Update: Alexei Navalny, micromobility, zero-alcohol drinks, pro sports and the Covid vaccine

A second life for the ubiquitous e-scooters, the Russian activist's poisoning, and more.

Today's expression: Break down
Explore more: Lesson #301
October 8, 2020:

Today, we are revisiting five previous episode topics: Alexei Navalny was poisoned; e-scooters and micromobility are making a comeback in the pandemic era; a new zero-alcohol drink was released; progress in the return to pro sports; and an update on the race for a Covid-19 vaccine. Plus, learn the phrasal verb “to break down.”

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Here’s an update on five previous lessons

Lesson summary

Hi there, thanks for joining us for Plain English Lesson 301. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer; and this full and complete lesson can be found online at PlainEnglish.com/301. As always, that lesson includes the full transcript, translations, a video walkthrough, exercises, and much more—all at PlainEnglish.com/301.

About every six months, we revisit some previous lesson topics and talk about what’s new about those topics. Today, we’ll revisit the Russian activist Alexei Navalny, professional sports, electric scooters, non-alcoholic drinks, and the race for a Covid vaccine. The expression today is a phrasal verb: to break down. And JR has a song of the week. Let’s dive right in!

Alexei Navalny

We first met Alexei Navalny in Lesson 20 back in February 2018. At the time, he had been leading a movement to boycott the upcoming Russian elections. The Russian government arrested him to keep him quiet ahead of the vote in March 2018.

He was back in the international news again, this time after collapsing on a flight from Siberia to Moscow. He fell into a coma and was transferred to Germany, where he received treatment. The German government investigated and said Navalny had been poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent Novichuk. Navalny’s chief of staff said the use of Novichuk is the same thing as leaving an autograph at the scene of the crime, implying that the Russian president had no desire to hide that he was behind Navalny’s poisoning.

Meanwhile, Germany is about to inaugurate a large natural gas pipeline connecting Russian gas with European consumers; the German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been tolerating Russia’s bad geopolitical behavior, but she is now losing patience. The episode could lead Germany, and by extension Europe, to take a more hardline stance against Russia in the future, though the pipeline will probably still open.

The 44-year-old Navaly was released from the hospital on September 23 and posted a selfie with his wife, thanking everyone who worked to save his life.

Return of Pro Sports

Sports in the Covid era: we asked what that would be like in Lesson 266 back in June. Now we know. American baseball played a sixty-game season with no fans in the stands. It was strange watching the games, and a little eerie at first. Baseball stadiums pumped in fake crowd noise, which helped re-create the traditional atmosphere. A few teams got into Covid trouble early and had to miss parts of their schedule, but the abbreviated season was otherwise a success.

Pro basketball, ice hockey, and pro soccer finished their interrupted seasons in “bubbles.” A bubble is where the teams are sequestered in one or two cities and play all their games at a single location. This is designed to cut down on travel and exposure to Covid. It works for tournament-style play, but would not be feasible for an entire season. NBA games featured video screens in the spectator area—instead of live spectators, they showed streams of dedicated fans watching at home.

In Europe, football stadiums have started to welcome fans back, but at limited capacities. Every country is a little different, but France, Italy, Germany, Spain and others are setting capacity limits of 20 or 30 percent at first, with specific limits determined by the incidence of the virus in a given city. Fifteen thousand fans saw Bayern Munich raise the UEFA Super Cup in Budapest at the end of last month. Pro football in America is taking a similar approach, with some stadiums allowing a small number of fans, while other stadiums remain empty. Brazil wants stadiums to be 30 percent full soon, but football is on hold for the moment. France managed to stage its entire Tour de France without a single positive Covid case, even with some spectators. They’re hoping for similar luck with the French Open, which is going on right around when this lesson is coming out.

Electric scooters

Remember Lesson 47 ? We talked about how the sleek scooters from Lime, Bird, and other startup brands were popping up in cities around the world. Users thought they were a convenient way to get from point A to point B. Not everyone was happy, though: unused scooters clogged sidewalks, blocked entrances, and were an eyesore on many city streets.

The beginning of the pandemic was tough on electric scooter makers. As everyone stayed home, ridership plummeted. Lime laid off 400 workers in a painful two-minute Zoom call; the entire future of “micro-mobility” was in doubt.

How times change. As people start to move around again, many city residents are shunning public transportation and prefer solo trips on scooters to shared rides in Uber cars. Many US cities have closed streets to cars, allowing pedestrians to take over the roadway; scooters and bicycles are the only way to navigate those areas if you don’t want to walk. For their part, the scooter makers have introduced sturdier versions of their products; the new scooters are less likely to break down and are easier to track.

Scooter makers have to hire an army of independent contractors to collect the scooters at night, bring them to charging stations, and return the fully-charged scooters to the streets again in time for the next day. Two scooter companies, Go X and Tortise, are trying to solve that problem by having the scooters drive themselves to charging stations.

Non-alcoholic beer

We talked about the popularity of non-alcoholic cocktails in Lesson 212 last December. In July, Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser beer, released Budweiser Zero, a beer with fifty calories, no sugar, and no alcohol. The new product was released in partnership with NBA basketball star Dwayne Wade, whose voice appears in new commercials. The beer is designed for people, perhaps including athletes, who want to enjoy a beer without the negative side effects.

Covid vaccines

And finally, the one we’re all monitoring closely: the Covid vaccine. We talked about it in Lesson 284 in early August. One promising vaccine in development by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca ran into a speed bump in September, when a trial participant fell ill, causing the team to pause trials. After a six-day delay, the trials resumed. Pfizer, Moderna, Novavax, and Johnson & Johnson are also working on Phase III trials of vaccines. News about the vaccines’ effectiveness and safety should be known by the end of 2020.

Donald Trump, eager to show a victory ahead of his re-election in November, has been promising a vaccine soon. This has prompted nervous drug makers to collectively release a public letter saying they would not bow to any type of outside pressure and would follow all safety protocols.

Explore the lesson history

Some old ones and some new ones in there—raise your hand if you were with us back in Lesson 20 or Lesson 47. I know some of you are raising your hands. If you’ve just joined us and you haven’t been able to listen to all the old lessons, that’s okay: you have time! You can explore our old lessons via the Lesson Library. It’s open to all members—free and paid—and it’s a great way to explore the many topics we’ve covered in the last three years.

You can also explore the old-fashioned way. Just pick a number at random between 1 and 300 and type it into your browser like this: PlainEnglish.com, slash, and then the number. That will take you to one of our three hundred English lessons in our history.

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Expression: Break down