At twilight on New Year’s Eve, 2020, Placido Montoya, 35, a plumber from Fort Morgan, Colorado, was driving to work. Ahead of him he noticed blinking lights in the sky. He’d heard rumours of mysterious drones, whispers in his local community, but now he was seeing them with his own eyes. In the early morning gloom, it was hard to make out how big the lights were and how many were hovering above him. But one thing was clear to Montoya: he needed to give chase.
As he approached the drones in his car, they “took off very fast” and Montoya tried to follow. He confesses hitting 120mph before losing track of them. “They were creepy, really creepy,” he says. “I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s almost as if they were watching us.”
That night, Vince Iovinella, deputy sheriff at Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, received more than 30 calls from locals reporting drones “zipping around all over the place” – Iovinella himself saw one with red, white and green lights that he also tried to chase. “It outran me,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, neighbouring Nebraska and Kansas were also dealing with their own mysterious drone swarms. From December 2019 to January 2020, residents of the three states were perturbed by multiple sightings of numerous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with wingspans of up to 6ft flying between 6pm and 10pm in grid formations. On the same night that Iovinella was receiving calls, a Nebraska deputy reported seeing 30 to 50 drones in the sky. Witnesses were alarmed by the size and speed of the vehicles. “It got to the point that we were fixing to take up arms,” says Mike, 39, from Lindon, Colorado, who wishes to retain partial anonymity.
But as quickly as the drones came, they disappeared. “That was it, they were gone,” Montoya says. More than a year later, no one knows who was behind the drones. Despite an investigation involving the FBI, US Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there are no official answers. Amazon, Google and Uber have denied involvement, and so did a local air force base. “Somebody’s doing something and nobody’s saying anything about it,” Montoya summarises. But even “somebody doing something” is now up for debate: one reporter claims the drones never existed at all.
What really happened in the sky above the American Midwest in those fateful winter months, and what can the incident tell us about new technology and old fears?
Did the mystery drones really exist and, if so, why can’t anyone find out who was behind them? Is a new type of conspiracy theory being born? Are drones the new UFOs?
First things first, there are videos. On YouTube, you can easily find footage of blinking lights hovering over houses, farms and highways in Colorado. It’s evident at least some of these lights belonged to drones, although it’s harder to determine if these drones really were 6ft wide. In early 2020, Douglas D Johnson, a research affiliate with the Scientific Coalition for Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Studies, used America’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to uncover reams of FAA documentation about the drone mystery. Johnson’s research revealed that law-enforcement officers in 16 Colorado and Nebraska counties personally witnessed the drone activity, with one Kansas state trooper using night-vision goggles to estimate one drone had a 10ft wingspan.
Brett Tingley is a journalist for The War Zone, a defence news publication. He believes the documents prove something strange did occur. “There are consistencies among the eyewitness reports that suggest these drones possessed longer flight times than most off-the-shelf UAS [unmanned aircraft systems],” he says. He believes the witness testimony “appeared legitimate enough to local and state law enforcement, and the FAA, to take the sightings seriously”.
Still, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a frenzy. On 29 January 2020, Vice reporter Aaron Gordon published an article claiming the mysterious drone sightings were “a classic case of mass hysteria” – in an earlier article he noted that the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS) flew a Multi-Mission Aircraft for nearly five hours in Colorado on 6 January that year and found no suspicious drone activity. Johnson calls the Vice article “shoddy”, but Tingley concedes some sightings could have been hysteria, particularly after the drones made national news. Some officials even became a little hysterical: deputies in Nebraska reported finding “space potatoes” after chasing drones through a field. In actual fact, the lumpy brown objects were a farming product used to fill irrigation ruts in fields.
Iovinella agrees that “hysteria built up quickly” and says some witnesses were undoubtedly looking at planes. But: “I was irritated by people saying we didn’t see nothing because that’s not true,” he says. “I know what was happening those first few days of the drones. They were there.”
By 6 January 2020, a multi-agency taskforce had been set up to investigate – the FBI, Federal Aviation Authority, Air Force and local law-enforcement officials made up the team of 70. However, the taskforce disbanded by 22 January after drone sightings dramatically dropped off. FAA communications manager Ian Gregor now says: “We did not receive any information that enabled us to determine what exactly it was that people reported seeing and, if they were drones, who was flying them.” In a separate investigation, the CDPS examined 23 drone sightings between 6 and 13 January and determined 13 sightings were planets, stars, or “small hobbyist drones”. Six sightings were determined to be “atmospheric conditions or identified commercial aircraft”, while four sightings remained unidentified.
Witnesses such as Placido Montoya aren’t best pleased with the taskforce’s inconclusive investigation, nor the CDPS’s explanations. “I don’t feel safe. I looked up and I felt I was being violated,” he says. Iovinella stresses that investigations only began after sightings had died down and “the drones had already moved on”.
Why is it so difficult to determine who is flying a drone? In 2018, Gatwick had to cancel hundreds of flights after drones were spotted by the runway. Chaos reigned between 19 and 21 December while police and the military investigated. On 21 December, a couple were arrested – they were later awarded £200,000 compensation for false imprisonment. On 23 December, police said it was “a possibility” there was never a drone at all. In April 2019, police and Gatwick officials claimed the incident was potentially an inside job.
James Scanlan is a design and engineering professor who runs Southampton University’s Strategic Research Centre in Autonomous Systems. He says if an individual is controlling a drone from the ground, then radio frequencies can be used to determine where the transmission is coming from. “The problem comes where there’s a drone that’s flying with radio silence, so it’s not transmitting, no one’s transmitting to it – it might have a flight plan on board so it executes its mission and doesn’t need any control from the ground,” he says. “It’s very hard to do anything about those.”
Clues can, of course, be found in the drones themselves – which is why witnesses in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas wanted to shoot them down. Because these drones were reportedly very large and very fast, some assumed they were military. In early January 2020, FE Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming denied ownership of the drones after inquiries from local newspapers.
So who could possibly possess the kind of technology seen over the American skies last winter? Locals speculate about drug dealers, secret government operations or foreign spies. But Scanlan notes that you or I could purchase powerful drones. “There’s a commercial drone on the market called the Penguin B from a Latvian company that is about 6ft in wingspan and has a very long endurance, so I could go and fly those tomorrow.”
To this day, Tingley still receives emails claiming the mysterious drones never went away. Mike, the witness from Lindon, runs a 3,700-member Facebook group. “We still have people on there who’ve been keeping a very close eye on drone activity,” he says. Mike says the drones interfered with his mobile phone connection and believes they were equipped with audio surveillance, “because the moment we identified the location and pointed a camera up there, they suddenly went blackout.” Other witnesses have made similar claims.
Mike says claims of mass hysteria are “frustrating”, but then references ufologist and conspiracy theorist Milton William Cooper. Asked if he himself identifies as a conspiracy theorist, Mike says: “No, I tend to vet pretty much every lead and if I do not find credible evidence to support that lead I will not push forward with it.” Five minutes later, he begins discussing footage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Take the frame-by-frame footages of the towers coming down and compare that to a controlled demolition…”
The individuals in Mike’s Facebook group encompass everyone from curious witnesses to people who believe the drones somehow caused the coronavirus. Some are self-confessed UFO enthusiasts – mystery drones, after all, are unidentified flying objects by another name. In 2018, the top two websites for reporting UFOs revealed there has been a rapid decline in worldwide UFO sightings since 2014. In January 2019, drone researcher Faine Greenwood claimed, “This decline coincides with the period when relatively advanced drone technology first became truly accessible to consumers” in a Slate article entitled, “Drones are the new flying saucers.” In emails about the mystery drones uncovered by Douglas, one FAA official remarked, “Not too long ago we would have called these ‘UFOs’.” Their colleague replied: “Yep! Now everything is a drone!”
In her article, Greenwood explains that this is likely down to good old human psychology. “If we see something we can’t identify, we’re likely to slot in whatever seems most plausible – and what seems plausible may change depending on current events and modern fears.” Greenwood cites multiple instances in which pilots mistakenly reported drone sightings. (In 2016, police reported that a passenger plane at Heathrow collided with a drone before the UK’s transport minister clarified, “It may have even been a plastic bag.”)
Conspiracy theory expert Daniel Jolley, a psychology professor at Northumbria University, says even when drone incidents are real, mystery can breed suspicion. “When people hear about such things, they interpret this information in line with their prior beliefs… If you believe that powerful forces are up to shady things and generally have a mistrust of official information, you could be more likely to see a hidden motive.”
But Greenwood also believes, “We absolutely should be concerned about the malevolent use of consumer drones.” Johnson says he has obtained documents from America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission that show there were 57 drone-related security events at NRC-licensed facilities between 2014 and 2019; only five of these incidents were deemed resolved. He has also discovered that on two nights in September 2019, security guards reported seeing a number of drones flying over the largest power plant in the US, Palo Verde Generating Station in Arizona.
In January 2021, a year after Montoya first saw drones in the night sky, the Pentagon released a new strategy to counter small drones, with official documents stating, “Technology trends are dramatically transforming legitimate applications of [small drones] while simultaneously making them increasingly capable weapons in the hands of state actors, non-state actors and criminals.”
Many of the FOIA documents obtained by Johnson were redacted, including witness photographs of drones in FE Warren documents. Was the whole thing real or imagined? A conspiracy or a covert operation? Could it even be a bit of both? Some suspicious drone hobbyists believe the FAA itself orchestrated the mystery so they could enforce tighter regulations. On 26 December 2019, the FAA proposed that all but the smallest drones should broadcast tracking signals to allow them to be remotely identified.
One thing is evident: drones, real or imagined, are capable of causing chaos. “What caught me off guard is we have no answers to this day and it’s like everybody is OK with it,” Montoya says. At first, he thought Amazon was behind the drones. Now he wonders whether it could be the government or foreign powers. Before we end our call, he offers up one final theory. “It could have been aliens,” he says, with a laugh.
Chinese software developers have crowdsourced a spreadsheet that dishes the dirt on working conditions at hundreds of employers.
Dubbed WorkingTime, the protest aims to offer transparency regarding how many work hours are expected. Many organisations expect 72-hour working weeks – an arrangement dubbed “996” after the 9am to 9pm, six days a week culture in place at many Chinese companies.
The practice has sometimes been promoted by the rich and famous: Alibaba’s Jack Ma publicly stated that employees should actually want to work long hours and a job you love enough to spend that much time doing is a “blessing”.
Chinese courts take a different view. A recent decision found 996-style hours aren’t permissible, as Chinese law caps overtime at 36 hours per month and requires compensation for the extra hours. But China is not a workers’ paradise, and the practice persists because oversight is limited and independent labour unions are illegal in the Middle Kingdom.
The WorkingTime project aims to assist developers looking for work to understand what they’re signing up for.
“The opacity of working hours in some companies, working time is a very important factor in choosing an offer,” wrote a movement founder on Chinese Q&A site Zhihu.
The spreadsheet in which workers record how many hours they work a week, job descriptions, breaks and other remarks strongly suggest that grueling hours remain at some workplaces. Others stick to a 40-ish hour working week and add perks like happy hours and subsidized housing.
The anecdotes, visible on an openly accessible spreadsheet associated with the project, provide a similar service for Chinese tech workers to web pages like Glassdoor – giving tips on company culture and requirements.
Some remarks include:
“I often go on business trips. I have been on business for half of a month. I leave work after 10 o’clock every night at the customer’s site. I have to work overtime on weekends. The entire department has worked for two years except for the leaders.”
“Feel free to ask for leave and lunch time, because it’s the field work, whether you are in the company or not, and you can play games casually, regardless of the leader. If you drink too much, it’s fine if you don’t come.”
“Mandatory to keep people on duty every night, compulsory all staff to work overtime every Saturday, no overtime pay, working hours over 10 hours.”
“When the daily work cannot be completed, it is necessary to work overtime at home.”
“The work pace is fast and the work content is highly saturated. Flexible commute, just do everything.”
The WorkingTime project has gone viral, with the founders reporting over ten million views and thousands of entries as of last Tuesday. While the founders remain anonymous, contributors hail from a diverse subset of companies that includes some of China’s big tech giants like Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei and Bytedance, as well as multinational companies such as SAP, Dyson, Intel and IBM.
According to the project’s GitHub page, lawyers are currently pitching in to sort out legal issues prior to making the project freely downloadable. However, a summary table of data collated daily is already available in Chinese.
Unsurprisingly, the project has stirred some ire. The founders have asked that participants do not apply for editing permission, explaining that “due to malicious editing” such privileges will not be granted. ®
The move comes following a power purchase agreement between Johnson & Johnson and Ørsted, which has windfarm sites in Clare and Kerry.
Johnson & Johnson has revealed plans to move to 100pc renewable electricity across its Irish operations.
The company has entered into an eight-year corporate power purchase agreement in Ireland with Danish company Ørsted. The agreement will help to ensure that the company’s entire Irish operations will be powered by electricity from 100pc renewable sources from now on.
Ørsted will supply the company with more than 1TWh of renewable energy during this period from two windfarms located in Kerry and Clare. The agreement will also help Ørsted as it invests in its strategy to construct more renewable generation in the future.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD, praised the move in the context of Ireland’s climate action plans.
“Johnson & Johnson has embraced its environmental responsibilities globally, but also here in Ireland, and this agreement will help the company to achieve its wider climate goals. We are at a crucial point in the global fight against climate change and initiatives like this should become the benchmark for all companies to aspire to,” he said.
Towards net zero
Last year, Johnson & Johnson’s worldwide VP of environmental health, safety and sustainability, Paulette Frank, spoke at Silicon Republic’s Future Human event about the company’s “bold” climate goals. From her base in the US, Frank told attendees of the virtual event that her colleagues viewed the pandemic as “inspiration to propel” its climate action “further faster.”
Sourcing electricity from 100pc renewable sources is a goal the company set to achieve by 2025. By 2030, it wants to achieve carbon neutrality in its global operations.
John Lynch, plant leader at Johnson & Johnson Vision Care Ireland, said the company was proud to have met its targets in its Irish operations.
“Across our 10 sites and workforce of more than 5,000 here in Ireland, we are committed to supporting Johnson & Johnson’s climate action goals. In the last decade we have invested more than €60m in over 80 carbon footprint reduction projects.
“Today is a major landmark on our journey in Ireland to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030 and underlines our commitment to ensuring a better, healthier world.”
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Australians are the world’s biggest consumers of health and wellness apps, punching well above our per capita weight in our quest for peak physical and mental condition, according to research from telecommunications company Uswitch. In recent years we have also been making them – with everyone from fitness influencers to mental health advocacy groups launching digital products.
I’m partial to a bit of mobile-based movement and mindfulness myself, but I have a complex relationship with wellness. While I love green juices, pilates and my “ness” being “well”, I can’t abide many contemporary uses of the word. In the diet, fitness, fashion and other industries, “wellness” can feel like a barely repackaged “weight loss”, while “healthy” has replaced “slim” as companies respond superficially to the body positivity movement without really changing their ways.
Despite wholesome beginnings in the 1950s, wellness is often framed as a goal for the financially and genetically privileged – and don’t get me started on the pseudoscience.
So I choose cautious cynicism when engaging with wellness and wellbeing products – but I’ve also been alone in my house for the greater part of two years, so I’ll try pretty much anything.
Cost: $19.99 a month
Sweat is a women’s health app co-founded by Australian fitness influencer Kayla Itsines, who boasts a worldwide social media following of more than 40 million. It offers over 30 programs for training at home or the gym, including high-intensity interval training (Hiit), low-intensity training, yoga and barre.
I did sessions from the PWR Zero Equipment program and it was all easy to follow and very doable. Audio and written instructions and onscreen demonstrations are clear, and self-accountability is super easy. It’s perfect for lockdown and for busy people cramming in exercise wherever and whenever they can. Plus, I can report that burpees are still the merciless work of Satan herself.
Itsines has created an app that exists in the wellness space with little of the self-congratulatory, quasi-spiritual hoopla other influencers lean so heavily into. Sweat isn’t pretending to be something it’s not. It’s a workout app, you do workouts on it. Yes, there are recipes and lifestyle tips but they aren’t offered as miracle pathways to a higher plane of being.
Is it my preferred mode of exercise? No. But it’s convenient and flexible and I can see myself using it when I travel. If that’s a thing that ever happens again.
ReachOut’s WorryTime is an anxiety management app from the online youth mental health service that uses cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques to disrupt and manage repetitive thinking.
I am by no definition a youth, but I have mild anxiety and WorryTime’s methodology appealed to me. You nominate a daily time to do all your worrying and when you feel anxious, you note why in the app; every day at the designated time, you worry about what’s still plaguing you and delete what’s not. Easy!
I used WorryTime diligently for a while, noting my fears, my troubles and doubts and reassessing them every 24 hours. All was going well until I got busy with work, stressed about work and scared I’d stop getting work. Where the app had been a welcome task, it became a bugbear.
I was trying not to think about things that made me anxious and knowing the app contained a list of them created a classic avoidance paradigm. I skipped a day. And the next day. And the day after that. Soon the WorryTime alarm was causing me the very anxiety it was engaged to minimise. After a few weeks of this mental chicken-egg dance, I deleted the app. I may have been in the foetal position at the time.
I’m not advocating against WorryTime. It could be a great tool for others. There are no one-size-fits-all mental health salves. It would be nice if there were though.
Bibliotherapy with State Library Victoria
My favourite discovery from this whole exercise is bibliotherapy or book therapy, an age-old practice that uses literature to support better mental health and wellbeing. Basically, you read or are read aloud a prescribed text, specifically chosen to raise questions, uncover truths and encourage healing. It’s also fun to say.
In response to the pandemic, a new podcast called Bibliotherapy with State Library Victoria was launched. Hosted by bibliotherapy practitioner Dr Susan McLaine, it offers to help people “stay calmer in this fragile time”. In each episode, McLaine reads a short story and a poem and poses questions for listeners. Texts range from emerging and obscure writers to Tolstoy, Donne and Kipling.
I love this podcast. There’s something so intimate and soothing about being read to, no doubt embedded in childhood nostalgia. McLaine’s voice takes some getting used to, though to be fair I find this with most podcast hosts, but her choice of texts is excellent and she reads everything slowly and deliberately, “savouring every word and offering space between words”. It’s the closest thing to a hug I’ve had in months.
The only bad thing about it is that there are only two short seasons. After a brief search for similarly soporific, story-based podcasts and apps, I found the excellent Dreamy podcast, a collection of beautiful sleep stories by First Nations storytellers like Jazz Money and Aurora Liddle-Christie. Bringing tens of thousands of years of oral tradition into the digital world, Dreamy is “helping people of all walks of life to quiet their minds, drift into dreams, and disconnect from their devices”.
I also found Sleep Stories on the Calm app ($14.99 a month). It’s full of grown-up tales and mindful nonsense to soothe or bore you into slumber. There are even equally terrible and amazing celebrity cameos: Matthew McConaughey, Cillian Murphy and the hot duke from Bridgerton will read to you like you’re a child. Last night Harry Styles read me the worst poem I’ve ever heard – for 40 minutes. Five stars. Would listen again.
The Resilience Project
Price: $4.49 one time fee
The Resilience Project app is a “daily wellbeing journal” for all ages from a Melbourne-based organisation of the same name, providing evidence-based mental health strategies and “sharing the benefits of gratitude, empathy and mindfulness” to schools, sports clubs and businesses.
Users are encouraged to log on every day, note how they feel, record who or what they’re grateful for, perform acts of kindness and do a short guided meditation. This nice daily ritual only takes a few minutes but proves a small antidote to the current news cycle.
I don’t see myself using it long-term, because of repetitiveness and the world’s shortest attention span, but during this lockdown I’ve appreciated the nightly reminder to acknowledge my blessings and privilege and to reach out to friends.
Though it can’t do the heavy lifting where mental health is concerned, I’ll put it in my arsenal of chronic depression coping mechanisms, and try to use it in bad times. It won’t soothe what only drugs and Great British Bake Off can, but it might provide a few minutes respite.
Cost: $40 a month
The Class is an American exercise methodology-slash-mindfulness practice with semi-cult vibes, taught by a host of ridiculously hot and relentlessly cool twentysomethings who can pull off white Lycra and blend in on aGirlsset.
In fortuitous timing, founder Taryn Toomey launched online classes in late 2019, taking the Class into locked down homes around the world from 2020. Australians can access a wide selection of on-demand and live online classes, and there’s even an Australian teacher. Timezone differences narrow live options quite a bit, but most live classes become on-demand classes, so it doesn’t really matter.
Frequented by celebrities including Alicia Keys, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone, the Class is a mat-based, music-driven “cathartic workout experience” designed to “strengthen the body and balance the mind”. It’s yoga meets Les Mills meets clubbing. Movements are simple, repetition is key and loud exhales are encouraged. You may do squats for a whole song, free dance for another and star jumps for the next. In between, there’s stillness.
Teachers speak a kind of motivational psychobabble that is at once intolerable and addictive. It verges on the spiritual and flirts with cultural appropriation but remains just secular enough that I don’t turn it off. “Be in your power”; “You are enough”; “Softness is your birthright” and so on. Many teachers end their sessions with “I love you” which I somehow don’t hate.
At first, I struggled to put aside my prejudices against self-indulgent, pseudo-mystical wellness fads and find peace with beautiful women telling me to accept myself while making me do burpees. But the more I did it, the more I was able to just let go and roll with the theatre. Plus, it’s actually a very good workout.
I am now willingly paying for the Class. Let’s never speak of this again. I love you.