Crisis in Ukraine
July 7, 2014
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Even a few weeks ago, Ukraine seemed to be inexorably losing control of the eastern part of its territory to pro-Russia militants who were seizing cities big and small. By Sunday, Ukraine had ousted the rebels from Slovyansk and other towns, recaptured a key border crossing into Russia, and was preparing to battle for control of Donetsk, a regional capital of a million people and the center of the pro-Moscow forces' self-proclaimed republic.

The rebels, who call their convergence on Donetsk a tactical retreat, also seem to be treating this as a final showdown. The string of victories by Ukraine's troops started early last week, when President Petro Poroshenko called off a cease-fire.

The roots of Ukraine's improbable turnaround lie deeper, however: a shakeup in the military chain of command, an influx of financial aid from the U.S. and Ukrainian citizens, some military disengagement from Moscow, and what The New York Times' David M. Herszenhorn describes as "a crucial psychological shift: Soldiers surmounted a reluctance to open fire on their own countrymen, a serious issue after riot police officers killed about 100 protesters last winter during civil unrest centered on Maidan, the main square in Kiev."

Ukraine's ragtag military, plus allied militias, also adapted to urban warfare and benefited from what amounts to on-the-job training. "The military themselves learned to fight," Mykola Sungurovskyi, military scholar at Kiev think-tank Razumkov Center, tells The New York Times. The siege of Donetsk will be a big test of how far they've come. Peter Weber

That's Rich
4:33 a.m. ET

SkyMall may have had a near-death experience, but in-flight magazines are having something of a moment — and one, Rhapsody, is really turning heads. If you haven't heard of Rhapsody, it's probably because you don't fly first class or business class on United Airlines — but you've probably heard of some of the authors publishing original work in the magazine: Joyce Carol Oates, Anthony Doerr, Amy Bloom, Karen Russell, Rick Moody, Emma Straub, and about 25 other well-regarded literary fiction writers.

The New York Times noticed, and they profiled Rhapsody on Sunday, putting the newest A-list literary journal in context:

As airlines try to distinguish their high-end service with luxuries like private sleeping chambers, showers, butler service, and meals from five-star chefs, United Airlines is offering a loftier, more cerebral amenity to its first-class and business-class passengers: elegant prose by prominent novelists. There are no airport maps or disheartening lists of in-flight meal and entertainment options in Rhapsody. Instead, the magazine has published ruminative first-person travel accounts, cultural dispatches and probing essays about flight. [New York Times]

To hit the point home, The Times quotes United's Mark Krolick on what the airline gets out of hiring A-list writers: “The high-end leisure or business-class traveler has higher expectations, even in the entertainment we provide.” As for what the writers get out of it, it's a combination of a solid paycheck, free luxury travel, relatively free reign on what to write (no air disasters) and access to a well-heeled captive audience who might like to buy their books.

And while at least one writer laments to The Times that she wishes the magazine had a broader circulation than just wealthy fliers, it seems you can peruse Rhapsody's back issues online, for free. You're welcome, English majors. The Week Staff

the environment
4:01 a.m. ET

A ship carrying almost 200 tons of ammonium nitrate sank off the coast of Puntarenas, Costa Rica, on Saturday, causing the government to set up a 60-mile-long safety zone.

After the incident, people were told not to go swimming or fishing, but eventually a government spokesman said only small amounts of the chemical, used in the manufacturing of fertilizers and explosives, had been found in the water. Costa Rica's Emergency Commission said it was safe to bathe because the ammonium nitrate dissolved and was taken to sea on the tide, the BBC reports, but no one should fish for the next three days. Officials said they would launch an investigation into the sinking and chemical spill. Catherine Garcia

nepal earthquake
3:40 a.m. ET
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Nepal is asking foreign rescuers who came to the country to assist with disaster relief to either help in rural areas or go back home.

The announcement was made after Nepal's emergency relief committee met late Sunday, The Associated Press reports. Information Minister Minendra Rijal said that there is no need for international rescuers in Kathmandu and surrounding urban areas, as any work that still needs to be completed can be done by local workers. More than 4,050 rescue workers from 34 countries came to Nepal after the devastating earthquake that killed at least 7,276 people and injured 14,267 hit on April 25. Catherine Garcia

Johnsplaining
3:16 a.m. ET

The United States has been increasing its battery of standardized tests since the 1990s, and the number has only increased since President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind in 2001. Now, kids take 10 to 20 standardized tests a year, depending on grade, for a total average of 113 by the time they graduate, said John Oliver on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. This isn't sitting well with many children, some of whom don't test well, others who get so nervous they throw up.

"Something is wrong with our system when we just assume a certain number of kids will vomit," Oliver said. "Tests are supposed to be assessments of skills, not a rap battle on 8 Mile Road." President Obama campaigned against standardized testing, but only added his own — and both he and Bush (and countless governors) use the same appealing argument: Some schools are failing, and we need accountability. "Unfortunately," Oliver said, "accountability is one of those concepts that everybody's in favor of but nobody knows how to make work — like synergy or maxi-dresses."

This is about where standardized testing proponents should be getting nervous. "Look, at this point, you have to ask yourself if standardized tests are bad for teachers and bad for kids, who exactly are they good for?" Oliver asked. And if you're not familiar with Pearson, the testing giant, prepare to be displeased. Oliver closed his case on accountability, noting that U.S. scores have dropped versus their global peers in the era of test-mania. "As far as I can see, this is a system that has enriched multiple companies, and that pays and fires teachers with a cattle-birthing formula, confuses children with talking pineapples, and has the same kinds of rules regarding transparency that Bad Pitt had for Fight Club." For some of those references, you have to watch below. That's not a bad thins: Along with some vaguely NSFW language and imagery, there's a dancing monkey and great recurring bit about a French grade-schooler. —Peter Weber

hollywood 411
2:58 a.m. ET
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Avengers: Age of Ultron brought in $187.7 million over the weekend, the second-biggest domestic opening in history.

The movie has earned an estimated $627 million worldwide over the last 12 days, Variety reports, and is on track to pass $1 billion after it opens in China on May 12. Despite competition from the Kentucky Derby, NBA playoffs, and the Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao fight, moviegoers flocked to the film — about 59 percent of the audience was male, 41 percent were over the age of 25, 12 percent were teenagers, and 22 percent were families. Coming in a distant second place this weekend was Age of Adaline with $6.3 million. Catherine Garcia

giving homes to the homeless
2:10 a.m. ET
David McNew/Getty Images

Over the last 10 years, the number of chronically homeless people in Utah has dropped dramatically — down from 1,932 in 2005 to just 178 in 2015. The decline started once the state decided to try something new: Giving homes to the homeless.

"We call it housing first, employment second," Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah's Homeless Task Force, told NBC News. "It's a philosophical shift in how we go about it. You put them in housing first ... and then help them begin to deal with the issues that caused them to be homeless." The chronically homeless — defined as a person who lived on the streets for more than a year, or four times in three years, with a debilitating condition — make up 10 percent of the state's homeless population, but use more than 50 percent of its resources.

On average, the state was spending $19,208 every year for one person, until Pendleton discovered it cost only about $7,800 to set a person up in a home with a case worker. "It's more humane, and it's cheaper," he said. "I call them 'homeless citizens.' They're part of our citizenry. They're not them and us. It's 'we.'" Participants in the program say as soon as they received the keys to their house, their lives turned around and they were able to hold down jobs. "It was a blessing," veteran Don Williams, who had slept under a bush for 10 years, told NBC News. "A real blessing." Catherine Garcia

Boko Haram
1:50 a.m. ET

Last week, Nigeria's army rescued about 700 women and children abducted by the Islamist militia Boko Haram, and the first contingent of 275 arrived late Saturday at a government refugee camp near Yola, the capital of northeastern Adamawa state. The women and kids are receiving medical care, and on Sunday they told reporters sad and harrowing stories about their capture, captivity, and rescue.

Many of the women said that when Boko Haram abducted them, the militants first killed their husbands and older male offspring in front of them. Some of the women were forced to marry Boko Haram fighters, and one women told Reuters that they were fed only dried ground corn in the afternoons, leading to widespread malnutrition and death. Also, "they didn't allow us to move an inch," explained Asabe Umaru. "If you needed the toilet, they followed you. We were kept in one place. We were under bondage."

The assaults didn't end when the Nigerian forces drew near. "Boko Haram came and told us they were moving out and that we should run away with them. But we said no," Lami Musa, 27, told The Associated Press. "Then they started stoning us. I held my baby to my stomach and doubled over to protect her."

Musa and other survivors of the stoning said they didn't know how many women died, but Musa said her 5-day-old baby — born the night before the rescue — saved her from forced marriage. "They took me so I can marry one of their commanders," she said, and they told her than once she delivered, "within a week we will marry you to our commander." Some of the women, hiding, were accidently crushed by Nigerian government tanks coming to rescue them, and at least three others died when they stepped on a land mine en route to the refugee camp.

Nigeria and neighboring countries have been capturing ground from Boko Haram since February, pushing them into the Sambisa Forest, where the captured women and children were all found. Outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan has vowed to leave his successor a country "free of terrorist strongholds" when he leaves office later this month. Reuters has a slideshow of the women reaching camp below. —Peter Weber

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