Russians have long since thought of ways to cope with the frigid cold (think over-buttered bread and over-flowing shot glasses), but weathering the blistering heat is a newer challenge. Record temperatures across the country -- in the low nineties! -- might make Washingtonians trapped inside the beltway scoff, but for those more accustomed to donning fur coats than string bikinis, the high heat has brought out unusual (and not altogether admirable) behavior this summer.
Perhaps most alarming is the spike in drowning among summer sufferers desperate to escape the heat wave. In one July week alone, over two hundred Russians reportedly drowned -- deaths that are being chalked up to ill-advised drinking before diving. The summer-long toll would make any suburban lifeguard fall off his chair: 1,244 deaths in June, and 400 so far in July. (Moral of the story? One clear liquid at a time is best: sips of vodka or splashes of water, but never both.)
These numbers are troubling, but may not be all so surprising -- Russia typically reports five times the number of drowning deaths than the United States, regardless of thermometer readings. The real jaw-dropper of the summer made headlines last week, when a money-making project in southern Russia quickly went from cool to cruel to criminal. The story is another case of near-drowning, but this time the victim is one you wouldn't expect to find along the beachfront: a parasailing donkey. What's now being condemned as a flagrant case of animal cruelty began as an advertizing ploy. Several businessmen launched the donkey into the air in hopes that the unusual sight would lure prospective sunbathers to their private beach. The stunt instantly attracted attention -- just not the kind the beach-owners had in mind. The donkey, not surprisingly, didn't take to his new elevation, and instantly raised complaints (what some spectators described as "screaming"). Alarmed children below added their cries to the ruckus, and concerned swimmers (or at least those with un-clouded senses) did their best to rescue the tortured animal upon its landing.
Though "no one had the brains to call police" right away, the backlash in the days that followed has been unequivocal. The story was broadcast on Russian national TV, and investigations, a precursor to criminal charges, have been launched against the offending entrepreneurs.
Some say the stunt is merely another example of widespread Russian insensitivity toward animals. Even so, the verdict is out on these misguided businessmen: just a couple of real asses.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
Given how stubbornly Kim Jong-Il appears to be weathering his reportedly grave illness, you might think North Korean healthcare is more or less intact -- even the Dear Leader must get a boost from modern medicine. But a chilling report released today by Amnesty International is an all-too-clear reminder that the luxuries (or in this case, just the bare necessities) of royal treatment in Korea are a far cry from the horrors of everyday existence: based on the accounts of 40 North Korean defectors and health professionals, Amnesty investigators reveal just how backward the country's healthcare system truly is.
Drained of the most basic -- and most important -- resources (everything from pills to power), hospitals in North Korea are barely functional. Doctors make their rounds by candlelight, and patients endure major operations without even the mildest anesthesia. And that's only if the ailing can make it to a hospital in the first place: many patients must make many-hour treks to consult with their inept doctors -- appointments that invariably spell further trauma. One interviewee describes his harrowing amputation (anesthesia-free, of course):
Five medical assistants held my arms and legs down to keep me from moving. I was in so much pain that I screamed and eventually fainted from pain," said the man, identified only by his family name, Hwang. "I woke up one week later in a hospital bed.
Under North Korea's official health care program, all citizens are entitled to free medical treatment -- and state officials insist they truly receive it. Yet World Health Organization figures give the country a failing grade: North Korea spends less than one dollar per person per year on health -- a meager sum that makes it the world's worst performer. First-person accounts in the report only confirm this picture. According to one defector and former doctor:
People in North Korea don't bother going to the hospital if they don't have money because everyone knows that you have to pay for service and treatment.
Without the right bribes - cigarettes, alcohol, or just plain cash -- most Koreans don't stand a chance. In short, says the doctor: "If you don't have money, you die.''
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If you're someone who's kept up at night by apocalyptic fears, there are certain obvious questions you might worry over as you toss and turn: for example, will Armageddon be the work of malevolent extraterrestrials (think Independence Day) or of an equally nasty monster, global warming (a la Day After Tomorrow)? But of the many things that might trouble a doomsday worry-wart, what to eat at the end of the world probably wouldn't make the list. But as it turns out, planning for the apocalypse menu is already well underway-- and this isn't just another gourmet gimmick.
In 2008, world leaders gathered together to herald the opening of the so-called, "doomsday vault," a vast cache of seed samples built inside a remote Arctic mountain. The vault -- complete with four sets of locked doors, a 410 ft tunnel, and armed guards (see above) -- was designed with the ambitious goal of eventually housing a seed sample from every species of edible crop in the world. Seeds have been steadily accumulating ever since: already more than half of million of the estimated 4.5 million total have been tucked away in the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard.
The latest addition to the treasure chest arrived this week in the hands of improbable deliverymen: U.S. senators. Led by Benjamin Cardin, Democrat Senator from Maryland, the seven American delegates deposited an assortment of potent North American chili seeds inside the icy vault. The seeds -- which one expert admiringly praised for their "colorful names and histories" -- have long been protected as part of Native American tradition, but many fear that they may become the next victims in the worrisome trend of declining global crop diversity. Among the now-safe species are Wenk's Yellow Hots (a chameleon-like breed that changes color and flavor) and the San Juan Tsile (known for keeping diners on their toes: different peppers can be mild, medium, or hot -- and it's impossible to tell which is which).
So when the flood waters start rising and that nacho craving sets in, just head north.
Hakon Mosvold Larsen/AFP/Getty Images
If you think a day in the life of a British school kid is all about matching knee socks, "smart" ties, and a good dose of old-fashioned law and order (just think Professor McGonogall and those no-nonsense glasses) -- think again. Last year alone, 2,230 students were "permanently excluded" from school (a punishment that sounds worthy of Azkaban) for physically assaulting their teachers or classmates. In light of these statistics -- and increasing grumbling from the bruised and battered professors themselves -- schools minister Nick Gibb has proposed a four point plan to make British classrooms the decorous and disciplined places they once were (at least in our imaginations).
The proposal includes measures that would permit more knuckle-rapping and ruler-wielding in schools: the new standards would "encourag[e] teachers to make greater use of physical force to ‘maintain good order.'" As British law currently stands, there's nothing stopping fed-up teachers from (forcefully) putting know-it-alls back in line, "provided pupils are not injured." But, according to Gibb, teachers have grown wary of exercising their well-enshrined right to move beyond time-outs, fearful of lawsuits or even, as the harrowing saga of Peter Harvey persistently reminds them, the possibility of a life behind bars. (Harvey, on trial for lobbing a dumbbell at a student's head while shouting "die, die, die," was ultimately acquitted -- but not before prompting tirades from fellow teachers about the injustices of not being able to smack those ungrateful little brats.)
Gibb contends that the newly proposed standards -- which would also provide greater leeway to search students and grant accused teachers anonymity when under investigation -- will help to erode this atmosphere of fear by "removing red tape so that teachers can ensure discipline in the classroom and promote good behaviour." By his account, it's all just one big misunderstanding: students simply became too "aware of their rights." Once that confusion gets cleared up, it's only a matter of time before Snape-for-Principal posters start popping up....
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Germaphobic consumers can take heart here in the United States, where dollar bill circulation is fairly short-lived -- only about 20 months of wallet-hopping before the Federal Reserve pulls the plug , destroying on average about 7,000 tons of over-the-hill greenbacks each year. In Zimbabwe, however , where U.S bills are much preferred to the country's own collapsed currency, a day in the life of a dollar is not quite so hygienic. If you're thumbing through a wad of cash in Harare, chances are you won't be able to appreciate the satisfying sound or unmistakable scent of crisp, fresh-from-the-ATM bills: most U.S. bank notes continue changing hands in Zimbabwe for years on end, only slipping out of circulation once they've truly gone to pieces (when Scotch tape can no longer work its magic).
The delicacy of these "well-seasoned" bills isn't worst of Zimbabweans' concerns: their dirtiness is an even bigger problem. Indeed, among the country's poorest, underwear and shoes often serve as the most convenient "wallets." But Zimbabweans have found a simple way to combat the grime: they've started literally laundering their money. The most diligent cleaners recommend washing the flimsy bills by hand, then hanging them out to dry (bills are often pinned to clotheslines alongside more conventional linens). In a pinch, however, a time-saving machine wash will also do the trick. Experts do warn against giving bills high-class treatment: one trip to the drycleaner's and George Washington's face may well lose its authentic green pallor...
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If you're a not-so-diehard World Cup fan (read: ever since Landon Donovan dropped out of sight, you've stopped keeping track of the scores), this story ought to (re) pique your interest:
Eight percent of Russians believe their national team will win the World Cup, despite the fact that it never qualified for the tournament, an independent poll has showed.
Russian pride was shattered when its team was denied a place at the world's most-watched sporting event, currently underway in South Africa, when they were defeated by Slovenia in the qualifying stage.
The poll, conducted by Russia's Levada Center between the 18th and the 22nd of June, surveyed 1,600 Russian adults across 130 cities.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
On the tenth anniversary of Elian Gonzalez' famous return to Cuba, there's no telling how his Miami relatives are feeling: still ruing the day they let the five-year-old slip through their grasp, or counting their blessings that this week's grocery list need not accommodate a teenage boy's appetite? Ninety miles south, however, there's no trace of ambivalence: in Havana, just about everyone is hailing the day Elian made it back to the island. At a celebration this week to commemorate Gonzalez's homecoming, the 16-year-old guest of honor got the best seat in the house: the one right next to President Raul Castro.
The Cuban government has studiously avoided inflating Gonzalez's star-powered profile on the island, but for all his apparent normalcy (his demure interactions with reporters suggest he's your typical shy adolescent), he appears to have developed an unusual repartee with the country's head honchos. In a 2005 interview, he described then-President Fidel Castro as his "friend" and "father" (which would make him part of the same extended family tree as Hugo Chavez), and he received an approving pat on the back from the Comandante's brother at this week's event.
Gonzalez may be a model patriot -- a communist party devotee since age 14 and a recent military cadet -- but above all he's a model teenager: according to state news agency reports, he "enjoys music, is a partygoer, although not a good dancer, who spends hours in front of the computer or weightlifting with his friends." And if two left feet are the only lingering side effects of being stranded in shark-infested waters, then there might be good reason to celebrate after all...
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As foreign moles in suburban America, the "Murphy's" of Montclair -- two of the recently exposed Russian "illegals" (read: spies with boring long-term assignments) -- were charged with the difficult task of acting less Russian. Meanwhile, back in Moscow, migrant workers have been forced to take on precisely the opposite challenge: acting more Russian.
Ire toward foreign arrivals in Moscow is nothing new (double-digit murders of foreigners are standard each year in the capital city), but the recent proposal of a "Muscovite Code," a set of measures designed to encourage cultural assimilation, highlights just how intense the pressure to conform truly is. The rules, to be developed by city officials with input from local residents, would outline the "dos and don'ts" of traditional Russian culture; everything from speaking Russian-only in public (a do) to turnstile-hopping "like goats" (a don't). Supporters of the new measure note that these rules would not be mandatory, but would instead serve as a helpful resource for foreigners unfamiliar with the city's unspoken code of conduct. As Mikhail Solomentsev, head of the Moscow city government's Department for Inter-Regional Communications and Regional Policies explained:
"At the moment, there are unwritten rules that residents of our city have to adhere to... For instance, people shouldn't slaughter sheep in a courtyard, make shashlyk on their balcony or walk around the city in their national dress - and they should speak Russian."
Many, however, don't consider the proposal quite so benign. The new rules, they say, are simply one more way to reinforce Moscow's already entrenched culture of xenophobia. Of course, after Monday's revelations, Moscow officials might be wise to consider another (unintended) use of the Code: a how-to guide for "illegals" doing their best to blend in...
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