Jan. 15, 2012: For Romney and ‘bama, Winning Isn’t Everything

Last Sunday I talked about all the competitions we would see in the coming week. As it happens, we have our victors for those contests, but it would appear that’s not necessarily the whole story.

Before we get into that, though, let’s talk about one of the more disturbing news items of the week. On Monday, Greece’s government sparked a firestorm of criticisms when it announced that pedophilia is now a disability for which the “disabled” will receive government support.

Go on, read that again, just to make sure you’re not dreaming it up. Got it? Good. Let’s move on.

Greece has been fighting to avoid bankruptcy for the past three years, so the country has taken a number of desperate cost-cutting measures that have already impacted many individuals’ standard of care. With the expansion of the state-recognized disability categories — which also now includes exhibitionists and kleptomaniacs — that support will fall even further. Worse yet is that, according to the Associated Press, “pedophiles are now awarded a higher government disability pay than some people who have received organ transplants.” As National Confederation of Disabled People head Yiannis Vardakastanis put it, “It’s really not serious to grant Peeping Toms a 20-30 percent disability rate, and 10 percent to diabetics, who have insulin shots four or five times a day.”

I really don’t have anything more to say about that one. You can judge for yourself.

Anyway, we should also address a bit of local news — namely, the sudden cold snap over the past several days. (Let the record show that I called this three weeks ago, and I still maintain that the worst is yet to come. Ken Scheeringa of the Indiana State Climate Office at Purdue University voiced his agreement a day after my prediction.) I hope you’re all staying safe out there on the slick roads, especially given that conditions are likely to remain hazardous for awhile. Granted, it’s great news if you’re skiing, but everyone else, please take care out there.

In last week’s Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney followed his Iowa caucus victory with another win, putting more pressure on his rivals to make up ground. With that in mind, the other Republican candidates are stepping up their attacks on Romney’s past as a business leader, and supporters of incumbent Barack Obama are following suit against the frontrunning Romney. Some analysts and political figures believe that the attacks are working and that Romney’s popularity among voters is eroding as a result. Either way, the attacks have forced Romney’s team to play damage control to keep him ahead of the competition heading into the South Carolina primary, particularly given the sudden and surprising threat of Rick Santorum, who finished Iowa in a virtual tie with Romney and held fourth place in New Hampshire. Even Stephen Colbert is doing his part to make the South Carolina primary interesting by entering the race himself. Still, the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll has Romney leading by 21 percentage points in South Carolina, and with most of his competition officially off the ballot in Virginia after rival Rick Perry’s legal challenge failed, Romney’s chances of winning the Republican nomination still look quite strong.

In the meantime, President Obama has developed a proposal to reorganize several governmental offices devoted to international trade, combining them in an effort to streamline their workflow. Perhaps the bigger story with his plan, though, is that he is asking Congress to grant him more power to propose government agency mergers, setting off a debate about the level of influence that the president should hold. Essentially, he is asking for the ability to push proposals directly into the legislature for a straightforward up-or-down vote, a power last in effect during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The specific proposal would help to make the government a little leaner, a tendency that Republicans have traditionally supported, although they may balk at the prospect of giving more power to the executive branch of the government as a consequence. It will be interesting to see how this chess match develops.

Things aren’t looking so sweet for Twinkies maker Hostess right now, as the company just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Hostess has struggled to cope with the wave of health-conscious movements over the past several years, and over the past few years they have sought a buyer for their flagging business, to no avail. Their strategy remains much the same now. Even if Hostess falls apart, it’s possible that another company will pick up their more successful brands, so don’t write off Twinkies just yet. In other food news, Tropicana maker Pepsico is in hot water amidst allegations that the company failed to report the presence of fungicide in its orange juice to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Apparently, Coca-Cola detected low levels of the toxin in some Tropicana juice while testing its own products and those of its competitors, and reported those findings to the FDA. The fungicide in question, carbendazim, is not permitted for use in U.S. citrus products, although it is used in Brazil, which exports some of its orange juice to the U.S. However, Coca-Cola and Pepsico may have bigger worries, as a political battle is underway over a proposed soda tax. According to a study from researchers at Columbia University; the University of California, San Francisco; and Virginia Tech; a hypothetical penny-per-ounce tax would result in a 15% soda consumption reduction among adults aged 25-64. Assuming that 40% of those lost calories would be replaced by drinking juice and milk, the average person would consume nine fewer calories a day, which would mean 26,000 fewer premature deaths over the next ten years. Of course, this assumes that higher prices would actually push people to make healthier beverage choices, which is no guarantee. Tobacco taxes have had some effect in this regard, but those taxes are usually very high compared with any soda taxes that have yet been tested. In the meantime, we can all enjoy the latest anti-soda ad campaign that attempts to link the sugary beverage to amputations. How appetizing.

Google generated headlines this week with news that the search engine would start integrating personalized results from Google+ into its results, calling the new feature “Search plus Your World.” Critics immediately cried foul, arguing that Google was unfairly promoting its own social network using its own dominance of the search engine market. Twitter in particular has attacked Google for this move, as Google+ entries will be heavily privileged over tweets. Google, for its part, fired back at Twitter, saying that Twitter asked Google not to index its tweets at all, ending an earlier agreement between the two organizations that allowed Twitter entries to appear on Google’s search results. Google representatives say that since Twitter removed itself from Google’s search results, their complaints about Search plus Your World are unreasonable. In any case, though, privacy experts are also concerned about crossing the social media site with the search engine, so Google could end up facing a probe from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over worries that other users’ personal data will be too easily accessible via the search engine. Google says that all searches using the feature will be conducted using the HTTPS protocol, so other users’ data shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands because of compromised search results. Still, that isn’t enough protection in the minds of some analysts.

Most of us have heard about how moderate consumption of red wine is supposed to be good for our hearts. Well, many of those studies have been called into question now that a University of Connecticut researcher, who headed some of the work done in this area, has been accused of over 100 counts of data fabrication and falsification. On Wednesday, the university claimed that Dapik K. Das, who directed the Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Connecticut, began an investigation into Das’ work in 2008 based on an anonymous tip, and developed a 60,000-page report over the next three years. (You can read a summary of the report here.) According to the report, Das’ research focuses on microscopic photographs of a chemical in red wine called resveratrol, but many of the images in his reports had clearly been spliced or otherwise doctored. Other members of Das’ laboratory are also being investigated, but the university has already declined $890,000 in federal grants awarded to Das for his work and are actively working to “correct the scientific record and inform peer researchers across the country.” Das, for his part, is alleging that the university has wrongly targeting him and his colleagues because of their race. (Most of Das’ research assistants, as well as Das himself, hold Indian descent.) Despite his objections, the University of Connecticut has already begun dismissal proceedings against Das. Research on resveratrol will undoubtedly continue, as Das was hardly the only person working in that area, but given how often other researchers cited him (more than 30 of his papers have been cited at least 100 times), the foundations of this area will nonetheless be shaken.

Let’s move to the sports world for a bit. In the NFL playoffs, Purdue alumnus Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints fell to the San Francisco 49ers yesterday, 36-32, capping a frenetic series of lead exchanges late in the fourth quarter. They’ll face the winner of tonight’s New York Giants-Green Bay Packers game for the NFC title. In the AFC, at the time of this writing the Denver Broncos trail the New England Patriots 35-7 at halftime. The winner will face the victor of this afternoon’s contest between the Houston Texans and the Baltimore Ravens. In the meantime, many fans and sportswriters alike were disgusted by last week’s college football national championship game, as Alabama shut out a surprisingly impotent LSU offense in an ugly, one-sided affair in which the outcome was decided by field goals rather than touchdowns. The rematch of LSU’s regular-season win over Alabama was widely hailed as a catastrophic failure of the BCS system to determine the best two teams to fight for the title. Given that LSU, Alabama, and Oklahoma State University all had one loss each — OSU’s only loss coming in double overtime to Iowa State University just hours after a plane crash killed two of the university’s basketball coaches — and that LSU and Alabama had already played each other once this season, many are listening to the complaints of OSU coach Mike Gundy, who said he would have liked to see his second-in-the-nation offense actually challenge Alabama’s stingy defense: “We’d have thrown it 50 times.” Still, while ESPN saw a ratings dip from last year for this championship game, it still garnered the second-largest cable television audience of all time. In any case, many are hoping that the conference commissioners will be more receptive to the idea of a playoff system rather than a single game to decide the national championship after this finale, which remains a debacle in the minds of many fans and commentators alike. The commissioners held their first of a series of meetings on Tuesday, and there was apparently at least more openness to the idea, although there has been little progress toward an actual change in what remain “philosophical” talks.

Finally, let’s close this week with a few fun news items. In New York City, a school teacher was fired and charged with a misdemeanor for a 2010 incident in which she faked her daughter’s death using a forged birth certificate. Why would she do that? So that she could take a 2 1/2-week vacation in Costa Rica. Joan Barnett, the former teacher in question, also involved her (very much alive) daughters in the ploy, making one daughter call the school to say that the nonexistent child suffered a heart attack in Costa Rica, then having another daughter call later to say that her sister was dead and that they would be travelling to Costa Rica for the funeral. Barnett’s half-baked plan fell apart when a school official noticed that the Costa Rican death certificate had some inconsistent and misaligned fonts. A Costa Rican official later confirmed to NYC investigators that the certificate was indeed fake, noting that the identification numbers on the document corresponded to a man who had died in 2005. Still, that might not be as bad as the handcuffed man in Kouts, Indiana who stole a police cruiser and then radioed for help to find the vehicle’s cigarette lighter and a key to unlock his cuffs. That’s still probably slightly less provocative than last Sunday’s 2012 No Pants Subway Ride, in which thousands of train commuters around the world rode in their underpants. The flash mob event was conducted in a range of major cities, including Washington D.C., London, Toronto, Mexico City, New York City, Tel Aviv, and Madrid. Riders in Madrid claim to have been stopped by police when trying to enter the starting station. Somehow, I’m not surprised. Nor should a certain Thai customs official be surprised when he loses his job after hitting a Bangkok airport security officer who was trying to pat him down. Granted, security in the U.S. has incensed a number of people, but I doubt any of them would resort to attacking the officers before simply avoiding airline travel.

Well, that was a lot of chaos to report today. Think the world will be a bit calmer next week?

Other articles of interest:
Europe braces for S&P downgrades
The Next Big Thing: Android in the home, and in the fridge
Beijing Apple Store Egged After iPhone Delay
Race for new website domain names may end up a marathon
Sony Holds Off on New Videogame System
Failed Russian Mars Probe Set to Crash in Indian Ocean
Russian Official Suggests Weapon Caused Exploration Spacecraft’s Failure
Diabetes Expert Disses Weight-Loss Programs
ADHD diet study suggests healthy eating might help kids
Nicotine Patches, Gum No Help
The Case for a 21-Hour Work Week
21 hours
Antidepressants Linked to Hypertension in Babies
Anger As Monkeys Created By Splicing Embryos
Big Blue boffins cram information onto a cool 12 atoms
Las Vegas gadget show CES gets record number of exhibitors; already biggest trade show in US
Kim Kardashian replaced by dog in Super Bowl ad
Pittsburgh mayor Tebows to settle bet with Denver mayor
It’s past time for league to let A’s move to San Jose
Dwight Howard breaks Wilt Chamberlain’s free-throw record
US Teen Deported By Mistake Returns Home

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