Pirates, Pawnbrokers and a Pint: the best reads of April

May 1, 2009

Hi, is that the Somali pirates?”
Your best source is jailed. You track high-sea hijacks by text and email, get through to captors on a satellite phone. Reporting on Somali piracy can be surreal. During the saga of American Richard Phillips, Reuters reporters in Somalia contacted Phillips’ captors on their lifeboat stalked by U.S. warships.

Online ‘blood plague’ offers lessons for pandemics
In 2005, a plague called “Corrupted Blood” caused mayhem in the online game World of Warcraft. An estimated 4 million players were affected by the pandemic. The Corrupted Blood plague accidentally provided something unprecedented — a chance to safely study a pandemic in a uniquely complex virtual environment in which millions of unpredictable individuals were making their own decisions.

Public pawnbroker keeps Parisians’ secrets safe
In the ornate rooms where Auguste Rodin once pawned a hand from one of his sculptures to raise cash, immigrant mothers with toddlers queue to pledge their dowry gold or secure a loan. From Napoleon III’s mistress to cash-strapped modern-day bankers, Parisians have stored their jewels and secrets in a discreet building not far from the Seine: the public pawnbroker.

Researchers hope to clear mystery from clouds
Wearing 3-D viewing goggles, scientists peer at virtual pink, blue and purple clouds billowing in cyberspace at a research laboratory in Delft. By tracking how particles move in and around computer-simulated clouds, they hope to shed light on one of the unknowns of climate forecasting: how these masses of water droplets and ice crystals influence changing temperatures.

Global economic crisis hits German sex industry
In one of the few countries where prostitution is legal, and unusually transparent, the industry has responded with an economic stimulus package of its own: modern marketing tools, rebates and gimmicks to boost falling demand. The manager of the “Yes, Sir” brothel in Hanover says, “Times are tough for us too.”

America’s road hogs veer off freeway, hop on bus
From the movie “American Graffiti” to the song “Route 66,” car ownership and the serendipitous pleasure of the highway have been a celebrated part of American life. But signposts suggest America’s love of driving is stalling. There were few bidders at the Woodbridge Public auction, where cars were cheap.

African beer keeps head as other markets go flat
As the sun sets over the Congo River, drinkers trickle into Kinshasa’s “Staff Franc Congolais” bar, testament to the resilience of Africa’s thirst for beer even in difficult places and tough times. “The Congolese drink every day. It’s a distraction — there’s no world crisis as far as beer is concerned,” says a co-owner, known as “Franc Congolais” after the local currency.

Global crisis sparks gold rush in Brazil’s Amazon
Pedro Ferreira spends his days and nights in a cramped, steamy tunnel under the damp earth of the Amazon rain forest, chipping away at a wall of rock glittering with traces of gold. He is one of nearly a thousand wildcat miners who made a five-day boat journey to this remote jungle site to dig for gold — more highly prized now as investors flock to the metal as a safe haven.

Indians help Africa’s leather trade whip recession
In the sulphurous stench of a Ouagadougou tanning factory, leather technician Riyaz Kamal checks the thickness of a goat hide which may end up as a pair of Italian designer shoes. He is one of three Indians working at Burkina Faso’s only tannery who left their homeland for a country ranked the world’s second least developed by the United Nations.

Japan taps jobless autoworkers for aged care jobs
Changing an elderly person’s incontinence pants was one of the first challenges facing former air conditioning technician Naoya Kadohara when he switched to a job caring for elderly people. A similar shock could face many jobless Japanese if government efforts succeed in channelling some of them to fill gaps in the rapidly ageing country’s understaffed nursing homes.

Iraq’s policewomen struggle to change perceptions
In her Baghdad house, Policewoman Bushra Kadhem serves breakfast to her children then readies for a day manning checkpoints in one of the world’s most dangerous cities. She became one of Iraq’s first policewomen when an insurgency raged and militants targeted recruits. Now, with violence falling, she must persuade a conservative husband and society to accept her career.

Slum cooker protects environment, helps poor
Kenya’s huge and squalid slums don’t have much of anything, except mountains of trash that fill rivers and muddy streets, breeding disease. Now Kenyan designers have built a cooker that uses the trash as fuel to feed the poor, provide hot water and destroy toxic waste, as well as curbing the destruction of woodlands.

Cuba readies for possible influx of U.S. tourists
Behind the mangroves that skirt the blue waters of Cuba’s Bay of Cardenas, a 1,500-slip marina is taking shape as the island’s tourism industry braces for what could be its biggest challenge yet. The Americans are coming — or they may be, soon. “The Americans will come here in their yachts and they’ll put them in the marina,” said a security guard.

War-scarred Algeria town still waiting for work
The 15 police checkpoints on the road from the Algerian capital to Dellys are reason enough for an eerie atmosphere over this Mediterranean port town. Pristine, empty beaches, pine forests and a rambling 2,000-year-old casbah should make it a tourist hotspot, yet Dellys is isolated as it tries to recover from a brutal civil conflict that engulfed the north African country in the 1990s.

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