>It seemed it couldn't. I flew out of the Russian capital two weeks ago for Paris, where I had a speaking engagement, and was grateful to be spared what I assumed would be the peak of the then already month-old heat wave (with temperatures in the high nineties). I fully expected it to end in my absence. After all, Russians have a saying, which is most often accurate: "Summer was short but at least not very snowy." The mercury only mounted, however. Flying back to Moscow the other day, the plane descended into what resembled a fog -- actually smoke from 520 wildfires burning across 465,656 acres of land, mostly south of the capital. (On August 2, as a result of the fires, President Dmitry Medvedev declared a state of emergency in seven regions.) The temperature below, the pilot informed us in an unsympathetic monotone, was now just under 100 degrees, which drew groans up and down the air-conditioned aisles.
It doesn't get worse than that. Or so I thought as we landed: up north in Saint Petersburg, it was in the seventies -- traditionally a sure sign that the heat would end in the capital within a couple of days. That air-conditioners, fans, and, in places, even soft drinks had sold out across Moscow would soon hardly matter.
Then my wife Tatyana and I awoke yesterday to discover that a shift in wind had sunk Moscow in smoke so thick that our apartment smelled like an ashtray (we don't smoke), and the trees in the park outside stood peering through our windows like spectral villains in a horror flick. We don't have air-conditioning (nor do most Muscovites), so we sleep with the windows open. Luckily, our apartment faces north, but the temperature inside has nevertheless hovered around 94 degrees for weeks now. A government monitoring agency reported that, overnight, pollution -- smoke from the fires, that is -- had risen to ten times above safety levels. The authorities urged Muscovites to don gauze masks, which quickly went on sale across the city for the ruble equivalent of twenty-seven cents apiece.
Vladimir Mayakovsky monument, Triumfalnaya Square
Smoke even filtered down into the metro system. The wind rose and fell and rose again. By evening, when I made my usual trip to the nearby grocery store, the smoke had thickened so much that it burned my eyes and scratched my throat. Rain would have done a lot to alleviate this situation, but the worst drought in possibly 130 years has accompanied the heat, drying up nearly half Russia's wheat crops, and presaging a disastrous year for its struggling farmers.
Really, what could be worse? Why, the latest weather forecast, which predicts temperatures of 104 this weekend, with, over the next ten days, a "cooling down" to around ninety. I told Tatyana the "good news" and she responded as most Russians would: "Our weather station is wrong only once. Every day. In its only forecast."
"That's being too pessimistic," I responded.
"You know the difference between a pessimist and an optimist?" she asked. "A pessimist says, 'Everything is rotten. Nothing can get worse.' The optimist answers, 'Oh, yes it can!'"
I'm beginning to think she's right. In the first five days of August, four record high temperatures have been registered in Moscow; in July, ten. This, in a city where entire summers slip by unnoticed as such, with interludes of eighty-degree days followed by cool showery weeks, if without much snow. Come to think of it, I've seen it snow here in June. Russians take justifiable pride in how they face the rigors of their extreme climate -- but every extreme they know relates to cold, not heat. A Siberian adage has it that, "Forty degrees below zero is not a frost, and forty-proof vodka is not real vodka." But is forty-degree-centigrade (104 Fahrenheit) heat not real heat? No one has bothered to devise a proverb for it, because in northern or central Russia it almost never happens. Heat waves and even smoke from wildfires (often from burning peat bogs) have engulfed the city before, but never like this.
Smog fills Tverskaya Street
Another Russian saying has it that, "Heat isn't vodka, but we feel drunk from it all the same." Which hasn't stopped a good number of metaphorically heat-wasted Muscovites from turning literal and tippling their way through this interminable zharishcha. I walked outside this morning to find a gang of bare-chested fellows, with shaved heads, sweaty snouts, and stretchmarked potbellies, sitting on the guardrail near our doorway, guzzling beer and smoking, and for good measure, belching and swearing about the heat. Any walk around town reveals similar scenes: men have at times dispensed with much of their clothing, and carrying a beer (plus lit cigarette) is now de rigueur. This is legal: there's no law banning open containers of alcohol in Russia. Except that in Russia, beer hardly qualifies as alcohol. (Unless possibly it's that 12-proof brew marked krepkoye.) Beer is more like a training beverage. But vodka is considered alcohol, and thus possesses, many would point out, curative properties for whatever ails you. So fighting noxious heat with medicinal doses of vodka makes perfect sense. And I don't mean some dainty cocktail, like, say, a vodka collins. The idea of mixing vodka with anything except more vodka is an abomination. Why dilute the healing fun?
The problem is, drinking vodka and, say, simultaneously swimming or boating to cool off, greatly adds to the heat wave's lethality. In the first three weeks of July alone, 1,244 people had drowned in Russia, most of them drunk, and often swimming in the country's multitudinous rivers and lakes where no lifeguards were to be had. Children of parents too smashed to see straight were also among the victims, going under as their seniors obliviously imbibed ashore. But perhaps the most horrific event occurred at Pirogovskoye Reservoir, north of Moscow, where intoxicated yachters apparently decided to scare up a few waves for bathers, and in the process ran over a twenty-five-year old woman, shredding her with their vessel's propellers.
Yet for most people, the zharishcha has not proved so tragic. In our building's courtyard, neighbors who would never socialize under other circumstance have been gathering during the long waning evenings to play chess, down vodka, eat refreshing bowls of okroshka (a cold, hangover-curing soup made with, among other ingredients, cucumbers, sour cream, kvas, radishes, and dill), and chat and play chess. A sort of pleasant lethargy has invaded many Moscow workplaces (or so I hear), with employees taking it easy, having a beer or two on the job, and commiserating about, what else, the heat.
This morning, the wind changed, and cleared away some of the smoke. After perhaps the hottest weekend yet, when it finally cools down, things will go back to normal. When exactly will that be? I don't know. But I'm an optimist. In the Russian sense.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.
The revolution that ended the reign of beards occurred on September 30, 331 b.c., as Alexander the Great prepared for a decisive showdown with the Persian emperor for control of Asia. On that day, he ordered his men to shave. Yet from time immemorial in Greek culture, a smooth chin on a grown man had been taken as a sign of effeminacy or degeneracy. What can explain this unprecedented command? When the commander Parmenio asked the reason, according to the ancient historian Plutarch, Alexander replied, “Don’t you know that in battles there is nothing handier to grasp than a beard?” But there is ample cause to doubt Plutarch’s explanation. Stories of beard-pulling in battles were myth rather than history. Plutarch and later historians misunderstood the order because they neglected the most relevant fact, namely that Alexander had dared to do what no self-respecting Greek leader had ever done before: shave his face, likening himself to the demigod Heracles, rendered in painting and sculpture in the immortal splendor of youthful, beardless nudity. Alexander wished above all, as he told his generals before the battle, that each man would see himself as a crucial part of the mission. They would certainly see this more clearly if each of them looked more like their heroic commander.
Ben Stiller’s follow-up to his own comedy classic is a downright bummer, no matter how many celebrity cameos it tries to cram in.
You don’t need to go to the theater to get the full experience of Zoolander 2. Simply get your hands on a copy of the original, watch it, and then yell a bunch of unfunny topical lines every time somebody tells a joke. That’s how it feels to watch Ben Stiller’s sequel to his 2001 spoof of the fashion industry: Zoolander 2 takes pains to reference every successful gag you remember from the original, and then embellish them in painful—often offensive, almost always outdated—fashion. It’s a film that has no real reason to exist, and it spends its entire running time reaffirming that fact.
The original Zoolander, to be fair, had no business being as funny as it was—it made fun of an industry that already seems to exist in a constant state of self-parody, and much of its humor relied on simple malapropisms and sight gags. But it was hilarious anyway as a candid snapshot of the fizzling-out of ’90s culture. Like almost any zeitgeist comedy, it belonged to a particular moment—and boy, should it have stayed there. With Zoolander 2, Stiller (who directed, co-wrote, and stars) tries to recapture the magic of 2001 by referencing its past glories with increasing desperation, perhaps to avoid the fact that he has nothing new to say about the fashion industry or celebrity culture 15 years laters.
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
Most people know how to help someone with a cut or a scrape. But what about a panic attack?
Here’s a thought experiment: You’re walking down the street with a friend when your companion falls and gashes her leg on the concrete. It’s bleeding; she’s in pain. It’s clear she’s going to need stitches. What do you do?
This one isn’t exactly a head-scratcher. You'd probably attempt to offer some sort of first-aid assistance until the bleeding stopped, or until she could get to medical help. Maybe you happen to have a Band-Aid on you, or a tissue to help her clean the wound, or a water bottle she can use to rinse it off. Maybe you pick her up and help her hobble towards transportation, or take her where she needs to go.
Here’s a harder one: What if, instead of an injured leg, that same friend has a panic attack?
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
A robotic road safety worker in India, a sacrificial llama in Bolivia, a sea otter receives a valentine, a deadly earthquake in Taiwan, a leopard attack in India, and much more.
A murmuration of starlings over Israel, a robotic road safety worker in India, a sacrificial llama in Bolivia, border barriers between Tunisia and Libya, a sea otter receives a valentine, a deadly earthquake in Taiwan, the annual Shrovetide football match in England, a leopard attack in India, and much more.
After getting shut down late last year, a website that allows free access to paywalled academic papers has sprung back up in a shadowy corner of the Internet.
There’s a battle raging over whether academic research should be free, and it’s overflowing into the dark web.
Most modern scholarly work remains locked behind paywalls, and unless your computer is on the network of a university with an expensive subscription, you have to pay a fee, often around 30 dollars, to access each paper.
Many scholars say this system makes publishers rich—Elsevier, a company that controls access to more than 2,000 journals, has a market capitalization about equal to that of Delta Airlines—but does not benefit the academics that conducted the research, or the public at large. Others worry that free academic journals would have a hard time upholding the rigorous standards and peer reviews that the most prestigious paid journals are famous for.