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What Happened When Turkmenistan's President for Life Died?

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© Tim Brakemeier/dpa/Corbis

When Saparmurat Niyazov died in 2006, Turkmenistan lost its so-called “President for Life.” During his 16-year reign over this impoverished Central Asian country, Niyazov built a formidable cult of personality around himself, indulging in all manner of nutty dictatorial behavior, including renaming days of the week and months of the year after himself and his family, outlawing gold teeth, and erecting, in the center of the capital, an enormous, gold-plated statue of himself with outstretched arms that rotated in 360 degrees, so as to always be facing the sun.

Under his leadership, Niyazov’s book, the Ruhnama — which he said he wrote as a “spiritual and moral guide” for the Turkmen people, but was actually a prolix collection of proverbs and plagiarized Sufi poems — was made mandatory reading in all schools and universities across Turkmenistan. Graduations were contingent on students’ knowledge of it; government officials were required to study it one hour each week; and teaching positions were often awarded to those who could recite by heart more of its obscure, if hilarious, kernels of confused wisdom: “The mud thrown at you is also thrown at me; and my cleanliness, my brightness is also yours.”

By the end of his reign, the President for Life had elevated his “spiritual and moral guide” to a literally holy status in Turkmenistan. The phrase “The Ruhnama is a Holy Book” was engraved, along with other verses from the Ruhnama and the Koran, on a mosque outside the capital, and Niyazov declared that the Ruhnama had to be displayed beside the Koran in every mosque across the country. When Turkmenistan’s Islamic grand mufti complained that Niyazov was behaving blasphemously, the mufti was sentenced to prison for twenty-two years. Later, the President for Life, not one to be humbled by a holy man’s threats, said he’d spoken directly with God, and that God agreed that anyone who had read the Ruhnama three times would be automatically admitted to heaven. It was, he said, a done deal.

Not surprisingly, when Niyazov kicked the bucket 2006, many Turkmens breathed a collective sigh of relief and hope for the future. Perhaps this marked the end of a rather unfortunate era? Perhaps this whole “holy” Ruhnama thing would finally be put to rest? Perhaps the hundreds of millions of dollars Niyazov spent on portraits, statues and monuments celebrating himself, his mother, and the Ruhnama would be repurposed to actually benefit the Turkmen people?

Not exactly.

Five years later, it seems one Turkmen narcissist has replaced another.

Meet the New Boss

© ITAR-TASS/Reuters/Corbis

The new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who abandoned a career as a dentist to take over the presidency in December 2006, is regarded as “not a very bright guy,” according to a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks last year. The cable goes on to describe the new leader, who prefers that his people refer to him as “Protector” or “Protective Mountain,” as “vain, fastidious, vindictive, a micro-manager” and a “practiced liar.”

In the intervening years, the Protective Mountain has done all he can to live up to that rather withering description.

After naming his reign “The Epoch of New Revival," Berdymukhamedov carefully dismantled some of the Niyazov kitsch littering the country—including that gold, rotating one in the capital—and then replaced it all with portraits and statues of—who else?—himself. He rolled back Niyazov's revisions to the names on the calendar. He also gradually reduced the presence of the Ruhnama in universities and government offices, and informed teachers that students should study it only for an hour each week. Instead, in the balance of their time, he said, they would study his books—a series of rambling treatises on subjects ranging from medicinal plants and economics to racehorses.

In his five years as president, the Protective Mountain has, however, taken a few baby steps in the general direction of real leadership. For instance, this fall, he opened a new 211-meter high broadcast tower just south of the capital, and announced that the proliferation of “advanced and innovative technologies” were a “state priority.” While that move was heralded as the “right general idea” by international media, most journalists pointed out that Berdymukhamedov actually stopped (way) short of any real change. The media in Turkmenistan is still controlled entirely by the government, opposition journalists are still regularly imprisoned, and the Turkmen internet is still so heavily censored, it makes Chinese freedom of information laws look downright liberal.

In the last few months, under extreme pressure from the West and China to modernize the economy of Turkmenistan, which is sitting on the world’s fourth largest gas reserves—a potential bonanza—Berdymukhamedov has suggested he might, one day, pipe gas to Europe. While it was hardly an active step toward economic diversification, the international community, like an oft-spurned lover, accepted his non-committal promises, pressed them to their gas-hungry hearts, and swooned.

Last month, in commemoration of all this indefatigable service to his country, Berdymukhamedov awarded himself the “Hero of Turkmenistan” medal, the country’s highest honor. No one in Turkmenistan batted an eye. After all, the President for Life awarded the “Hero of Turkmenistan” medal to himself six times over the course of 16 years. By comparison, the Protective Mountain is practically modest.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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