10 Mind-Blowing Things That Happened This Week (3/23/18)
Keeping up with the news is hard. So hard, in fact, that we’ve decided to save you the hassle by rounding up the most significant, unusual, or just plain old mind-blowing stories each week.
This last week was one for explosive revelations, both figurative and literal. In Texas, the Austin serial bomber blew himself up after his identity was outed, thereby ending a three-week reign of terror. Elsewhere, a major scandal rocked France, while we discovered some unsavory things about Facebook’s data mining. And that’s before we even get on to the executions and extinctions rounding off the week. All in all, it’s been a gloomy seven days.
10 France Charged Its Former President With Corruption
From 2007 to 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy ran France in a freewheeling tornado of scandals, spending, and endless rumors of corruption. This week, his lackadaisical approach to financial law may have finally caught up with him. On Wednesday night, France’s former president was officially charged with corruption and illegal campaign funding.
It’s this last part that could really hurt Sarkozy. The police don’t just allege that he broke funding limits for his 2007 campaign; they say that he was able to do so thanks to massively illegal donations from Muammar Gadhafi’s Libya. Following the 2011 revolution, documents emerged suggesting the Libyan secret service had given Sarkozy €50 million to fight in the election. In 2016, arms dealer Ziad Takieddine claimed he’d handed Sarkozy’s staff suitcases filled with millions in Libyan cash. It seems French police are finally listening to Takieddine.
A complicating factor for Sarkozy is Gadhafi’s son, Saif, who has long begrudged France’s role in deposing his father and is now offering to give evidence against Sarkozy. If this goes to trial, the former president could be going away for a very long time.
9 The Austin Bomber Killed Himself After Recording A Confession
The last three weeks have been plenty tense in Austin, Texas. A series of parcel bombings killed two people and injured four others, one of them critically. The devices all seemed to target minorities, leading many to suspect a domestic terrorist was on the loose. On Wednesday, we finally found the man responsible . . . but his motive remains a mystery.
The bomber turned out to have been 23-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt, a Caucasian with no known criminal record. That profile might suggest a racial motive for the attacks, but Austin police currently believe otherwise. After Conditt blew himself up rather than face justice, detectives found a confession recorded on his phone. In it, Conditt admits to planting the bombs but offers no motive. There’s no race rant. Nothing about politics. Just “the outcry of a very challenged young man.”
Whether Conditt’s motivations turn out to be closer to Dylann Roof or to Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, the fact remains that his bombing spree is finally over. The people of Austin can rest easy tonight.
8 We Lost The Last Male Northern White Rhino
So this is what it feels like to watch an animal vanish in real time.
On Tuesday morning, the last remaining male northern white rhino was euthanized by vets, following a nasty leg infection. Known as Sudan, the rhino (who, confusingly, didn’t live in Sudan but in Kenya), was recently considered the last great hope for keeping his subspecies alive. His death effectively marks the beginning of the end for the northern white rhino.
Extinction has not yet happened. There are still two females left. But, well, that’s frankly not too much help. It’s possible that scientists will successfully combine Sudan’s sperm samples with the eggs of one of the females, but it’s equally possible that there’s nothing left we can do.
If the northern white rhino does go extinct, it’ll be a tragedy. The creatures once roamed from Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their passing will make the world that much less interesting.
7 Israel’s High Court Blocked A Controversial African Deportation Program
Right now, Israel is in the middle of a very controversial plan to start deporting tens of thousands of African asylum-seekers back to their home continent. The government argues that Israel can’t—and shouldn’t have to—support the African refugees who’ve been arriving steadily since the mid-2000s from places like Eritrea and Sudan. Critics counter that some of those targeted for deportation have been in Israel since they were children and now have lives and jobs there.
The deportations were planned to begin on April 1, with those targeted being given the choice of leaving with $3,500 in their pockets or being placed in indefinite detention. Last Friday, though, Israel’s High Court placed a temporary block on the program. The deportations, and the lives of tens of thousands affected, are now on hold.
What happens next remains to be seen. The migrants are broadly unpopular in Israel, with over 60 percent of Israeli Jews, and over 50 percent of Israeli Arabs, supporting their deportation.
6 Slovakia Plunged Into Crisis
Last week, Slovak prime minister Robert Fico officially resigned his government. The move came following a month of demonstrations bigger than anything seen since the fall of Communism, all related to the killing of a journalist investigating ties between the Italian Mafia and the Slovak government. When Fico stepped down, he probably hoped the demonstrators would go home. No such luck. At the time of this writing, more marches are still planned.
The killing has effectively plunged Slovakia into crisis, with President Andrej Kiska voicing doubts that the new government is uncorrupt enough to investigate the murder. Nonetheless, Kiska appointed new PM Peter Pellegrini on Thursday, with a warning that he’ll have to work hard to quell the continued public anger.
But will hard work be enough? Those accused of ordering journalist Jan Kuciak’s killing are still walking free in Eastern Slovakia, and ordinary people are angrier than they have been in years. This story may rumble on for some time yet.
5 Japan Prepared To Execute Leaders Of The Aum Shinrikyo Cult
On March 15, 1995, members of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo released a cloud of nerve gas on the Tokyo subway, killing 12 commuters and leaving over 6,000 injured. The attack remains one of the worst massacres committed on Japanese soil since World War II and the one of only two terrorist attacks ever carried out with a nerve agent. (Aum were also responsible for the other one, the Matsumoto incident, which killed eight.)
After the subway attack, the Aum leadership went on the run. The last member was arrested in 2012, and all were subsequently sentenced to death. This week, it was reported that Japan had moved seven of them to new facilities outside Tokyo. Such movements suggest Japan is planning to execute the cult leaders any day now.
Japan practices a secretive form of the death penalty where executions are only announced to the condemned hours in advance. The rest of the world only finds out afterward, so by the time you read this, the cult members may already be dead. Their deaths will mark the end of a gruesome chapter in Japanese history, one the country is still grappling with today.
4 Spain Plunged The Future Status Of Gibraltar Into Doubt
In 1704, a British force overran and occupied Gibraltar, a lump of rock off Spain’s southern coast with great strategic value. Ever since, Madrid has been trying to get Gibraltar back, with very little luck. This week, the government of Mariano Rajoy may have played its strongest card yet. After the EU and Britain finally agreed on a Brexit transition deal after months of wrangling, Madrid threatened to torpedo it over Gibraltar.
While Spain holds no veto over the transition deal, it certainly does over the final Brexit deal, and it’s a veto that has the potential power to cause chaos to both the EU and UK economies. Madrid has now used that threat to force discussions of Gibraltar to be written into future negotiations, suggesting that Rajoy sees a chance to bring the rock back into at least joint Spanish ownership.
If his gamble succeeds, it would cause havoc in a British territory that didn’t want Brexit but wants to be part of Spain even less. London, meanwhile, seems to be hoping Rajoy is just throwing red meat to his supporters and will eventually back off his claim.
3 We Saw The First Pedestrian Fatality Caused By A Self-Driving Car
On Sunday night, a car plowed into a 49-year-old woman in Tempe, Arizona, killing her. It’s not exactly the sort of news you might expect to make a weekly roundup, no matter how tragic. But the driver that hit Elaine Herzberg wasn’t any ordinary driver. It was a robot. A piece of equipment. Herzberg had just become the first pedestrian in history to be hit and killed by a self-driving car.
The car was one of Uber’s fleet of autonomous vehicles currently being tested on public roads. Its sensors failed completely to pick up Herzberg jaywalking, meaning the car didn’t even slow as it hit her. Although all of Uber’s self-driving cars have human operators on board, ready to take the wheel if trouble arises, the accident seemingly happened too fast for the driver to retake control.
It might be the first, but Herzberg’s death likely won’t be the last. Until the technology is perfected, expect more accidents like this to happen.
2 New Zealand Managed To Completely Eradicate An Invasive Species
The “Million Dollar Mouse” sounds kind of sweet, but it actually involves a lot more death than you’re probably expecting. It’s a New Zealand government project to completely eliminate all mice on the Antipodes Islands, a remote chain some 800 kilometers (500 mi) from the mainland. Started in 2013, this week, it finally succeeded in making the Antipodes mouse-free.
The project was part of Wellington’s Predator Free 2050 project, a superambitious plan to wipe out all invasive species in the whole of New Zealand, island by island. Ever since the 19th century, animals like mice, possums, and stoats have caused havoc to the country’s native species, threatening an ecological Armageddon. Previous attempts at elimination have had mixed results. With the success of Million Dollar Mouse, New Zealand can now position itself as the leading expert on removing invasive species.
Obscure as all this sounds, it has big implications. In our globalized world, destruction by invasive species is becoming a huge problem. By learning techniques for undoing this damage, New Zealand may affect how we all deal with predator species in the future.
1 Facebook Got Caught In The Mother Of All Data Scandals
This hasn’t been a good week to be Mark Zuckerberg.
Last weekend, British newspaper The Observer splashed with a big story about Facebook losing control of the data of 50 million users. The data supposedly fell into the hands of an academic, who designed a quiz that Facebook users could play in exchange for their personal data. However, unlike most such games, this one harvested the data of all the users’ friends as well—without permission. Some 50 million people were affected. Their data was then sold to shadowy firm Cambridge Analytica.
Here’s where things get super shady. Selling Cambridge Analytica that data would have already broken multiple laws if they were a benign outfit of tech angels. Instead, the company stands accused of using that data to manipulate voters in elections (although their effectiveness and the exact elections they were involved in is disputed—see the above link for more detail).
Immediately after the story broke, Britain’s Channel 4 conducted a sting on Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix. They caught him on camera boasting about how the firm had previously used honey traps, fake bribery stings, blackmail, and hacking to tip elections in places like Nigeria, Kenya, and Malaysia. Somehow, the scandal had just gotten even bigger.
The twin stories painted a picture of corporate greed and underhand tactics that had immediate consequences. Facebook lost $40 billion off its stock value, while British police raided Cambridge Analytica’s UK offices. Meanwhile, the rest of us got a chilling insight into what companies like Facebook are willing to do with our private data.