Navigate to The Scroll section

What Happened: December 16, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Omnicron, The Metaverse, UAE Arms Sale Nixed

The Scroll
December 16, 2021

The Big Story

A rapid uptick in COVID-19 infections and patient hospitalizations has prompted aggressive travel restrictions from leaders across Europe. France announced today that it will not accept tourists from the United Kingdom, with a few exceptions for French citizens and certain medical professionals. Gathered in Brussels earlier today, several European Union officials struggled to find a cohesive strategy on travel rules to combat the fast-spreading Omicron variant. Italy and Greece announced that travelers would have to furnish a negative PCR test prior to entry, while the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, pushed for more stringent measures, such as a negative PCR test at points of both departure and arrival.

Early research on the Omicron variant suggests antibodies in vaccinated people could be upwards of 40 times less effective at fighting the mutation compared to the original strain, a degradation of antibody strength roughly equivalent to one less vaccine dose of protection. What remains unclear is if the potentially more mild infections caused by the new strain are neutralized by what researchers have thus far found to be Omicron’s higher rate of transmissibility across populations. In the United States, hospitalizations are up by about 21% from two weeks prior, but it’s unclear yet if that spike has been driven by the new variant or other factors, such as holiday travel and gatherings.

Today’s Back Pages: Dystopia in the Metaverse

The Rest

The recent launch of Disney+ in China included the catalog of The Simpsons, but it’s missing at least one episode from the 16th season that pokes fun at the Chinese state’s whitewashing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But if American Disney+ subscribers think that at least they still have uncensored access to the complete Simpson universe, they’d be wrong. After the release of Leaving Neverland, the HBO documentary that alleged various child abuse charges against Michael Jackson, the show’s creators went into American catalogs and deleted “Stark Raving Dad,” the episode where Homer Simpson becomes convinced the character whom he meets in a mental institution is the King of Pop. The character is in fact voiced by Michael Jackson, and the absurd satirical narrative makes for a cutting commentary on celebrity. “This was a treasured episode,” James Brooks, The Simpsons’ executive producer told The Wall Street Journal in 2019, but he and the co-creators were so persuaded by the documentary’s claims against Jackson that they were compelled to scrub the show. Though at that point child abuse allegations against Jackson were more than a decade old (from 2005), Brooks explained he didn’t feel obligated to censor the popular episode because Jackson had previously been acquitted of criminal charges. “I’m against book burning of any kind,” Brooks said. “But this is our book, and we’re allowed to take out a chapter.”

→ After three years of swimming for the University of Pennsylvania men’s team, Lia Thomas has been shattering records as a trans member of the ivy school’s women’s team. Following a year away from the sport for her transition from a man to a woman, Thomas has obliterated several swimming records and opened up a contentious debate about the ethics and rules on trans athletes in collegiate competition. Coming on the heels of a recent 1,650-meter freestyle race, where Thomas bested her teammate’s second-place finish by an unheard-of 38 seconds, several parents of University of Pennsylvania athletes wrote a letter to the NCAA, obtained by the Daily Mail, expressing their concern over the governing body’s standing rules for how long a college athlete has to wait after hormone therapy before competing on another gender’s sports team: “What are the boundaries? How is this in line with the NCAA’s commitment to providing a fair environment for student athletes?”

Read more:

A $23 billion sale of American fighter jets and military equipment to the United Arab Emirates was scuttled on Tuesday. The suspension of negotiations about the arms trade comes amid growing concern from American officials about the UAE’s relationship with China. Chinese representatives were recently informed by UAE officials that they had to cease construction of a facility at the Abu Dhabi airport following American objections to China’s physical presence in what the Americans considered a military outpost. American officials also cited their need to ensure that Israel has a military edge over other nations in the region, which limited the qualitative quality of the equipment they could sell to the UAE. Getting out in front of the implication that the loss of the sale bodes negatively on diplomatic ties with a key Middle East partner, John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters this week that “the U.S. partnership with the UAE is more strategic and more complex than any one weapon sale.”

→COVID-19 restrictions helped drive down the number of American residents and citizens born in other countries for the first time in a decade, according to a new analysis of census data by Axios. The foreign-born population analysis also indicated that this past decade was the smallest period of growth since the 1960s. Slowing population growth in general in the United States makes this decline in foreigners coming to the United States a potentially worrying trend, as job-staffing issues and supply chain vulnerabilities, both of which were exacerbated by the decline of available immigrant workers during the pandemic, could become more serious and disruptive to agricultural production and a host of other critical infrastructure.

→Entrepreneurs and quasi-activists continue to find clever if curious ways to monetize the Black Lives Matter movement. After selling out of the first set of NFTs called Floydies, the anonymous creators of the digital token are running another auction this week for the release of a second edition. Billed as “a unique and progressive way to celebrate the monumental life of George Floyd,” the NFTs—which include the image of Floyd wearing the Joker face makeup—are offered on auction platform OpenSea for as much as $20,000. The NFT boom has benefited people across the cultural spectrum. Earlier this week, Sotheby’s announced that its historic year of profits was greatly aided by $100 million in sales of NFTs. But it’s not always all about the money. As the George Floyd token creators explain, “Owning a Floydie is a great way to express yourself and your beliefs!” Bids end tomorrow afternoon, so you still have time to show your support for racial justice while also making a sound investment on the blockchain.

All first edition Floydies have been sold! Thankyou for a successful launch of our activism platform!

Don’t worry if you didn’t manage to get a Floydie, the brand new second edition Floydie line has just dropped! #Crypto #nft #nfts #NFTCommunity

— FloydiesNFT (@FloydiesNFT) December 14, 2021

→At a news conference this week, a neuropathologist announced that former NFL player Phillip Adams had a severe form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The brain disease was a potential contributor to Adams murdering six people before taking his own life with a gun at his home in South Carolina earlier this year. The disease can only be detected in the brain after a death, and some researchers have linked the condition to the repeated head trauma sustained by athletes in contact sports such as football. One study of CTE in NFL players found evidence of the disease in 110 of 111 brains inspected, though the exact cause of CTE remains unknown. Adams was an NFL defense back for several teams over his five-year career, including the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders. “When you have frontal lobe pathology, you may have rage behaviors, violent tendencies, depression, impulsivity,” Dr. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist, told reporters after the news conference. “I think [that’s] what we saw in Phillip Adams.”

Prudential Financial, the Fortune 500 provider of insurance products with $57 billion in revenue last year, has announced that it will improve its balance sheet by discontinuing its contributions to the medical savings accounts of its pension holders as of next year. Retired employees were informed in a letter this month that, along with the halted contributions, any money they have in their accounts must be spent within the next two decades, and if they do not spend that money on medical expenses, the funds will be taken back by Prudential. The move to slash retirement benefits has been a cost-savings measure that’s become increasingly popular even with historically paternalistic corporations like the 145-year-old Prudential, known as “The Rock.” As many as 66% of large American corporations provided their retirees medical benefits in 1988, but that has dwindled to only 27% this year, according to a recent Kaiser study.

The Back Pages

backpages Dystopia in the Metaverse

The peculiar crudeness of recent developments in online culture are not limited to the monetization of murder victims like George Floyd into blockchain auction investment vehicles. After several years of bad press, Meta Platforms Incorporated (formerly Facebook) launched a full-court campaign to drum up positive press ahead of its forthcoming debut in the metaverse, the linked series of virtual worlds where users interact and, most importantly, spend time and money with each other as digital avatars. But the rollout has not gone well.

As Parmy Olson, a tech journalist, wrote about her foray into Meta’s platform, the virtual realm is much like social media now but with the gross, creepy parts escalated to new levels. “Within moments, I was surprised by a deep voice in my ear, as if someone was whispering into it. ‘Hey. How are you?’ One of the avatars had zoomed up to within inches of me, then floated away, taking me aback,” she wrote, after realizing she was the only woman in a virtual room full of digital men. “A small group of male avatars began to form around me, staying silent. As I chatted with a man … several in the surrounding crowd started holding their thumbs and forefingers out in front of them, making a frame. Digital photos of my bemused avatar appeared between their hands.”

The invasiveness Olson encountered during a limited and ostensibly controlled demo of the platform was one that other female users have encountered as well. As one beta tester wrote recently in a forum on her experience in the metaverse, a male digital avatar tried to touch her, albeit online. “Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior, which made me feel isolated,” the beta tester wrote. “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense.”

Some early supporters of the metaverse have pointed out that it’s too young a platform to be critical of early slip-ups and that eventually Facebook and other major corporations will devise safety protocols and moderation tools to effectively monitor untoward behavior. Yet Facebook’s record of moderation leaves much room for skepticism about how effective the company will be once the metaverse is flooded with hundreds of millions of users.

In an interview this week in the Financial Times, Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom turned Facebook executive, said he and his colleagues still have no idea how to handle the fact-checking of political messaging on their traditional Facebook platform. “If you, or any FT readers, have got any neat answers about how on earth we are meant to deal with political speech generally, please put it on a postcard,” Clegg said, before he passed the blame on to the regulators. “We’re acutely aware that, as a private company, we don’t have the legitimacy to act as referees. Yet that’s exactly what we end up doing because the politicians themselves don’t come up with rules of the road.”

What’s important to remember is that the push into the metaverse is a major effort by Mark Zuckerberg to open up a new stream of revenue for his $1 trillion company. As he said on a recent earnings call, shopping in the metaverse is one of his top three priorities, along with advertisements and data collection. He wants to build a new digital bazaar where users can purchase clothes and accessories to outfit their avatars for a day of virtual company meetings or hangouts with friends in virtual cafés. In other words, it’s the place where the version of you at work or at play, shopping or socializing, becomes a single entity—created, clothed, and sheltered by the always-benign titans of social media.

Send your tips, comments, questions, and suggestions to [email protected].

Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel and Park MacDougald.