>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.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
In the age of the digital hermit, a psychologist explains what it means to avoid other people—and what to do about it.
People today might not actually be avoiding social interaction any more than they did in past decades, but they’re certainly more vocal about it. The rise of digital communication seems to be spawning a nation of indoor cats, all humble-bragging about how introverted they are and ordering their rides and groceries without ever talking to a human.
Sometimes reclusiveness can be a sign of something more serious, though. Social anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses, but it’s still poorly understood outside of scientific circles. The good news is that it’s highly treatable, according to Stefan G. Hofmann, the director of the Social Anxiety Program at Boston University.
I recently talked with Hofmann about how social anxiety works and what people who feel socially anxious can do about it. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
Inside Walmart’s curious, possibly ingenious effort to get customers to build up their savings accounts
Late last summer, Dawn Paquin started keeping her money on a prepaid debit card from Walmart instead of in a traditional checking account. The wages from her factory job—she works from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., inspecting blades on industrial bread-slicing machines—now go directly onto the Visa-branded card, which she can use like a regular debit card, though unlike most debit cards, it is not linked to a checking or savings account. She made the switch after a $4 check she wrote to buy coffee for herself and a friend tipped her checking account below the required minimum and triggered $100 in overdraft fees.
This was before she got the factory gig, and she wasn’t working full-time. Paquin lives in Salem, Illinois, where, she told me recently, if you don’t have a college degree, your job choices are “fast food or factory.” Money was extremely tight. “I kind of had a bit of resentment about banks after that,” she said dryly.
The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a society so prosperous that people would hardly have to work. But that isn’t exactly how things have played out.
How will we all keep busy when we only have to work 15 hours a week? That was the question that worried the economist John Maynard Keynes when he wrote his short essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” in 1930. Over the next century, he predicted, the economy would become so productive that people would barely need to work at all.
For a while, it looked like Keynes was right: In 1930 the average workweek was 47 hours. By 1970 it had fallen to slightly less than 39.
But then something changed. Instead of continuing to decline, the duration of the workweek stayed put; it’s hovered just below 40 hours for nearly five decades.
So what happened? Why are people working just as much today as in 1970?
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
The Piano Man hasn’t released a new pop album since 1993. How does he continue to sell out stadiums?
For those of you who are sick of wondering, this is what happens at a Billy Joel concert: A mother tries to cajole her reluctant young son to twist with her to “Only the Good Die Young.” A 45-year-old man in a Billy Joel-themed softball jersey, sitting third row and visible to all, hoists aloft a New Jersey vanity license plate that reads “Joel FN” and uses it to air-drum to “Pressure.” Three 20-somethings on a ladies’ night out shoot a Boomerang of themselves swaying to “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” A sexagenarianin business attire uses a lull during Joel’s Perestroika-era ditty “Leningrad” to crush some work emails on his BlackBerry Priv. A 19,000-strong congregation—carpenter jeans and Cartier watches, Yankee caps and yarmulkes, generationally diffuse and racially homogenous—all dance, terribly and euphorically, to “Uptown Girl.”
Online communities like those on Tumblr are perpetuating ideas of "beautiful suffering," confusing what it means to be clinically depressed.
A few months ago, Laura U., a typical 16-year-old at an international school in Paris, sat at her computer wishing she looked just like the emaciated women on her Tumblr dashboard. She pined to be mysterious, haunted, fascinating, like the other people her age that she saw in black and white photos with scars along their wrists, from taking razor blades to their skin. She convinced herself that the melancholic quotes she was reading—“Can I just disappear?” or “People who die by suicide don’t want to end their lives, they want to end their pain”—applied to her.
The Supreme Court has ample reason to avoid deciding a case that could erode the Establishment Clause.
During argument in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer last week before the Supreme Court, Justice Elena Kagan mused that the case poses “a hard issue. It's an issue in which states have their own very longstanding law. It's an issue on which I guess I'm going to say nobody is completely sure that they have it right.”
The court did not pay much attention to a question that logically flows from Kagan’s concern: Is this trip really necessary?
Does the court really need to jump into this dispute between a church and a state government—or is it a case where the two parties basically have already kissed and made up?
Missouri’s Constitution, as written in 1875 and readopted in 1945, contains a provision that “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.” The Missouri courts over the years have interpreted this provision quite literally. As a result, a church named Trinity Lutheran in Columbia, Missouri, was denied a state grant to resurface their daycare playground with recycled rubber tires. (The daycare would have been eligible if it had been run by a separate church-affiliated non-profit; but because in this case the money would have gone directly to the church, the provision applied.) The church sued, and the case has wended its way to the Supreme Court.