Halliday

Photographs Getty Images