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What Happened: October 1, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: The big energy squeeze; The COVID pill; Weekend Reads

The Scroll
October 01, 2021


The Big Story

In another sign of the global supply chain pinch, China addressed its worsening power outages by making bulk gas purchases, in turn driving up energy prices around the world. In an emergency meeting earlier this week, Vice Premier Han Zheng ordered officials to secure energy supplies at all costs, according to Bloomberg. The vice premier’s urgency reflects multiple concerns. One is the loss in economic output caused by power shortages—as we noted here yesterday, Chinese officials just acknowledged the first slowdown in the country’s manufacturing activity since the start of the pandemic. Another is the onset of winter, which drives up energy consumption. The news of Zheng’s order caused an immediate brief spike in the price of natural gas in Europe that eventually leveled out. But when European markets closed yesterday, overall gas and energy prices were at record highs. The surge in energy prices has had cascading effects, sending eurozone inflation to a 13-year high in September and driving up global commodities prices on critical materials. In the United States, natural gas prices hit a seven-year high on Thursday. The increased prices are expected to hit U.S. consumers hard, with gas bills going up as much as 30% over the winter, according to an estimate from the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.

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Today’s Back Pages: Your Weekend Reads

The Rest

There may soon be a treatment for COVID-19 you can buy at the drugstore. On Friday, the pharmaceutical company Merck announced that it was seeking authorization for a new drug, molnupiravir, that a study showed cut the risk of hospitalization or death by roughly half when given to people with mild to moderate COVID-19 early in their infections. If it gets FDA approval, the treatment could be on shelves by the end of the year.

A conference held in Iraqi Kurdistan last Friday that called for normalizing relations between Iraq and Israel ended with calls for violence. Conference participants face death threats as well arrest warrants and currently remain under the protection of Kurdish officials who have defied calls from Shia militia groups aligned with Iran to turn them over. The militia groups rose to power in part by joining an unofficial anti-ISIS alliance with the United States and have since become the dominant force in Iraqi politics. Facing these threats, one speaker at the event, which was sponsored by a Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization called the Center for Peace Communications, has disavowed his statements, claiming he was tricked into participating. Sheikh Wissam al-Hardan, the keynote speaker, who also published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for Iraq to establish ties with Israel, now says that he did not write the piece and can’t read or speak English. Under Iraqi law, “to promote Zionist principles” is punishable by death.
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Terrifying stories of American diplomats suffering injuries from mysterious sonic blasts and sinister Russian energy lasers—a phenomenon labeled Havana syndrome that was a staple of news coverage over the past few years—appear to be the result of crickets and a mass psychogenic effect, according to a declassified government report. Roughly 200 cases associated with the syndrome have been reported from around the world, leading Congress on Tuesday to pass the Havana Act to compensate CIA and State Department workers involved in the alleged attacks. But the report, written in 2018 by an elite group of independent scientists working for the government, found “no plausible” energy source that could have produced the reported symptoms. So what caused the strange high-pitched noises detected by embassy officials? “The most likely source is the Indies short-tailed cricket,” the report concluded.
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The damage control by Vice President Kamala Harris after an event Tuesday during which she flattered a college student who accused Israel of genocide has been notably muted. The VP has made some efforts behind the scenes but no public gesture to distance herself from her reply when a student at George Mason University, who identified herself as “part-Yemeni, part-Iranian,” referred to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “an ethnic genocide and a displacement of people.” In response, Harris said, “This is about the fact that your voice, your perspective, your experience, your truth, should not be suppressed. And it must be heard, right?” One group Harris did speak with Thursday was the party-aligned Democratic Majority for Israel.

Millions of valuable internet addresses assigned to Africa by a nonprofit have been pilfered and resold for profit through shady deals involving a Chinese businessman and a former top official at the nonprofit. “Instead of serving Africa’s internet development,” an investigation by the Associated Press found, many of the web addresses “benefited spammers and scammers, while others satiate Chinese appetites for pornography and gambling.”

A government investigation found serious and widespread problems in the FBI’s process for obtaining surveillance warrants, including major irregularities in the critical Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants. Out of 29 FISA applications reviewed, the Justice Department inspector general report found 209 errors.
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This is an interesting thread written by a New York Times reporter and endorsed by a Democratic strategist. It argues that the idea that there was a new Obama coalition that shaped the future of the Democrat’s approach to coalition politics was a fallacy.

Super important thread - the popular narrative after 2012 that Obama won due to historic mobilization of young and non-white voters was completely wrong and the resulting consequences of that narrative have led to massive strategic errors that have put American democracy at risk

— (((David Shor))) (@davidshor) October 1, 2021

Australia, which currently bans its own citizens from leaving the country, is planning to reopen its border for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Australia has had some of the strictest COVID-19 rules and lockdowns in the world, prompting mass protests that have led to outbreaks of civil violence. But starting in November, Australians who have been fully vaccinated will be eligible to leave the country once the state they live in reaches an 80% vaccination rate. Travelers to Australia would still be prohibited.

The video conference company Zoom—the great pandemic success story—has abandoned plans to buy call center software provider Five9 for $14.7 billion. Five9 shareholders squashed the deal on Thursday, deeming it “terminated by mutual agreement” just weeks after the Justice Department raised concerns about Zoom’s ties to China.

Correction: Thank you to several readers who alerted us to the error in yesterday’s Back Pages calling professional basketball player Jonathan Isaac a baseball player.

The Back Pages

Your Weekend Reads

—There were so many eulogies for Norm Macdonald after the comedian died earlier this month that I couldn’t keep track of them, but I’ve slowly been going through all of them. What I like are the anecdotes. Macdonald was such a singular voice and character, you can feel his presence even when other people tell stories about him. I remember how once, during an appearance on Howard Stern’s show, he was explaining why he found it so funny to bomb as a standup comedian—that is, to not get any laughs. The whole reason the audience has made plans and gotten dressed up and paid to get into the comedy club is to laugh, he was telling Stern, and the whole reason that you’re there as the comedian is to make them laugh, and when they don’t laugh, how could that not be funny. Maybe you have to secretly root for failure to find that funny, but all I know is, I do. This story from a remembrance by fellow comedian Jeff Ross, who used to open for Macdonald, reminded me of that.

Norm seemed to relish bombing as much as killing. My first ever legitimate comedy club gig was emceeing Norm’s eight shows over six nights at Catch A Rising Star in Princeton, New Jersey. He was gaining momentum in Canada, but nobody really knew him yet in America. Imagine a young, skinny Norm at his most raw and natural performing a clean, well-crafted routine for an hour in a thick Canadian accent to a drunk New Jersey crowd that would have much rather been watching Andrew Dice Clay recite dirty nursery rhymes in an arena. Not everyone got him yet.

His bits were long and weird and sometimes he would bomb. When he did, he would stand by the exit door and awkwardly say goodbye to every single person as they left. This was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. He purposely made people so uncomfortable.

—Amia Srinivasan’s new book, The Right to Sex, an essay collection on feminist philosophy and applied ethics, has been getting a lot of notice and praise. Her fellow philosopher Oliver Traldi wastes no time in his review: “Is it a high achievement? Well, it’s OK.” And that’s just the first paragraph. Thankfully, after that summary assessment Traldi finds more opportunities in the book for insightful commentary and wit.

At times, her view of the sexual noble savage seems highly implausible. And at times it seems quite authoritarian. She writes: “Is anyone innately attracted to penises or vaginas? Or are we first attracted to ways of being in the world, including bodily ways, which we later learn to associate with certain specific parts of the body?” There are lots of questions here—but how should we answer them? Even if we are “attracted to ways of being in the world”—whatever that means—why would such attractions be egalitarian? Isn’t it much more likely, for evolutionary reasons, that people would all end up with similar preferences as to “ways of being”? And wouldn’t that simply create a new hierarchy? (I can ask questions too.)

—“Companies that you likely have never heard of are hawking access to the location history on your mobile phone,” write Jon Keegan and Alfred Ng in The Markup. Their investigation into the $12 billion market for location data makes it clear that wherever you go, as long as you’re carrying your phone, you’re being followed.

Once a person’s location data has been collected from an app and it has entered the location data marketplace, it can be sold over and over again, from the data providers to an aggregator that resells data from multiple sources. It could end up in the hands of a “location intelligence” firm that uses the raw data to analyze foot traffic for retail shopping areas and the demographics associated with its visitors. Or with a hedge fund that wants insights on how many people are going to a certain store.

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—And finally, an essay from ​​Antonio García Martínez “on abandoning secular modernity” and converting to Judaism.

As frivolous as they sometimes might seem, the stories we tell ourselves are what we ultimately become as people and a civilization. There’s perhaps no more important choice we face as stewards of the present than what we pass on to the future as shared narrative. We all subconsciously realize that, which is why the debates over The 1619 Project or Critical Race Theory have grown so heated and deafening. With the grim examples of slavery and the Holocaust in mind, let’s revisit the question: What then do we put in our children’s heads?

Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel.

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