‘This Is Unforgivable’: Anger Mounts Over Mauritius Oil Spill

NAIROBI, Kenya — Zareen Bandhoo was at work last week in the central Mauritius town of Curepipe when she heard that oil was spilling from a ship into the island nation’s pristine lagoons.

In the days since, as Mauritius has confronted one of its worst environmental disasters, Ms. Bandhoo has been hard at work. She has donated money and food for cleanup operations, and has teamed with friends and colleagues to help limit the damage to the island’s picturesque coast. Together, they made makeshift booms from fabric and sugar cane leaves to contain the oil, collected hair and plastic bottles to absorb and clean up the slick, scrubbed contaminated beaches, and raised awareness online about the extent of the damage.

Their efforts are representative of the grass-roots initiatives undertaken by Mauritians amid mounting anger and frustration that officials did not act soon enough to address the spill — even though the Japanese-owned bulk carrier ran aground on a coral reef off the Indian Ocean island on July 25.

“This could have been avoided,” said Ms. Bandhoo, 24, who works as an assistant in a food supply business.

She said that the authorities “started doing things only when it was too late, and this is unforgivable, truly.” The only comfort she could salvage from the crisis, she said, was how citizens have reacted so far.

“The solidarity of Mauritians has been overwhelming,” she said.

The Wakashio, a Japanese-owned but Panama-flagged bulk carrier, held 200 tons of diesel and 3,800 tons of fuel oil ­— 1,000 of which leaked into the sea. Nagashiki Shipping, the company that owns the vessel, said that over 460 tons had been manually recovered. But according to satellite imagery, the oil spill covered an area of over 10 square miles this week, growing by more than eight times since the ship began to leak.

The spill could be disastrous for Mauritius, whose lagoons, lush tropical jungles and mountains attracted 1.3 millions visitors in 2019. The country has quelled the spread of the coronavirus locally, but the suspension of international flights has battered its tourism-dependent economy.

The spill is threatening biodiversity hot spots, including the Ile aux Aigrettes nature reserve and Blue Bay Marine Park, a renowned snorkeling and diving area where nearly 40 types of coral and over 70 species of fish thrive.

The authorities have declared a “state of environmental emergency” and are working with experts from France, Japan, India and the United Nations to deal with the spill.

In interviews, many Mauritians blamed the authorities as being ill-prepared for such a catastrophe, although Mauritius has been the site of at least three shipwrecks in the past decade. In the days that followed the grounding of the Wakashio, the authorities deployed only a few hundred meters of booms, environmental experts said, which was not enough to contain the spill.

“When this leakage started there was a sense of revolt within the population,” said Sunil Mokshanand Dowarkasing, an environmental expert and a former lawmaker.

Immediately after the accident, individuals, civil society organizations and environmental groups mobilized to save the mangrove forest and coral reefs that give Mauritian waters their rich biodiversity.

Thousands of volunteers pulled all-nighters gathering plastic bottles and skimming oil into barrels, while salons donated hair and children collected straw from fields to help soak up the oil. Mauritians abroad began social media campaigns to raise awareness, and hundreds of thousands of dollars were collected on fund-raising platforms.

There was “a sense of love for the country and trying to save it,” Mr. Dowarkasing said.

Mauritius sits in the path of trading routes that link Asian ports to Africa and Latin America. Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, an oceanographer and environmental engineer on the island, said that over 2,000 large cargo vessels cruised past the Mauritius area last month — threatening an ecosystem that is vital to the nation’s resilience.

“The reefs protect us from waves, and the sea grass belts and the mangrove play a critical role in absorbing carbon dioxide,” he said. With their roots covered in oil now, he said, “It’s a tragic story, which brings sorrow and anger.”

In 2016, Adam Moolna watched as the bulk carrier MV Benita ran aground on the country’s southeastern coast. Although the ship did not spill oil, he said he was in “sheer disbelief” at how the authorities were unable to effectively detect or intercept ships on collision courses with the island.

“Surely, a lesson should have been learned from then,” said Mr. Moolna, an environmental lecturer at Keele University in England.

The current frustrations with the government, he said, stem from worries that next time the island could be dealing with a spill from an oil supertanker carrying hundreds of thousands of tons of oil instead of a vessel with thousands.

The Mauritian authorities did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week. Nagashiki Shipping said that Mauritian officials had requested compensation from the company, but did not elaborate.

“We are fully aware of the responsibilities of the parties concerned and will respond in good faith to any damages in accordance with applicable law,” the company said in a statement.

Experts say it may take weeks, if not months or more, to see the full effects of the spill.

“The toxic substances accumulate in the soil and can infect insects, reptiles and plants,” said Vikash Tatayah, the conservation director of the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation. “We might see less successful breeding in birds and reptiles, more plants may die,” he added.

For some volunteers, however, the impact of the oil leak is already evident.

Willow-River Tonkin, a 21-year-old professional kite surfer, said he came down with throbbing headaches after participating in cleaning efforts.

“I spent three days inside the oil, breathing it in all day,” Mr. Tonkin said. “It knocked me down.” He said he was staggered by the amount of oil that had been shoveled off the shoreline.

“You just scoop it up in your hand, and you think, ‘Will this ever end? Will this ever get better?’ It never stops,” he said.

The authorities have not estimated the financial cost of the spill. But the environmental group Greenpeace said in an emailed statement that thousands of species were at risk, with likely “irreversible” damage to the environment.

The leak could also affect the livelihoods of the nation’s 1.3 million people, tens of thousands of whom work in the tourism industry. Tourism accounted for over $1.6 billion in revenues in 2018, according to the government, but as hotels and restaurants have remained empty for months because of the pandemic, many fear the oil spill will discourage visitors.

Jérémie Wan, the manager of a guesthouse at Pointe d’Esny, near where the ship ran aground, said he had received bookings for September, when Mauritius is expected to reopen its borders to international visitors.

Yet he doubted visitors would come if they knew they would be looking at a wrecked ship in front of them.

“We are trying to reassure clients that they can come next month,” Mr. Wan said in a phone interview, “but I wouldn’t put a foot into the water myself now.”

Abdi Latif Dahir reported from Nairobi, and Elian Peltier from London.


For Palestinians, Israel-U.A.E. Deal Swaps One Nightmare for Another

JERUSALEM — When the unmarked United Arab Emirates plane touched down on the tarmac in Tel Aviv one night in May carrying 16 tons of unsolicited medical aid for the Palestinians, it was rejected by the leadership, which said that nobody had coordinated with them about the shipment.

That was just a prelude to a greater humiliation. Palestinian officials maintain that nobody consulted with them before Thursday’s surprise announcement by President Trump that Israel and the United Arab Emirates had agreed to “full normalization of relations” in exchange for Israel suspending annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank.

If that was presented as some kind of a balm for the Palestinians, many of them considered it, instead, a stab in the back or a dagger to the heart. The diplomatic coup for Israel ruptured decades of professed Arab unity around the Palestinian cause. It swapped one Palestinian nightmare — annexation, which many world leaders had warned would be an illegal land grab — for another, perhaps even bleaker prospect of not being counted at all.

“This agreement is very damaging to the cause of peace,” said Husam Zomlot, the head of the Palestinian mission to the United Kingdom, speaking from London, “because it takes away one of the key incentives for Israel to end its occupation — normalization with the Arab world.”

“It basically tells Israel it can have peace with an Arab country,” he added, “in return for postponing illegal theft of Palestinian land.”

Friday’s front pages blared out the disconnect. Israel’s popular Yediot Ahronot celebrated the “historic agreement” and the cut-price deal of “Peace in Exchange for Annexation.” But the Palestinian government-run Al-Hayat al-Jadida went with “Tripartite Aggression against the Rights of the Palestinian People,” in angry red letters.

The emerging Israeli-Emirati relationship is the most prominent achievement yet of what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has called an outside-in approach. That has entailed courting the outer circle of Sunni Gulf States to quietly come to terms with Israel and then bring along the Palestinians, rather than dealing with the Palestinians first.

The conservative-led Israeli government has long viewed the Palestinians as intransigent, unwilling, or unable to compromise on long-held principles that Israel sees as inflated demands, casting them as serial quitters of peace talks.

The policy also reverses the order of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, a proposal endorsed by the Arab League calling for full recognition of Israel by all the Arab and Islamic nations in return for complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories to the boundaries that existed before the 1967 Middle East war.

Mocking old predictions that Israel would become increasingly isolated and face a diplomatic “tsunami” for failing to resolve the Palestinian conflict, Mr. Netanyahu has instead touted economic peace and what he calls TTP — terrorism, technology and peace. Other countries, including Arab ones, he has argued, see Israel as an ally in fighting Islamist terrorism, a source of technological innovation and not as the obstacle to peace of old.

More broadly, the agreement with the United Arab Emirates reflects the realignment in the Middle East of the pro- and anti-Iranian axes, leaving the Palestinians feeling isolated and, with the suspension of annexation as the justification, used as pawns.

“MbZ tried to use us as a fig leaf,” said Nour Odeh, a Palestinian writer and analyst, referring to Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates. “Nobody buys it,” she added. “Palestine did not factor into this.”

That comes as an additional blow to the Palestinians, who rejected the Trump plan for resolving the Middle East conflict as hopelessly biased toward Israel and subsequently curbed their relations with the Trump administration. Along with fatigue in the Arab world, the Palestinians are also battling their internal demons.

The Palestinian polity has long been weak, divided between the portions of the West Bank nominally controlled by Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and his rivals in Hamas, the Islamic militant group that dominates the impoverished coastal territory of Gaza.

The struggle now is not just against Israel, but to remain relevant.

“Whatever happens, I’m the only thing that needs to be resolved,” said Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee and its veteran chief negotiator. Insisting that ultimately, the Palestinian question could not be dismissed or ignored, he added, “I’m the fact on the ground. I’m the real fact on the ground.”

Further, Mr. Erekat noted, “There was never a single Emirati who fought the Israelis in any war. There’s no war between the Emirates and Israel.”

Indeed, Israel and the Emirates have quietly cooperated for years on security and trade. Israeli ministers have openly visited, and Israel maintains a small office at the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi, one of the seven Emirates. There is also a synagogue and a resident rabbi there, Levi Duchman, originally from New York.

Palestinian relations with the Emirates, by contrast, have been sour for almost a decade. Abu Dhabi plays host to Muhammad Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief turned vitriolic critic of Mr. Abbas and his nemesis in exile. Palestinian Finance Ministry records indicate that the Emirates have not sent funds to the Ramallah-based government since 2014.

“They don’t even invite us to their national day,” Mr. Erekat said.

The Emirates may also have been emboldened by the weariness of the wider Arab public and the almost apathetic response to earlier consensus-shattering moves by the Trump administration, such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the United States embassy to the disputed city.

But Palestinian analysts said the timing of the latest announcement probably had more to do with the upcoming presidential elections in the United States.

“The Gulf countries are interested in keeping Trump in power,” said Ghassan Khatib, a political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank. “They were very happy with Trump’s policy on Iran and unhappy with Obama’s. So they will do anything to contribute to the re-election of Trump.”

As Oman and Bahrain praised the deal, along with Egypt, many here expected those small Gulf states to be the next to forge relations with Israel.

In Ramallah, Palestinians denounced the Emirates agreement with Israel as a shameful betrayal, but hardly seemed shocked. Soon after the announcement on Thursday night, about 20 youths and men gathered at Ashraf Hamoudeh’s café to smoke narghilas and watch a soccer match.

“This agreement will surely harm the Palestinian cause, as well as Arab interests,” said Mr. Hamoudeh, 50. “It violates the agreement among all the Arab countries that no single country can sign peace agreements with Israel unilaterally.”

Nader Said, a Ramallah-based pollster and president of the Arab World for Research and Development, a consulting firm, said the deal merely makes public and formalizes what was brewing between Israel and the Emirates all along.

But he worried that “this distraction would allow Israel to focus on consolidating its control of the West Bank by building more settlements and roads,” adding: “You would have thought that the U.A.E. would have sweetened the deal with some gestures toward Palestinians.”

On the contrary, some Israelis speculated that Mr. Netanyahu may even build more to placate elements of his right-wing base angered by his failure to fulfill the promise of annexation.

The Palestinian Authority could also find itself in a bind. Since May, to deter Israel from carrying out its annexation plans, it has curbed cooperation with Israel, including security coordination, and has refused to accept the tax revenues that Israel collects on its behalf and that make up a sizable portion of its budget. Annexation is off the table for now, but the authority may be reluctant to be seen to legitimize the Israel-Emirates deal by immediately restoring cooperation.

If there was any upside now, it may be in staving off an annexation that many analysts said could dash once and for all hopes of a future Palestinian state based on the two-state solution, the internationally accepted formula for resolving the conflict.

But Ms. Odeh, the writer and analyst, said that with constant settlement expansion, a creeping annexation was already underway.

Nothing would change in the Palestinian stance, or in Israel’s long-term strategic need to deal with it, she said, adding: “The Palestinians are not going to wither away. We are here and can be quite a nuisance. I think they should know that by now.”

Mohammed Najib contributed reporting from Ramallah, West Bank.


Top sales: 3 July sales of $20 million-plus bring fireworks

The onetime home of a Hollywood producer, a billionaire’s son’s estate and a striking new build in Brentwood were among Los Angeles County’s most expensive real estate transactions that closed in July. Here’s a closer look.

$28.5 million — Beverly Crest

Behind the gates of Beverly Park, an under-construction mansion set on four acres where Oscar-winning producer Richard Zanuck once lived changed hands for $11.2 million shy of the original asking price.

The half-built spec mansion, designed by architect Steve Hermann, is accompanied by a guesthouse, a guard house and a subterranean garage. Amenities on site include a movie theater, a swimming pool and a tennis court. Once completed, the 27,000-square-foot home will have 14 bedrooms and 17 bathrooms.

Zanuck, the son of Hollywood mogul Darryl Zanuck, bought the property in the 1980s. Following his death in 2012, the estate was sold for $20.1 million.

Shawn Shirdel of Sotheby’s International Realty holds the listing.

$25 million — Beverly Hills

On Sunset Boulevard, Donald Simon, son of late billionaire Norton Simon, sold an estate for $17 million less than the original asking price.

Set behind wrought iron gates, the estate centers on a French country-style mansion designed by architect Peter Choate. Built in 1985, the 10,600-square-foot residence holds five bedrooms and nine bathrooms on a single story. A vaulted-ceiling great room, a tiled kitchen and a paneled study are among features. Picture windows take in park-like views.

The 2.5-acre property borders the Los Angeles Country Club and has a swimming pool and tennis court.

Kurt Rappaport and Kevin D. Booker of Westside Estate Agency held the listing. Rappaport also represented the buyer.

The Beverly Park property, where Hollywood producer Richard Zanuck once had a home, sold for $28.5 million, or about $11.2 million less than the asking price.


$21.5 million — Brentwood

A newly built home on Crown Drive sold for $500,000 less than the asking price of $22 million.

Designed by architect John Andrews, the 12,386-square-foot contemporary is visually dramatic with its stone accents, wood panels and steel-framed windows. Set on about an acre, the house has six bedrooms, 12 bathrooms, a glass-enclosed wine cellar, a library and a home theater.

The property hit the market in June and sold in about six weeks, records show.

Blair Chang of the Agency was the listing agent. Santiago Arana, also with the Agency, represented the buyer.

$18.275 million — Malibu

On Malibu Colony Drive, the longtime home of soap opera creator Lee Phillip Bell and her husband, William J. Bell, sold for $3.225 million less than the asking price.

Found within the Malibu Colony, a guard-gated community long popular with celebrities, the Cape Cod-style compound includes a three-bedroom main house, a two-story guesthouse and a lagoon-style pool. Set on 60 feet of beachfront, the property has decking that overlooks the surf and a staircase leading to the beach below.

The Bells, who are both deceased, co-created “The Young and the Restless” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.” The two daytime soap operas are among the most successful and enduring in television history.

Rick Hilton, Jeff Hyland and Chad Rogers of Hilton & Hyland were the listing agents. David Findley of the Agency represented the buyer.

$17 million — Beverly Crest

A limited liability company tied to entrepreneur and commercial real estate investor Aron Abecassis sold a newly built home on Hidden Valley Road for about $3 million less than the original asking price.

The East Coast-inspired traditional home, completed in 2019, sits on about three-quarters of an acre in a guard-gated neighborhood. The three-story house includes seven bedrooms, 12 bathrooms, an elevator and an office with floor-to-ceiling built-ins. A custom ceiling tops the dining room, which opens to an outdoor patio.

Outside, formal landscaping surrounds a swimming pool, a spa, a pool house and an outdoor dining area.

David Parnes and Mauricio Umansky of the Agency were the listing agents. Parnes also represented the buyer.


Facial recognition payment tech is rolled out in L.A. area

A new way to pay has arrived in Los Angeles: your face.

As so-called contactless payments rise in popularity during the pandemic, a Pasadena company called PopID is rolling out the nation’s first payment system based on facial recognition at a smattering of restaurants near its headquarters, including mom-and-pop operations such as Daddy’s Chicken Shack and regional chains such as Lemonade.

The system is simple: A customer signs up on their phone, takes a selfie and adds cash to their Pop Pay account from a credit card or bank account. When it comes time to pay for their meal, they look into the camera of a PopID tablet or kiosk (no smiling necessary), the cashier verifies their name, and money is withdrawn from the account.

For customers, the experience is eerily seamless, at least when it’s functioning properly. (The software struggles at recognizing faces with masks.)

For restaurants, the service is fast and cheap, assuming customers sign up for it. Easier ordering can speed up lines, and PopID is offering lower fees to process each payment than other payment processing or credit card companies.

In China, more than 100 million people signed up for a similar face payment system in 2019 after 7-Eleven installed it at hundreds of locations, tech giant Alipay is rolling out face payments across the country, and, since July, commuters in the southern city of Guiyang have been able to pay their bus fare using their face.

But PopID’s system is the first to get up and running in the U.S., where facial recognition technology is under intense scrutiny from regulators and privacy advocates.

Eight cities in the U.S., including San Francisco, Oakland and Boston, have banned government use of the technology, arguing that the software is both too powerful a surveillance tool and too inaccurate when finding matches to be safely used by police. During the nationwide protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Microsoft, IBM and Amazon all committed not to sell their facial recognition tech to law enforcement, at least temporarily. And Portland, Ore., may soon become the first city to ban even private use of the technology.

John Miller, the 42-year-old Pasadena entrepreneur who founded and runs PopID, didn’t plan on wading into cutting-edge privacy issues when he quit his nanotech job 10 years ago. He just wanted to start a global cheeseburger chain.

“It didn’t take long to realize I’m not very good at it,” Miller said. CaliBurger opened its first location in Shanghai in 2012, advertising Double-Doubles and Animal Style fries, only to get sued for trademark infringement by In-N-Out. The burger chain tweaked the formula and opened dozens of franchises around the world, but seeing the day-to-day difficulties of running a restaurant reactivated Miller’s innovation circuits.

So Miller turned CaliBurger into a testing ground for the future of fast food, spinning out new companies in the process. Miso Robotics focused on labor, betting that robot arms would become cheap enough to install at every fry station to supplement human workers. Kitchen United focused on real estate, betting that restaurants could run delivery businesses out of a citywide network of shared industrial kitchens and quit paying rent on retail locations.

Miller used his CaliBurger fast-food chain as an incubator for new technologies and ventures.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

PopID was Miller’s solution to two restaurant problems at once: slow lines and high fees from payment processing and credit card companies. Those fees can run as high as 3% for each transaction — small change that adds up, considering most restaurants run on 3% to 5% profit margins. Because PopID payments come directly from the users’ preloaded accounts, Miller said, “there’s enough arbitrage built in that we can lower the rates versus credit cards and Apple Pay” and still make money.

“Ten years ago, maybe five years ago, there was no way I’d ever sign up for facial recognition,” said Chris Georgalas, co-owner of the Pasadena fried chicken sandwich shop Daddy’s Chicken Shack. But since Apple started allowing users to unlock their iPhones using their faces in 2018, Georgalas said, the tech has become less intimidating. “The people that use it, they love it, and they come back and they use it again.”

A different PopID product has already found some traction. When the coronavirus began to spread rapidly in the spring, the company quickly adapted its face-scanning tablets to serve as contactless employee check-in devices with built-in temperature screening. Pop Entry, as the system is called, has sold over 1,000 units in recent months, with several thousand more set to be installed by the end of the year, according to the company.

Lemonade was a Pop Entry customer at a pilot location in L.A.’s Larchmont Village before it installed the face pay system in Pasadena. Now its parent company, Denver-based Modern Restaurant Concepts, plans to install the Pop Entry tablets in all 18 Lemonade locations across California and its separate Modern Market Eatery restaurants in Colorado, Texas, Arizona and Indiana.

Robin Robison, the chief operations officer of Modern Restaurant Concepts, said that employees took to the sign-in system “like a new toy” and that the temperature screenings helped the staff feel safer (though experts have questioned the efficacy of temperature checks in controlling the spread of the virus). After that, she was willing to give the payment system a chance. “Time will tell how many people are using it,” Robison said.

But Miller’s vision for a face-based network goes beyond paying for lunch or checking in to work. After users register for the service, he wants to build a world where they can “use it for everything: at work in the morning to unlock the door, at a restaurant to pay for tacos, then use it to sign in at the gym, for your ticket at the Lakers game that night, and even use it to authenticate your age to buy beers after.”

“You can imagine lots of things that you can do when you have a big database of faces that people trust,” Miller said.

But trust is hard to earn when it comes to facial recognition. Miller said the company is complying with the strictest laws in the nation for face data, the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, and prioritizes customer consent for all uses of their personal information.

A tablet running the Pop Pay system is mounted on a sneeze guard at a Lemonade restaurant in Pasadena.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Some privacy advocates see an important distinction between government use of facial recognition technology and use by private businesses — as long as the businesses don’t end up giving their data to the government.

That scenario was vividly illustrated in July, when the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation found that a San Francisco business association gave the San Francisco Police Department real-time access to a private network of cameras and cache of footage during the height of the Floyd protests. If police combined access to surveillance footage with access to a database like PopID’s, protesters who used the payment service could be quickly identified en masse.

Nathan Sheard, associate director of community organizing at EFF, said written, informed consent would be key to ethical use of the technology, as well as a clear policy of pushing back when law enforcement comes knocking to request access to the PopID database and informing the user if the company is ordered by a court to comply.

“That’s the minimum type of protections that consumers should be able to expect,” Sheard said. “It’s also good business, if you’re hoping for people to give you information.”

Miller said that level of protection is baked into PopID’s user agreement and basic structure.

Customers choose to sign up for the system and have to click a button or tell a cashier every time they use it, setting it apart from the kind of passive surveillance that most privacy advocates argue is ripe for abuse. PopID’s software also runs on standalone devices, which means companies can’t simply connect their own security cameras and start logging their employees’ every move in a searchable database.

Most important, the agreement signed by users when joining the service makes clear that PopID will share user data only when customers explicitly tell it to, whether that means pushing a button to pay or signing up for a loyalty points system with a given shop.

Miller said the company would treat law enforcement like any other third party. If the Los Angeles Police Department came to PopID and asked to run a photo against its database, “our answer to the LAPD would be that we are not allowed to share that information,” Miller said. “We can’t do it, sorry — this is a consumer opt-in service.”

If law enforcement returned with a warrant, Miller said, the company would “fight it as much as we can, until I get something that says I’m gonna go in the slammer” unless PopID cooperates.

Bans on facial recognition have largely focused on government use. But the Portland City Council may become the first to go one step further and ban private companies from using the technology in any area accessible to the public, pending an upcoming vote.

“From our policy [PopID] would be banned,” said Hector Dominguez, Portland’s open data coordinator.

The city’s concern over private use of the technology was sparked in part by news that a chain of local convenience stores had installed a facial recognition system that barred customers from entering the store at night if the software determined their face was a match with someone linked to a crime. The National Institute of Standards and Technology found in 2019 that most facial recognition algorithms had higher rates of false positive matches for women and people of color, and Dominguez and his colleagues worried that the convenience store system would encode racism and sexism into the automatic door.

Dominguez plans to work with industry and local communities to come up with a way to certify the safety of facial recognition tech for private use, but he sees the ban as a necessary first step.

Miller said he is sensitive to those concerns but thinks consumers and businesses can benefit from the technology with the right kinds of protections in place.

“We also want to distinguish between surveillance stuff, security cameras watching you and trying to ID, and our service, which is consumer opt-in,” Miller said. “I think we’d have a pretty good case that we’re the type of facial recognition platform they should be allowing to operate under very careful regulations and policies.”


Column: It’s National Financial Awareness Day. How’s your money game?

Consumer prices are up. Consumer sentiment is down. The stock market is soaring. Gross domestic product is plunging. Tax cuts can stimulate the economy. Tax cuts can worsen the budget deficit.

It’s a lot to process.

Friday is National Financial Awareness Day — a timely opportunity to take a break from worrying about, well, everything, and devote some attention to economic issues and the bread-and-butter business of getting your financial house in order.

It’s also a great excuse to make a pandemic project out of educating kids about the importance of smart money management.

“We live in a world of financial illiteracy,” said David Ravetch, a senior accounting lecturer at UCLA. “We as a society don’t like to talk about money.”

For many people and families, it’s a taboo topic, he told me.

“We are more open to talking about relationship challenges than we are about money,” Ravetch said. “Most people are really afraid of it.”

A recent survey on financial literacy conducted for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling found that a slim majority of U.S. adults (57%) give themselves top marks for their knowledge of personal finance.

The more interesting finding, though, is that the percentage of Americans who admit they’re not very or not at all confident in their financial awareness is growing.

Thirteen percent of the more than 2,000 survey respondents said they aren’t sure they fully understand their money situation. That compares with 12% last year, 10% in 2018 and 8% in 2017.

This nervousness is more prevalent among younger people, who have come of age amid greater financial and economic uncertainty than their parents or grandparents. The COVID-19 pandemic turning all our lives upside-down hasn’t helped.

“Younger people haven’t had time to build up the savings and assets of older generations,” said Marco Pantoja, who teaches financial literacy at the University of Missouri. “And they’ve just had the rug pulled out from under them.”

For young people facing serious financial hardship — a lost job, an eviction — he advised seeking out a certified financial planner or similar professional who can provide a sense of available resources.

“This can include state programs, social agencies, food banks, things like that,” Pantoja said.

More broadly, the first hurdle to overcome in raising financial awareness is simply getting past the intimidation factor.

“Finance can be complicated,” acknowledged Yaron Levi, an assistant professor of finance and business economics at USC. “You don’t need to be an expert. For most people, understanding the basics is enough.”

Needless to say, there’s an app for that.

If you don’t have a handle on your budget and spending, there are apps that can consolidate your various financial accounts and help track spending patterns, alert you to upcoming bill payments and even help boost your credit score.

Mint is a good one. So are Personal Capital, Clarity Money and Spendee. Much of what they offer is free, with added functionality available in some cases for as little as $15 a year.

Once you get your fiscal ducks in a row, then you can start expanding your knowledge base.

Annamaria Lusardi, academic director of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University, said a key insight is that interest earnings grow, or compound, over time, increasing wealth without lifting you a finger.

“This is amazing,” she told me. “It is what allows us to grow savings over time and one reason why we need to start saving as early as possible, and also why we have to be savvy about debt.”

That raises an important point. Debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Carrying a balance on your credit card isn’t a red flag — many people do it.

The average American has four credit cards and carries a balance of $6,200, according to the credit bureau Experian.

Problems arise when you fail to pay off your plastic in a timely fashion or make only minimum payments. This indicates a lack of control over your finances and exposes you to increasingly higher borrowing costs.

If that’s you, it’s time to step up your money game.

“Start small, like exercising or going to the gym,” Lusardi advised. “Spend 15 minutes a week thinking about your finances, starting with what are your objectives, goals and dreams.”

For parents, you can never start too soon in teaching your kids about being money smart.

Show them the value of saving their allowance for things they want. Talk with them about how they might boost their income by washing the family car or performing other tasks.

I introduced my son to the world of investing by buying him a single share of Walt Disney Co. This allowed us to follow the company together and profit from the movies and theme parks we both enjoyed (this was years before the pandemic, needless to say).

Fred Selinger, a lecturer in finance at UC Berkeley, has been teaching students how to be more financially savvy for years. He shared with me some pointers that could make everyone better money managers.

Some of his tips may seem obvious. For example, “Be frugal; live within your means.” Others may require some rethinking of priorities.

“Every time you get a paycheck, the rule is, ‘I get paid first,’” Selinger said. “You had to earn that money. Don’t just give it all away to everyone else.”

He also advises:

Creating an emergency fund that can cover up to six months of living expenses or an unexpected bill, such as for a car repair or medical emergency.Before borrowing cash, always have a plan for how you’ll repay the money. “That includes credit cards, student loans, car loans and home mortgages.”Look into retirement saving plans such as IRAs or 401(k)s. It’s never too early to start setting money aside for your sunset years.If possible, try to save 15% of your earned income. “That includes taking advantage of any employer contributions.”

We’re living in, to say the least, difficult times. Stress levels are high. Getting your hands around your finances can be one less thing to worry about.

“Imagine a world where each of us made just one better financial decision a year,” said Yuval Dan Bar-Or, a finance professor at Johns Hopkins University.

“We’d avoid massive losses due to impulsive, speculative investments. We’d sidestep unnecessary fees amounting to billions of dollars. And we’d go through life without having to scale mountains of ill-advised debt.”

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?


Biden may have to continue Trump’s hard-line policy on China

As Joe Biden and Kamala Harris launch their drive for the White House, the essence of their campaign is to be the un-Trump ticket — different from the president in every way possible.

But when it comes to what may be the nation’s biggest foreign policy challenge — China — a Biden administration may well end up closer to Trump’s hard-line approach than to the less confrontational strategy of President Obama.

Outwardly, Biden is unlikely to pursue the kind of hyper-enthusiastic, effusive bromance that Trump initially sought with China’s President Xi Jinping, nor engage in the angry tweets and bellicose threats at China that followed. Biden will be looking to work with other nations, rather than picking fights with allies or taking unilateral actions like those that have marked Trump’s presidency.

“Their stylistic differences are so great. It will certainly seem different,” said James Mann, a China expert and fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, referring to Biden and Trump.

Nonetheless, he noted, “It will still be conflict-ridden, maybe at times confrontational, but certainly ridden with conflicts in ways that either weren’t there or were downplayed a decade ago.”

A future President Biden would likely remain firm on security issues involving China, although not cast in the same ideological terms that the Trump administration has, said Evan Medeiros, China relations professor at Georgetown University and a National Security Council official in the Obama administration.

On trade and commerce, Biden’s freedom of movement may be restricted by the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which is highly suspicious of free trade and closer to Trump on protectionism than many moderates in the party. Those pressures could weigh on Biden’s efforts, for example, to revive the Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that would have united around a dozen countries — excluding China. Trump jettisoned the pact in his first days on the job.

The agreement was the centerpiece of Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia, a geopolitical attempt to strengthen U.S. leadership in the western Pacific and push Beijing to play by American rules. But the pact never gained enough support among Democratic lawmakers, and Biden has said he would not rejoin the accord in its current form, but seek to renegotiate it.

Biden has taken aim at Trump’s trade war with China, criticizing the barrage of tariffs and counter-tariffs by Beijing for hurting U.S. farmers and manufacturers without changing Chinese behavior on fundamental industrial policies such as government subsidies for state-owned firms.

At the same time, with tariffs already in place thanks to Trump, Biden might not rush to undo them, leveraging them to pressure Beijing.

“I think a President Biden would be less overtly antagonistic, but the substance might not change very much,” said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow specializing in China at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has advised Trump on foreign policy.

Going back to President Nixon’s official visit to China in 1972, American leaders from both parties have sought to pull China into the family of nations and closer to democratic values by encouraging trade and investment, and sometimes overlooking Beijing’s darker side when it came to human rights.

Today most analysts see that approach as naive. China has turned into a global economic superpower and a military rival to American power in Asia. And rather than embrace Western reforms, Xi has been more aggressive in the global economy and more repressive at home. Across the board, he has asserted the supremacy of rigid Communist Party doctrine, cracking down hard on dissent, on China’s Muslim minority, and on Hong Kong.

Democrats and Republicans alike have become increasingly critical of Chinese behavior — from its broad-scale theft of U.S. companies’ intellectual property to aggressive military actions in the South China Sea.

In this new climate, it would be difficult if not impossible for Biden to return to the China strategy he embraced while serving as Obama’s vice president.

“The China that will face Joe Biden in January of 2021 is vastly more powerful and more formidable as an adversary than the China that he and Obama dealt with up until the end of 2016,” said Daniel Russel, a top Asian affairs official in the Obama administration and now a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Mann said one thing a Biden presidency will inherit is a major hardening of views of China within U.S. intelligence agencies, the FBI, the Commerce Department and the Pentagon, which had once favored a policy of engagement.

“It’s a mistake to think that when Trump is gone, all of the people arguing for a tougher China policy will be gone,” Mann said. “The agencies and the interests they represent will still be there.”

In interviews, Biden’s current and former foreign policy advisors said they have been warily watching Trump and his administration ramp up anti-China rhetoric and actions in recent weeks.

Trump has threatened to ban Chinese-owned social media platforms TikTok and WeChat, imposed restrictions on Chinese research students in the U.S., repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus,” and closed the Chinese consulate in Houston.

As for where a President Biden might try to take U.S.-China relations in a more positive direction, some suggest Biden might return to more conventional diplomacy, opening the door to working with China on issues like climate change and public health.

As a former longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden has repeatedly stressed his desire to restore America’s alliances in Europe and Asia, and its standing in the world as a champion of democracy and a rules-based international order. He has argued that is the best path to taking on the threat of China.

“The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this spring.

“On its own, the United States represents about a quarter of global GDP. When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles. China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy.”

In this way, Biden may attempt to strike a middle-of-the-road approach that remains tough on some China issues while opening channels of communication that Trump has effectively shut down, apart from trade.

“I think you will have a change in tone, an appreciation that you have to talk to China, as Nixon and Kissinger did,” said Medeiros, the Georgetown expert.

“But,” he added, “dialogue is not concession, and negotiation is not accommodation.”

It remains to be seen whether diplomacy and international pressure will work on an emboldened Chinese leadership. Beijing dismissed an international court ruling against its claims on the South China Sea, and Xi proceeded to impose a sweeping security law over Hong Kong despite warnings from the U.S. and other countries.

Not surprisingly, American attitudes have turned more negative toward China, and that too could constrain Biden’s hand.

“Any president in this country responds to public opinion,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Northridge), who nonetheless expects Biden to dial back the confrontation on the South China Sea.

Biden would likely hope to engage China on fighting climate change, given that it’s inconceivable that an effective agreement could be had while leaving out the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

For Obama, climate change was such a top global priority that he downplayed other conflicts with China in return for Beijing’s help on the landmark Paris Climate Treaty, which every country in the world was part of until Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2017.

Beijing is a signatory, but has continued to violate many caps on production of pollution and emission of chlorofluorocarbons that destroy the earth’s ozone layer.

Biden, too, will need to pick which policies to prioritize.

Biden aides suggest they will focus on a handful of targets like trade, cyber-espionage and democracy, rather than what they describe as the scatter-shot approach of the Trump administration over the last four years.

“China sees itself in a strong position … a China in ascendance,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. “In my view, we will have to revitalize America, lest China take advantage of what it sees as an American weakness.”


Somalia’s Army Told Her to Sew a Skirt. Now She’s One of Its Top Officers.

NAIROBI, Kenya — When Iman Elman decided to enlist in the Somali National Army in 2011, the officer distributing uniforms gave her one shirt and two pairs of pants. Puzzled, Ms. Elman asked about the missing shirt. There was none, he said. The extra set of pants was provided for her to sew into a skirt.

Ms. Elman, who was born into a family of prominent peace and human rights activists in the Somali capital of Mogadishu but grew up in Canada, was 19 at the time and wanted to join the front lines in the country’s fight against the terror group Al Shabab. A skirt was not going to do, she thought, and politely declined the second pair of pants.

The incident, she said, served as a reminder not only of the challenges awaiting her in the patriarchal world of the Somali military but also of the traditional, conservative norms she would have to overcome.

“We still have a long way to go,” Ms. Elman remembered thinking at the time.

Almost a decade later, she is now Lt. Col. Elman, having risen from foot soldier and captain, and is in charge of the army’s planning and strategy — the only female department head and one of the highest ranking women in the Somali military.

As one of just 900 women in an army of 25,000, she is helping push for accountability and efficiency in a force that’s battling one of the deadliest terror outfits in the African continent. In a country where women remain marginalized politically, economically and socially, Colonel Elman is also working to deepen their role and help move them beyond the menial jobs many are confined to within the armed forces.

For decades, Somalia was mired in conflict and chaos, rived by clan warlords competing for power and saddled with a series of weak transitional governments. But Colonel Elman’s journey into the military began as the country’s civil war ebbed and a United Nations-backed government took control of the capital.

In 2011, as waves of Somalis from the diaspora returned home, she visited Mogadishu and hatched the idea of joining the army. In discussions with soldiers, however, she was surprised by how quickly the male officers tried to discourage her, saying that she would be assigned only domestic roles like cooking and cleaning.

Their resistance only steeled her determination. “That was my driving force,” she said in a recent telephone interview from Mogadishu.

“A lot of it was me feeling the need in that moment to prove a point as to what a female can and cannot do,” she said. “Not only do I know that I shouldn’t be limited because of my gender, but I feel like I can do just as much if not more than any of the men.”

Colonel Elman was born in Mogadishu on Dec. 10, 1991, when Somalia was beginning to disintegrate. Midway to the hospital for delivery, her mother, Fartuun Adan, and her father, Elman Ali Ahmed, decided it was too dangerous in their neighborhood to leave her two older sisters, Almaas and Ilwad, in the house. They went back and fetched the girls, not knowing that they would never be able to return.

As the war and the perils intensified, Ms. Adan and Mr. Elman decided the wisest course was to split: She would seek refuge abroad with their daughters while he stayed behind to continue their humanitarian work.

It was a brave decision, but ultimately a tragic one. On Mar. 9, 1996, Mr. Elman, who had popularized the slogan “Drop the gun, pick up the pen,” and who had set up an institute to rehabilitate former child soldiers, was fatally shot in Mogadishu.

By then, Ms. Adan had received refugee status in Canada and was raising their daughters in Ottawa. Colonel Elman said her mother not only reminded them of their roots but ingrained in them the notion that their gender should not limit their ambitions.

In 2006, with violence continuing in Somalia, Ms. Adan returned to Mogadishu to head the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, an organization that is continuing the rights work of her husband. In 2010, she was joined by her daughter Ilwad, and the two have focused much of their efforts on women, children and vulnerable members of Somali society.

When in 2011, Colonel Elman, then a general arts student at University of Ottawa, opted to join the military, many were surprised that she was not following in her father’s footsteps. But she did not see a military career as contradictory to her father’s values and aspirations, she said.

“When people look at it, they do see the irony,” she said. “But the reality is that my father and I are both striving for the same thing. We are both working for peace.”

Her sister Ilwad — who was shortlisted for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize — agrees, saying that while there’s “intentional division” between military solutions and civilian approaches, there’s “a lot of complementarity in the work that we do.”

Sometimes, when her sister comes back from the front lines, she said, she brings back child soldiers whom the center helps reintegrate into society.

Last November, the Elman family’s faith in rebuilding Somalia was shaken after Almaas was killed by an unknown assailant. Colonel Elman, who has lost close colleagues in the war and has survived three roadside bomb explosions and countless encounters with the Shabab, said she “broke down” after the shooting.

But after taking two weeks to mourn, “we realized that there was no turning back for us,” Colonel Elman said. “We don’t have that option because we have already sacrificed so much.”

The sisters said they were back at their jobs by the end of December.

For now, Colonel Elman is working on instituting and strengthening reforms aimed at creating an army that represents the true interests of the state instead of clan allegiances. She has also begun an effort to train army officers on human rights and sexual assault — something, she said, that was seen as “nearly impossible” to implement when she first suggested it to her superiors.

As the army’s chief planner, Colonel Elman is also working to improve the conditions of women in the army by instituting quotas in recruitment and training programs and creating an environment to encourage more women to sign up, including separate washing facilities and places to change clothes.

Ms. Elman said there is still a long way to go “in terms of changing the mind-set” of people in Somalia around women serving, or holding key positions, in the army.

“You are not exactly sure if the country is ready to have a female general,” she said. But no matter what, she said, “I am very proud of how far we’ve come, and even the small milestones that we have reached have been quite significant.”


Trump vs. the Post Office

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A postmaster general who’s a major Trump donor. A sweeping Postal Service reorganization. And a president who said on Thursday that he opposed emergency funding to support voting by mail.

To understand what’s going on with the Postal Service, and whether President Trump is trying to undermine mail voting before the presidential election, we spoke with Michael Shear, a White House correspondent for The Times.

“Basically, two things are colliding,” Michael told us. The number of Americans who plan to vote absentee has spiked during the pandemic. “But at the same time,” Michael said, “post office officials who are allies of President Trump are taking actions — like limiting overtime — that seem to be slowing down the mail right before the election.”

States set their own rules on mail voting. But some fear postal delays could undermine those rules. “The concern from Democrats is that the president and his allies at the Postal Service could slow down the mail so that ballots from Democratic voters would not be returned in time to be counted,” Michael said.

But it’s unclear which side any delays would hurt most. Despite the president’s false claims of fraud, studies show mail voting doesn’t benefit one political party over the other. And while Democrats disproportionately say they intend to vote absentee this year, Trump’s criticisms of absentee ballots “could result in more of his own supporters failing to vote,” Michael said.

Given those uncertainties, what can states do to limit potential delays?

One option is to send absentee ballots early and encourage their prompt return, Michael said. “States could also provide more opportunities for voters to fill out absentee ballots and drop them off at official election drop boxes, avoiding any possible mail delays.”

More on mail voting:

White House aides have considered potential executive actions that Trump could take to stop the delivery or counting of mail ballots, Politico reports.

The Supreme Court rejected Republicans’ request to block a trial judge’s ruling that makes it easier for voters in Rhode Island to cast absentee ballots.

Delaying or discrediting mail ballots will help Trump only if he is ahead of Joe Biden on election night among voters who cast ballots in person, argues Jamelle Bouie, a Times Op-Ed columnist. “Going to the polls or bringing your mail-in ballot to a ‘drop box,’” he writes, “will be the best way to protect your vote.”

Israel and the United Arab Emirates made a landmark agreement on Thursday to establish “full normalization of relations” in exchange for Israel’s suspension of plans to annex occupied West Bank territory.

Trump said he had brokered a deal in which Israel and the U.A.E. would sign a string of agreements on investment, tourism and other areas. If fulfilled, it would make the U.A.E. the third Arab country to establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel, after Jordan and Egypt.

The agreement generated an immediate backlash: Many Palestinians felt abandoned by an Arab nation leaving them to remain locked in an untenable status quo, while some Israeli settlers and their political allies were disappointed that Israel would pause its plan to claim sovereignty over West Bank territory.

Why now? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel craved a historic achievement. Trump needed a diplomatic win. And the U.A.E., under fire for alleged human rights abuses in Yemen and Libya, needed to improve its image internationally.

The Justice Department on Thursday accused Yale University of violating federal civil rights law by discriminating against Asian-American and white applicants. The finding could have far-reaching consequences for the continuing legal challenges to affirmative action, a practice born in the civil rights era that some conservative groups have long opposed.

The charge comes two years after the department publicly backed Asian-American students who accused Harvard in a lawsuit of systematically discriminating against them. A federal judge later rejected that claim.

Members of the White Mountain Apache tribe in eastern Arizona have contracted the coronavirus at more than 10 times the rate of people in the state as a whole, but their death rate is much lower. Epidemiologists believe an intensive contact tracing program on the reservation most likely helped doctors find and treat gravely ill people before it was too late.

In other virus developments:

In July, as the coronavirus outbreak reached new heights in much of the U.S., Trump issued a demand: “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” His order seems only to have hardened the view among many school officials that reopening is unsafe.

A high school teacher in the Bronx told The Times he had already been nervous about the prospect of returning to school. When Trump started tweeting, it “just solidified that this is not being planned rationally or with health experts’ recommendation in mind,” the teacher said.

A tough spot for parents: Though the problems with the health crisis are systemic, the angst over schooling is personal. Here’s how families are navigating an issue with no perfect solution.

Trump falsely suggested that Senator Kamala Harris, who was born in California, was not eligible for the vice presidency because her parents were immigrants. The attack rehashes the racist “birther” conspiracy theory he previously promoted about President Barack Obama.

More than 250,000 people in the Midwest were still without power as of Thursday, after a powerful group of storms brought winds of over 100 miles per hour to the region on Monday.

Protests against the Thai government have gained momentum this summer, but in the past few days demonstrators have added a perilous new element to the mix: criticism of the king. “I know I am taking a very high risk that I could go to jail or be tortured or die,” one student said.

Apple and Google kicked the wildly popular video game Fortnite out of their app stores on Thursday, after the game’s maker, Epic Games, violated a contentious rule concerning in-app payments. Epic responded with lawsuits.

Lives Lived: Konrad Steffen, a renowned researcher who helped warn the world that climate change was melting Greenland’s massive ice sheet, died there at 68 in an ice crevasse accident. “In the end, it looks like climate change actually claimed him as a victim,” a colleague said.

If you enjoy The Morning, please consider subscribing to The Times. Subscriber support helps make work like this possible.

All eyes in Hollywood are on “Jurassic World: Dominion,” one of the first major films to restart production since the coronavirus crisis spurred a global shutdown in March.

The studio behind the film, Universal, has poured millions into safety protocols for the blockbuster, which has a relatively small cast and few shooting locations. If a production of this scale succeeds, it may set a precedent for film shoots of all sizes.

From shuttered theaters to strict new regulations on set, the way people make and watch movies has fundamentally changed in the past few months. What could that spell for the future of the industry?

The highly anticipated sci-fi epic “Tenet” was delayed numerous times before being tentatively scheduled for a theatrical release in September. Disney, however, decided to release its live-action “Mulan” on its Disney+ streaming service — with a whopping $30 price tag.

Some Hollywood executives believe that bypassing theaters and premiering movies on demand may be changing consumer behavior permanently, explained Nicole Sperling, a Times reporter who covers media and entertainment. “But then there’s the argument that once theaters are open again, aren’t people going to want to get out of the house?”

Grilled chicken is tricky: The window between raw and bone-dry is unfairly narrow. But when it’s done right, the deliciously tender payoff is worth it. Try your hand at it with this recipe for chicken skewers spiced with a fragrant ginger-and-cumin yogurt marinade. (The leftovers also make for an excellent chicken salad.)

Our weekly suggestion from Gilbert Cruz, The Times’s Culture editor:

Many of you (hopefully most of you) know about “Parasite,” the South Korean film that won best picture at the Oscars this year, as well as the top prize at Cannes. Fewer of you have heard about the film that came in second at Cannes. I’m here to tell you it’s wonderful.

Set in Senegal, where a young bride-to-be yearns for another man, “Atlantics” is a romance and a supernatural drama. If those modes sound like they would clash, be assured that the French-Senegalese director Mati Diop holds it all in perfect balance in her feature debut.

“Atlantics” is also one of the 50 best movies on Netflix. If you’re looking for 49 other choices, here’s our list.

The athlete Rudy Garcia-Tolson won five Paralympics medals by age 27 — four in swimming and one in track and field. After a three-year retirement, he decided to start training again, in the hopes of making it to the Paralympics for the fifth time. But there was one snag: Because of the coronavirus outbreak, all of the public pools near his home were closed.

This is the story of how the actor and former “X-Files” star David Duchovny helped him find a training pool: the one in Duchovny’s backyard.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: What Britain Brexited from (five letters).

Or try this week’s news quiz.


How 14 Elephant Seals Assisted an Antarctic Ice Study

At the bottom of the planet is the Southern Ocean, its waters cold and roiling and sheathed with ice many months of the year.

The edge of the ice cover, which melts during summer and forms again in winter, is called the marginal ice zone, and it is incredibly difficult to study. Large icebreaking ships, which have traditionally been used for research in the region, cannot consistently observe small-scale ocean activity. And sea gliders — small, relatively cheap instruments that sink in the water and bob back up periodically — don’t work under the ice. “It’s a blind spot of knowledge in our climate system,” said Sebastiaan Swart, a marine biologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

What is known about the marginal ice zone is that it is an important storage system for carbon and heat emitted by humans. The global ocean as a whole stores more than 90 percent of Earth’s excess heat, and the Southern Ocean is the portal through which much of this heat is transferred from the atmosphere. This makes ignorance of the region particularly worrisome.

But Dr. Swart and Louise Biddle, a researcher also at Gothenburg, found a way around this methodological roadblock in a paper published in May. To do so, they turned to unique organic instruments that can gather consistent information from under the ice: southern elephant seals.

Seals in the Southern Ocean have been monitored for decades. Small sensors and trackers that are attached to their bodies and the tops of their heads, like tiny hats, transmit information from dives — depth, lateral distance, water temperature, salinity — that gets filed into open-access databases. A typical southern elephant seal is a masterful diver, and spends around 90 percent of its time underwater foraging for fish and squid, only surfacing for a couple minutes between expeditions to catch its breath before sinking back down to the inky depths.

Because of the frequency of these dives, seal data, like sea glider data, can reveal small eddies and flows in the water. These water fluxes result from many of the same forces, including winds and heat gradients, that create large currents like the Gulf Stream, but are far smaller and called submesoscale flows. Some are only the length of a football field and last no more than a day.

As tiny as they are, submesoscale flows have a direct effect on what Dr. Swart calls the “window between the atmosphere and the whole ocean.”

This window is known as the mixed layer, a sliver of water on the surface whose depth and stratification determines how much heat and carbon are absorbed by the ocean; the deeper and more well-mixed the layer, the wider the window opens and the easier it is for the ocean to absorb heat and carbon from the atmosphere. Submesoscale flows change this depth and stratification, and thus the aperture of the window.

Without the technology to peer under the ice cover, no one knew what kind of submesoscale flows were occurring in the marginal ice zone. Scientists guessed that the ice would dampen the strength of the eddies, “but we didn’t even have the observations to show if they were even there,” said Dr. Biddle.

Then the two researchers realized “that the seals had been going under the sea ice for years and years and years,” Dr. Swart said. “And because they do that, they were collecting the right kind of observations for us to look at the upper ocean under sea ice.” The open-access seal data sets could potentially illustrate what kind of submesoscale flows occur under the ice, and whether they occur at all.

So the two turned to southern elephant seals, which, they found, were challenging collaborators. Many of the dives, and the corresponding data, were clustered outside the zone of study. “You can’t tell them where to go,” Dr. Biddle said, laughing. “That’s the biggest issue. They follow the food.”

But there was enough information to provide a first glimpse of the tiny currents swirling under the Southern Ocean’s ice cover. And what Dr. Biddle and Dr. Swart found, surprisingly, was that submesoscale flows are nearly as active under the ice as they are in the open ocean, and that they are strongest in the midwinter, when the ice is thickest.

In short, the seals showed that water in the Southern Ocean moves a lot more under the ice, and particularly under thick ice, than many scientists had anticipated. Perhaps this has to do with the variable concentration of what Dr. Biddle called “pancake ice,” which creates heat variations in the mixed layer. Perhaps it has to do with certain wind and weather patterns. Either way, it is an important finding.

“If these submesoscales are to change in the future, they actually will really change how much heat and carbon is stored in the atmosphere or in the ocean,” Dr. Swart said. “And so they’re really, really important, cumulatively, to the habitable planet.

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South Sea Islanders Don’t Want to Be Forgotten

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Isabella Kwai, a reporter with the Australia bureau.

The first thing I saw in Mackay was the sun setting over towering fields of sugar cane. I had come to meet Starrett Vea Vea, a South Sea Islander leader with an infectious laugh, and found him with a friend. He was explaining, as he often did, how his ancestors had been lured to Australia, first to plant cotton, then sugar cane.

“I feel sad for those people who went through it,” he said. “Sad that our history is not spoken about.” His friend, a white woman, shook her head. “I just learnt that right then,” she said to me. “What else don’t I know?”

Mr. Vea Vea is one of thousands of Australians descended from Pacific Islander laborers who arrived aboard ships in the 19th century to do backbreaking work on sugar plantations for white farmers in Australia’s northeast. Many were lured or “blackbirded” into indentured labor contracts — some through force, others through deception, all through a colonialism that looted less-advantaged societies.

[Read more about South Sea Islanders and the practice of ”blackbirding.”]

The country’s largest population of descendants, who call themselves South Sea Islanders, live in Mackay, a peaceful coastal town where birds fly low over mangroves on the river at twilight and the sugar cane stretches as far as the eye can see.

But the mangroves are home to an unknown number of unmarked South Sea Island graves. Nearby are fields where many of the workers toiled for wages that were a fraction of their white counterparts. There are farms, too, where many of the South Sea Islanders later hid after Australia decided to deport them as part of an effort to keep the country ethnically white.

They are not the only group that endured atrocities. But many of them are worried that the stories of their ancestors, stories of loss, trauma and resilience, will be forgotten without efforts to preserve them. That fear crystallized after Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in June that there had been “no slavery in Australia,” a statement the community disagreed with and that he later apologized for. Now, South Sea Islanders are adamant that it must to be taught to all Australians, not just their own people.

One elder, Marion Healy, whose great-grandfather was lured from a beach in the Solomon Islands as a young boy, is using a rugby-league tournament to start conversations. Another elder, Doug Mooney, teaches how to make traditional fishing nets at a local school. I watched one afternoon as a group of young boys leaned in to watch Uncle Doug stitch one together. Afterward, they would go to the ocean and learn how to cast the nets as their ancestors had.

Many members of this community are hopeful that this moment, amid the climate of the Black Lives Matter protests, is one of understanding, where past pain can be reconciled to build a more inclusive future. And a few in the younger generations are exploring how to take over the baton.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Vea Vea and Logan Bobongie, 22, leaned over a book to find out more about Ms. Bobongie’s ancestor. “This wouldn’t be a conversation if it wasn’t for what’s happened to America, and George Floyd,” said Ms. Bobongie, who is still piecing parts of her heritage together. “But it’s given us a great opportunity to talk about what’s happened here.”

Still, it made me wonder: What other stories from Australia’s past have not yet been brought to light? Write to us at

Now, on to our stories of the week.