Dec. 25, 2011: Presents, Politics, and Pigeons

Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you’re enjoying yourselves over the holidays. It’s been an unusually mild winter thus far, but we’ll see whether we’re still saying that in a few months. (My guess is that the winter chill is just a little late — I expect a brutal February, personally. You can hold me to that prediction.)

Let’s start with some big world news: North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il passed away on December 17 (after last week’s post was written). The country is already preparing for its apparent successor, the late dictator’s twenty-something son Kim Jong Un (whose exact age is not widely known outside of North Korea), whom has adopted the “Supreme Commander” title that North Korean state media once gave his father. Very little at all is known about the third son of the former dictator, but it does seem that the heir, who has been called “unpredictable” by some analysts (although whether he is more erratic than his father remains unclear) is now the man behind North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Jong Un has done his part to lead mass mourning in North Korea, but other countries have not taken Jong Il’s death in quite the same way: when North Korean officials demanded and were granted a minute of silence at the United Nations General Assembly, almost two-thirds of the representatives boycotted the event. As one European diplomat said, “This is a man who is responsible for probably tens of thousands of deaths,” while an Asian diplomat speaking anonymously called the tribute “an embarrassment that we will have to put up with.” Either way, some have found the late leader’s death an easy way to prey on internet users, as the number of Kim Jong Il-related spam messages, trojans, and malware has exploded over the past week. A simple word of advice: if you see a link that offers you a peek at the former dictator’s liquor collection, or which advertises a photo gallery of his many mistresses, you’d be smart not to click it. If nothing else, at least use someone else’s computer to try your luck.

In other world news, a pair of suicide bombings targeting intelligence compounds in Damascus, Syria on Friday claimed 44 lives and wounded 166 more. The bombings were apparently part of the continued uprising against President Bashar Assad’s autocratic rule. Further east, rallies against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin continue to swell, with tens of thousands participating in the latest wave in Moscow. Attendance estimates range from 28,000, the Russian interior ministry’s estimation, to 120,000, which rally organizers say is closer to the true total.

Let’s shift to national news. Lawmakers reached an agreement to extend the Social Security payroll tax break by two-months. House Republicans had long resisted the bill, who were ready to allow the tax break, which keeps salary boosts in place for the average worker and also provides benefits to millions of unemployed Americans, to expire. This is still substantially shorter than the one-year extension which many parties originally sought (and which would have extended the provision through next November’s election cycle), but it remains a big retreat for the GOP in the House, which finally caved to party leaders who were worried that simply allowing the extension to expire would hurt them in the 2012 elections. Now that Congress has officially passed the bill, Congress will have at least a little time early next year to negotiate a potential year-long extension of the tax cut.

On the political front, presidential candidates Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich have failed to qualify for the Virginia state primary elections, as neither appears to have submitted the required 10,000 signatures to be placed on the state’s ballot. Both candidates claimed to have submitted over 11,000, but state party officials contested the claim. The rejection is especially damaging for Gingrich, who has been leading Virginia’s polls as well as many across the country, as some are now questioning the organization of his campaign. It will certainly make many voters concerned about how he might fare in a general election next November, should he be selected at the Republican presidential nominee.

Okay, let’s lighten the news a little. Among animals, pigeons are generally not considered to be some of the brightest around. However, a new study by researchers from the New Zealand’s University of Otego in Dunedin found that the widely-considered bird-brained animals are every bit as adept as non-human primates in differentiating numbers and learning abstract number rules. Damian Scarf and his colleagues worked to replicate a 1998 study in which rhesus monkeys were trained to find the differences between numbers of objects in pictures and to put them in ascending order. The researchers aren’t certain whether this ability to understand abstract ordinal rules (even when looking at unfamiliar objects or those in which surface area did not correspond to quantity) is evidence that pigeons and primates share a common ancestor or whether it evolved independently across species, but it’s certainly a surprise to those of us who have long been told that primates like humans, chimpanzees, and monkeys were the brainiest beings around.

It would be ridiculous to end this post without touching upon the most obvious news item of all: Christmas! NORAD’s Santa Claus trackers are having a banner year, using social media and old-fashioned telephone calls to update the public about Santa’s progress throughout the holidays. Volunteers at the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado were fielding 4,000 calls an hour by Christmas Eve morning, while Santa’s NORAD Facebook page exceeded 840,000 likes by mid-morning. It’s not such a jolly season for everyone, though. For the past few years, Newport Beach’s Fashion Island mall has banned Salvation Army workers from ringing their familiar bells as they solicit charitable donations around the mall, much to the disdain of many shoppers who appreciate the tradition and the sentiment. Salvation Army representatives, for their part, are saying that they’re merely respecting and complying with the mall’s rules, which they say are perfectly reasonable since the workers are using their property. Elsewhere, Nike has generated some unusual buzz over the past few days, as a Friday release of the new Air Jordan sneakers spurred shoppers into a frenzy that nearly descending into all-out riots. Consumers who had waited hours in lines fought over the shoes, a retro model of one of the most popular previous Air Jordan releases. Gunfire was reported in a Richmond, California store, a 20-year-old was stabbed while waiting in line at a New Jersey shopping center, and two doors in a suburban Seattle mall were ripped off their hinges. The vandalism and violence eventually lead to several arrests, including that of an 18-year-old who punched a police officer. For some, it was like Black Friday all over again.

Hopefully your Christmas experience is a little less chaotic than that. Hey, if nothing else, you can watch the NBA season begin today. Enjoy the holidays, and I’ll see you again in 2012!

Other articles of interest:
Twenty-one former players sue NFL
Yorvit Torrealba strikes umpire
Volkswagen turns off Blackberry email after work hours
Sony Details U.S. PlayStation Vita Launch Titles
Study: Smartphones Putting Serious Hurt on Point-and-Shoot Camera Sales
Google to pay Mozilla almost $300 million per year in search deal to outdo Microsoft and Yahoo
‘Facebook’ tops list of most-searched-for terms of 2011
How astronauts celebrate Christmas in space
Another Soyuz rocket launch fails
600-Million-Year-Old Microscopic Fossils Upend Evolution Theory
Elephant’s sixth ‘toe’ discovered

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