Nov. 18, 2012: Hamas Leader Killed in Air Strike

Let’s get straight into the big news item of the week. As you’re surely already aware, Israel has been fighting with Palestinian forces for many years, with consistent hostility between the two groups. Last week, for instance, southern Israel was being pummeled by rockets from Hamas, the terrorist organization which controls the Gaza Strip, in addition to a few stray shells from Syria. In a major turn of events, however, Israel’s most recent air strike, dubbed Operation Pillar of Defense, was a successful assassination of Hamas’ military commander, Ahmed Jabari.

The Wednesday attack further destroyed over 20 underground rocket launchers belonging to Hamas and the affiliated Islamic Jihad, which Israeli leaders hope will neutralize much of the long-range threat against their nation. Hamas, on the other hand, said that Israel “has opened the gates of hell,” and promised a vicious response. Hamas official Ismail al-Ashqar says that the organization plans to “burn Israeli cities” with attacks that may include suicide bombings similar to those employed by al Qaeda operatives.

Elsewhere, economic woes have been more of the focus. In Europe, mass anti-austerity labor strikes on Wednesday set police and protesters against one another. Unions and some non-union workers across Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Greece, and France participated in a general strike against cost-cutting policies enacted to reduce national debt but which have been painful for workers. Portugal and Greece in particular are in the midst of a deep recession, with climbing unemployment rates and shrinking economic production despite the austerity policies. The U.K. is similarly facing recession, although their economy has not fallen nearly as much as that of other European nations, and the recent violent protests that have rocked members of the European Union have left the U.K. largely unscathed.

European Protests

Still, global stocks are shaky at best, with investors nervous about the economic turmoil abroad and the “fiscal cliff” in the U.S. The same is true of the American stock market, with shares edging downward last week despite positive quarterly reports from a few major players. The debate over the fiscal cliff continues to rage in Congress, with some wondering if the legislature should take on both the fiscal cliff — a set of massive tax hikes and substantial automatic spending cuts set to be introduced on January 1 — and the ever-closer national debt ceiling (a self-imposed “credit limit” of sorts) simultaneously. Fresh off his victory in the presidential election, President Obama has delivered his opening proposal: a $1.6 trillion tax hike over the next ten years. The proposal is based on the 2013 tax plan that Obama announced in February.

As the U.S. and others struggle with their economic woes, America also faces a very different sort of conflict. In the wake of the U.S. presidential election — you thought we were done talking about that, didn’t you? — the White House petition website, “We the People,” has been flooded with requests for states across the country to secede from the union.

Go ahead, check your calendar. Confirm that it’s not 1860. I’ll wait.

Back? Good.

Most of the secession petitions on the “We the People” website have come from individuals in decidedly conservative states like Texas and Louisiana. But a few, like Oregon and New York, are more of a surprise. At the time of this writing, secession petitions have come from almost every single state, with a recent count excluding only Nevada from that list.

Daniel Miller, president of the Texas Nationalist Movement, says that the blossoming nationwide interest in splitting from its federal government resulted from the country’s shift toward failed Marxist policies. As he put it,

The fact of the matter is that there cannot be a union between those that esteem the principles of Karl Marx over the principles of Thomas Jefferson. Here in Texas, we esteem those principles of Thomas Jefferson, that all political power’s inherent in the people. And what we have seen given on Tuesday was that a majority of the people in the United States, and the states in which they reside, esteem the principles of Karl Marx over those principles.

Several of these petitions have received the required 25,000 signatures within 30 days that, by the rules stated on the “We the People” website, will prompt the White House to review and respond to them. But they have also invited ample resistance. Many governors, including those in the Republican Party, explicitly rejected the notion of secession — including Texas Governor Rick Perry, who previously hinted that secession was an option — while several competing petitions now implore the Obama administration to deport those who promoted secession. Petitions “To strip the citizenship of everyone who signed a petition to secede and exile them,” to “Deport Everyone That Signed A Petition To Withdraw Their State From The United States Of America,” and “To keep the U.S. United” have drawn several thousand signatures apiece. Others receiving a few thousand signatures ask the president “To peacefully allow the states that have asked to secede to do so and form their own NEW nation” and to “Peacefully grant the city of Austin Texas to withdraw from the state of Texas & remain part of the United States.”

In short, the cry for secession is likely to be a bust, but it’s still important to witness the exasperation of such a large number of American citizens over the trajectory of our government.

While the supposed secession is unlikely to have any real effect, the fungal meningitis outbreak which has sickened well over 400 people and caused 32 deaths remains an ongoing problem. Both the New England Compounding Center (NECC) and the FDA have been under fire in recent weeks, with Congress grilling FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg about why her agency didn’t take action against the NECC for past violations when it had the opportunity years ago. After all, the FDA has investigated 12 separate complaints against the NECC since 2002. Hamburg responded that while the violations were “very serious,” her agency was obligated to defer to Massachusetts authorities, which allowed the NECC to continue its work.

Hamburg accepted her questioning, but Barry Cadden, owner and co-founder of the NECC, declined to testify before Congress, pleading the Fifth Amendment.

Given the number of aspiring pilots among my readers, I figured it was also worth bringing up the aviation industry’s trajectory. A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted the dangers on the horizon. New federal safety regulations set to begin next summer would require new pilots to have at least 1,500 hours of flight experience before being hired, a massive jump from the present requirement of 250 hours for first officers. (In fact, some note that a commercial pilot license can be earned with as few as 188 hours of flight time.) This alone would pose a challenge for airlines across the nation, but with a wave of aging captains about to hit the mandatory retirement age of 65, it presents the serious risk of an industry-wide pilot shortage. Further complicating matters is another new regulation that would increase the required rest time for pilots, which analysts believe will force airlines to increase their ranks by 5%. And then there’s the matter of pilots going overseas to work for companies that will pay handsomely for well-trained U.S. pilots.

When you put all of these factors together, it’s easy to see why some are concerned that we’ll face a crisis next summer. As one consultant put it, “We are about four years from a solution, but we are only about six months away from a problem.” It’s expected to hit small carriers the hardest, as they have traditionally taken on more new pilots and eventually funneled them to the larger corporations. When the new restrictions take effect, the major airlines are expected to ramp up their efforts to poach captains from the smaller companies, creating a void that they will be hard-pressed to fill.

In brighter news, Nintendo’s new game console, the Wii U, was released across the U.S. today. IHS Global Insight researchers projected that the Wii U will outsell its predecessor, the Nintendo Wii, in its first month and a half of sales. The researchers estimate that 3.5 million Wii U consoles will be off the shelves by the time we reach 2013, while only 3.1 million Wii consoles were sold within the same time period in 2006. However, others argue that while the Wii U may have a fast start — it’s already sold out of most stores across the country, and some are already reselling the console online for as much as $1 million — it is destined to fail in the long term, as the system lacks the broader entertainment features like video streaming and internet capabilities necessary to justify its price point ($299), which is higher than the Wii’s $249 release.

Either way, details continued leaking out in the days prior to the big release, like the meager 3 GB of available hard drive space on the basic Wii U — 4.2 GB of the overall 8 GB, a number we revealed last week, is consumed by firmware such as a critical backwards compatibility patch. Then there’s the external storage issue. While the Wii U supports the use of external hard drives with USB cables, those drives must be reformatted in order to work with the Wii U, which would delete all existing data. In order to be usable on a computer, the drive would again have to be reformatted. As you can see, any such drive would either be exclusively used for the Wii U or not usable on the system at all.

On the bright side, while Nintendo Gamecube games cannot be used with the Wii U, all Wii games will be playable with the aforementioned patch, and Virtual Console and WiiWare titles can also be carried over to the new system in a few simple steps, so past purchases won’t be lost. Still, the big story remains the new controller, which some commentators have already noted will allow them to play Wii U games in rooms without a TV. Others have focused on the system’s HD graphics and the second screen’s power consumption. However you look at it, there’s a lot to love, and a lot to hate, in the new Wii U.

The popular video chat program Skype suffered a major security scare last week due to a critical vulnerability in Skype’s password reset system. As a Russian user outlined earlier this month, an unscrupulous individual could sign up for a new, disposable account, using the same E-mail address as an existing user. Then the third party could reset the password for any account associated with that E-mail address — in this case, the targeted account — thus yielding complete control over the original account with little more than an internet parlor trick.

Microsoft temporarily disabled the password reset function as their staff worked to fix the bug. And that might be the end of it, except for one key issue: this vulnerability was reported months ago. Dmitry Chestnykh, a programmer from Montenegro, noticed the issue back in August and reported it to Skype’s technical support staff. The response? “Please understand that all of us here at Skype take our customers’ privacy and confidentiality very seriously.” Feel free to question that claim, as so many other Skype users are right now.

In other not-quite-brilliant technology news, Robofun is abuzz over the new Social Drink Machine. Basically, it’s a robotic bartender. You enter your drink mix on Facebook or Twitter, which then gives you a QR code. Set your glass on the Social Drink Machine’s pedestal and flash the QR code over its scanner, and it automatically makes the drink for you, sliding.

Amazing, right? Sure, except that it’s slow. Painfully slow. You see, the machine works by sliding the pedestal (with your glass) back and forth underneath an array of bottles, then filling the glass with one part of your drink at a time. The pedestal doesn’t move very quickly, as the process would be for naught if your glass tipped over during the process, and there’s a brief delay before each component of your drink starts pouring. As Gizmodo columnist Andrew Liszewski put it, “It certainly works as advertised, but it’s so slow there’d be a line out the door in no time. And unless you want to state your woes in the form of a QR code, it doesn’t have a sympathetic ear for your troubles.”

But while we don’t yet have adequate robotic bartenders, we do know that giant robots are responsible for some of the greatest military victories throughout history.

You heard me. And so did the 5,700 Australian high school seniors who took their history exams last week. You see, the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) exam featured a section devoted to the Russian Revolution, including a famous painting of the 1917 battle in which socialist revolutionaries overthrew their czar. Whoever made the exam apparently just grabbed the top result from a quick Google search and didn’t take a very close look at the picture. Check out the images below, and watch history transform (and roll out?):

Here's the original Nikolai Kochergin painting, 'Storming the Winter Palace on 25th October 1917,' depicting revolutionaries on the move.

...And the revolutionaries' secret weapon, the MAD-X Marauder Battlemech, turns the tide.

The doctored version, with its giant BattleTech mecha visible in the upper-left of the picture, is actually the first result for the painting on Google Images, so it’s easy to understand how the mistake was made. (I tried to find a copy of the real painting myself, and I still can’t locate a decently sized version without text covering the artwork. This is as close as I got.)

We can’t take the Winter Palace without heavy mech support, comrade.

It’s also hardly the first incident of its kind. Consider, for instance, the Adan Harahap series of famous photographs with superheroes added to the mix. Unless you’re specifically looking for the fictional figures, it’s easy to overlook Spiderman and Darth Vader in the middle of some of the biggest battles of all time.

Here’s a more personal example from several years ago: One of my wife’s longtime friends works as a graphic designer, and he was once tasked with producing a Green Giant advertisement for their weekly mailers. Naturally, he grabbed the company logo from the internet and dropped it into the frame before sending it to be reviewed, not noticing that it, too, had been altered. No one caught the glaring error despite multiple rounds of reviews, and the company only learned of their designer’s mistake when complaint phone calls started pouring in.

Why were the people who received the advertisement so incensed? Well, let’s just say that this particular image of the mighty Green Giant featured an… extra body part. Which was very green, and very, uh, giant.

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