Sep. 30, 2012: Here Come the Debates

Before we get to the big national story for the coming week, let’s address a few regional and international issues. Perhaps the top headline grabber over the past few days was the tragic shootings in Minneapolis which claimed six lives, including the shooter. Officials initially refused to specify how many people had been killed. Reports eventually indicated that the gunman, along with four victims, worked for Accent Signage Systems, an interior graphics and signage company. Later updates added a United Parcel Service driver for a total of six deaths.

All five victims died by gunshot, and Andrew J. Engeldinger, the shooter, committed suicide afterward. Several others were wounded in the deadly assault.

It appears that Engeldinger’s rampage was fueled by his termination from Accent just hours earlier. Oddly, Engeldinger’s attack may not have been a pure bout of blind rage, as he willfully bypassed several offices in his efforts to target a few specific individuals. However, family members did note that Engeldinger had grappled with mental illness for years; they said it was “not an excuse for his actions, but sadly, may be a partial explanation.”

Accent is a small but highly successful firm which employed about 30 workers before the shootings. It is perhaps best known for its work on Braille signage, and the company even patented a technology that prints Braille characters on various hard surfaces.

On the subject of a different disaster, some of you may recall the tragic Costa Concordia crash on January 13, which we discussed earlier this year. The cruise ship, which had drifted off course and come within just a few meters of the Italian coastline, ran aground on a reef and partially sank. 32 lives were lost in the incident, and dozens of others were injured during the crash and subsequent evacuation of over 4,000 passengers; the captain, who admitted being “distracted” by a phone call during the incident, remains under criminal investigation for his actions.

Well, several Italian businesses filed a lawsuit against Carnival Corporation, which owns the Costa cruise line, in Florida courts. But Carnival sought to consolidate the suits in Italian courts, and U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenbaum agreed, saying that any lawsuit against Carnival should be filed in Italy, where the crash occurred. Such a suit may bode poorly for the plaintiffs, though, given that the rest of the Costa Concordia’s crew jointly won the Lloyd’s List “Seafarer of the Year” award, which recognizes day-to-day competence, heroism, and professionalism. (Lloyd’s List is a top newspaper focused entirely on the maritime industry.) On the other hand, passenger reviews were mixed, with some saying that many crew members displayed acts of heroism during the tragedy, while others were largely incompetent (and, notably, unable to speak Italian). Some experts also criticized the crew for being ill-prepared. Regardless, however, it is clear that many industry professionals found the crew’s work on the Costa Concordia to be stellar, which may ultimately focus blame for the incident on the captain rather than the company as a whole.

Over the past two weeks, we have been closely following the anti-U.S. violence abroad. Many analysts have argued that at least some of the outrage stemmed from a YouTube trailer for the amateur film “Innocence of Muslims,” which mocked the Islamic Prophet Mohammad. Speculation about its creator, who went by the pseudonym Sam Bacile, was rampant throughout the media, with many speculating that Bacile was an Israeli who made the film specifically to enrage the Muslim population. Which made it all the more surprising to learn that Sam Bacile’s true identity is Egyptian-born Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.

To add to the twist, in 2010, Nakoula was convicted of check fraud and sentenced to 21 months in prison and five years of probation. As part of his probation agreement, Nakoula was forbidden from using the internet or adopting any aliases without prior approval from his probation officer. Yet he legally changed his name to Mark Basseley Youssef back in 2002 but never told authorities — he used the name Nakoula throughout his 2010 fraud trial — and he went by Sam Bacile throughout the production of “Innocence of Muslims.” In response to this revelation, authorities arrested him for violating the terms of his probation. He is currently being held without bond, since U.S. Central District Chief Magistrate Judge Suzanne Segal said he had demonstrated a history of deception and posed a flight risk.

Iran’s nuclear plans have also drawn some international attention, with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, asking the United Nations to draw a “red line” on Iran’s activities. Netanyahu previously asked the same of the U.S., but a tepid response from President Obama prompted him to turn his pleas to the U.N. instead. Netanyahu accused Iran of consistent aggression without nuclear weapons, and rhetorically asked what Iran would do if it was allowed to finish developing atomic weaponry. The red line he drew on a chart during his speech represented the end of stage two in the enrichment process, at which point he said Iran could no longer be stopped from developing nuclear weapons.

On the other side of the argument, Iranian General Mohammad Ali Jafari responded that “these threats only reinforce our determination to continue in the same direction,” while the country’s ambassador to the U.N., Eshagh al-Habib, said that there was no basis for Netanyahu’s remarks and that the nation of Israel itself is “based on terrorism.”

Let’s transition back to domestic affairs for a bit to tackle the headline story. It’s about time, really. After all, we’re nearing the climax of the U.S. presidential campaign, and Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are preparing to square off in a series of four debates this October. The first clash will be this Wednesday at 9:00 p.m., when the two candidates will duel over their respective domestic policies.

Romney needs a big win in these debates, as the well-practiced Obama clearly leads several swing state polls, due in large part to a sequence of major Romney gaffes. But some analysts expect Romney to challenge Obama’s honesty, especially given the Republican’s recent comment that “I think he’s going to say a lot of things that aren’t accurate” during the debates. And if he can shave a few points from Obama’s nationwide lead in the polls, or if he can swipe several swing states as well as a few in the Midwest, there’s hope for his chances. Of course, Obama still holds a relatively large lead with just over five weeks until election day, and he seems to have many more routes to victory than Romney does.

Given that many voters still feel that neither candidate is a good choice, both the Democratic incumbent and his Republican challenger have a number of huge questions to answer in the coming weeks. The presidency may hinge on their answers.

Apple presented us with a lighter, if still depressing subject this months. A few weeks back, the technology giant released the new iPhone 5, complete with a brand new Maps app as a replacement for the Google Maps software on previous models. The problem? Apple’s new non-Google version was riddled with glitches. The most common consumer complaints since the launch have been a lack of details, distorted images, and outright incorrect directions, all of which are major problems for such an application.

It seems that Apple made a strategic decision to rid itself of Google’s influence with the move to iOS 6, forcing consumers to use its own native app instead. And that’s why Apple CEO Tim Cook has spent the past few days profusely apologizing for a decision that seemed so unlike a company built on the late Steve Jobs’ obsessive attention to detail. The apologies themselves are also a stark departure from Jobs’ notorious attitude toward customers, which has ironically led some to see it as a chink in the juggernaut’s armor. No less damning was Cook’s recommendation to experiment with rival apps in the meantime: “While we’re improving Maps, you can try alternatives.”

Unsurprisingly, Google representatives say that their company has no plans to provide Google Maps to the iPhone 5 in the foreseeable future.

In sports news, the NFL referees lockout appears to be nearing its end, as an agreement between the referees’ union and the league was reached on Wednesday. Officials began signing the document on Friday and planned to fly directly to the cities of today’s games. The agreement will become official once 51% of the union’s 121 members ratify it. It’s a good thing, too, given NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s own admission to fans that “you deserve better” than games worked by replacement officials, who many analysts have said were not provided with adequate training before the season began.

Monday night’s showdown between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks may have been the last straw, as the game was decided by a last-second Seattle touchdown; most who saw the play believe that the officials botched the call in counting the score, robbing Green Bay of a rightful victory. That’s why one of the regular officiating crews returned to work early for Thursday’s Baltimore-Cleveland clash. It may have been the first time in sports history that a crowd of 50,000 fans cheered in support of the referees — before the game even began.

With the NFL lockout apparently resolved, it’s time to watch the NHL negotiations to see if that league will follow suit. After all, the entire preseason has already been cancelled, and next week’s regular season games are in serious jeopardy now.

As we reach the two-week mark of the lockout over hockey’s collective bargaining agreement, both sides have been dancing around the major contentions over revenue sharing between players and owners, focusing instead on side issues like drug testing protocols and the length of practices. Officials hoped that starting with these lighter topics, on which the league and the players’ union have had positive discussions in the past, would set a better tone for negotiations moving forward. Negotiations were expected to continue throughout the weekend.

Space has offered some more exciting news, as the Curiosity rover appears to have found clear evidence of an ancient riverbed flowing across Mars. The rover sent back images of an outcrop of rocks with smooth surfaces, indicating that the stones repeatedly struck one another to smooth out their edges over time. Just as importantly, their surfaces were not coated in dirt, but were exposed and clean, which would counter any claim that the weathering arose due to wind rather than water. Other rocks appear to have been formed by water deposits cementing smaller, round pebbles together. As a NASA representative said, “Water transport is the only process capable of producing the rounded shapes of clasts [gravel fragments] this size.”

The size and shape of the stones suggest that the riverbed was roughly somewhere between ankle-deep and waist-deep, flowing across the red planet’s surface at about a meter per second. The rapid water flow may have been similar to the flash floods we regularly observe in desert areas on our home planet. In any case, while a number of research papers have been written speculating about possible water flow through the Martian trenches, Curiosity’s finding offered the first tangible evidence of water-transported gravel, moving the conversation from mere speculation to direct observation of streambed material.

Scientists on the earth’s surface have been just as active, with a team of researchers in Japan creating a new element. The team thought that they may have created the same element, number 113 on the periodic table, back in 2004, but their results were inconclusive. This time, however, they say they have “unambiguous proof” of the temporarily-named ununtrium.

Ununtrium has eluded scientists for years given its instability and rapid decay, which made it more difficult to synthesize than substantially heavier atoms, such as element number 118, ununoctium. As such, lead research Kosuke Morita and his team had to be innovative. To quote Jon Bardin of the Los Angeles Times,

The researchers collided zinc, which has 30 protons, with bismuth, which has 83. The result was an atom with 113 protons in its nucleus, the researchers say.

But the new element quickly decayed. Observing the nature of the decay is crucial to proving the identity of the new element. Morita says the decay data indicate that the collision did indeed create a 113-proton element, though the evidence has not yet been peer-reviewed.

At least six stages of alpha decays immediately proceeded, but by working backwards through the decay stages, Morita’s team says that it was able to determine beyond any doubt that its origin was at element 113.

Even this unique approach was long acknowledged to be a long shot, as the zinc-bismuth fusion is incredibly unlikely. The zinc particles were fired into their bismuth target for 553 days across the last nine years, and some early calculations indicated that the researchers could only expect about “3–6 successes in every 100 quintillion attempts.” All told, the researchers fired a grand total of 130 quintillion (1.3 x 1020) zinc atoms and observed exactly one clear fusion case.

To put that figure in perspective, scientists estimate that there are 10 quintillion insects alive on the entire planet right now. Imagine multiplying the number of insects by 13, then still having to scour every inch of the globe for the single bug that would prove your hypothesis. Clearly, Morita’s team took the phrase “needle in a haystack” to an entirely new level.

Provided that Morita’s claims are accurate, this would be the first element to be created by an East Asian team — all previously discovered elements that do not naturally occur on earth were formed by Americans, Russians, and Germans. Morita’s team hopes that they will have the right to name this new element (making it the first Japanese-named element on the periodic table). But that honor could be disputed, particularly since U.S. and Russian researchers claim to have created 56 atoms of element 113 in the past nine years. None of their discoveries has been confirmed by an independent international committee of experts, however, which demonstrates how difficult it is to prove the creation of a superheavy element.

While the Japanese team revels in their apparent glory, the formal naming of element 113 will likely wait for quite some time. To put it in perspective, elements 114 and 116 — now officially named flerovium and livermorium, respectively — were created over a dozen years before they received permanent names. Even the review process just to confirm their existence lasted three years. So don’t hold your breath on element 113. Morita and his colleagues will have plenty of time to brainstorm a name, in case they receive the privilege of deciding what we will call this new element for all time.

Other articles of interest:
US intelligence now says Benghazi attack “deliberate and organized”
‘No discernible remains’ in Hoffa search, police chief says
US agency warns of fake online pharmacies
A Spinning Black Hole at a Galaxy’s Center
‘Won’t Back Down’: Why This Education Movie Matters
Rowling’s Greatest Work Isn’t Her New Novel; It’s Bringing Attention to Books
How video games are becoming the next great North American spectator sport
Video Game-Playing Robots Pass the Turing Test
Tiger Woods benched at Ryder Cup
Birdie barrage stakes U.S. to 5-3 Ryder Cup lead

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