In a move towards great transparency and accountability, the Kremlin yesterday released figures detailing a recent order of new furniture. It sounds simple enough but, as is usually the case with Russian politics, it quickly became the stuff of legends -- or at least, Aesop's fables. The total value of the interior ministry's furniture tender, it appeared, was $755,900 (24.4 million roubles) and included a cherry wood bed with head and footboards coated in a thin layer of 24 carat gold. Though other items will be delivered to an address in the exclusive dacha district on the outskirts of Moscow where many senior officials live in state-owned homes, the gilded bed will be sent to the ministry headquarters.
Unsurprisingly, the news has received much criticism in a country where the economy shrank 10.9 percent in the last quarter. I think the question praying on all our minds is: who's going to be sleeping in the gold bed?
Good news for cash-strapped Londoners: If you happen to catch a stealth hand reaching for your purse, it doesn't necessarily mean you're being robbed; it could be a ‘putpocket' instead.
A new scheme by British broadband provider TalkTalk is giving away £100,000 by slipping it into, rather than out of, the pockets of unsuspecting passers-by. By recruiting a team of 20 highly skilled former pickpockets to sneak between £5 and £20 notes into unguarded bags across the city, the company hopes to brighten up people's lives in unusual ways. The initiative will run until the end of August in London before the ‘putpockets' venture out to the rest of the country.
Said Chris Fitch, a reformed pickpocket who now heads the project:
It feels good to give something back for a change -- and Britons certainly need it in the current economic climate. Every time I put money back in someone's pocket, I feel less guilty about the fact I spent many years taking it out.
Three months after this year's Eurovision Song Contest, an unconfirmed number of Azerbaijanis who voted for the Armenian entry have been brought in for questioning by the police. One man said he was accused of being unpatriotic and a "potential security threat." Authorities said people were simply invited to explain their voting choices.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have a history of strained relations, largely over territorial claims that remain unresolved. Last November, leaders of the neighboring countries pledged to find a political solution to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, over which the two fought in the 1990s. Little progress, however, seems to have been made since.
Broadcast live every May since its inaugural telecast in 1956, Eurovision is today a cultural institution, and the epitome of Kunderian kitsch. Despite the organizers' aspirations for an apolitical competition, historic undercurrents inevitably surface on screen. Habitual incidences of bloc voting occur, and in March Georgia's entry "We Don't Wanna Put In" was banned for its thinly-veiled reference to the Russian prime minister.
In Azerbaijan, 43 people are believed to have voted for Armenia's entry "Jan Jan," pictured above.
Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images
A new proposal in Australia plans to slaughter thousands of camels that are wrecking havoc in the outback.
First introduced to the country in the 1840s to help explorers traverse the harsh deserts, feral camels now number more than one million, with a population that doubles in size every nine years. The herds roam unchecked through much of central and western Australia, destroying sacred indigenous sites and fragile ecosystems alike. Traveling in large, intimidating packs, they compete with livestock for food, trample vegetation and ravage residents' homes in search of food and water.
Last month the federal government set aside $15.6 million dollars for a "camel reduction program" that needs to drastically reduce the population down to at least a third of its present size to avoid "catastrophic damage". So far the most practical strategy seems to be a cull, with sharpshooters in helicopters firing on large groups -- an "actually quite humane" plan, according to some. This is good news for certain farmers, who are looking to expand the market for camel meat, reportedly an excellent source of low cholesterol protein. Alternative suggestions, including exporting the camels or instituting a mass sterilization policy, are thought of as unfeasible given the animals' enormous size and aggressiveness.
Unsurprisingly, animal welfare activists are deeply disturbed by the proposals, but criticism for the government is also coming from an unexpected outlet: the foreign media. American broadcaster CNBC referred to the plans as "camelcide" and dubbed Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd a "serial killer." Similarly, hosts of a program on China's Central TV are calling the government out for its "massacre...of innocent lives."
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Spanish Health Minister Trinidad Jimenez launched a new
health campaign with recommendations to guard against the spread of swine
flu by encouraging people to wash hands frequently, avoid sharing glasses and
to refrain from kissing where possible. But just moments before she made her
statement, the minister was caught kissing news conference assistants twice on
the cheek. Though a common social custom, local media wasted no time in
capturing the irony, as weekend papers splashed pictures of Jimenez failing to
practice what she preached. To date, Spain has accredited 11
deaths to the virus, giving it the second highest fatality rate in Europe.
PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images
It seems the most comment-worthy aspect of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Cape Verde last Friday was neither her meeting with Prime Minister José Maria Neves nor the praise she heaped on the government as a "model of democracy and economic progress in Africa." It was her headband.
In a rare nod to her stylings as first lady, Clinton sported a beloved accessory that's been missing on the political scene for more than a decade -- with good reason. Please, please send it back to wherever it came from. Headbands don't suit anyone over the age of eight, least of all a secretary of state who's trying desperately to be taken seriously.
I'm sure she was fighting some frizz after her grueling, 11-day, seven-nation tour of Africa last week, but that's really no excuse.
As far as executive tributes go, Australia's latest ranks pretty low.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke today in fond memory of Sam the koala, who died in surgery six months after she was rescued from the country's worst wildfires and became an international "symbol of hope."
The four-year-old koala suffered second- and third- degree burns on her paws in the February fires across southern Australia that killed 200 people, destroyed 1,800 homes and devastated more than 1,500 square miles of land. A video of Sam's rescue by a volunteer firefighter made celebrities of them both. But during a risky operation to remove life-threatening cysts associated with urogenital chlamydiosis, which affects more than half of Australia's koala population, the disease was determined to be far too advanced and Sam was, sadly, euthanized.
To all those who question Australia's political relevance, Rudd retorts:
The symbol of hope for so many people around the world was the great picture of that wonderful koala being fed water by one of our firefighters. And I think that gave people of the world a great sense that this country, Australia, could come through those fire -- as we have, and Sam the koala was part of the symbolism of that and it's tragic that Sam the koala is no longer with us.
Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty images
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