Jan. 1, 2012: New Year, New Possibilities

It’s time to welcome the new year! Hopefully you and your family are doing well. I wish you all the best as we move into 2012. Will we reach 2013? I suppose we’ll all know soon enough.

Certainly, we could kick off 2012 by looking overseas, where we would find turmoil in North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere. There’s plenty of fear to be observed in South Africa and Europe, as well. In some sense, sure, that would be a worthwhile endeavor — we’ve done it before, after all.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s best for us to start the new year by first looking inward and examining the direction of our own leadership. Where better to begin than Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses? The so-called tea party appears to have fallen out of favor with voters seeking a more moderate, traditional candidate. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is increasingly facing concerns about whether his demeanor would unite or further divide politicians should he win a presidential bid. Mitt Romney, who is facing pressure to reveal his own tax returns after attacking President Barack Obama’s economic policies, is confident enough to look ahead to New Hampshire’s Jan. 10 primary, briefly turning his focus away from Iowa’s first-in-the-nation primary. None of the other GOP candidates are within striking distance in any major national poll, although Ron Paul is still holding his own in Iowa. Obama, for his part, agreed on Friday to wait a few days until Congress ceases its recess to request another debt limit increase. His political strategy will likely hinge on his ability to highlight the stark contrast between himself and an unpopular Congress, which is somewhat ironic for a candidate who originally campaigned on changing a radically bipolar political sphere.

In other election news, last week we discussed Virginia’s role in the Republican primaries — specifically, the fact that Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry failed to collect the required 10,000 verifiable signatures to get on the state’s ballot. Now, Rick Perry’s campaign is filing a lawsuit against the state and is inviting the Gingrich campaign to join. Gingrich currently leads Virginia’s polls but will get zero votes if Virginia does not let him on the ballot, as the state does not permit write-in votes; he has yet to decide whether or not to accept Perry’s invitation. Since the suit alleges a violation of first amendment rights due to the challenging task of gathering so many signatures, including a minimum of 400 per district, other candidates who did not attempt to get their names on the ballot could also join the suit. In any case, all of the candidates have until Jan. 6 to decide whether or not they will join the Perry lawsuit, which will be addressed in court on Jan. 13.

On the online side of things, Facebook has to love its continued dominance. Among web sites, the social media site trails only Google in the number of unique online visitors who visit, but users spend far more time Facebooking than using the global search engine standard. In fact, in terms of time spent, Facebook gets more use than Yahoo!, Google, AOL, and YouTube combined. Sure, Google+ has been working to siphon Facebook’s users, but some critics say that the challenger’s 62+ million user total is misleading. After all, Facebook instead publishes its active user total. How many of those Google+ accounts are being used on a regular basis? How many have been completely abandoned? Google representatives have not said. Further, since Google+ has been integrated into many other Google properties, we might expect Google+ accounts to be created only to be left dormant in favor of other services. These factors cast substantial doubt on whether the new face in the social media scene is really making any headway at all against Facebook. Besides, Facebook pictures even helped a Zales store track down a stolen engagement ring last week. You can’t argue with that utility, although you have to feel for the stunned fiancee, Amber Lafountain, who only wanted to show off her treasured gift to her friends.

In otherworldly news, two NASA spacecraft will enter the Moon’s orbit this weekend in pursuit of persistent questions about the celestial body’s formation and construction. Even as NASA pursues its unmanned flight program, however, China is pushing for its first manned lunar landing, as its government just made its first official government declaration of an intent to reach the milestone America touched almost four decades ago. Don’t expect it to happen any time soon — even China’s own scientists project that the earliest possible lunar mission would occur after 2020 — but the Moon is in their sights, if nothing else. Speaking of NASA’s future plans, we’ve talked about the notion that American astronauts would hitch a ride on Russia’s Soyuz rockets instead of using manned craft from the U.S. Two Soyuz crashes toward the end of 2011 added some serious fears to those plans, however, tarnishing what was once the best flight record of any spacecraft. As if those incident weren’t enough, now a young Russian blogger has revealed that she and a group of her friends were able to infiltrate and freely roam around a prominent plant… five separate times. The Energomash facility manufactures liquid-propellant engines for commercial and military rockets, including the increasingly infamous Soyuz. Lana Sator posted pictures to her blog showing the control tower, roof, and virtually the entire rest of the plant, demonstrating the comprehensive scope of her exploration. Apparently she and her friends entered through gaps in an unmanned, poorly-repaired fence. Based on tracks throughout the grounds, Sator suspects that the plant has many dogs, “and they are large – but we’ve only become acquainted with a couple who hid in a shed to avoid the light from the lantern.” She even photographed herself next to a security camera that did not appear to be connected to an alarm system. Hardly a glowing endorsement for Russia’s space program. At least our earthbound researchers at NASA are keeping themselves busy, deliberating over whether other planets could have endured the mystery processes that created a water supply on our home planet and considering whether online volunteers could help in the search for evidence of alien activity on the Moon.

Of course, you don’t always have to break into a government facility to express yourself. Mothers across the country are planning to invade Target stores en masse on Wednesday for the purpose of public breastfeeding. The “nurse-in” has become a prominent civil disobedience technique in recent years, used by breastfeeding advocates to campaign for their legal right to breastfeed in public and to fight against perceived mistreatment. But why target Target (pun completely intended)? Well, Texas mother Michelle Hickman claims to have been harassed by store employees when she was caught breastfeeding her five-month-old son in the blue jeans department of a Houston-area store. Apparently her son began to cry while she had a cart full of Christmas gifts, and since the quickest way to quiet a hungry child is to feed him, as she surmised, she ducked into a secluded corner of the store, put a blanket over herself, and began to feed her son. Several store associates asked her to relocate to a fitting room, while one (wrongly) suggested that she could be arrested for her actions. After the incident, an annoyed Hickman subsequently called Target’s corporate headquarters the following morning and was apparently told that “just because it’s a woman’s legal right to nurse a baby in public doesn’t mean she should walk around the store flaunting it.” Once she vented to a group of fellow mobs, word of Hickman’s tale spread like wildfire and prompted the planned nationwide flash mob. With over 100 nurse-ins scheduled across 35 states, Wednesday’s effort may be the most comprehensive campaign ever. If that makes you squeamish, you may want to avoid the targeted stores — and dodge the new Facebook app FalseFlesh, which claims to “easily make ANY picture a nude picture in minutes.” The app doesn’t actually work as X-ray vision to see through clothing, but effectively just pastes nude bodies underneath uncovered faces. While it’s little more than a simplified, creepy Photoshop filter, it’s probably the most disturbing marketing campaign ever attempted to that effect.

We’ll say goodbye to 2011 with a few fun news stories. Jonathan Paul Ive, who has headed Apple’s design team since 1997, was knighted by Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II on Saturday, receiving “an Order of the British Empire for services to design and enterprise.” While Ive’s technology has earned him one of his home country’s highest honors, ESPN staff would likely wish to forget their impact on Friday night’s Insight Bowl. With 2:22 left in the game and Iowa trying to mount a late charge against 19th-ranked Oklahoma University (which eventually held on to win, 31-14), a wire holding an overhead camera appeared to snap, sending the camera plummeting to the field below. It narrowly missed hitting Iowa receiver Martin McNutt Jr., who was entangled in the wire but escaped with minor scratches. A British child similarly avoided physical harm from his recent scrape with technology, but it’s hard to fathom the psychological damage that can ensue when an iPhone starts swearing at you. Kim Le Quesne of Coventry, England, said that her son wanted to try out the much-heralded Siri application at a local Tesco store. When he began to interact with the display unit, however, it told him to “shut up,” adding a four-letter profanity to drive home the point. Store workers agreed to unplug the unit after hearing the obscenities themselves; they suspect that pranksters tampered with the set-up instructions and are returning the handset to Apple for diagnostic tests.

Thus ends an exciting, if tense and tumultuous, 2011. Welcome to a brand new year!

Other articles of interest:
L.A. fires likely set by more than one arsonist, police believe
Protester Defends Flag-Burning at Occupy Charlotte
S&P Ends the Year Flat; Dow Rises 5.6%
Oil price to end 2011 near $100 a barrel
Organic Agriculture May Be Outgrowing Its Ideals
GM Recalls Chevy Sonics for Missing Brake Pads
Don’t Get Caught Using These Banned Words in 2012
Tipsy Towns: Where Are America’s Drunkest Cities?
U.S. approves Prevnar pneumonia vaccine for adults
Elderly brains stay sharp after low trans-fat life
Man With SD Ties Admits to Spreading HIV: Officials
U.K. to investigate French-made breast implants
Sex Education Gets Directly to Youths, via Text

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