Dec. 9, 2012: Unicorns Exist.

…Yeah.

Although some of the details are still emerging, North Korea’s state-owned Korean Central News Agency first reported on November 29 that leading archaeologists had discovered the remains of a “unicorn lair” in Pyongyang, North Korea. The story indicated that the Academy of Social Sciences had “reconfirmed a lair of the unicorn rode by King Tongmyong, founder of the Koguryo Kingdom.”

Their evidence: a rock carved with the words “Unicorn Lair.” That’s irrefutable!

Science.

It’s not the first wild story reported by the news agency, which previously told its audience that the late dictator Kim Jong-Il, who passed away on December 17, 2011, was born under a double rainbow and this his birth triggered the creation of a new star, that he once singlehandedly stopped a blizzard, that he learned to walk at three years old, that he invented the hamburger, that he wrote 1,500 books while in college, and that he shot 11 holes-in-one in his first game of golf (and then conveniently never played again).

Most reputable analysts say that this is just another example of typical North Korean propaganda, as the nation likes to make its leaders appear to come from a superhuman bloodline. Given that new leader Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-Il, is only in his 20s, convincing the populace that he is naturally superior would give him greater legitimacy as a leader, much like the once-common “divine right of kings” which asserted that the bloodlines of patriarchies and monarchies were given the right to rule by a divine authority.

Others noted that North Korea is still trying to assert its dominance over its South Korean neighbors, with whom they split after World War II. After all, neither North Korea nor South Korea formally recognizes the other’s government at this point, so claims about the geographic origins of Korea are still used to support claims about which country is the “true” Korea. With that in mind, analysts pointed to the words of Jo Hui Sung, director of the History Institute of the DPRK Academy of Social Services, who told North Korean reporters that

Korea’s history books deal with the unicorn, considered to be ridden by King Tongmyong, and its lair. The discovery of the unicorn lair, associated with legend about King Tongmyong, proves that Pyongyang was a capital city of Ancient Korea as well as Koguryo Kingdom.

The inscription, reports indicated, was found a mere 200 meters from a temple in the North Korean capital city and is believed to have been written during the era of the Koryo Kingdom, from 918-1392 A.D. So the geographic convenience of the find does prompt a bit of eyebrow-raising… if the words “unicorn lair” hadn’t already done that.

As if that wasn’t enough, the laughable “rediscovery” came mere days after another high-profile North Korean story. The Onion, a prominent satire newspaper (i.e., it prints nothing but lies), hailed Jong-un as the “Sexiest Man Alive” in 2012. Past “winners” include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (2011) and the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski (2008).

What a hunk!

Ha ha, okay, sure. But not everyone got the joke. China’s People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, evidently didn’t realize that The Onion is all about spoof stories. So when word got out that the leader of one of China’s diplomatic allies had received this “honor,” the newspaper jumped on the story, highlighting Jong-un’s victory with a 52-image slideshow of the dictator posing in his military uniform, but no mention (or recognition) that the story was a satire. People’s Daily even directly quoted The Onion’s oh-so-apt description of Jong-un: “With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true.”

As you may have guessed, the story has since vanished from the Chinese newspaper’s website, but not before a few savvy commentators captured evidence of the mistake.

...Oops.

Other recent pranks are a bit less funny. On Tuesday, two Australian radio DJs, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, decided that it would be funny to prank call the hospital where the pregnant Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge was staying, and try to solicit confidential information about her treatment for acute morning sickness. The two adopted absurd accents as a vocal caricature of Queen Elizabeth II, even (poorly) impersonating her yipping pet yorkies. According to their subsequent statements, the pair expected their call to be terminated instantly.

But it wasn’t. They were shortly forwarded to the Duchess’ private nurse, who thought that she was, indeed, talking with the royal monarch herself. The hapless nurse readily divulged that

[Catherine is] sleeping at the moment and has had an uneventful night, she’s been given some fluids, she’s stable at the moment…[Prince] Will went home at about 9 o’clock last night. She’s quite stable. She hasn’t had any retching with me and she’s been sleeping on and off.

Notably, the prank wasn’t actually aired live. No one would have ever known about it, except that the DJs taped the incident just in case anything funny happened. After they actually managed to get confidential details from the private nurse, their network, 2day FM, cleared the gag to be aired on their radio show.

Well, it’s all fun and games until somebody dies. And that’s exactly what happened. In the wake of the high-profile prank, 46-year-old nurse Jacintha Saldanha, the receptionist who forwarded the two DJs to Duchess Kate’s private nurse, was found dead in her apartment on Friday as the result of a suspected suicide. An autopsy is expected later this week.

Her death, which came so soon after her very public humiliation, has spurred international condemnation of the radio network and the two DJs involved, from the U.K. to Australia itself. The most scathing response likely came from Lord Glenarthur, chairman of King Edward VII’s Hospital where the Duchess was staying. Lord Glenarthur wrote a letter to the station’s parent company, Southern Cross Austereo, to “protest” the “extremely foolish” prank. As he said,

I am writing to protest in the strongest possible terms about the hoax call made from your radio station, 2Day FM, to this hospital last Tuesday. King Edward VII’s Hospital cares for sick people, and it was extremely foolish of your presenters even to consider trying to lie their way through to one of our patients, let alone actually make the call.

Then to discover that, not only had this happened, but that the call had been pre-recorded and the decision to transmit approved by your station’s management, was truly appalling. The immediate consequence of these premeditated and ill-considered actions was the humiliation of two dedicated and caring nurses who were simply doing their job tending to their patients.

The longer term consequence has been reported around the world and is, frankly, tragic beyond words. I appreciate that you cannot undo the damage which has been done but I would urge you to take steps to ensure that such an incident could never be repeated.

Saldanha’s colleagues set up a simple floral tribute in the nurses’ accommodation where she took her life, to honor the woman who “cared diligently for hundreds of patients.” She is survived by her husband, Benedict Barboza, as well as her daughter and son, aged 16 and 14, respectively.

In the meantime, Greig and Christian “mutually decided” to go off the air for an undetermined period of time. However, Rhys Holleran, CEO of the Southern Cross Austereo media group, staunchly defended the company’s radio station and said that he was “very confident that we haven’t done anything illegal.” He added that “This is a tragic event that could not have been reasonably foreseen, and we are deeply saddened by it.”

Alright, let’s shift to some real entertainment news. Perhaps you’ve heard of South Korean rapper PSY, whose recent single “Gangnam Style” has triggered into a worldwide sensation. “Gangnam Style” was the big break into the U.S. market for Park Jae-sang, a.k.a. PSY, as he’s already made over $8 million on that tune alone. Much of that sum has come from the track’s YouTube video, which has already accumulated nearly one billion views since its July release, as well as iTunes downloads and commercials.

The much-beloved PSY has since made appearances on virtually every daytime talk show in the U.S., headlining everything from Today to Ellen. The song is such a sensation, in fact, that 81-year-old former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson just released a video of himself doing the “Gangnam Style” dance, galloping and lassoing the air just like the famed rapper, as part of a campaign to get younger Americans to help combat the national debt using social media.

Gangnam Style in action.

With the annual Christmas in Washington concert, a charitable event benefiting the Children’s National Medical Center, coming this evening, PSY seemed like a natural choice to perform the gala’s grand finale. (TNT will broadcast the show on December 21.) But the decision to include PSY as a headline act has triggered a wave of protests inspired by his less charming past. Specifically, the rapper’s 2004 performance of “Dear American,” which advocated the torture and mass murder of American soldiers and civilians, has many shocked that an American charity event would dream of associating itself with the man who gleefully sang:

Kill those f***ing Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives
Kill those f***ing Yankees who ordered them to torture
Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers
Kill them all slowly and painfully

The 2004 protest came shortly after a U.S. tank mistakenly ran over two South Korean schoolgirls, fueling anti-American sentiment in South Korea. The impassioned rant wasn’t exactly a one-time occurrence, though. At another performance two years earlier, shortly after Iraqi terrorists beheaded a South Korean missionary in response to his country’s refusal to negotiate, PSY threw a replica of a U.S. tank to the ground and stomped it to pieces, much to his audience’s delight.

While PSY already holds claim to the most-liked and most-watched YouTube video of all-time, recently passing Justin Bieber’s “Baby” for top honors, many believe that the “Gangnam Style” craze will meet a swift end now that its artist’s past has come to light. Stunned fans decried his success on social media sites, with such comments as “Psy the anti-American protestor: Certainly not the same guy you saw on Ellen.” Several hundred Americans signed a petition asking for PSY’s Christmas in Washington invitation to be rescinded before the White House quickly removed it from their official site, claiming that the petition violated their terms of use.

In response to the public outcry against his Christmas in Washington participation, PSY issued an apology for his past actions, although it’s not exactly the most convincing one you’ll ever hear: “I’m deeply sorry for how these lyrics could be interpreted.” Perhaps you might find the rest of the statement, issued exclusively to MTV News, a bit more convincing, although some are still wont to tacitly accept his late plea to “come together as a culture of humanity.

Still, as some have noted, many other musicians have been forgiven for similar vitriolic lyrics. Ice-T once rapped about killing police officers, and now he plays one on the hit television show Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Chris Brown and Eminem sang about the supposed virtues of beating women, and even did so in real life, yet countless fans still idolize them. Perhaps this backlash against PSY represents a double standard, although you could certainly debate whether that means we’re being unfair to him or too forgiving of other artists.

As of this writing, PSY is still scheduled to perform, and perhaps more notably, President Barack Obama and his family still plan to attend the celebration, continuing the longtime tradition for the President and First Lady.

In sports, the NHL… okay, really, you already know what’s coming in this story, because it keeps repeating itself week after week after week after week. Negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA seemed promising until they fell apart once again on Thursday.

The players have indicated that the owners chose to break off talks when NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr re-entered the negotiations, as they had indicated that Fehr’s return to the bargaining table would be a “deal-breaker.” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly claimed that the issue was instead the players’ push for contracts to cap at eight years instead of the five-year maximum that owners have proposed, which Daly described as “the hill we would die on.” (Both sides have agreed on exceptions for teams seeking to re-sign their own players or free agents.)

In any case, while some fans now speculate that this is actually a promising development for negotiations, since everyone now has their cards on the table, others are merely lamenting their own gullibility in believing that the removal of Fehr and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman from negotiations last week would somehow spur the process in the right direction. And a few of us are just tired of reporting on the 10-13-2 virtual St. Louis Blues.

But globally, that’s hardly the biggest sports story of the week. The more shocking headline is that India, the second-most populous country in the world, has been banned from participating in the Olympic Games.

If you haven’t been following this saga, let me give you the backstory. Much of it centers around a man named Lalit Bhanot, who has been mired in allegations of corruption for years. Bhanot currently faces graft charges in connection with the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which were hosted in New Delhi, as investigators honed in on massive budget overestimates, major construction delays, and widespread corruption among organizers, along with various other concerns. Bhanot ultimately spent 11 months in prison for his role in the corruption and mismanagement which pervaded the Games.

Similar mismanagement has been blamed for the country’s perpetually poor showings in the Olympics: India’s six medals in London this summer were the most the massive nation has ever won, and throughout history it has brought home only a single gold, which came from the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Given Bhanot’s shady reputation and the pending corruption charges that remained against him, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was distressed to see him running unopposed for the position of secretary general of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). So the IOC warned the IOA not to go through with the election, saying that the organization should not allow someone still facing charges of corruption to contest an election. But citing a order from an Indian court, the IOA held its elections on Wednesday anyway, resulting in Bhanot earning a place as an international representative for Indian athletics.

Similarly, Abhay Singh Chautala ran for the IOA’s presidency despite having close ties with Suresh Kalmadi, the former incumbent who is now on bail over related corruption charges. Chautala won his election as well, much to the IOC’s chagrin.

That prompted the IOC to declare the election void and to suspend India from future Olympic Games. Pere Miro, director of IOC relations with national Olympic committees, said that “The election process has been tarnished since the start.

He added, “The IOA has lost all the rights covered by the Olympic Charter. Today, for Indian athletes it is not possible to take part in any competition under IOC jurisdiction. The IOC has always had the intention to protect the athletes. But for the moment, there is no exception.”

This in turn drew widespread calls from within the nation to reform their own association. As one New Delhi commentator put it, “Like any other body in the country, sporting bodies need to be cleansed. It’s a leaking roof. You need to plug it.” Former vice president of the IOA, Jagdish Tytler, said that the IOA’s insistence on going forward with the elections despite the IOC’s warnings was “shocking” and that the ban represented “the darkest day of Olympic history of India.” And while the IOA itself shrugged off its suspension, newspapers across the nation condemned the IOA for willfully “disgracing India.”

Unless the IOC’s suspension is overturned, India will be prohibited from participating in both the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2016 Summer Olympics. The ban would also obliterate funding for the IOA as well as various coaching and development programs in India.

How about we shift to the realm of international law for a moment. Right now, as you read this, a major battle over the future of the Internet is taking shape, and it’s called the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). Here’s the gist of this 12-day, highly secretive, closed-door affair: the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a U.N. agency which regulates telephone and other old communication systems which cross national borders, is renegotiating a treaty that could result in the U.N. taking command of Internet governance.

For a number of years, the issue of maintaining the technical aspects of the Internet has fallen to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN for short. ICANN was given the reins as the Internet expanded from a private project to a global phenomenon, and while the organization is based in California, its stated mission is to maintain the architecture of the Internet based on advice from experts and concerned activists, not the wishes of any particular nation or multinational organization. In other words, it’s a governance model based on stakeholders, not authority figures. For a few easy examples of what the group does, IP addressing is maintained by ICANN, as is the Domain Name System, if only because someone has to take responsibility to keep things running.

But all that could change depending on how the ITU acts. While a number of nations have voiced unilateral opposition to the ITU trying to wrest control over the Internet — the entire U.S. Congress unanimously passed resolutions to keep it “free from governmental control” — concerns are mounting that we might be seeing a power grab in action. According the U.S. Ambassador to the WCIT, Terry Kramer, the ITU’s own charter should prevent it from even addressing the Internet, as it was created solely for telecom, which he claims would exclude the modern communication grid. Yet some of its member nations, especially China and Russia, seem to be pushing to blur the line between telecom security and Internet security, which would likely grant the ITU nearly absolute control over the Internet.

If the ITU moves to shift Internet governance into the hands of national governments or the U.N. itself, that could render ICANN utterly impotent. After all, ICANN is, in effect, only an arbiter. Internet users have agreed to follow ICANN’s rules only because a) their standards have largely seemed reasonable and b) someone has to be there to maintain the machine, so it might as well be ICANN. The organization itself has no legal authority to enforce any decision it makes, so other internet users or networks could freely break from those standards (as China, to name the obvious case, has done). For many, this is a major appeal of having ICANN run things, as the organization would be powerless to impose dictatorial rule over the system. Poor management would simply result in a shift to someone else’s networking standards.

Yet the U.N. would have ample authority to enforce its decisions, which has many terrified of the unilateral actions that could be taken with such great power. Besides, anti-ITU advocates say, the agency was never meant to work with a system of this nature. (The ITU, in fact, predates the U.N. by many decades, as it was initially founded to govern international telegraph transmissions.)

The big concern is that if the Internet moves into the hands of governments, regardless of which governments they may be or well-intentioned they are, such a shift could rapidly pave the way to content censorship like that in China, Iran, and Syria. The vast majority of analysts and political figures argue that the ITU’s proposals, which are strictly kept secret until they have been passed, would grant the organization the power to stifle content and access at will — a “kill switch” of sorts for the Internet, as it has been widely termed. Consider this explanation from an Australian commentator:

Experts claim that Australians could see political and religious websites disappear if the Federal Government backs a plan to hand control over the internet to the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

A draft of the proposal, formulated in secret and only recently posted on the ITU website for public perusal, reveal that if accepted, the changes would allow government restriction or blocking of information disseminated via the internet and create a global regime of monitoring internet communications – including the demand that those who send and receive information identify themselves.

It would also allow governments to shut down the internet if there is the belief that it may interfere in the internal affairs of other states or that information of a sensitive nature might be shared.

These worries seem to be duly validated by leaked proposals like the deep packet inspection standard, whose applications include service differentiation (breaking established net neutrality principles in many nations) and traffic monitoring and identification (which, as explicitly laid out in the proposal, would give rise to blocking protocols like VoIP and software programs like BitTorrent). Many such applications already exist, but there has never been any notion of developing a standard for them, nor any clear need to do so.

Shortly after the initial leak, the approval of the DPI standard was formally announced, which seems to indicate that the U.S. and other western nations are losing their desperate battle to keep the Internet out of this conference. To many, the forcible introduction of this new standard is just one example of the ITU needlessly flexing its muscles to dictate the future of the Internet.

The online community isn’t accepting this without a fight, of course. While the ITU claims that its only goal is to better the internet, the web as a whole isn’t buying it. Alleged leaks have been abound since months before the conference — the DPI standard above is just one example, although it was one of the few full proposals to see the light of day before editing was complete — and even the hacker group Anonymous got into the game in response to that shady approval announcement, taking down the WCIT website for two hours and proclaiming via Twitter that while the WCIT site was down, “Ours is still up (and frankly much better).”

The only problem, of course, is that hacking the WCIT may have done little more than to legitimize the conference, lending credence to claims that more Internet security is necessary in order to prevent future attacks, and that the ITU is just the organization to fix the problem. But plenty of fears remain that we may lose all the online freedom that we have come to cherish if the system itself is radically revolutionized just to stop a few rogue hackers. Should the web move toward the heavy regulation of radio and television, it will never be the same again. The WCIT will conclude on Friday, so for now, all we can do is watch and wait.

…Let’s just hope that the Internet isn’t about to be fundamentally transformed by a government that actually thought Kim Jong-un was the “Sexiest Man Alive.”

Back in the U.S., another major legal battle is about to unfold as the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments over same-sex marriage.

There are two challenges at hand on which the high court may decide. The first, in California, concerns a ballot initiative that would effectively consider same-sex marriages ratified elsewhere to be null and void. This is the bigger issue for the Supreme Court, at least from a legal standpoint, as it gets into whether same-sex couples have the constitutional right for their marriages to be recognized across the nation. The Supreme Court could establish or reject that right, either of which would have broad implications throughout the U.S., or they might rule more narrowly on marriages in California alone.

The second case comes from New York, and it concerns a law that denies federal benefits to same-sex couples who were married in states that permit such unions. The charge stems from the case of a New York woman whose female partner, with whom she was considered legally married in New York, passed away; the federal government denied her the tax deduction for the death of a spouse, claiming that their marriage was not valid as far as they were concerned. This second case could become more of a question of contract law than of marriage, as the core question may simply be whether the federal government can choose not to acknowledge a contract (such as a marriage) that one of its states deems legal.

These challenges come amidst a rapidly changing political environment which has seen multiple states move to legalize same-sex marriages. One of the most recent, Washington, began granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, and the first such weddings are set to be held today.

Activists on both sides of the argument are excited about the judicial activity. Opponents applauded the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the cases, saying that the Justices have indicated that they are likely to overturn the lower courts, which struck down laws that restricted marriage benefits for only male-female couples. Proponents hope that the Supreme Court will instead expand upon the lower courts’ rulings and deem same-sex marriage a constitutional right across the country, or at least strike down the federal laws on marriage benefits.

Let’s shift gears to something a little more lighthearted. Whether you believe that Spike TV’s annual Video Game Awards are a legitimate showcase of the year’s best titles or merely another forum for producers to advertise their new titles, the fact remains that there’s some considerable upside to being on the VGA’s list of winners, for the sake of free publicity, if nothing else.

The big winner at the 10th Annual Video Game Awards, televised on Friday night, was undoubtedly the self-published, downloadable title The Walking Dead: The Game, which took home a surprising victory as the Game of the Year in addition to Best Downloadable Game and Best Adapted Video Game, while its publisher, Telltale Games, won Studio of the Year. Analyst Michael Pachter said before the show that if The Walking Dead actually managed to bring home top honors despite being a self-published, adapted work, he’d eat his hat. Afterward, Pachter tweeted to ask for a cap to devour.

Borderlands 2 won a number of honors of its own, earning the titles of Best Shooter and Best Multi-Player Game as well as the award for Best Performance By a Human Male for Dameon Clarke’s performance as Handsome Jack. Journey also won three awards: Best PS3 Game, Best Independent Game, and Best Original Score.

I think it’s only fitting that we close this week on the grand scale of space. But this isn’t the primitive exploration of yesteryear, as the Golden Spike space tourism company is preparing to offer flights to the moon.

Former NASA associate administrator Alan Stern announced on Thursday that his company’s going rate for teams of two to take flight will be “Two seats, 750 each.” That’s not $750, by the way — that’s $750 million. But to those who can afford the expense, perhaps the cost is worth it for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of escaping the confines of earth and reaching for what lies beyond.

In announcing his new start-up venture on Thursday, Stern described the experience of flying with Golden Spike rather like taking a train. Passengers will not need to operate any of the controls on their own, as all of the movements will be automated or handled by ground control. So there won’t be any stress about dodging craters on the landing; passengers can simply sit back and enjoy the view.

Golden Spike hopes to start taking passengers to the moon no later than 2020. If anyone can pull off the far-flung dream, that team may be the one to do it, as they already have the support of major figures in the industry ranging from former NASA Johnson Space Center director Gerry Griffin to former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich.

Still, much remains up in the air (ha ha). For instance, the company heads still aren’t sure where they’re going to get capsules and space suits, which are rather vital accessories for such a journey. Other experts say that Stern has vastly misjudged how far the company’s estimated $7 to $8 billion budget will carry him. As he put it, “If you could really shoot people off to the moon for those kinds of dollars, someone would have done it.” We’ll see.

Other articles of interest:
Egypt: Mohamed Morsi cancels decree that gave him sweeping powers
Student group urges campus-wide strike at IU
Ex-Fla. Gov. Crist joins Democrats; GOP says bring it on
Why America Is Going To Miss The Bush Tax Cuts
Apple-Google Team Up for $500 Million-Plus Kodak Patents Bid
Police video released of Belcher before suspected murder-suicide
Cowboys’ Josh Brent arrested after crash kills teammate Jerry Brown
Fumble stops Army as Navy wins, 17-13
The Date Whisperer

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