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Sensemaker: The blue touchpaper

Thursday 18 March 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Russia recalled its US ambassador for discussions after Biden called Putin a killer. 
  • The UK announced a four-week pause on plans to accelerate its Covid vaccine rollout.
  • A vase bought for $35 at a yard sale in Connecticut sold for $720,000 at Sotheby’s after being identified as a 15th century Ming.

The blue touchpaper

Protocol? Curiosity? Masochism? Whatever put Dominic Cummings on the House of Commons’ science and technology committee’s guest list yesterday, it was worth it. 

Imagine a Steve Bannon appearance before Congress, or Rasputin back from the dead to answer questions from the politburo. Greg Clark MP was less threatening but his witness’s opinions fizzed like phosphorus. Boris Johnson’s former chief advisor called the UK’s health ministry this time last year a “smoking ruin”, the cabinet office a “disaster zone” and Brexit – which he orchestrated – a huge nightmare. 

Readers will recall Cummings’ Downing Street garden press conference last summer as a farrago of half-truths and nonsense on the subject of his trip to Barnard Castle. So yesterday’s surprise was that, on three things, he was right:

  • The UK does need a fully-funded science research agency free from Whitehall interference. Cummings’ favourite exemplar is Darpa, the US defence research agency, which seeded the internet and showed that cars don’t necessarily need drivers. He claimed to have made it a condition of working for Johnson that he set up an equivalent, and the new body, Aria (the Advanced Research and Invention Agency) launches today with £800 million pledged.
  • The scramble for PPE at the start of the pandemic was indeed disastrous.
  • For that and many other reasons MPs need to take a “very, very hard look” at what went wrong. 

Whenever it happens, Cummings will no doubt be a star witness at that inquiry too, and he will get a going over from those who hold him principally to blame. One tells Politico’s Alex Wickham: “[Cummings] shat over people when he was in government…, claims credit he doesn’t deserve and plays stupid political games when we are still in the middle of a pandemic.”

But there will be much bigger questions to address, including 27,000 deaths in the second wave of UK infections that the Resolution Foundation now says could have been avoided with an earlier third lockdown. One source tells Tortoise that delay can be traced back to a September summit at Number Ten attended by two noted anti-lockdown academics.

Truth will out, we hope.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Four poor years
Trump lost about $700 million as president as his hotels, golf courses and office towers lost revenue and value, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index (via the BBC). His fleet of jets and helicopters, valued at about $60 million in 2015, were worth barely a tenth as much last year. The index puts his net worth at $2.3 billion, down from north of $3 billion in 2016 – both generous estimates compared with those of sceptics who say the entire Trump edifice is built on sand. It will be interesting to see if this sacrifice of wealth becomes part of a comeback narrative.

New things technology, science, engineering

Apple v China
Apple wants to reassure its customers it isn’t helping Big Brother follow them around. China has other ideas. The FT reports (£) that ByteDance (which owns TikTok) and Tencent (the video game and social media giant), which both operate at the pleasure of Xi Jinping, are trying out a Chinese app designed to bypass Apple’s latest privacy protections. Their motive is ostensibly commercial: the more you know about a smartphone user’s movements and browsing, the more precisely you can target the ads you send it. Apple can ban the app outside China and can try to do so inside China – but might risk being shut down there if it did. It’s an ethics/profits trade-off no closer to resolution for being so familiar.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Burp control
Close attention is paid in the UK press today to government trumpeting about getting half-way to net zero. It’s true this is a landmark of sorts, but the startling effect of the closure of most British coal-fired power stations has been evident for years. Of more granular interest today is the finding that adding seaweed to cows’ diets can cut their methane burpage by more than 80 per cent. Methane is a vastly more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

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

Artificial wombs
Scientists in Israel have grown mice foetuses for six days in artificial wombs. The foetuses were not created in vitro – they were removed from living mice after five days of gestation. But they were then kept alive in temperature-controlled glass vials filled with nutrient fluid and hooked up to a ventilation system. The apparatus took seven years to perfect and was devised to study how stem cells start to differentiate into the myriad different cell types required for independent life. It now raises the question of how long mouse and other foetuses could be nurtured outside a natural womb. The research is published in Nature and reported in the NYT ($).

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Atlanta shootings
Eight people including six Asian women were killed in three attacks in the Atlanta area all linked to the same 21 year-old gunman. Robert Long was arrested after a car chase 150 miles south of the city. Police said he was on his way to carry out more killings in Florida; that he admitted responsibility for the Atlanta murders; and that he had claimed to be a sex addict intent on eliminating the day spas where he carried out the attacks as a “temptation”. Sung Yeon Choimorrow, director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, told CNN that Asian American women were uniquely vulnerable to violence since they were subject to sexual fetishisation as well as racism. Keisha Bottoms, Atlanta’s mayor, called for the case to be prosecuted as a hate crime. Four of the victims were named as Delaina Yaun, Paul Michels, Xiaojie Yan and Daoyou Feng.

Thanks for reading; please share this around.

Giles Whittell

Photographs Getty Images

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