Splainer

Wednesday, September 1 2021


Dive In

Fact of the day. It takes Stefanos Tsitipas twice as long to go [to] the bathroom as it takes Jeff Bazos to fly into space. Interesting. 

That’s tennis ace Andy Murray taking a potshot at his rivalwho took both a medical timeout and lengthy bathroom break during a US Open match. Murraywho lost to Tsitipaslater said these breaks seemed to be suspiciously timed: “I think when he took the medical timeout, it was just after I had won the third set. Also in the fourth set when I had Love-30, he chose to goI don't know if he changed his racket or what he was doing. But, yeah, it can't be a coincidence that it's happening at those moments.” ESPN has more on the growing controversy over Tsitipas’ potty breaks.

 

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Big Story

The mystery of the ‘microwave’ weapons

The TLDR: American diplomats and spies around the world have been reporting a number of unexplained symptoms—now dubbed the Havana Syndrome. A US report suspects the use of microwave weapons—which one Chinese professor alleges were used on the Ladakh border. We investigate this strange phenomenon that has confounded the best experts in the world.

 

Tell me about the Havana Syndrome...

Where it started: Back in late 2016, US officials in Havana began reporting a variety of strange symptoms:

 

“They described hearing harsh mechanical sounds and/or experiencing uncomfortable pressure, like the sensation of driving fast in a car with one window partially down. Some sufferers have said that when the symptoms first emerged, it felt like they were being hit with a beam of energy. Vertigo, vision problems, and difficulty concentrating have also been reported. Hearing loss followed the auditory symptoms for some of the diplomats and agents, with some cases intense enough that employees were forced to end their tours early and return to the US for study and outpatient treatment.”

 

The damage: The attacks temporarily debilitate a person—making them incapable of functioning. But the long term effects of the syndrome vary widely. Some report only temporary symptoms while others continue to struggle with constant headaches, insomnia and hearing problems. And in some cases, the effects are felt only in certain locations. US neurologists have used MRIs to look at the brains of 40 Havana Syndrome patients: 

 

“They found no signs of physical impact to the victims’ skulls—it was as if the victims had ‘a concussion without a concussion,’ one specialist told me—but the team found signs consistent with damage to the patients’ brains: the volume of white matter was smaller than in a similar group of healthy adults, which indicated that something structural in the brain had been affected.”

 

But the tissue damage was consistent with that caused by a bomb blast or car accident. 

 

Where it spread: 

  • Ever since, around 200 State, CIA and Defense officials have reported similar symptoms around the world—including Russia, Poland, Austria, Georgia, Taiwan, Colombia, China, Kyrgyzstan, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan. 
  • There has even been a reported case in the United States—where a National Security Council member was targeted just outside the White House. At least four Trump officials have reported similar symptoms. 
  • And around mid-August, two US officials in Berlin complained of similar symptoms—the first in a NATO country. The doctors diagnosed a brain injury usually seen in people exposed to shockwaves from explosions.
  • Most recently, Vice President Kamala Harris’ flight to Vietnam was delayed by three hours by a report of a “recent possible anomalous health incident”—which is the language used by the US government to describe a case of the Havana Syndrome.
  • The worst hit is Vienna where two dozen US intelligence officers, diplomats and other government officials have reported symptoms.

 

And what’s causing this?

For the longest time, the cause remained a complete mystery—and the symptoms were initially brushed aside as psychosomatic illnesses. Then officials settled on sonic weapons (using ultrasound) as a likely source, but that theory too was discarded “because sound waves at frequencies outside of the range of human hearing cannot cause concussion-like symptoms.” US officials finally commissioned the National Academies of Sciences to investigate the syndrome.

 

The report: was released in December, and did not establish a definite cause. But it said the following: “The committee felt that many of the distinctive and acute signs, symptoms and observations reported by employees are consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy”—which are also used in microwaves. The report pointed out that microwave beams could alter brain function without causing “gross structural damage.” It also noted that there had been “significant research” in Russia/USSR into the use of such weapons. 

 

Point to note: The investigation essentially eliminated other possible causes—virus, poison, mass hysteria—and settled on the most likely: “We looked at possible mechanisms and found that one was more plausible than the others and entirely consistent with some of the most distinct clinical findings.”

 

The chief suspect: Russia though there is no definitive proof

 

“Their working hypothesis is that agents of the GRU, the Russian military’s intelligence service, have been aiming microwave-radiation devices at US officials to collect intelligence from their computers and cell phones, and that these devices can cause serious harm to the people they target.”

 

What’s the India connection?

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In today’s edition

Headlines That Matter

  • A big spike in India’s GDP 
  • A new variant in South Africa
  • Older folks need to sleep
  • German students are going meat-free

 

A list of curious facts

  • A map that show the most translated book in each country
  • Blue turmeric is having a moment in the US
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