Jan. 8, 2012: Let the games begin!

It’s been an interesting start to 2012, with a number of dramatic contests being waged. Whether you’re more interested in political warfare, athletic battles on (and off) the field, or the battle for internet dominance, this week had something for you.

Let’s start with the obvious headline of the week: the Iowa caucuses. Mitt Romney surprised some analysts by winning the first state to hold its Republican primary. For some, the big story was how Iowa voters, many of whom are evangelicals, defied the one-dimensional mindset that some purport they hold, pushing a Mormon to victory instead of someone more closely aligned with their religious demographic. For others, the surprise was Romney’s minuscule eight-vote margin of victory over the surging, “shoestring-budget” Rick Santorum. Others noted that in this supposed “record turnout,” only 5.4% of Iowa voters actually participated in the Republican caucuses (122,255 of 2,250,423), and an eight-vote margin is effectively meaningless in that sample, even if Romney technically “won.” More puzzling is the fact that Iowa divides its 28 delegates among participating candidates — it isn’t a winner-take-all state — so it’s still hard to say whether the top two or three (including Ron Paul) finishers will be awarded the lion’s share of the delegates or whether we’ll see a more splintered division across all the candidates. These decisions are made in a long process that extends through June. It would take half of this week’s post to detail the full caucus procedure here, but needless to say, even if we claim that Romney won in Iowa, his prize is still unclear.

Of course, the Republican primaries are hardly the final stop in the road to the White House, and some in the political sphere have noted that the longer uncertainty prevails and challengers get more and more battered, the stronger incumbent Barack Obama will appear next to his eventual challenger. Further, despite public discontent over the high unemployment rate, which has been sitting at historic levels for the past couple of years (it’s higher going into this election year than in any other election year since World War II), that statistic may also favor Obama. After all, according to the Associated Press, “In a presidential election year, the unemployment trend can be more important to an incumbent’s chances than the unemployment rate. Going back to 1956 no incumbent president has lost when unemployment fell over the two years leading up to the election. And none has won when it rose.” Unemployment sat at 7.7% in January 2009 and quickly climbed past 10%, finding a plateau in the 9-10% range for almost two years. However, while the unemployment rate was 9.8% in November 2010, it’s since fallen to 8.5% as of last month. If that decline continues, that indicator would give Obama a strong chance of being elected. If, on the other hand, the U.S. slips back into its recession/depression or if workers who have given up seeking jobs resume their efforts (see my Dec. 4 post and the related L.A. Times article), that could spell doom for Obama in November.

I’d like to transition to a very different sort of competition now. Back in December, we talked about the new collective bargaining agreement for the National Hockey League, which included a league realignment to a four-conference format. As I said at the time, “The NHL Players Association still has to give final approval in order to make this deal official, but like the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, there’s little doubt in most analysts’ minds that it will happen.” Well, hold the phone, people. It turns out that the NHLPA didn’t jump at the plan like everyone expected, and instead rejected the league’s proposal. Now, of course, the backbiting is underway.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said that “It is unfortunate that the NHLPA has unreasonably refused to approve a plan that an overwhelming majority of our clubs voted to support, and that has received such widespread support from our fans and other members of the hockey community, including players.” NHLPA representatives retorted that the effects on player travel schedules were unclear, as were the chances for teams from smaller and larger divisions to make the playoffs under the new format. NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said that, “In order to evaluate the effect on travel of the proposed new structure, we requested a draft or sample 2012-13 schedule, showing travel per team. We were advised it was not possible for the league to do that. We also suggested reaching an agreement on scheduling conditions to somewhat alleviate player travel concerns… but the league did not want to enter into such a dialogue.” As Pittsburgh Penguins player representative Craig Adams added, “Up to this point, they haven’t given us any information. We aren’t turning it down outright. We just haven’t seen anything from them that convinced us that it’s a good idea.” In any case, this matter won’t be resolved quite as easily as some had expected. One thing seems clear: the realignment won’t happen in time for next season, as the league itself is pushing back the implementation portion of its proposal now that the NHLPA has given its initial rejection.

In other sports news, the NFL playoffs are finally underway, with the Houston Texans triumphing over the Cincinnati Bengals, 31-10, in their franchise’s first playoff game. They’ll face the AFC North champion Baltimore Ravens next week. As for the other first-round matchups, at the time of this writing, just a few moments ago the New Orleans Saints closed out a 45-28 victory over the Detroit Lions. They’ll challenge the San Francisco 49ers next. Still to come this weekend: the Atlanta Falcons at the New York Giants, and the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the Denver Broncos. Green Bay and New England, each of whom earned first-round byes like Baltimore and San Francisco, await the winners.

Let’s move to the U.S. legislature for one of the most pertinent technology news items over the past several years. The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, SOPA and PIPA for short, continue to march forward in the legislative process despite considerable public outcry about what opponents view as technical ignorance evident in the bills. On their surface, at least, SOPA and PIPA appear perfectly reasonable, as they aim to devastate those who would disseminate pirated media online. The means by which they do so, however, has many in the tech community incensed. According to IDG News reporter Grant Gross,

[Paul] Ferguson and other Web security experts have questioned provisions in both bills that would allow court orders forcing Internet service providers to block subscriber access to foreign websites accused of copyright infringement and domain name registrars to stop resolving queries that direct traffic to those sites. The filtering provisions in both bills would set back the decade-long effort to roll out DNSSEC, a suite of security tools for the DNS, Ferguson said. “It seems like all the technical concerns are just being dismissed out of hand,” he said.

Some of the pioneers of the internet, such as Vint Cerf, who co-designed the TCP/IP framework, and Robert W. Taylor, founder of internet predecessor ARPANET, have implored Congress to drop both SOPA and PIPA. There are free speech concerns, for one thing, as the Department of Justice (DoJ) would have the power to silence any online voice that was even suspected of a piracy connection — an overzealous verdict given before even any trial, some argue — which may also cripple the activities of casual internet users who have never engaged in piracy. The consequences could also be dire for innovators who suddenly have to fear censorship under SOPA/PIPA. Furthermore, many in the tech industry say that the implementation simply makes no sense given the architecture of the internet.

Even if Congress isn’t listening, digital rights group Fight for the Future claims that the general public is beginning to care, as more than one million people have already sent Congress E-mail messages opposing the bills. Internet domain registrar and host GoDaddy recently withdrew its own support for SOPA under the threat of a mass consumer boycott. Perhaps most damning is that some of the biggest sites on the web are putting their own success on the line to fight back. Representatives for Wikipedia, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter, among others, report that they are all considering a “nuclear option” to protest SOPA/PIPA should they pass — if a formal decision is reached, they would simultaneously black out their own services, aside from a few sentences explaining the shutdown, in order to ignite the public’s fury against Congress. Even if users are angry about the downtime, they say, their explanation might at least ensure that “the majority of the rage flows in the proper direction.”

If there’s anyone who still supports SOPA and its sister bill, PIPA, that someone is the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a steadfast SOPA supporter from the beginning. The RIAA recently attacked a SOPA alternative, the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN), saying that the bill “clearly does not operate on the short time frame necessary to be effective.” Since OPEN would give blocking authority to the International Trade Commission (ITC) rather than the DoJ, and since the ITC has been very slow in arbitrating the RIM vs. Kodak dispute (filed in January 2010, with a ruling expected this September), RIAA representatives claim that OPEN, unlike SOPA, would be useless in the copyright-protection fight. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), like the RIAA, has also voiced consistent support for SOPA/PIPA, although opponents claim that their arguments are intentionally misleading and that SOPA in particular “represents the most ill-advised and destructive intellectual property legislation in recent memory.”

Clearly, we’re looking at some big battles here. Of course, there are a number of other interesting articles this week, as well, most of which don’t involve opposing parties trying to tear each other to pieces. I’ve highlighted a few below, focusing mostly on health and technology news. (My favorite, of the below stories, happens to be the four atom-wide silicon wire, although the breast implant story poses some major health concerns for a number of people in Europe.) So sit back and enjoy, and I’ll see you again next week!

Other articles of interest:
The breast implant scandal strips away the glossy euphemisms of cosmetic surgery
British Clarification on Implant Scandal Leaves Women Only More Confused
Routine Prostate Cancer Screening Doesn’t Reduce Risk of Death
Rape redefined for FBI to include male victims
The World’s Smallest Electric Wire Is Four Atoms Wide
Silicon wire created 10,000 times thinner than human hair
‘Time cloak’ hid event in experiment, physicists say
CES 2012 Preview: 16 Hot Gadgets
Apple’s Siri Feature Doubles IPhone Data Usage
The Critics Rave … for Microsoft?
Vizio aims to disrupt the crowded budget PC market, but can it?
Israel vows to hit back after credit cards hacked
Russia’s Phobos-Grunt probe heads for fiery finale
Like babies, dogs pick up on human intent

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