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.
In the US, the main story this week was the ongoing saga of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s difficult nomination process to the US Supreme Court. We’ll cover that story below, but it was far from the only piece of news in town. Over in Asia, a devastating tsunami caused suffering on a grand scale. Elsewhere, science was winning, trade deals were announced, and a certain billionaire science genius found himself in legal hot water.
10 Indonesia Was Hit By A Devastating Tsunami
All week long, the death toll from Indonesia’s horrific earthquake and tsunami on Friday has been rising steadily, and there’s no reason to suppose it won’t go even higher by the time you read this. As of Thursday, the total number of dead stood at over 1,400, with at least 100 still unaccounted for. It’s one of the worst natural disasters this year so far.
The scale of suffering in Sulawesi is almost impossible to describe. Aside from the widespread devastation, the utter lack of help from outside has led to extensive looting, medicine shortages, and a lack of drinking water. Basically, everything that could go hideously wrong in a disaster scenario did, and now those trapped in the ruins of Palu city are facing a second humanitarian catastrophe.
The saddest part of all this may have been the total failure of the tsunami early warning system. As the quake knocked out sirens and communication lines, Palu residents were left completely unaware of the approaching wall of water. One chilling video has even emerged of many hundreds partying on the beach, oblivious to shouted warnings of a wave only seconds away from killing them all.
9 Elon Musk Fought The SEC (And The SEC Won)
One of Twitter’s most dubious gifts to the world has been handing people the ability to completely screw themselves in 140 characters. Last weekend, it was Elon Musk’s turn. The billionaire-genius-visionary was hit with a lawsuit from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that could have seen him in some very hot legal water. The reason? Umm . . . a pot joke.
Back in August, Musk tweeted: “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” 420 is a marijuana reference, and Musk has since said that he thought his current girlfriend, Canadian singer Grimes, would find it hilarious. Unfortunately, the tweet sent Tesla’s stock price bonkers. When the company announced a few days later that it was remaining public, the SEC stepped in.
Musk initially wanted to fight the SEC in court but finally caved on Saturday. Both he and Tesla will separately have to pay $20 million fines, while Musk will step down as chairman for three years. (He will remain CEO.)
Embarrassing as this was for Musk, it was still something of a win. Wired quoted legal experts who said that losing a fight with the SEC could have gone much worse for the billionaire.
8 We May Have Discovered The First Exomoon
Approximately 8,000 light-years away, a gigantic planet the size of Jupiter (but with 10 times the mass) orbits a distant star. However, it’s not exoplanet Kepler 1625b itself that’s currently causing ripples in the field of astronomy. It’s what might be orbiting it. This week, it was announced that Kepler 1625b may be orbited by a moon the size of Neptune. If confirmed, it would be the first exomoon we’ve ever detected.
Like exoplanets, exomoons are moons that exist beyond our solar system. But while exoplanet detection has become a fine art since the first two were jointly discovered in 1992 (we now know of over 3,500), exomoons have proved much trickier to spot with current tech. So much so, in fact, that we still can’t definitively say we’ve found one. Kepler 1625b’s possible moon is simply the most likely explanation for some confusing data coming in from the region.
If Kepler 1625b-i (as the Neptmoon has been imaginatively called) is confirmed, it could usher in a new age of exomoon detection. Learning about our night sky has never been so exciting.
7 The US And Canada Finally Agreed To A New Trade Deal
One of President Trump’s key themes on taking office was that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) sucked. While he was more concerned about how unfair it was to the US, there’s plenty of evidence that it sucked for Mexico, too. That might be one reason why Mexico was willing to join the White House’s replacement trade pact back in August, even if it wound up cutting Canada out of the loop.
Thankfully for trade, Canada didn’t ultimately abandon the deal. On Sunday, Ottawa signed what is now known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The new agreement will run for at least 16 years with an option to extend.
It’s too early to identify the real winners and losers at this point. But things are looking good for the US and Canadian auto manufacturing industries, thanks to a clause specifying that 40–45 percent of cars qualifying for tariff free must be made by workers earning at least $16 per hour (essentially excluding Mexico). On the losing side, Canada has been forced to open up its protectionist dairy industry to some degree, leading to an outcry from Canadian dairy farmers.
6 New York State Opened A Probe Into Trump Family Taxes
As President Trump was still basking in the glow of securing USMCA, a potential bombshell report threatened to completely ruin his parade. On Tuesday, The New York Times accused Trump’s father, Fred Trump, of using his son’s various companies to avoid millions in taxes.
It further implicated the entire Trump family in a vast scheme of tax dodging. The question is whether this is tax evasion or tax avoidance, which is legal and regularly done by wealthy families, especially those engaging in estate planning.
The president has denied the allegations, accusing the NYT of a mixture of fabrication and misleading reporting, an accusation made more potent by the paper’s very public vendetta against the Trumps. Regardless, New York State announced on Wednesday that it was opening a probe into the family’s tax affairs, including those of the president. This covers state taxes only. New York City may follow suit with city taxes.
However, it’s unlikely that the IRS will reopen audits of federal tax returns from that long ago. According to the White House, “the IRS reviewed and signed off on these transactions” decades ago. Some of the transactions date back to when the president was three years old (he’s 72 now), with most reportedly occurring in the 1960s and ’70s.
It’s important to note that this is not a criminal probe and won’t lead to charges. At most, it may result in a fine, although a sitting president having to pay a tax fine would certainly be embarrassing. Then again, it depends on how aggressive an audit becomes—and how political. Some of this may hinge on valuations, which can be subjective and difficult to make after all these years. The New York Times cited “equivalent” numbers that have been inflated to today’s dollars, which may be considered sensational reporting by some people.
Also missing from the headlines is the fact that Fred Trump, who died in 1999, and his advisers would really be the ones responsible for most of this. But that’s only if there’s actually any wrongdoing to be found in the first place.
5 Peru Re-imprisoned Its Former Dictator
Alberto Fujimori is probably the most divisive figure in Peru. The strongman leader of the nation from 1990 to 2000, he is credited both with defeating the Shining Path rebels (good) and authorizing death squads to conduct civilian massacres (bad). In 2000, he fled to his parents’ homeland of Japan to escape a corruption probe. After being extradited to Peru in 2007, Fujimori was imprisoned not for fraud but for ordering the murder of 25 civilians.
There, he languished for nearly 10 years before being unexpectedly pardoned by the left-wing President Kuczynski. As we reported at the time, the early release of Alberto Fujimori was widely interpreted as the price of a hasty backroom deal for his party to support Kuczynski during an impeachment vote. While Kuczynski survived the vote, he was nonetheless forced to step down just months later.
Now Fujimori’s pardon has been undone, too. On Wednesday, one of Peru’s Supreme Court judges annulled the early release. Unless his new appeal succeeds, Peru’s former president will soon find himself languishing back in jail.
4 Macedonia’s Name Referendum Was A Bust
The headline number should have caused jubilation in Skopje. In a referendum on Sunday, 91 percent of votes cast approved Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s plan to change his country’s name to North Macedonia. A clear win, right?
Not quite. Although those who voted hugely supported Zaev’s motion, most of the population simply didn’t vote. Turnout was around 36 percent. The referendum required a 50 percent turnout to make it legally binding.
Zaev now has the unenviable task of trying to force his name change through parliament without voter approval. This could be even more difficult than it sounds. Many of the opposition parties—and even the president—called on voters to abstain from the referendum. Zaev has since said he will call a snap election if his bid fails.
At stake is Macedonia’s future. The country’s name has long led Greece to veto it joining either NATO or the EU. (Greece has its own province named Macedonia, which it considers Skopje to be making claims on.) If he gets the change through, Zaev will be able to steer his nation in a newly Western direction. If.
3 A Strange New Dwarf Planet Could Point To Planet X
Is Nibiru out there? Or Mondas? Whatever you’re calling the repeatedly theorized and never discovered Planet X, we got a tantalizing new clue this week that may point toward a vast world hiding on the very fringes of our solar system. A dwarf planet known as “the Goblin” was newly discovered beyond the Kuiper Belt. The Goblin’s odd, elongated orbit suggests that some vast unseen mass might be affecting it.
Even ignoring the Planet 9 stuff, the Goblin is fascinating. It’s the third Inner Oort Cloud (IOC) object we’ve ever detected. IOC objects are an emerging category of things on the edge of the solar system that never get particularly near to Neptune and spend most of their time absurdly far away.
At its closest point, the Goblin comes within 65 AU (astronomical units—1 AU is the distance between the Earth and the Sun) of our star. By comparison, super-distant Pluto is only 34 AU away. But the really crazy bit is how far away the Goblin’s furthest point is. At 2,300 AU, it is by far the furthest traveling object we’ve ever detected in our solar system.
But what of Planet X? Well, the Goblin’s odd orbit only suggests a huge unseen planet rather than confirming it. As we discover more IOC objects, though, it’s possible that the evidence will accumulate.
2 France Began Retaliating Against An Iranian Bomb Plot
In June, Israel’s Mossad passed intelligence over to Germany, Belgium, and France that led to the surprise arrest of an Iranian diplomat. Since then, details have been dripping out about what exactly happened.
This week, a series of arrests and an announcement by France finally made it clear. The Iranian intelligence ministry—which is under the direct control of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—had ordered the bombing of an exiled Iranian group’s rally in Paris. The attack was only narrowly averted.
Even though no blood was shed on French soil, the foiled attack could have massive implications for global politics. French president Emmanuel Macron has been one of the key voices urging the EU to side with China and Russia against America on the Iran nuclear deal. So Tehran repaying his support by trying to bomb Paris may turn out to be extremely unwise. Were France to begin taking a hard line against Iran, the wayward nation would truly find itself cut off from the world.
So far, the nuclear deal remains unaffected. But French police raided multiple locations, including an Islamic center with ties to Tehran. Expect more consequences from this story soon.
1 Brett Kavanaugh’s Nomination Hung In The Balance
It has become the ugliest battle over a Supreme Court nomination in a generation. Last Friday, Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Professor Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her at a high school party over 30 years ago, both testified with high emotion before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Kavanaugh emphatically denied the charges.
At that time, Dr. Ford had difficulty remembering key details that would identify an exact time and location of the alleged assault. Sometimes, her testimony was inconsistent with her previous statements about the event.
The witnesses she named had no memory of the party at which the alleged assault occurred. A statement from the attorney of one witness, Ford’s longtime friend Leland Ingham Keyser, said that Keyser “does not know Mr. Kavanaugh and she has no recollection of ever being at a party or gathering where he was present, with, or without, Dr. Ford.” (In a later letter by her attorney, Keyser clarified that she believes Ford but has no memory of the party in question.)
Although many believed that Ford had been traumatized by a past sexual assault, people split on whether the culprit was Kavanaugh. As a direct result of her testimony and that of Judge Kavanaugh, the FBI spent the first half of this week carrying out a supplemental investigation at the order of the White House. (The FBI has previously conducted six background investigations on Kavanaugh for various appointments.)
At the time of this writing, the FBI’s latest report is available for senators to view and hasn’t yet been leaked to the press. Based on comments from Democrats and Republicans so far, there does not appear to be new evidence in the FBI report to corroborate Dr. Ford’s accusation.
All eyes are now on the Senate for what comes next. In a party line vote, the GOP can only afford one defection to confirm Kavanaugh. GOP Senators Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski—as well as Democratic Senator Joe Manchin from Trump-supporting West Virginia—are all on the fence.
Leaving aside this particular vote, though, this nomination process seems to have confirmed that the Supreme Court has finally become the biggest battleground in US politics. As recently as 2005, conservative judges were ascending to the bench with the majority backing of both parties. Go back slightly further, and you even find liberal-leaning judges being appointed by Republicans and vice versa.
Sadly, those days appear to be over. For the foreseeable future, it looks like the Supreme Court will become as racked by partisanship as the House and Senate.