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The Independent Online
Soldiers' fortune

IN SOVIET days Russia's third city, Nizhny Novgorod, was named after Maxim Gorky, the writer. Andrei Sakharov was put under virtual house arrest there when it was a closed city devoted to military research.

But times have changed, along with the city's name. Nor is the country's military establishment what it was. Military personnel in Nizhny have had to look for new ways to make money - the local nuclear plant, for example, was turned into a vodka factory. Nothing beat the enterprise of the lads at the Popov telecommunications equipment plant, though: they set up a production line to churn out pornographic videos. When the local organised-crime fighters burst in, they confiscated 124 video recorders and more than 8,000 video cassettes.

As a means of earning a living, it certainly beats picking cabbages, which is what some soldiers have recently had to do. But Gorky and Sakharov, who in life would have agreed on very little, must both be turning in their graves.

Talking proper

I WISH John Wild and George Maher well. They flew out from Heathrow last week on a mission from the Plain English Campaign: to clear up misuse of the mother tongue in our former colonies.

Their first stop is India, where development of the language sometimes appears to have been frozen in Victorian times, such as this example from a local newspaper: "He was conveyed to his place of residence in a state of alcoholic intoxication". (Another headline said "50 Killed in Mishap".) Next up is South Africa, where the group spent pounds 40,000 on translating the country's new bill of rights into intelligible English, as opposed to the kind used by the drafters.

George's mother, Chrissie, who founded the Plain English Campaign, sees the US as her biggest challenge. "Involuntary rowback to idle is their expression for an engine cutting out," she says. "Negative patient care outcome means you drop dead. [Americans] are to blame for stupid things like that."

On the other hand, there is still work to do at home. My wife showed me a worksheet by an educational trainer who lists "disinterested" as one of the signs of a bad teacher. If Mrs Maher can convey the difference between "impartiality" and "lack of interest" to the people who teach teachers, I am prepared to demand National Lottery money for her.

Off yer bikes

ONE OF the few charms of Peking is its myriad cyclists. There is a slightly hallucinatory quality to the sight of so many of them drifting down the avenues of the Chinese capital like schools of fish, though the growing volume of motor traffic has begun to make the scene look more like dolphins driving into shoals of sardines.

Now cyclists have been banned from East Xisi street, in the heart of the city, to make way for the buses and private cars spawned by economic development. The street is one of the few which still has trees and low- rise buildings; I once cycled down it myself, going with the flow. Should have known it could never last.