PLUS: The London Review of Substacks, and an innovative way of telling stories in video games.
OPEC announces oil cut
OPEC announced that it would reduce oil production by over a million barrels a day. Saudi Arabia is leading the move, cutting its own output by 500,000 to 11 million. Increasing oil prices is good news for Russia, forced to sell at a discount since sanctions were imposed, and bad news for U.S. President Joe Biden: U.S. gasoline prices may rise 26¢ per gallon. The move will increase tensions between Washington and Riyadh. Japan, meanwhile, said it would start buying Russian oil above the $60-a-barrel price cap imposed by Western nations. The oil purchases are small, but show a weakening in the international consensus behind the sanctions, The Wall Street Journal said.
A high-profile Russian military blogger was killed by a bomb in St. Petersburg. Vladlen Tatarsky, a pro-war celebrity, was giving a talk at a cafe once owned by Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. At least 30 others were wounded, and a woman has been arrested. Moscow blamed Ukraine for the killing, but Kyiv suggested the attack was instead driven by divisions within Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow is imposing Soviet-style restrictions on officials, confiscating passports to prevent defections, the Financial Times reported. Prigozhin, who yesterday raised a Russian flag in the center of the disputed town of Bakhmut, seeks a total ban on foreign travel for officials.
The United Nations is debating whether to permit deep-sea mining. The electrification of the economy has increased demand for minerals such as copper and manganese. Supply chains generally come through China. But large quantities can be found on the deep ocean floor and mining bosses want permission to get it. There is a tension between decarbonization and environmental protection: Deep-sea mining could be very damaging to marine ecosystems, but demand is growing for raw materials. The EU plans to phase out petrol cars by 2035 and demand for lithium for batteries is set to surge fivefold. Europe, which produces no battery-grade lithium, is reliant on China and faces shortages.
Donald Trump is due in New York City ahead of his surrender and arraignment in a Manhattan courtroom over hush-money payments. He will become the first ex-U.S. president to be charged with a crime, an indictment that has become the focus of the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination and even helped Trump widen his lead over his rivals. “Among Trump’s diehard supporters and closest advisers, there is no shame or recrimination about his legal woes,” the Financial Times noted. Investigators, meanwhile, gathered fresh evidence suggesting possible obstruction by Trump over an inquiry into top-secret documents discovered at his Florida home, The Washington Post reported.
The presidents of France and the European Commission meet today ahead of a joint visit to Beijing, where they will seek to balance growing concern over Chinese security and economic policies with an unwillingness to align completely with the U.S. against China. Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen hope to discourage Chinese leader Xi Jinping from sending weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine, Politico reported. One issue making it tough for European leaders to join forces with Washington: “Europe’s fear of a return of Trump or a victory of mini-Trump is … a reason (and excuse) to try and remain on the best possible terms with China,” the China-Europe expert Noah Barkin noted.
Finland's Prime Minister and Social Democrats leader Sanna Marin, Finns Party leader Riikka Purra and National Coalition leader Petteri Orpo. Lehtikuva/Heikki Saukkomaa via REUTERS
Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin was defeated in a general election. Her Social Democrats came third, behind the conservative National Coalition and the Finns, a populist anti-immigration party. Marin, just 37, was popular abroad for her progressive views and support for Ukraine, the Financial Times reported, but was “undone by her handling of the domestic economy.” Other left-leaning parties have struggled as economies slow: Sweden and Montenegro have also voted out left-of-center parties, while Spain may do likewise. Marin, who may find a way to remain in a coalition government, leaves a notable legacy: She successfully steered Finland to the cusp of joining NATO.
Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency around the country’s largest city in an effort to combat a surge in violence. Ecuador’s murder rate reached 25 per 100,000 people last year, the highest in its history. As part of the measures announced by Lasso, a ban on civilians carrying weapons was lifted, while private security will support the army. Experts fear allowing civilians to carry arms will only exacerbate the security crisis, El Universo reported. Lasso, who faces impeachment proceedings over allegations of corruption, didn’t specify how long the state of emergency would last for.
Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga called off a new round of protests and agreed to a government proposal to address his claims of electoral fraud. President William Ruto suggested a bipartisan parliamentary commission examine Odinga’s concerns, a proposal Odinga characterized as a “positive development.” Weeks of protest over the election result left at least three people dead, hundreds injured, and damaged Kenya’s economy. Demonstrators have also railed against the rising cost of living after the axing of several state subsidies. Odinga noted, however, that protests could yet resume if there was “no meaningful engagement or response” from the government.
Researchers used a DeepMind artificial intelligence system to help create molecule-scale “syringes” which can deliver drugs directly to specific cells. Some bacteria use tiny, syringe-like machinery to detect relevant cells and inject proteins into them. The team used DeepMind’s AlphaFold, an AI tool which can predict the 3D shape of proteins, to work out the structure of that machinery. They then built their own version, reprogrammed to find and attack particular human cells. The hope is that the new AI-assisted method will allow precision-targeted drugs which kill target cells — for example cancers — without attacking healthy tissue. DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis called the research “super cool.”
A 15-mile “super sewer” will stop London’s waste flowing into the River Thames when it floods. The city built one of the world’s first modern drainage system in the 19th century, after cholera outbreaks and 1858’s “Great Stink” made using the river as an open sewer unacceptable. The old Victorian tunnels could carry 500 million gallons of fluid a day. But as London has expanded, they have become inadequate. In heavy rain the system overflows and raw sewage enters the Thames again. Tunneling was completed last year: The sewer will open in 2025, and, designers hope, prevent 95% of the discharge into the Thames.
Nuclear power is far too safe, argues Jack Devanney, a former nuclear engineer. It’s a jarring thing to read: What about Chernobyl? What about Fukushima? But, he says, the evidence is clear. Comparing the amount of money we’re prepared to spend to save lives elsewhere, the concerns over nuclear energy are wildly disproportionate to the risks.
Devanney cites a study comparing the cost per life-year saved by various interventions. Some vaccination programs can save a year of life for around $10. Smoke detectors, mandatory seat belts, and motorcycle helmets cost up to around $1,000 per life-year. But nuclear safety regulations cost the industry, Devanney says, over a billion dollars per life-year. It’s driven the cost of nuclear up, meaning that far more deadly coal is still widely used: 100 million life-years are lost annually to particulate pollution. Society should be willing, he says, to accept the occasional Three Mile Island-style accident as a price worth paying for cheap, clean energy.
Maybe Americans don’t hate America
A poll result went viral a few days ago: A Wall Street Journal-commissioned survey which found that the percentage of U.S. citizens who said patriotism, religion, community involvement, and having children were “very important” to them had all dropped hugely since 2019. Commentators blamed it on a variety of things, including social atomization, smartphones, and wokeness.
But there’s a simpler explanation, says the pollster Patrick Ruffini: The poll result is a statistical artifact, created by the fact that polling moved from a telephone survey to online. On the phone, to a human, people’s answers are often calibrated to make them “look like an upstanding citizen.” Online they’re more honest. Looking at Gallup trends, using polls with a consistent methodology, the percentage of people who say they’re “proud to be an American” has dropped slightly in the last four years, but not dramatically.
D&D is a tabletop game, played with dice and pieces of paper, and DMing (Dungeon Mastering) is a difficult skill, involving creativity and improvisation, to turn dice rolls and character stats into a narrative. Flagship’s Tom is fascinated by the idea of using ChatGPT, with graphics-creating AI systems which will probably be along in a few months, to create bespoke video games: “Build me a role-playing game, featuring a murder-mystery-solving monk in Tudor England,” or “Build me a first-person shooter set in a near-future China under attack by reptilian aliens.”
A video game that is also three feature-length films won the narrative award at a top gaming prize show. Immortality, a decades-spanning mystery about the disappearance of a U.S. actress, explores the treatment of women in Hollywood: Players have access to an archive of clips, rushes, and behind-the-scenes footage to decipher what happened. The director, Sam Barlow, filmed with actors in Los Angeles, rather than using motion capture and computer graphics. “It is a delicate and multilayered mystery that you unravel yourself, scrubbing through these scenes and searching for clues,” wrote The Guardian’s Keza MacDonald. “You’ll wind it back. Watch again. Follow the thread. And an extraordinary mystery starts to reveal itself.”