Global News Blog
Thomas Frank is something of an old-school, lunch-pails-and-union-halls liberal – at least as intellectuals go. So Chicago in the 1980s was his kind of town. In an essay in Harper’s Magazine, Mr. Frank recalls a city struggling with the end of a great industrial era: “The ruins that surrounded you on the South Side were the relics of a civilization that had built great things, that had made the world go.”
Now elite Chicago’s embrace of its working-class roots is strictly ironic. Frank sits at a trendy restaurant over “a winking parody of the Chicago-style hot dog: an assembly of sliced-up steak, ‘hot dog bun puree,’ ‘housemade pickles,’ a mustard-flavored wafer, and so on.” His lament: “In Chicago’s strangely tidy streets, the rest of the nation can get a glimpse of the future: a city that works – for a few.”
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Cheer up, America, you still rule
The voice of The Economist is almost a throwback to an era when it felt like the grown-ups were in charge. (Of course, The Economist would observe that we’re only remembering it that way.) In the lead-off piece of a special report on American foreign policy, the magazine in effect tells America to quit moping and pull its socks up.
There are plenty of concerns, failures, and new rivals on many fronts, yes. The Economist is especially critical of the venture in Iraq led by George W. Bush. But it argues that Americans are too busy contemplating their own decline to stand up and notice that they still rule the world, and the world still needs that leadership. So stop with the whining jeremiads. “It is time to cheer up. The world America faces today may seem cussed and intractable, but the world America looked forward to shaping after the fall of the Soviet Union was never as pliant and welcoming as it imagined. And America’s strengths are as impressive as ever. On every measure of power it remains dominant.”
Chaotic on the surface, stable beneath
Ah, but it shall ever be thus, explains David Runciman in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “The history of modern democracy is a tale of steady success accompanied by the constant drumbeat of anticipated failure,” he writes. A political scientist at the University of Cambridge, Professor Runciman cites the history of democracies lurching “from complacency to fury and back again,” swinging from “unwarranted optimism” to “unwarranted pessimism” with little room for voices in between.
The first to notice this was – who else? – Alexis de Tocqueville, who in 1831 was “immediately struck by the frenetic and mindless quality of democratic politics.” But beneath the constant grumbling, rancor, and occasional panics of American democracy, Tocqueville noticed something else: “that underneath the chaotic surface, it was quite stable.”
Native survival in the Amazon
Prospects are fairly dim for the Awá people of the Brazilian Amazon. Alex Shoumatoff, writing in Vanity Fair, describes his 10 days visiting what he describes as the most endangered tribe on the planet. Only some 350 members remain. Not enough, Mr. Shoumatoff points out, “to take on the madeireiros, the loggers who are killing their trees and their animals and are now within a few miles of here, and the thousands of other invasores who have illegally settled on their land and converted a third of their forest to pasture.”
He is greeted by an impassioned speech by an Awá father. “ ‘We are Awá,’ he says. ‘We don’t succeed in living with chickens and cows. We don’t want to live in cities. We want to live here.... We don’t want anything from the whites but to live as we live and be who we are. We just want to be Awá.’ ”
Shoumatoff writes: “I think of all the speeches like this given by brave natives in the Americas over the last 500 years, who were trying to save their people and way of life and world but were unable to stop the inevitable, brutal advance of the conqueror and his ‘progress,’ and how this is probably what is going to happen here, to this remnant tribe in its endgame.”
A private-sector military
The rise and fall of Blackwater, the private security firm that rode the Iraq war to fame and fortune and then back down again, is chronicled by Drake Bennett in Bloomberg Businessweek – mainly from the vantage point of Blackwater founder Erik Prince.
A former Navy SEAL, Mr. Prince founded a training facility in North Carolina. When the Iraq war broke out, he tapped a network of fellow special forces veterans to quickly put together security teams for the US government. He credited his company’s explosive growth to the nimble agility that is the advantage of the private sector over the rigid bureaucracies of the official military.
The flip side of that virtue is that some critics blame Blackwater’s mistakes on poor training and preparation. Prince blames, above all, the self-protective State Department. “If I could send a message back to my younger self, it would be: Do not work for the State Department at all.”
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- A roundup of daily news reports.
Hundreds of migrant workers rioted in Singapore’s ethnic Indian district Sunday, torching vehicles and hurling rocks at advancing police forces. While the unrest was swiftly subdued, it shocked this orderly city-state and sparked concern that ethnic and class tensions may be coming to a head amid widening income inequality.
The clash was sparked by the death of a 33-year-old Indian guest worker, who was hit by a city bus driven by a Singaporean, Bloomberg reported. Shortly afterward, a swelling crowd went on a rampage in the Little India neighborhood, a popular destination for South Asian workers on Sundays to eat, drink, and socialize.
A crowd of about 400 foreign workers, angered by a fatal road accident, set fire to vehicles and attacked police and emergency services workers late Sunday in Singapore's ethnic Indian district, injuring at least 18 people in a rare riot in the city-state.
…Dozens of police officers, wearing Kevlar helmets and carrying riot shields, [were] cordoning off the area late Sunday. At least two police cars were turned on their sides, and smoke rose from burned-out vehicles along the road where the riot took place.
The Wall Street Journal reports that riot police were able to contain the violence within two hours, and without firing any shots, according to a subsequent police press briefing.
Its modest size notwithstanding, the riot carried heavy implications for Singapore’s social cohesion, throwing in sharp relief the simmering tensions between ethnic Singaporeans and many thousands of migrant workers who form the backbone of the economy. Singapore’s economic boom over the past two decades swelled the ranks of low-paid, transient wage earners, whose numbers soared from 10 percent of the total workforce in 1990 to about 25 percent today, The Associated Press reports.
For some of Singapore’s long-time residents, the violence carried distant echoes of a racially charged riot that shook Singapore for seven days almost 45 years ago, in 1969, when clashes between the ethnic Chinese majority and Malay minority left at least four people dead and 80 injured.
The current riot was “a new thing, that’s definitely a watershed of a kind,” Bilveer Singh, an associate professor at National University of Singapore’s department of political science, told Bloomberg. “At a broad, strategic level, it is something new after a long time.”
The government’s reaction is likely to be stern, Mr. Singh predicted: “Singaporeans won’t tolerate this because Singaporeans are becoming very nationalistic.”
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday that authorities will “spare no effort to identify the culprits and deal with them with the full force of the law," according to Al Jazeera. As of Monday, 27 people were detained for their role in the violence, 24 of them Indian citizens.
It remains to be seen if the potential clampdown quells or further fuels the discontent.
Roy Ngerng, a blogger focused on social issues, said that last night’s clash might be just the first eruption of festering unease, unless the living and working conditions of transient workers improve, according to The Associated Press:
"The inequality that has taken root in Singapore has dire consequences and they are beginning to show. … Perhaps, it is to be expected that when we pay such (a) pittance … to people who have helped build our country – our buildings and roads – and yet expect them to toil in the most tiresome conditions."
I love this time of year.
Not for the onset of winter weather, seasonal decorations, and seasonal cheer. Nor for the time off around the holidays. Not even for the opportunity for material indulgence via a blitz of shopping bargains.
No, I love this time of year because it means the arrival of Black Pete, Krampus, and a host of other unique European seasonal traditions that are closely tied to the traditional Santa Claus, but never crossed the pond into the modern American concept of "Christmas."
And though they share the same heritage with the modern Santa Claus – all are rooted in St. Nicholas, the European saint – they present fascinatingly different ways to view current American custom. And they even suggest that those concerned over maintaining a "traditional Christmas" may not truly grasp what that idea really means.
Consider, for example, the Netherlands' "Zwarte Piet" – or in English, "Black Pete" – the assistant/servant of Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa. Pete has been a seasonal companion of St. Nicholas since the 18th century, and is beloved by many Dutch as a piece of national folklore. But for many foreigners – and an increasing number of the Dutch – it's hard to overlook a key fact of the tradition: Pete is usually portrayed by whites in curly wigs and blackface, and bears a striking resemblance to classic racist caricatures of black slaves.
The argument over whether Black Pete is a hurtful stereotype or harmless Dutch folklore has been going on a long time. Indeed, the debate is now almost as much a tradition as Black Pete himself. This year, the Monitor's Peter Teffer reports that even the UN is getting involved, as the head of a group working for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called the character "offensive" and said Black Pete should be retired. At the same time, a Facebook page supporting Black Pete has garnered over 2 million likes.
A demon in the Alps
By contrast, the companion to St. Nicholas who is part of an Alpine tradition is far less controversial than Black Pete, despite the fact that this companion, Krampus, is indeed enslaved by the saint. But in this case, the slavery is not so concerning. You see, Krampus is a black, hairy, rod- and chain-wielding demon.
You may have heard of Krampus – who is also called Klaubauf, Pelzebock, Schmutzli, and a host of other names across the Alpine region. Once a foe to St. Nicholas until the saint conquered and shackled him, the tamed Krampus accompanies St. Nicholas during the saint's feast day, Dec. 6, and doles out switches and punishment as St. Nick gives out candy and presents. He's the scary heavy that keeps children in line, basically.
But he's become something of a celebrity in recent years. As the Monitor's Valentina Jovanovski notes, Krampus chocolates and figurines are very common now. "Krampus runs," wherein people dress up as the monster to scare onlookers, are becoming serious tourist attractions (and supply no small number of YouTube videos) – some 35,000 attended such a run on Dec. 1 in Graz, Austria. Heck, Krampus has even made appearances on US television, including on The Colbert Report.
And as the once obscure Christmas demon becomes a marketable commodity worldwide, a question arises: Is Krampus becoming too commercial?
Of course, much of the reason characters like Krampus and Black Pete are so fascinating is because they didn't make the jump into American Christmas culture, and thus seem – quite literally – very foreign.
But most of the traditions celebrated this season in the US are of similarly foreign heritage, and actually have little bearing at all on Christmas in its Christian sense. Christmas trees? From Germany. Caroling? England. Yule logs? Norway. St. Nicholas, who became Santa, the quintessential modern Christmas figure? He's a Turk.
You'll be able to read more about such traditions – and how they cast a different light on concerns about the "War on Christmas," a controversy almost as traditional as Black Pete – in the coming days. Sara Llana, the Monitor's Paris bureau chief, is currently in Germany's Black Forest, researching the subject for a story set to be published at the end of next week.
Assuming that Krampus doesn't get her first.
It could almost be a plot line from a story by surrealist 19th century Russian author Nikolai Gogol.
Visitors to Red Square in the past few days have found themselves confronted by a giant Louis Vuitton trunk, seemingly perfect in every detail and so big that it dominates Moscow's most iconic space and almost blots out other familiar features such as Lenin's tomb, St. Basil's cathedral, and the Spassky Tower.
And, like the bizarre oddities that crop up in Mr. Gogol's slightly absurd but profoundly perceptive tales, like The Nose and The Overcoat, the trunk has already prompted a great deal of consternation, confusion, indignation, and controversy.
The huge structure – some 100 feet long and 30 feet tall – is actually a replica of a Louis Vuitton trunk supplied a century ago to Russian Prince Vladimir Orlov, a member of the Czar's family. It's meant to house an exhibition of Vuitton luggage down through the ages that will run for most of December and January. Vuitton has a shop in Red Square's famous GUM department store, but no one is quite sure who authorized it to build the giant pavilion.
"Red Square is the sacred heart of the Russian state. There are some symbols that should not be trivialized or besmirched," raged Communist Party parliamentarian Sergei Obukhov, according to Russian news media.
"I am amazed that the presidential administration and the Federal Guard Service, both of which control the territory of Red Square, have permitted this outlandish display," Mr. Obukhov said.
Alexander Sidyakin, a Duma deputy with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, says he's lodged a complaint with Russia's anti-trust watchdog, asking it to look into whether the gargantuan suitcase violates legislation limiting the size and location of advertisements.
"This surely violates the law on advertising. It's definitely contrary to all our understandings of what is possible, and what is not, on the territory of Red Square," Mr. Sidyakin says.
"Just think, this box is supposed to sit there on Red Square until mid-January! People will come for traditional New Year celebrations, and they won't be able to see St. Basil's or the Spassky Tower because this enormous suitcase is squatting there, blocking out everything.... Also, this brand is a symbol of luxury. They really should have placed it somewhere else, if they had to build it. Not here, not now, and not for such a long time," he says.
Some Russian bloggers have already started having fun with the situation. One photoshopped image that's showing up on Russian social media – and is sure to infuriate Russia's still-numerous communists – shows Louis Vuitton's iconic livery cleverly transposed onto the mausoleum of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.
Louis Vuitton is promoting the upcoming exhibit as "a reflection of peoples' lives, their physical and poetic journeys."
But the company has yet to officially respond to the controversy their humongous trunk has set off among Muscovites.
The journalist Tom Wolfe once declared the novel dead, a decade or two before he himself turned to writing novels. Now we face the prospect of the book itself disappearing. Jacob Mikanowski, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, sums it up this way: “It used to be possible to imagine books disappearing in the distant future. Now it feels like even money that it’s going to happen within our lifetimes.”
So Mr. Mikanowski takes an erudite tour of the history and meaning of the book in its physical, ink on paper, manifestation. One of his interesting stops is perhaps the greatest tragedy to befall the world of literature and learning: the destruction of the great library of Alexandria. Was it burned by one of Julius Caesar’s generals while the emperor courted Cleopatra? Or Caliph Umar many centuries later who, needing only the Quran, burned the other books to heat the public baths? Or the Christian Archbishop Theophilus as historian Edward Gibbon argued? Or the more trendy suspect Queen Zenobia of Palmyra? All these
possibilities have advocates and evidence – and counterevidence, says Mikanowski. He asserts another, less glamorous, culprit: sheer neglect.
“Alexandria is a port city; papyrus, exposed to its sea air, will only last a little over a hundred years. As the centuries passed, the Ptolemys’ 500,000 scrolls simply wore away and vanished into dust.”
Learning to write on social media
As for writing itself, the rise of social media may actually have benefits. Andrew Simmons, writing for TheAtlantic.com, is a high school teacher who reads more than a thousand student essays a year. He acknowledges that the digital-native generation is eroding the conventions of writing structure – from complete sentences to the use of paragraphs. Not good. But he also points to progress that he views as more basic and more important: “self-reflection and emotional honesty. For younger high school boys particularly, social networking has actually improved writing – not the product or the process, but the sensitivity and inward focus required to even begin to produce a draft that will eventually be worth editing.”
A ride in a driverless car
One young Google engineer, Anthony Levandowski, commutes nearly two hours each way in his Lexus while rarely, if ever, putting his hands on the wheel. Burkhard Bilger rides with him for a long takeout in The New Yorker on the effort to make self-driving cars the market standard. That dream may still be a decade off, more for legal and liability reasons than technical ones. “The Google car drives more defensively than people do: it tailgates five times less, rarely coming within two seconds of the car ahead. Under the circumstances, Levandowski says, our fear of driverless cars is increasingly irrational. ‘Once you make the car better than the driver, it’s almost irresponsible to have him there,’ he says.”
Robert Twigger was traveling with Bedouins in western Egypt. “When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea....” Writing in Aeon magazine, Mr. Twigger uses the experience to launch an argument against the overspecialization that the modern economy seems to demand. The polymath, he counters, with broader interests and wider knowledge, is the source of most innovation. To come up with new ideas, “you need to know things outside your field. What’s more, the further afield your knowledge extends, the greater potential you have for innovation.”
A contagion of good works
When a tragic mass shooting took the lives of several volunteer firefighters in the town of Webster, N.Y., on Christmas Eve last year, a man in Missouri, who had done some social media work for the Red Cross, set up a Facebook page in support of the victims. But it was after he turned the site to the specific purpose of arranging free room and board for the legions of fellow firefighters who he knew would descend on Webster for the memorials that the site really took off.
Mark Obbie, writing in the magazine Pacific Standard, tells the story of what happened then. Two women in Webster volunteered to help organize the effort. The Facebook page’s “shares” and “likes” rose to around 2 million. The nature of the comments turned from grief, anger, and gun-control debates to “How can we help?” Local businesses and residents flooded the operations with free rooms and food and more than $700,000 in cash.
“But the money was only part of the story,” Mr. Obbie writes. “For days, a contagion of good works coursed through Webster. Neighbors’ snowy sidewalks got shoveled. Strangers’ breakfasts got bought. At drive-through windows, customers insisted on paying for the car behind them, in some cases leading to hours-long chain reactions.”
Obbie’s point in this article is not just a heartwarming anecdote. It’s to note the growing evidence that trauma can, and for many does, lead to lasting growth.
“In numerous studies canvassing a great variety of traumas, researchers have found that many people, when confronted by events powerful enough to shake their core sense of the world, do indeed gain from the ordeal.”
- A roundup of global news reports
As rescue workers searched the rubble for survivors after a supermarket roof collapsed on Thursday in Latvian capital Riga, leaving at least 47 people dead, questions began to swirl about whether and how the tragedy could have been avoided.
The news closely followed a similar, though far less deadly, collapse of an unfinished shopping mall in South Africa this week. Both events underscore the risk posed in public spaces as a result of allegedly shoddy construction. In both countries, the tragedies may also have political implications.
The collapse in Riga is still under investigation, reports The Associated Press. It happened around 6 pm, when residents of a densely populated suburban neighborhood crowded the store on their way home from work. At least three firefighters died after the second part of the supermarket roof gave way, just as they were rushing to help people trapped inside.
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Paul Tribble, a British citizen who lives in Riga, told the BBC that he was grocery shopping in the supermarket when the roof caved in and a falling isle knocked him to the ground. He and his partner Elizabeth, who was also at the store, managed to escape nearly unscathed through the loading bay exit. His account gives a glimpse of how crowded the suburban supermarket was during the evening rush:
When we came out into the loading bay there were hundreds of other people out there too. […] The store would have been packed when we were inside. When we arrived there were no trolleys or shopping baskets left and I had to go to the checkout and ask for one that another customer had just finished unloading.
A full day later, rescue crews continued to search the rubble for people trapped inside. The “enormous” section of the collapsed roof may have measured 5,300 square feet, reports the Associated Press.
Rescue workers kept up their round-the-clock search for possible survivors as darkness fell on Friday, periodically turning off all equipment and asking the relatives of missing people to call so they could pinpoint ringing phones.
While the official cause remained under investigation, one hypothesis is that a sodden winter garden on the roof of the building contributed to the collapse. Stacked above the store were building materials, earth, and sand for building the garden, a load possibly made heavier by water trapped on the roof after several days of rain.
On his way out from the collapsed building, Mr. Tribble noticed “torrents of water coming down” from the gaping hole above. “I can only think it had no way to drain," he told the BBC.
The tragedy in Riga comes on the heels of an incident in the South African city of Durban, where a soon-to-be-opened shopping center collapsed on Tuesday, trapping several dozen construction workers under the rubble and killing one. The cause is under investigation, Reuters reports. Construction practices and safety procedures were instantly called into question.
If there is one commonality between the two incidents, it’s that faulty construction and maintenance practices that put people at risk in public spaces may carry far-ranging political implications. The tragedy in Riga “is a blow for Latvia," writes The Wall Street Journal, "coming little more than a month before the former Soviet state is set to join the euro zone.” The Latvian prime minister confirmed that a criminal investigation had been launched. What it manages to uncover on the local level of a Riga suburb may have repercussions much higher up.
Similarly in South Africa, the ongoing probe into the accident may undermine the country’s governing political party, says a Reuters report from this Wednesday:
If safety regulations are found to have been flouted, the accident could damage [South Africa’s] ruling African National Congress (ANC) as it moves toward an election next year because of widespread perceptions of incompetence and corruption in local government.
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Could a small patch of dirt off the shoulder of one of Jakarta's busiest thoroughfares help to roll back decades of traffic mismanagement?
On that patch a consortium of city contractors broke ground Oct. 10 on the Indonesian capital’s first commuter rail line, 24 years after a metro system was first mooted. The new metro line would connect government buildings, a long-distance railway station, shopping malls, and office towers, a surefire way of cooling tempers in this city of haggard drivers.
“Actually this is our dream after 24 years. The metro will be faster. In Jakarta the traffic is so bad and you cannot predict it,” says Durrotun Nafasi, sales director with the All Seasons Jakarta, a 167-room hotel along the first planned line. “This is good for occupancy. Metro riders can also use our food bar while waiting [for trains].”
Planning the metro line took so long in part because the city scrapped a build-operate-transfer scheme after the 1997 Asian financial crisis wrecked Indonesia's economy. City officials switched later to a government-run project, which faced funding disputes and other bureaucratic holdups, dashing hopes of a quick turnaround.
City leaders expect the metro to ease a glut of cars that have tracked the rise of an urban middle class in Indonesia. Economic growth has averaged 5.9 percent over the last five full years, according to the World Bank. Jakarta's metro area has over 20 million inhabitants and sprawls for miles in all directions.
Jakarta’s jams, hardly a factor 20 years ago, rival those in Bangkok and Beijing. Slow traffic costs 12.8 trillion rupiah ($1.17 billion) per year in lost time, fuel, and health problems, according to a 2005 study by an Indonesian energy research firm. The study said Jakarta would be “totally jammed” by 2020 without more mass transit.
Cars, vans, and light trucks pack the streets so thickly that during rush hours that people stand in the roads taking change to direct vehicles. Experienced drivers learn elaborate webs of side streets to avoid pileups. Those with money hire chauffeurs and use their mobile phones or tablets while in traffic.
“In terms of efficiency, you can’t do too many things in traffic,” says office worker Meyna Tanzil. “You lose a lot of time on the road. The most I can do is two meetings a day if they’re outside the office.”
Ms. Tanzil commutes for one hour round trip, compared to six for some suburbanites. But she gripes that her apartment complex lacks spaces for everyone’s car, creating a de facto “curfew” after which drivers must park on the street. Latecomers must be early risers to avoid parking tickets, she adds.
“From my home, work is 45 minutes away,” says Jakarta commuter Ade Abdullah, a personnel training manager with a consumer electronics store. “I ride a bicycle, because in a car it would take longer.”
Residents can start using the metro in 2016, if all goes according to plan, with more stations planned to be built after that. The system known as the Jakarta MRT will cost $1.5 billion and handle as many as 173,000 passengers a day.
A roundup of global news reports
In a dramatic easing of its hardline stance, Russian courts granted bail this week to nineteen of the thirty Greenpeace crew members detained since September for a protest outside a Russian oil rig in the Arctic. Seven activists received the good news today, joining others who appeared in court on Monday and Tuesday, while another twelve are still awaiting custody hearings. So far, only one detainee has been set free.
The rulings follow weeks of intensifying international pressure on Moscow to free the group of 28 activists and two journalists, known as the 'Arctic 30'. Russia wants to polish its global image in the countdown to February’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. This week’s positive developments notwithstanding, the crew members remain in legal limbo in Russia.
The first […] walked free on bail on Wednesday, brandishing a sheet with the words "Free the Arctic" written on it.
Brazilian Ana Paula […] smiled as she left a detention center in St Petersburg. Asked how she felt, she said simply "happy" before being driven off by a Greenpeace representative.
The rulings were welcomed by observers as a change of heart, after previous bail requests were rejected. The crew of the Arctic Sunrise has become an international cause célèbre, and the case is a source of embarrassment for Moscow in the midst of its Olympic preparations. Foreign government officials and global celebrities from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to musician Paul McCartney have taken up the campaign on their behalf, and two weeks ago the Netherlands petitioned the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to order Moscow to let the detainees go free.
Russia has slowly dialed down the pressure on the activists, reducing their charges from piracy to hooliganism and moving them from the Arctic city of Murmansk to St. Petersburg.
But although this week’s decisions were greeted with jubilation by activists and their supporters, the Arctic 30 aren’t out of the Russian legal woods yet. For now, they remain very much in the Kremlin’s grip. Their charges remain in place, their passports had been confiscated, and they may not be able to leave the country, Reuters reported.
And, inexplicably, one bail request, from a 59-year-old Australian activist Colin Russell, was denied on Monday, The Guardian reported. He will now have to remain in detention until February 24, the day after the Olympics end. The Telegraph added more details from the Wednesday courtroom scene:
The charges of hooliganism remain in force, however, and the bailed defendants could still potentially spend “a long time” waiting for the case to be resolved, [activist Alexandra] Harris’ lawyer Natalia Belousova said outside the court room.
“The good news comes with a warning” Greenpeace head Kumi Nando said, according to the organization’s official statement:
We still have no idea what conditions our friends will endure when they are released from jail, whether they will be held under house arrest or even allowed outside. What we do know for certain is that they are still charged and could spend years behind bars.
For now, the international focus on Sochi appears to have changed the Kremlin's stance. “International pressure is the scariest concept for Putin,” Stanislav Belkovsky, director of the Moscow-based National Strategy Institute told the Moscow Times, an English-language daily. “Putin wants to show everyone that he himself released the activists out of his greatness and goodwill, and that he is not moved by external pressure.”
“Without Sochi, there would have been no release,” he said.
- A roundup of global news
An Australian university student was hardly angling for global fame as a wordsmith when he took a boozy nosedive during a friend’s birthday bash 11 years ago. But the word he coined for the self-taken snapshot documenting the result of his fall has today won the crown as the Oxford Dictionaries international word of the year for 2013.
That word is “selfie,” and Oxford defines it as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”
That’s exactly what the Australian university student did in September 2002. While recovering from his hospital visit, he pointed a phone camera at the wounded bottom half of his face and took a picture. Then he logged in to Australia’s ABC forum under the username “Hopey” and uploaded it for the world to see.
“Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps,” he said in a now famous post. “I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”
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And that, according to the Oxford Dictionaries’ announcement, marked the word’s earliest recorded usage. The real person behind “Hopey” has yet to claim the limelight, and Australian media have already launched a search for him.
The term was slow to take off, the Oxford Dictionaries said. It popped up again on an Australian personal blog in 2003, then flickered in and out of discussions on social media sites like Flikr and MySpace. And then its usage shot through the stratosphere, rising by 17,000 percent in 2013 as it came to define cultural phenomena, from political scandals to debates about the modern era’s egotistical obsession with self-image.
This made selfie the “runaway winner” for 2013, Oxford Dictionaries’ statement said:
The decision was unanimous this year, with little if any argument. This is a little unusual. Normally there will be some good-natured debate as one person might champion their particular choice over someone else’s. But this time, everyone seemed to be in agreement almost from the start.
Our Word of the Year need not be a new word. However, it does need to demonstrate some kind of prominence over the preceding year or so and selfie certainly fits the bill. It seems like everyone who is anyone has posted a selfie somewhere on the Internet. If it is good enough for the Obamas or The Pope, then it is good enough for Word of the Year.
The recognition of the word’s Australian origins was front and center in the official imprimatur. “The earliest evidence that we know of at the moment is Australian,” dictionary editor Katherine Martin told the Guardian. “And it fits in with a tendency in Australian English to make cute, slangy words with that 'ie' ending.”
In that way, the word calls to mind other Australian diminutives such as “tinnie” for a can of beer, “barbie” for barbeque, and “firie” for a firefighter.
There's also now a slew of linguistic spinoffs from the ubiquitous term itself. Just a few mentioned by Oxford are “helfie” (a snapshot of one’s hair), “belfie” (a photo of one’s behind), “welfie” (a gym workout shot) and even a “drelfie” (a drunken selfie).
The word’s fame has yet to translate into inclusion in the definitive Oxford English Dictionary, though it’s under consideration, writes the BBC. But it was welcomed into the common-usage Oxford online dictionary this August alongside other top performers that included “badassery,” “buzzworthy,” and “twerk.”
Not everyone is celebrating the term’s victory, however. As one fan of this year’s second most famous entry lamented on Time.com, “twerk was robbed!”
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A daily roundup of global security issues
The death of Abdulkader al-Saleh, commander of a prominent Syrian rebel militia, in a government airstrike has dealt the opposition movement a serious blow and could threaten the rebellion's tenuous hold on Aleppo, Syria's second largest city.
Mr. Saleh, known by his nom de guerre Hajji Marea, was the head of the Liwa al-Tawhid (Tawhid Brigade), which unified several armed groups in 2012 around Aleppo and led a rebel push to seize control of several of its suburbs. Though only in his early thirties and having joined the uprising following a peacetime life as a seed merchant, Saleh quickly emerged as a respected figure, The New York Times reported in February 2013. His death last week, from injuries sustained during a government airstrike, leaves a power vacuum in the Aleppo area that will be challenging for the rebels to fill.
Under Saleh’s leadership, Tawhid's ranks expanded to between 4,000 and 10,000 fighters. It once fought under the authority of the Free Syrian Army, but broke away in September to join an alliance of Islamist groups, including one closely linked to Al Qaeda and on the US government's lists of designated terrorist organizations. Although devout, Saleh himself had presented a pluralistic vision for postwar Syria, and he was able to create a diverse list of allies with his pragmatic approach and strategic acumen, according to the New York Times.
In a detailed profile of Saleh last winter, The New York Times correspondent C. J. Chivers described him as one of the movement’s few credible leaders, a standout figure in a patchy coalition defined by suspicion and confusion:
While Western governments have long worried that [the rebel movement’s] self-declared leaders, many of whom operate from Turkey, cannot jell into a coherent movement with unifying leaders, the fighting across the country has been producing a crop of field commanders who stand to assume just these roles.
These men — with inside connections, street credibility and revolutionary narratives that many of the Western-recognized leadership lacks — have taken the reins of the war. They hold the weapons. They have their own international relations and financing. Should they survive, many of them could become Syria’s postwar power brokers.
One American official called Mr. Saleh “the real thing” — a commander with thousands of fighters, independent sources of financing and supply, good relations with other fighting groups and a record of tactical success.
Saleh’s death raises doubts about the Tawhid Brigade hanging together as a militia. A splintering of the group could have dangerous repercussions for the rebels in the long-running battle for Aleppo, where government forces are now on the offensive.
As the war’s tide has turned in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor in recent months, his army has retaken parts of the city and reestablished control over its airport. Government forces have also seized several opposition-held suburbs of Damascus, and moved to cut the opposition’s supply routes around the country. The airstrike that killed Saleh and several other top-level rebel figures, was part of a campaign to quash the rebels’ hold on Aleppo, according to Reuters.
“As an individual, [Saleh] was very, very important, certainly in the Aleppo area, but increasingly as an individual that many in Syria felt represented the revolution,” Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre told Agence-France Presse.
Passions fueled by Saleh’s death could deepen the fighters’ resolution to close ranks, Lister said. While it was “a very significant blow” to their movement, it could “spur on the rebels to launch a counterattack as the regime advances.”
But it could also mark another ominous setback on the road to further splintering of the movement, other analysts suggested.
“At a time when the Syrian regime is advancing on Aleppo, Saleh’s death therefore is very bad news for the opposition,” Aron Lund, an independent Syria expert, wrote on the blog Syria Comment on Sunday. “Even if the front holds, Tawhid could be drained of cohesion, and end up losing sub-units and fighters to other groups.”