Flat Earth

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Toy boyski

IN RUSSIA, the toy boy has taken over. For the past decade, Alla Pugacheva, flame-haired dinosaur of Russian pop music, has been in the top television slot on New Year's night. This year she was relegated to the less popular time of Russian Orthodox Christmas afternoon a few days later, while husband Philip Kirkorov, nearly half her age, has become the acknowledged Russian Number One.

"Filly", as the girls call him, stole the female hearts of the nation with his almond eyes, flowing black hair and songs like: "I don't drink, I don't smoke, dear lady I just loooove". Then he began dressing up in feathers and singing operatic arias in a falsetto voice.

Strangely, Russian men admire Kirkorov too, perhaps because he satisfies their women- folk in an unthreatening manner. Alla, who is starting to lose her lustre, realised it was time to transfer her laurels. From her point of view, the crown did at least stay in the family. Kirkorov recalled in an interview how, as an 11-year-old boy, he fell in love with Alla when she was singing at a New Year party for children in the Kremlin. He pestered her to marry him for years. Pugacheva is no fool, as everybody agrees. The cynics argue that she gave in just when she perceived that the soap opera of a wedding might help to prolong her career. Now she is bowing out, although she remains the "godmother" of Russian pop, without whose favour no young artist can hope to make a career.

Bedside mangler

Let's put it this way: you wouldn't exactly want him as your local GP. Hu Wanlin, a 50-year-old self-proclaimed doctor, has been arrested in Shanghai. His crime: he was held responsible for the deaths of some of his patients. The number indicates that this was more than just a bit of bad luck. Hu Wanlin is blamed for 146 deaths among those who came to him for magical cures. Nor were his patients just anybodies. The unmagical deaths included a local mayor.

Unkindest cut

Arguments have exploded in the United States over a convicted child rapist, James Ray Stanley, seeking to undergo surgical castration in exchange for a 10-year reduction in his prison sentence in Arkansas.

Judge Dan Langston approved a plea bargain proposed by Stanley himself: he would submit to have his testicles removed, and in return his sentence of 30 years behind bars would be reduced to 20 years. The American Civil Liberties Union is deeply unhappy: "Are we going to say we'll take five years off in cases of burglary if you agree to have your hand cut off?" But Stanley's lawyer insists the right to be castrated is part of "my client's constitutional right to liberty, life and the pursuit of happiness".

Rats to riches

Forget the Lottery. How about getting rid of rats as a way of reaping rewards? The Vietnamese are handing out prizes to those who have done best at killing vermin. Thus, farmers who turn in 1,000 rat tails receive radios and farmers who successfully kill 500 rats receive an insecticide sprayer; 400,000 rats have been killed on one farm alone. But those who fail to kill at least 10 rats per acre will be fined. The obligatory watchword: slice that rat.