Global News Blog
If it weren’t for Eliezer Ben Yehuda, I wouldn’t be able to order ice cream, ask directions to the local furniture store, or discuss Gaza bombings in Hebrew.
Since I’m a new journalist in Israel who happens to love ice cream and arrived here with only one piece of furniture to my name, that would be grave indeed.
So I for one am grateful for Mr. Ben Yehuda, who was born 155 years ago today in the Russian empire.
Legend has it that the man was not only brilliant, but a little crazy. And you would have to be, if you were planning to try to resurrect an ancient language after roughly 2,000 years and expect it to become the primary spoken language of a country that didn't even exist yet.
But the Sorbonne-educated Ben Yehuda did just that – well before the state of Israel was founded in 1948, and even before Lord Balfour of Britain made his famous promise to the Zionists in 1917 to help establish a Jewish homeland.
Of course, Hebrew was the language of the Torah – the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – as well as other religious writings. So many Jews were familiar with it. But they didn’t use it to talk about things like grocery shopping or even politics.
Where to start? With your family, of course. When Ben Yehuda arrived in Israel with his family, he banned his wife and children from speaking any other language. According to tradition, his family was the first to speak exclusively Hebrew in the home.
He also helped start schools and Hebrew-language newspapers, and published the first dictionary of modern Hebrew, often drawing on biblical words to coin modern terms. Ultra-Orthodox Jews pushed back hard, arguing that Hebrew is a holy language and not to be used to discuss the mundane. Many of them still prefer to speak in Yiddish when discussing daily affairs.
But Hebrew is nevertheless the dominant language in Israel today, although Arabic is an official language as well.
But I digress.
You were wondering about how to order ice cream, right?
G'lida. That’s your ticket.
Todah (thank you), Ben Yehuda.
The image of an African shantytown does not usually conjure up hope for economic prosperity. But Kibera, one of Nairobi’s slums and arguably Africa’s largest slum, is exactly that for the Kenyans who call it home. In The Economist, a writer chronicled a day in Kibera, describing the slum’s ebbs and flows, capturing its entrepreneurial spirit. People from all over Kenya leave their towns and villages for a chance to find work in Kibera’s “thriving economic machine.”
The half-mile-by-two-mile area accommodates roughly 1 million people, wedged together in repurposed wood-and-corrugated-tin-roof structures. The alleys that wind through the slum vary in size, but there is no room for cars. Many of the residents work in nearby factories or offices. Others find economic opportunity in providing goods and services for Kibera’s residents.
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When Cecilia Achieng moved to the slum, she started a school, at first renting space from an empty church. She eventually saved enough money to build six makeshift classrooms. After school, Ms. Achieng starts her second job: catering. She caters church events, funerals, and is even trying to get into weddings. In the evening, Achieng goes door to door offering her services as a hairdresser.
“To equate slums with idleness and misery is to misunderstand them,” the correspondent writes. “Slums are far from hopeless places; many are not where economic losers end up, but rather reservoirs of tomorrow’s winners.”
The promise of the Arab Spring
As post-Arab Spring countries struggle to establish democratic institutions, pessimism about their ultimate success misses a broader lesson: Stable democracies have historically evolved from violent uprisings, initial failures, and stumbling blocks.
“These troubles ... are not a bug but a feature – not signs of problems with democracy but evidence of the difficult, messy process of political development through which societies purge themselves of the vestiges of dictatorship and construct new and better democratic orders,” writes Sheri Berman in Foreign Affairs.
Critics who see Egypt, Libya, and other transitioning countries as democratic failures ignore the inherited social, cultural, and political dynamics in these countries, and a broader historical perspective. New democracies are not blank slates, writes Ms. Berman. In the aftermath of overthrowing dictators, countries must overcome the baggage that comes with authoritarian regimes – distrust, animosity, and lack of civil organizations to deal with people’s demands. Islamism is filling that void in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak’s fall as religious organizations were the only places where people could participate and express themselves.
Berman also points to history, particularly the political trials of France, Italy, and Germany on the democratization journeys. France took decades to establish a stable government, restructuring its economy in the process. Both Italy’s and Germany’s democratic experiments were interrupted by fascist takeovers.
Recall of the wild
The future of conservation may not be in saving nature from destruction, but rather creating a “new wilderness.” An ecological experiment in the Netherlands is turning traditional conservation theory on its head, and it has inspired a new movement called “rewilding,” which claims that nature can be created, not just managed or destroyed.
In the Netherland’s Flevoland Province – which used to be under water until a drainage project uncovered it in the 1950s – biologists used some of the new land to create a habitat similar to that found during Paleolithic times.
In The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert describes how biologists convinced the Dutch government to save a 15,000-acre reserve of the drained land – known as Oostvaardersplassen – as grazing land for herbivores most closely linked to their extinct predecessors: aurochs, red deer, tarpans, and European bison. The theory is that Europe used to have a more “parklike landscape,” which was maintained by herds of animals eating the vegetation. The reserve created an opportunity to see how this ecological system operated, and to see if other animal species would return.
“What we see here is that, instead of what many nature conservationists think – that something that is lost is lost forever – you can have the conditions to have it redeveloped,” Frans Vera, an ecologist, told Ms. Kolbert. Rewilding has spread to other areas in Europe as well, including Spain, Portugal, and Siberia. The scientists say the idea represents a “proactive agenda” as opposed to waiting to see what happens in nature.
Oostvaardersplassen attracts tourists who come to see the almost safari-like setting, but there is some controversy. Because the reserve aims to represent the wild, animals are left to the elements and suffer from such things as food shortages. Mr. Vera anticipates that the reserve will eventually attract the region’s natural predators – wolves – to reduce herd overpopulations.
“On a planet increasingly dominated by people – even the deep oceans today are being altered by humans – it probably makes sense to think about wilderness, too, as a human creation,” Kolbert writes.
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Among the many anti-rape protests that have been held in Indian cities over the past few weeks, something has stood out at a demonstration this week: Protest signs that didn’t cry shame or call for the death penalty, but pledged personal action.
“I pledge to intervene when I see a woman being harassed,” read one slogan on signs held by both men and women on New Year's Day. Another sign held by a young woman read, “I pledge to stare back.”
It is that long experience, says founder Jasmeen Patheja, that accounts for their unusual slogans. Amid the calls for better policing to prevent violent crime against women, the group wanted to also highlight how everyone contributes to – and can thus help change – a culture of sexism.
“It’s easy to blame the government and the police, but they also represent certain social mindsets, attitudes that we may be perpetuating,” Ms. Patheja says.
In recent weeks, some of those attitudes have been on display as political and civic leaders have faulted Westernization (read: sexual permissiveness) for violence against women.
On Friday, a leader from a Hindu nationalist party said that rapes “happen in India, not Bharat” (the Hindi name for the country), while another suggested that women are being punished for “crossing the line.” A survey from earlier this year showed that a fair chunk of both Indian men and women believed that wife beating was acceptable.
A younger, urban generation isn’t necessarily free from these attitudes either. “We may all contribute to the problem in invisible ways,” Patheja says. “When we say ‘Boys will be boys,’ or when we share sexist jokes or make mothers and sisters part of [curse words].”
One of the most common problems that Indian women face is harassment in public spaces.
“Eve teasing,” the lighthearted term used for everything from lewd comments to groping to stalking, is so routine that when Patheja started Blank Noise as part of a virtual project at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore in 2003, she found few of her peers wanted to talk about it.
“There was a sense that it was just part of life, that there was nothing you could do about it,” she says.
Patheja and others started a blog to provide an anonymous space for women to share their experiences. They also began organizing public events. The idea was not to be an advocacy group, says Patheja, but to “trigger a public dialogue that wasn’t didactic, through a series of approaches both blog-based and on-the-ground interventions.” Blank Noise also encouraged young women to confront street harassment in an effort to “reclaim the city.”
That approach challenges the conventional idea that women should protect themselves by staying away from the public sphere, and a recent trend among the Indian middle-class to segregate themselves from chaotic urban environments through gated communities and private transport. Signs at Tuesday’s demonstration included pledges to “use public transport even when private transport was available.”
Today, the Blank Noise project has a presence across nine cities, hundreds of volunteers and a large Facebook presence, though getting boots on the ground remains a challenge. More than 10,000 people were invited via Facebook to take part in Tuesday’s protest across the country.
In Mumbai, about 30 showed up. “It’s easier to click ‘like’ and more difficult to get out on the street,” says Patheja. “But we don’t worry much about that anymore. Even that one click means that someone has decided to engage.”
What is most important, she suggests, is the change she has seen in the past decade. Last month, the supreme court called for wide-ranging measures to curb harassment in public places. “There is now a greater willingness to talk about the issue,” she says, “and less of an inclination to trivialize it.”
Vladimir Putin flourished his pen Thursday morning and signed what must be the oddest decree of his long years in power: an order granting a Russian passport to French actor and tax exile Gerard Depardieu.
A terse announcement posted on the Kremlin website noted that Mr. Putin acted "to satisfy an application for citizenship of the Russian Federation by Gerard Xavier Depardieu, who was born in 1948 in France."
Mr. Depardieu, star of over 170 films and possessing what is often politely referred to as a "colorful" public personality, has been locked in a high profile battle with France's new socialist government over an emergency tax that would levy a 75 percent rate on people earning more than $1.3 million. He recently renounced his French citizenship and took up residence in Belgium, which offers a friendlier tax regime for the super-rich.
France's high court struck down the law last week as "unconstitutional," but the government announced it will soon reintroduce the measure after taking the court's concerns into account.
It's not clear whether Depardieu actually applied for residence in Russia, which has a 13 percent flat income tax for all, but in a far-ranging press conference last month Putin declared "If Gérard really wants to have a residence permit or a Russian passport, you can consider it done, the issue solved positively."
Putin also said that he has long enjoyed "kind, friendly, personal relations" with the French actor.
Come to Chechnya
Depardieu is no stranger to Russia. He has appeared in several ad campaigns and filmed the 2011 movie Rasputin in St. Petersburg. He is also rumored to be close to Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, and was guest of honor at the pro-Kremlin leader's birthday party in Grozny last October.
Mr. Kadyrov has said that he would happily invite Depardieu to come and live permanently in Chechnya if he wanted to. "If the country's leadership decides in favor of granting Depardieu Russian citizenship, we will be glad to create deserved conditions for the great cultural figure in our republic," Kadyrov said last week.
Russia's blogosphere erupted in derision and sarcastic comment Thursday, with some people writing painfully of their own troubles with Russia's notoriously bureaucratic passport department.
One man posted on Facebook his own tale of trying for years to repatriate his own Russian-born elderly mother from next-door Belarus, but he has so far failed to move Russian authorities because her Belarussian documents show a slightly different spelling of her name than appears on her Russian birth certificate.
Part of spat with West?
Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the liberal Moscow daily Kommersant, says the granting of citizenship to Depardieu should be seen in context with the escalating war of words between Russia and the West. Last month President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, which aims to punish corrupt Russian officials, and Moscow responded by enacting the Dima Yakovlev Act, whose main feature is a ban on US citizens adopting Russian orphans.
"Russia is very much on the defensive right now. The vindictive nature of Russia's adoption ban has shocked not only the US, but also many in Europe and here in Russia as well," Mr. Strokan says.
"We seem to be entering into a cold war-like battle of images, in which Russia is trying to show that it offers a better life, has higher ideals, and is more friendly to humanity than the West.... So this may be seen as a calculated PR move, an effort to demonstrate that we understand and care for the beloved French actor more than his own homeland does," he adds.
"I can't imagine that Depardieu would actually want to live here and experience the life of Russians, though. Let's see how it goes the first time he attempts to travel with that new Russian passport."
The Russian Navy has announced that it will hold its biggest war games since Soviet times in the Mediterranean and Black seas later this month.
The ambitious exercises, which will involve ships from all four major Russian fleets, are a sign of growing confidence on the part of Russia's military as it begins to enjoy the benefits of President Vladimir Putin's huge budget allocations for renewing and reequipping all branches of the armed forces.
The purpose of the war games will be to strengthen integration between different types of forces and gain practice with major military deployments outside Russia's immediate neighborhood, the Defense Ministry said in a statement Tuesday.
As part of the maneuvers, naval ships will arrive at an "unprepared" coast in the Russian northern Caucasus region to take amphibious troops onto transport vessels.
"The primary goal of the exercise is to train issues regarding formation of a battle group consisting of troops of different branches outside of the Russian Federation, planning its deployment and managing a coordinated action of a joint Navy group in accordance with a common plan," the ministry's statement said.
The participating ships, it said, will be drawn from all of Russia's four major naval formations: the Northern, Baltic, Pacific, and Black Sea fleets.
About 9,000 Russians are registered with the Russian Embassy in Damascus, but some experts say the full number may be 30,000 or more. Over the nearly half a century that Moscow has enjoyed good relations with Syria, thousands of Russian women have married Syrian men and moved to the country. Many of them may urgently demand to return with their children to Russia if the situation turns critical.
This week the Russian Navy refreshed a fleet, including several huge amphibious assault ships capable of carrying thousands of people, which it had deployed to the eastern Mediterranean last summer.
Experts say the replacement fleet dispatched this week is of similar makeup, with at least five huge troop-transport ships at its core.
As part of Russia's eight-year, $659 billion rearmament program, the Navy is slated to receive 50 new warships by 2016, including new Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines – a third of which entered service last weekend – 18 major surface warships, and dozens of special purpose and support vessels.
President Vladimir Putin signed the Dima Yakovlev Act into law Friday, banning all adoptions of Russian orphans by US citizens as of Jan. 1 and throwing dozens of currently ongoing adoptions into confusion.
The mood among workers in the almost 40 Russia-accredited adoption agencies, which have survived repeated bouts of political tensions and ever-tightening regulations over the years, was near despair Friday.
"We have no text of this law, nor any explanations of what's supposed to happen now. So, we're waiting," she says.
Any hope that Mr. Putin might impose some restraint upon a measure that even members of his own cabinet have criticized as possibly illegal and diplomatically disruptive were dashed Thursday when Putin explicitly endorsed the adoption ban and other tough measures against US citizens working in Russia in televised remarks.
"I see no reason not to sign the law," Putin said.
He added that he would also sign a presidential decree to improve procedures for adopting Russian orphans and abandoned children domestically, and also boost measures to help children with serious disabilities and health problems – who were previously the major pool of orphans made available for foreign adoption.
About 1,000 Russian children were adopted by US families in 2011, down from the annual average of 3,000 or so in the past decade, and only a small portion of the 120,000 Russian children who are considered eligible for adoption. Under Russian law, a child can be offered to prospective foreign parents only after having been rejected three times by Russian families.
Framed as 'selling' children
Russian nationalists argue that it's a shame for Russian children to be "sold" abroad, and several of the lawmakers who championed the Dima Yakovlev bill argued they will sponsor further efforts to ease the plight of Russia's huge numbers of institutionalized children.
Putin lent his support to the harshest critics of international adoption Thursday, by casually likening Russian children taken into US families to economic refugees.
"There are probably many places in the world where living standards are higher than ours. So what, are we going to send all our children there?" Putin said with sarcasm. "Maybe we should move there ourselves?"
The new law is a sudden about face from Russia's previous position. Russia's foreign ministry spent years negotiating a detailed US-Russia adoption accord, which regulates virtually all aspects of the adoption process, and came into effect just last month.
"I just don't understand how they can completely change the whole system for international adoptions, suddenly, all at once like this," says Svetlana Pronina, head of Child's Right, a Russian nongovernmental group that works for children's rights.
"It looks to me like children have become hostages to the political situation, and this is not a wise way to approach the needs of Russian children," she adds.
"How is it that our authorities were able to ratify a major agreement with the US about adoptions just a few months ago, and now they decided to abolish it? What sense is there in this?" she says.
One year's warning ignored
The law is slated to come into effect on Jan. 1, though the US-Russia bilateral accord stipulates that either side must give one year's warning before withdrawing from the deal.
The original idea of the Dima Yakovlev law was to frame a symmetrical response to the US Magnitsky Act, which targets sanctions at about 60 Russian officials allegedly involved in the 2009 prison death of whistleblowing anticorruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
That law would have levied visa and financial penalties on alleged US human rights violators, such as CIA officials involved in "black site" secret prisons, Guantanamo prison guards as well as US adoptive parents who abused their Russian-born children.
But after a series of amendments last week, the adoption ban was put front-and-center, along with measures that may lead to the closure of any NGO that receives US funding and stiff restrictions on US passport-holders (including thousands of dual US-Russia citizens) engaging in activities deemed "political" by authorities.
Pending adoptions a question
No one is sure what will happen with the approximately 50 cases of US-Russia adoption that are currently at various stages of completion.
"There are 52 such children," Mr. Astakhov told the independent Interfax agency Friday.
"I believe they must be adopted in Russia, with the regional governors taking personal responsibility for them," he added.
Ilya Ponomaryov, the lone Duma deputy who voted against the Dima Yakovlev bill in all three readings, says there should now be absolutely no doubt about who was behind the adoption ban from the outset.
"The Duma has no independent will, it simply does what the executive branch tells it to," Mr. Ponomaryov says. "Now it's clear that this was Putin's initiative all along."
The Indian government’s crackdown on the anti-rape protests that have continued for nearly two weeks in New Delhi has only aggravated public anger and concern about women’s safety.
The protests were sparked by the gang rape and brutal assault of a 23-year-old student on a bus in the elite South Delhi district on Dec. 16.
As the girl battles for her life in a Singapore hospital, Indians are debating how to make the country safer for women. Ten days after the incident, it dominates newspaper headlines and op-ed pages, pushing to the margins stories like the retirement of cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, the popular Indian sportsperson, highlighting just how much the case has affected people.
Sexual harassment is rampant in India, and the public has been largely apathetic to women’s plight, but many are hoping the attack could be a turning point in the way India treats women.
Calls for capital punishment, including the chemical castration of rapists, have died down, with various women’s groups decrying them. Given that in 94 percent of rape cases the rapist is known to the victim, Nilanjana S. Roy, writing in The Hindu newspaper she wonders if the protestors would be okay with death penalty if it were their father, uncle, neighbors, or even if it meant convicting Indian security forces in conflict zones.
The Monitor reported that India is considering a fast-track court process to expedite rape cases and step up punishment for sexual violence on the heels of the bus rape incident.
Beyond the law, what needs to happen, writes Shilpa Phadke, author of a book on women’s safety in Mumbai, has to do with how Indians use their streets: “We are safer when there are more women (and more men) on the streets. When shops are open, when restaurants are open, when there are hawkers and yes, even sex workers on the street, the street is a safer space for us all.”
The outrage that this case has spurred might finally bring about a cultural change in India, Stephanie Nolen of The Globe and Mail suggests in a report:
Women assaulted leaving bars or late at night or while wearing Western clothes have been chastised by police, judges and politicians for bringing their misfortune on themselves. This time, however, there is a current of defiance in the protests, noted Subhashini Ali of the All India Democratic Women’s Association. A young woman in central Delhi on Tuesday carried a sign saying, “Stop telling me how to dress, start telling your sons not to rape.”
But rape is still not seen as a men’s issue, Ms. Ali said. “I don’t think many people are asking that question yet [of how men are being brought up and how it shapes their attitude toward rape].”
“But that’s where we have to go.”
And that should start with using sexual education in schools as a means to counter systemic patriarchal attitudes, writes Ketaki Chowkhani in Kafila, a collaborative blog that I work with.
That need for an emphasis on social change rather than law enforcement was also highlighted by Praveen Swami in The Hindu newspaper. India could learn a lot from the United States, he writes, where the incidence of rapes have fallen:
“The decline in rape in the U.S. has mainly come about not because policing has become god-like in its deterrent value, but because of hard political and cultural battles to teach men that when a woman says no, she means no.”
Meanwhile, the crackdown on the protests in Delhi has drawn sharp reactions and much anger across the Internet. On Facebook, graphic designer Sangeeta Das narrated her experience of the protests on Dec. 23, republished on the Kafila blog:
“There were many volunteers distributing biscuits and water to every protestor. We were talking ... on how to tackle the violence on women and children starting from ourselves, our homes, and communities. We were simply talking ... when the police, hundreds of them ... charged at us from behind, without any warning.”
Meanwhile, the media have drawn the government’s ire. On Sunday, the same day one journalist was killed in Manipur when police opened fire on protestors, the government issued an advisory to news channels to show “maturity and responsibility” in their coverage of protests:
No programme should be carried in the cable service which is likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which promotes anti-national attitude.
You usually can judge Vladimir Putin’s dislike of a reporter's question by the intensity of his expression. Such was the case this week at his annual news conference, when he greeted with a hard scowl the subject of pending Russian legislation that would ban Americans from adopting orphaned children. Mr. Putin unleashed invective on the fact that consular representatives aren’t allowed to visit adopted Russian children in the United States.
“I believe that is unacceptable. Do you think this is normal? How can it be normal when you are humiliated? Do you like it? Are you a sadomasochist or something? They shouldn’t humiliate our country,” he told reporters in Moscow.
As is often the case in Russia, there is the issue of what is going on versus what is really going on. And as is often the case in Russia, it’s complicated.
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There is very little doubt as to the goal of the legislation, which passed its third and final reading in the lower house of parliament Friday and must still be signed by Putin. The bill is named after Dima Yakovlev, the toddler who died of heat stroke in 2007 after his adopted father forgot him in a locked car in Virginia for nine hours. The father, Miles Harrison, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Dima, whose adopted name was Chase. His acquittal in 2008 sparked banner newspaper headlines, incendiary TV news reports, and howls of outrage in Russia.
Lawmakers in the State Duma made it clear that today's legislation is a direct response to the US “Magnitsky Act,” a law designed to sanction a particular group of Russian officials connected to the death of a whistle-blowing lawyer in a Moscow prison.
In other words, a law designed to punish people tied to a lawyer’s prison death has been answered with a law to prevent people from adopting orphaned children, many of whom have have developmental or other disabilities and will otherwise end up living much of their lives in orphanages that often resemble state mental hospitals of a bygone era.
Adoption is a searingly emotional issue for Russians, and one easily manipulated by the Kremlin. The institution of adoption is relatively uncommon in Russia, for cultural and other reasons. And judging by headlines in the Moscow tabloids, and the rhetoric of some state lawmakers, you’d think that Americans adopt Russian children to eat them.
Bolstering those who are suspicious of adoption is a smattering of abuse cases in Russian orphanages that have seized the public attention. In one notorious case, a nurse in a southern Russian children’s home was accused of taping pacifiers to the mouths of children to keep them from crying. And cases like that of Dima and of Artyem Savelyev, whose adoptive American mother sent the then-7-year-old boy home to Russia with a "to whom it may concern" note of rejection in 2010, give Russians fair reason for pause over foreign adoptions.
But for many Russians, the adoption of children by foreigners is a polite way of saying “foreigners are purchasing our children for export.” Some 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by Americans in the past two decades, and Russia trails only China and Ethiopia in popularity for Americans seeking to adopt foreign children, according to the US State Department.
Many also see it as ironic that Russia is being sanctioned for human rights violations by a country whose policies over the past decade have seared “Guantanamo” into the English language lexicon – an irony that Putin, who like many Russians has a nose for hypocrisy, clearly relished in pointing out.
“Not only are those prisoners detained without charge, they walk around shackled, like in the Middle Ages. They’ve legalized torture in their own country. Can you imagine if we had anything like this here? They would have eaten us alive a long time ago,” he said.
But regardless of the moralities involved, the fact of the matter is that there will be clear winners and losers from this ordeal.
The winners will be the middlemen, the orphanage directors, the bureaucrats, and the administrators all of whose signatures or stamps, essential to the adoption process, can yield a lucrative stream under-the-table revenues – revenues from well-meaning, would-be foreign parents with the means to pay thousands of dollars for the right to adopt a Russian orphan.
And the losers will be orphaned children who remain institutionalized. That was the point of US Ambassador Michael McFaul’s statement released Friday after the Duma vote: “The welfare of children is simply too important to be linked to others issues in our bilateral relationship.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a man not known for pulling his punches when it comes to US policy, has voiced his doubts, suggesting that more moderate voices might stop the bill's passage. Perhaps Putin, having made his point with his press conference performance and with the performance of the malleable State Duma, will relax his rhetoric and soften the bill to open the door to foreign adoptions again, thus portraying himself as doing the best for the children.
Mike Eckel reported from Moscow for five years.
The Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut brought a deluge of media attention to gun control. One useful perspective came from the Lexington’s Notebook column in The Economist magazine. Britain’s gun-related homicide rate is drastically lower than that of the United States not only because guns are harder to purchase, but because ammunition is scarce, the writer points out. In one recent incident in a crime-plagued British neighborhood, for example, “the gang had had to make its own bullets, which did not work well....”
In one recent year England and Wales experienced 39 fatalities from crimes involving firearms; the US had 12,000. In Britain, “The firearms-ownership rules are onerous, involving hours of paperwork. You must provide a referee who has to answer nosy questions about the applicant’s mental state, home life (including family or domestic tensions) and their attitude towards guns. In addition to criminal-record checks, the police talk to applicants’ family doctors and ask about any histories of alcohol or drug abuse or personality disorders.”
Some US gun owners argue that they might need firearms to fight a tyrannical government. But “I don’t think America is remotely close to becoming a tyranny, and to suggest that it is is both irrational and a bit offensive to people who actually do live under tyrannical rule,” the writer responds.
Are you eager to win the next big lottery? BloombergBusinessWeek writer David Samuels offers the cautionary tale of Jack Whittaker, a contractor in Scott Depot, W. Va., who 10 years ago found that his $1 Powerball lottery ticket had won him a $93 million payout after taxes.
Mr. Whittaker tried to do good with his bonanza, giving away a good portion to charitable groups, especially churches. But he still descended into alcohol addiction; was divorced by his wife; became tied up (by his own count) in some 460 legal actions; and lost his beloved granddaughter, on whom he had lavished piles of cash, to drug addiction. Before his lottery “win,” Whittaker’s contracting business had afforded him a comfortable life. “Nobody knew I had any money,” Whittaker said. “All they knew was my good works.” His life back then, he notes sadly, “was a lot easier.”
Online courses vs. college life
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are the wave of the future, “the end of higher education as we know it,” as one university president has predicted.
Or are they? Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“For Whom Is College Being Reinvented?”), Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk give Luddites their due. While it’s true that an online course conducted by a top teacher might trump a large lecture class offered by a second-rate live lecturer, those pushing MOOCs as inevitable should be heard with a skeptic’s ear.
“The idea that [students] can have better education and more access at lower cost through massive online courses is just preposterous,” says Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C. “There is an awful lot of hype about ... the need for reinvention that is being fomented by people who are going to make out like bandits on it.”
Even David Stavens, a founder of the MOOC provider Udacity, concedes that “there’s a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.”
High-tech touch and taste
IBM forecasts that within the next five years technology will vastly improve the way humans experience the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch), according to a report in the Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence newsletter. Online shoppers, for example, will be able to “touch” a product using mobile devices, “using haptic, infrared and pressure-sensitive technologies to simulate touch – such as the texture and weave of a fabric as a shopper brushes their finger over the image of the item on a device screen.”
Clever sensors will also be able to detect sounds in the form of pressure, vibrations, and sound waves. This data will allow predictions of events such as when a tree might fall or when a landslide is about to happen. “Baby talk” will be decoded as a language, letting parents or other caregivers know what infants are trying to communicate. Computer systems will learn to detect emotions and sense a person’s mood by analyzing factors such as pitch, tone, and hesitancy in speech, allowing automated call centers to be more helpful and understanding between human cultures to improve.
Even the finest chefs will be challenged by technology. Computer programs “will break down ingredients to their molecular level and blend the chemistry of food compounds with the psychology behind what flavors and smells humans prefer,” IBM predicts.
Healthy foods will be made more palatable – and programming will pair up foods in ways that maximize taste and flavor. “A system like this can also be used to help us eat healthier,” IBM predicts, “creating novel flavor combinations that will make us crave a vegetable casserole instead of potato chips.”
A Mayan prophecy that the world will end this week may have the more credulous stocking up on supplies and fleeing to "sacred" mountains in the hope of miraculous last-minute salvation by aliens.
But while the idea that Earth could be shattered into a billion pieces by some sort of interplanetary cataclysm has worried millions of people around the world, the Holy See's chief astronomer suggests that life as we know it is unlikely to come to an end quite so soon.
In an editorial in the Vatican's official daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano – in an issue whose front-page article was entitled “The end is not nigh – at least for now” – Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, the director of the Vatican Observatory, criticized "pseudo-prophecies" about the end of the Universe.
“In the media and on the internet there is a great deal of talk of the end of the world, which the Mayan calendar supposedly predicted for Dec 21. If you do a search on Google, you get 40 million results on the topic,” wrote Father Funes, a Jesuit priest from Argentina.
A 5,125-year cycle known in the Mayan calendar as the Long Count comes to an end on Friday and has been widely interpreted by cultists, New Age disciples, and believers in the esoteric as heralding the destruction of the planet.
But in a lengthy discourse on astronomy and Christian belief, he said it was “not even worth discussing the scientific basis of these claims."
He acknowledged that the universe was slowly expanding, but that the destruction of the Earth – if it ever happens – will not occur for billions of years.
In any case, he said, Christians subscribe to the “fundamental conviction that death is not the last word.”
Four hundred years after the Roman Catholic Church put Galileo on trial for heresy based on his belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way round, the Vatican is rather more forgiving of the science of astronomy.
Its observatory is at Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the pope, which lies in the hills outside Rome. One of the oldest astronomical research institutes in the world, it also has a research facility hosted by the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Funes, who has a master’s degree in astronomy from the National University of Cordoba in Argentina as well as degrees in philosophy and theology, was made director of the observatory in 2006.
He has not been reluctant to take modern science into account when considering religious tenets. In an interview in 2008, he said it was possible that intelligent forms of life could exist on other planets in the solar system.
Aliens would still be God’s creatures, he said, in an article in L’Osservatore Romano headlined "The extraterrestrial is my brother." The notion did not necessarily contradict the teachings of the Catholic Church, he said, arguing that to dismiss the possibility of alien life would be to underestimate God’s creative powers.