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News and Trends
October 22-November 5, 2007


Dying Words
Imported Humor
Venezuela's Time Trials
What Not to Wear
They Don't Pull Punches
Timbuktu: No Longer Nowhere

Dying Words
There are nearly 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, but experts say almost half are in danger of extinction. One language vanishes about every two weeks, with the death of the sole surviving speaker. According to K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, 83 languages with "global influence" are spoken by 80 percent of the world's people. More than half the endangered tongues have no written form, says Harrison, and are "vulnerable to loss and being forgotten." He and other researchers are traveling the globe as part of a project to identify and record endangered languages. Regions where languages are disappearing most rapidly include northern Australia, central South America, North America's Pacific Northwest, and eastern Siberia. In the Southwestern United States, several of the 40 American Indian languages spoken in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico could disappear in the near future.

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Imported Humor
Russia's hottest new TV show revolves around a couch-potato shoe salesman, his loudmouth wife, and their two slacker teens. This might sound strangely familiar to many Americans. In fact, the show is an authorized copy of the American sitcom Married ... With Children, which ran in the U.S. from 1987 to 1997 and is now in syndication. The Russian version is called Schastlivy Vmeste ("Happy Together"). But the gist is the same: an often-irreverent lampoon of family life. The show is currently the most popular series among Russians 18 to 30. Other U.S. sitcoms adapted for Russian TV include Who's the Boss? and The Nanny. Their popularity reflects not only Russia's changing tastes but its economic situation. Sitcoms drew little interest during the 1990s, when the economy was on the verge of collapse. Now, with the country's recent economic upturn, Russians can enjoy poking fun at their own middle-class lifestyles.

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Venezuela's Time Trials
In January, Venezuela's clocks will be moved forward by half an hour, and the workday will be reduced from eight hours to six. President Hugo Chávez claims that this will boost the "metabolism" and productivity of Venezuelans by giving them more access to sunlight each day. Playing with time isn't the only change Chávez is imposing on Venezuela. Since his re-election to a six-year term in December, he has nationalized oil, telephone, and electric companies and forced a TV station off the airwaves. Chávez also hopes to tighten his control by rewriting the country's constitution. Among other things, this would allow him to end the current two-term limit for presidents and be re-elected indefinitely.

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What Not to Wear
The Iranian police began cracking down on immodest dress this past spring, stopping women in public places to warn them about their attire. Offenses include wearing headscarves that allow hair to show; eyeliner, nail polish, and other makeup; and short, tight coats. Since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, women have been required by law to cover their hair and wear long, loose clothing. The ideal is considered to be the chador, a black head-to-toe cloak. But some women have resisted, and Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has backed campaigns to clamp down. Men are also being targeted—for wearing un-Islamic T-shirts and hairstyles. According to Ahmadinejad: "Those who have indecent appearance are sent by the enemy."

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They Don't Pull Punches
Traditional femininity is highly prized in Thailand, where girls are taught to be discreet, obedient, and gracious. But this isn't stopping some Thai women and girls from beating up on their opponents in the boxing ring. Thai boxing, or muay Thai, makes Western boxing look courteous. A knee to the kidney or a kick in the head is not only fair game, it's encouraged. Many girls from poor families see the sport as a path to modest prosperity. But maintaining their femininity is still a concern. "I kick, I punch, use my elbows and knees like a boy," says a 13-year-old fighter who gave her opponent a bloody nose and got a fat lip in return. But, she adds, "Once I get down from the ring I become who I am—a girl."

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Timbuktu: No Longer Nowhere
A surge of interest in ancient books is raising hopes that Timbuktu—a city in Mali that has long been a synonym for nowhere—may once again become the intellectual heart of Africa. In the 15th century, the city flourished because it sat between the major trade routes of the Sahara and the Niger River. Timbuktu became a center for trading in books and manuscripts and was home to a university with 25,000 scholars. After the city was captured by the Sultan of Morocco in 1591, it began to decline. Today, Timbuktu is mostly a collection of mud houses along trash-choked streets. But with help from South Africa, the city is attempting a comeback by focusing attention on its literary treasures. Timbuktu's Ahmed Baba Institute is building a new library to house thousands of books and make them available to scholars. "We want to build an Alexandria for black Africa," says Mohamed Dicko, the Institute's director, referring to the Great Library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt.

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