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7 deadly reads

Sitdown Sunday: Elon Musk's 'brazen and expansive' influence on the US government

Settle down in a comfy chair and sit back with some of the week’s best longreads.

IT’S A DAY of rest, and you may be in the mood for a quiet corner and a comfy chair.

We’ve hand-picked the week’s best reads for you to savour.

1. “Putin’s chef”

A profile of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenary leader and one-time ally of Vladimir Putin who Russia says died in a plane crash this week. 

(The New York Times, approx 7 mins reading time)

Mr. Prigozhin began to embrace a public profile only after Mr. Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, acknowledging later that year that he had founded and run Wagner. Signing contract soldiers and recruiting prison inmates, he built Wagner into a force estimated at 50,000. 

In remarks a day after the plane crash, Mr. Putin said he had known Mr. Prigozhin since the early 1990s — a revelation, since the timing of their relationship had long been a mystery. Mr. Prigozhin once said in an interview that he first met Mr. Putin in 2000.

Speaking in a meeting broadcast on television, Mr. Putin continued: “This was a person with a complicated fate. He made some serious mistakes in life, but he also achieved necessary results.”

2. Elon’s shadow rule

u-s-air-force-academy-colo-tesla-inc-chief-executive-officer-elon-musk-speaks-with-lt-gen-richard-clark-superintendent-of-the-u-s-air-force-academy-during-the-ira-c-eaker-distinguished-s File photo of Elon Musk. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Ronan Farrow delves into the billionaire’s increasingly influential role on the global geopolitical stage and how the US government is now struggling to rein him in. 

(The New Yorker, approx 45 mins reading time)

In the past twenty years, against a backdrop of crumbling infrastructure and declining trust in institutions, Musk has sought out business opportunities in crucial areas where, after decades of privatization, the state has receded. The government is now reliant on him, but struggles to respond to his risk-taking, brinkmanship, and caprice. Current and former officials from NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration told me that Musk’s influence had become inescapable in their work, and several of them said that they now treat him like a sort of unelected official. One Pentagon spokesman said that he was keeping Musk apprised of my inquiries about his role in Ukraine and would grant an interview with an official about the matter only with Musk’s permission. “We’ll talk to you if Elon wants us to,” he told me. In a podcast interview last year, Musk was asked whether he has more influence than the American government. He replied immediately, “In some ways.” Reid Hoffman told me that Musk’s attitude is “like Louis XIV: ‘L’état, c’est moi.’ ”

3. The dangers of dating apps

Abby Vesoulis writes about how predators are using dating apps to target people, and how the companies themselves have broad legal immunity when crimes are committed. 

(Mother Jones, approx 23 mins reading time)

Valentine and a team of researchers began analyzing the forensic records of sexual assault victims in Utah between 2017 and 2020. “What we found was really profound,” says Valentine, an associate dean at Brigham Young University’s nursing school. “And pretty terrifying.”

Their research showed 8 percent of the victims had been assaulted during an initial meetup arranged through a dating app. It’s not an outlier. A similar report from the UK found that roughly 1 in 10 victims of serious sexual crimes met their attackers on dating apps; 47 percent of suspects reported to the UK authorities for sexual offenses facilitated through online dating had previous convictions. Valentine believes the real percentage of survivors who connect with their assailants on dating apps could be even higher, since many sexual assaults are never reported.

4. Canada’s wildfires

the-mcdougall-creek-wildfire-burns-on-the-mountainside-above-a-home-in-west-kelowna-b-c-on-friday-aug-18-2023-thousands-have-fled-driving-hundreds-of-kilometers-miles-to-safety-or-waiting-in The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above a home in West Kelowna, British Columbia. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Canada is experiencing its worst ever wildfire season. This piece looks at the enormous strain it is putting on the country’s firefighters, the health impacts on those living nearby, and how next year could be even worse. 

(Wired, approx 15 mins reading time)

Rennick, who grew up in the city of Vernon in British Columbia, has battled fires most of his life—as did his father and grandfather. “This is just a very different environment we find ourselves in now,” he says. “People who don’t believe in climate change can come talk to me.” At the time of writing, British Columbia is in the midst of a province-wide state of emergency. Up to 200 buildings are estimated to have been destroyed by wildfires in the Okanagan region. And the fires are still burning. “In that kind of extreme situation, it’s no different than trying to put your hand in front of a tsunami or a hurricane and say, ‘Stop,’” says Rennick. Two years ago, during a record-breaking heat wave, he watched a grassfire engulf the town of Lytton, annihilating it in 23 minutes. And yet the intensity and frequency of this summer has exceeded anything Rennick thought possible.

5. An unravelling art dynasty

Rachel Corbett reports on the fascinating story of the Wildensteins, a family with an art collection estimated to be worth billions, and a widow whose efforts to expose them has landed them before France’s highest court accused of operating “the longest and the most sophisticated tax fraud” in modern French history.

(The New York Times Magazine, approx 32 mins reading time)

Over the course of several years, she would fly around the world to tax havens and free ports, prying open the armored vaults and anonymous accounts that mask many of the high-end transactions in the $68 billion global art market. Multimillion-dollar paintings can anonymously trade hands without, for example, any of the requisite titles or deeds of real estate transactions or the public disclosures required on Wall Street. She would learn that the inscrutability of the trade has made it a leading conduit for sanction-evading oligarchs and other billionaires looking to launder excess capital. The Wildensteins were not just masters of this system — they helped pioneer it.

Over 150 years, the family has amassed an art collection estimated to be worth billions by quietly buying up troves of European masterpieces that would be at home in the Louvre or the Vatican, holding their stock for generations and never revealing what they own. When Sylvia realized the magnitude of her stepsons’ deception, she devoted the rest of her life to unraveling the family’s financial machinations, and even left a will asking that Dumont Beghi continue her fight from beyond the grave.

6. The Swift effect

arlington-united-states-31st-mar-2023-american-singer-songwriter-taylor-swift-performs-on-her-the-eras-tour-at-att-stadium-on-march-31-2023-in-arlington-texas-united-states-photo-by-javie Taylor Swift performing on her 'The Eras Tour' at AT&T Stadium in Texas. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

A look at just how much money Taylor Swift’s Eras tour is generating for the US economy. 

(Time, approx 10 mins reading time)

The Eras Tour is projected to generate close to $5 billion in consumer spending in the United States alone. “If Taylor Swift were an economy, she’d be bigger than 50 countries,” said Dan Fleetwood, President of QuestionPro Research and Insights, in a story for GlobalNewsWire. On the opening night in Glendale, Ariz., the concert brought in more revenue for local businesses than Super Bowl LVII, which was held back in February in the same stadium. To use that event as a comparison, Swift has been performing the equivalent of two to three Super Bowls every weekend for the past five months (and six of seven nights at her last round of shows in Los Angeles).

Typically, every $100 spent on live performances generates an estimated $300 in ancillary local spending on things like hotels, food and transportation. But for the Eras Tour, Swifties are taking this to the next level, dropping an estimated $1,300-$1,500 on things like outfits and costumes, merchandise, dining, and travel—boosting local economies by hundreds of millions of dollars in one weekend. 

…AND A CLASSIC FROM THE ARCHIVES…  

A longread from last year on the lucrative business of counterfeit goods, and whether it will ever be possible to stop it.

(The Guardian, approx 15 mins reading time)

It’s not just the overall figures that boggle the mind. One French customs raid confiscated enough fake Louis Vuitton fabric to cover 54 tennis courts. A swoop on a seller on the online Chinese shopping platform Taobao netted 18,500 counterfeit bags, aprons and footwear. A bust in Madrid impounded 85,000 counterfeits ready for the Black Friday and Christmas markets. In Istanbul, in 2020, almost 700,000 counterfeit haircare products were seized. Usually, when there are many more counterfeits than the real thing, you see a correction of some kind. But despite the growth of an authentication industry with an ever-expanding list of anti-counterfeiting tools – thermally activated tamper-proof seals, security numbers, RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, colour-shifting inks, holograms – that doesn’t seem to be happening.

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