Friday, December 25, 2009

MMIX - and that's the way it was

cover story

Just like the year that preceded it, 2009 was a year that did not like human beings very much. Everything from the world's economy to people's morals seemed to be on the decline, and even microscopic virulent creatures appeared to be conspiring against us. But throughout the resulting mishmash, there were certain things that kept coming up over and over again – some rightfully so as they genuinely warranted our attention, and others that simply refused to go away, despite the fact that we really wanted them to. So, in an effort to help us understand what this year was all about, here is a look at the people and events that we could not escape hearing about during 2009:

Barack Obama
"Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future." - Norwegian Nobel Committee
The world enthusiastically welcomed the government change in the U.S. as Barack Obama became the first African American President of the United States of America, taking the oath of office in an inauguration ceremony watched by millions of international viewers. Ever since, and despite the fall in his ratings, the world has been captivated by all things Obama. Whether he is attending an annual meeting of people who annually meet, making teleprompter-assisted speeches about all the things he plans to do in the future, or, umm, killing a fly, none of his actions fail to make headlines; his every move is scrutinised, every word analysed. Even his family can't escape the spotlight – from first lady Michelle Obama's fashion sense, to the choice of the family's new puppy, Bo (as had been promised to daughters Malia and Sasha during the victory speech), no topic has been left undiscussed. Such is the degree of the world's infatuation with the new U.S. President that he has even been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (despite still overseeing two wars); the Nobel Committee bestowed this honour on him for his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples", presumably including his efforts to engage on a global platform with multiple international visits, as well as plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and aim to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

Swat and Waziristan Operations
"Terror is an idea. You don't fight an idea with a conventional army. To win a war on terror you have to win the hearts and minds of people." - Imran Khan (on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton)
The U.S. might have replaced the term "War on Terror" with the phrase "Overseas Contingency Operation", but that didn't change the fact that the underlying problem itself remains unaffected. While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq still continue, the issue unfortunately spilled over into our country, with north-western Pakistan ending up at the forefront. Army operations against the insurgents focused on Swat and South Waziristan, displacing nearly two million people in the NWFP; the IDPs figure still remains at around one million according to the Internally Displacement Monitoring Centre. And in retaliation, the Taliban have started a string of militant attacks across Pakistan, killing hundreds of people across the country.

"Despite the hysteria, the risk to Britons' health is tiny – but that news won't sell papers or drugs, or justify the WHO's budget." - Simon Jenkins, The Guardian
As the H1N1 influenza virus made its presence known, concerns about its virulence started to increase, followed by the media's completely disproportionate reaction that made it seem like the virus was going to tear a hole in the fabric of space and time, and signalled the end of all life in the universe. Panic evidently ensued, further fuelled by several misconceptions and misinformation, but then someone noticed that the H1N1 casualty rate was only a small fraction of the annual number of deaths from seasonal flu – worldwide more than 208 countries and territories reported "laboratory confirmed cases of pandemic influenza H1N1 2009" (according to the World Health Organization), and the mortality rate from the virus has been around 0.026% (according to a report in the British Medical Journal). So, unless the virus makes a mutated comeback seeking revenge over these findings, chances are that humankind will endure. As for the media, they are now in search of something else to panic about.

"I tweet so much, sometimes I annoy myself." - Demi Lovato (@ddlovato)
A few years ago, a bunch of Californians – co-founders Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone in particular – decided the world was in need of another blogging service, only this one would limit the length of updates to 140 characters and basically restrict the updates in every possible way. In short, they decided to take the status message idea and run with it, and so in 2006, Twitter was born: a micro-blogging service that merges two recent fads – texting and social networking. Within a year of its launch, the service had started to gain popularity, but it really started to gain momentum last year, and then into this year, powered by the presence of high-profile personalities and being embraced by celebrities (including actor Ashton Kutcher's much publicized bid to become the first user to amass a million followers) and the media (to the point where it seems like CNN might have sold itself to Twitter). And now that we can all find out what Calvin Harris just had for dinner, all is right with the world. Except that it's not, and that is where Twitter surprisingly comes in, yet again. The website has actually helped by serving as a platform to rally against political and social issues (including the Iranian presidential election protests), and even brought global attention to issues that might've otherwise gone unnoticed.

Pakistani Judiciary and NRO
"And justice for some."
Politics, as usual, dominated global news throughout the year – the Iran and Afghanistan elections, North Korea's nuclear tests, U.S. health care reforms…the talking heads never ran out of things to talk about. Meanwhile, in the little part of the world that we like to call home, Pakistanis were on a mission to fulfil last year's mission – the reinstatement of the judiciary, and this time their efforts yielded success. In the midst of a long march, the government finally announced that the deposed judges would be reinstated and Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry would be restored as the Chief Justice of Pakistan. It might be interesting to note that it is quite possible that we've heard the word "judiciary" more times since last year than we had in the rest of our lives put together; now if everyone starts chanting the word "electricity", then maybe…
Anyway, the next topic on our political issues list was the NRO – the National Reconciliation Ordinance that was issued in 2007 by the then President Pervez Musharraf. The Ordinance was finally declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court this month, and leaves current President Asif Ali Zardari in hot water. Make sure you stay tuned for the next episode of our exciting political reality series Deal or No Deal.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon
"But this was no dream, and, unlike the nightmare, I wasn't running for my life; I was racing to save something infinitely more precious." – New Moon
It's plain to see that Stephenie Meyer has hit the jackpot with the Twilight series. It's one big star-crossed love story, featuring a protagonist who seems to have traded rationality for obsession. Plus it features vampires and werewolves, therefore it must be amazing. So, following in the path of the novels that engrossed a whole generation of teenage girls, the movies too are offering an entertaining way to waste a few hours on an idle weekend evening. As the latest The Twilight Saga: New Moon was to be released in November, the year round anticipation by its crazed fans made it an Internet conversation and search staple throughout the year (it was the second most searched term of the year according to Yahoo!). With its release, the second film in the franchise that has propelled Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner to stardom, broke box-office records, despite being derided by movie critics, and added even more hype to a phenomenon that was hard to ignore in the first place. Yet, despite its being incessantly mentioned on the Internet, television and in magazines, New Moon is the sixth highest grossing film of 2009; the year's top five most successful films (as of the writing of these words) are: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, 2012, and Up.

Susan Boyle
"Mediocrity at its finest."
In an industry ruled by talent-challenged pop goddesses content with using raunchiness to sell records comes the latest annual media-hyped moneymaking counter-expectations scam from Simon Cowell: Susan Boyle! The Scottish singer became an overnight global sensation after appearing on Britain's Got Talent, despite (or perhaps because of) her homely appearance, much like Paul Potts before her, resulting in her BGT clip on YouTube getting nearly 2.5 million views in the first 72 hours (it went on to get nearly 120 million hits during 2009, becoming YouTube's most watched video of the year). By the finale, though, the audience had presumably moved on; Susan lost to dance troupe Diversity. But her ugly-duckling story was far from over; a hospital stay and a makeover later, the singer released her debut album I Dreamed a Dream, which, according to the record-tracking folks, has sold a hellovalotov copies, despite boring critics to sleep.

2009 ICC World Twenty20
"It won't be a disaster even if we exit before the Super Eights. It would be sad if we don't make it, but I have never attached too much importance to Twenty20 cricket, as it is fun cricket." - Younis Khan, a few days before Pakistan won the T20 tournament.
I'll be the first to concede that people in 90% of the world's countries probably have no idea what T20 even stands for, and the majority of the remaining 10% aren't willing to show more than a cursory interest in this cricketing format. But as soon as your team actually wins something, all such considerations go out the window, replaced by irrational jubilant euphoria. So pardon me for mentioning something here that clearly wasn't one of the most talked about topics of this or any other year, but how could I not? We won something. We actually won something, and… wait, it's unimportant, just-for-fun cricket? Never mind then. :(

Global Economy
"The story of the year was a weak economy that could have been much, much weaker." - TIME magazine
A handful of economists had been trying to raise concerns about this for years, but apparently their warnings weren't followed by enough exclamation points. And so last year, the effect of the reckless lending practices led to several issues that needed to be translated from economic English into human English before anyone could make head or tail of them. The result was an outbreak of economic crises, sending the global economy into a financial tailspin. Companies failed, jobs were lost, inflation reached historic levels. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the economy became one of the most talked about subjects around the world. As the year draws to a close, the world seems to be coming out of its financial hangover, following bailouts of failing businesses and stimulus plans to combat the economic downturn, and according to analysts, global economic collapse has been averted. *confetti toss*

Michael Jackson
"Ever since I was born, daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. And I just want to say that I love him... so much" - Paris Katherine Jackson
There was no bigger news this year than the death of Michael Jackson. The biggest name in the world of music forever changed the entertainment industry, and despite all his problems and dysfunctions, remained a pop favourite. As the news of his death emerged, MJ's fans mourned his talents, but sadly the rumour mills started to spin out of control, fuelled by tabloids hoping to (as usual) cash in on someone else's misfortunes, and even further by the public's unfortunate tendency to further propagate every misinformed detail. A lot of ink and bandwidth was wasted on farfetched untruths and half-truths about his personal life and children. But thankfully there were many who chose to ignore the rumours, focus on the talent, and honour his musical excellence. An estimated worldwide audience of nearly one billion tuned in to watch MJ's memorial service, and his film This Is It became the most successful documentary and concert movie of all time.

Other famous people who passed away during the year include:
  • Adam Michael Goldstein, a.k.a. DJ AM (36) – musician, former member of Crazy Town.
  • Corazon Aquino (76) – politician, 11th President of the Philippines, first woman to hold the office.
  • David Carradine (72) – actor, starred in the '70s television series Kung Fu and the Kill Bill movies.
  • Farrah Leni Fawcett (62) – actress, best known for her role as Jill Munroe in Charlie's Angels and for her famous hairstyle.
  • Edward Moore "Ted" Kennedy (77) – politician, long serving U.S. senator, youngest brother of John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
  • Eunice Kennedy Shriver (88) – sister of Ted Kennedy, founded the movement that became the Special Olympics.
  • Jade Cerisa Lorraine Goody (27) – British reality TV celebrity.
  • Les Paul (94) – American guitarist and pioneer electric guitar developer.
  • Natasha Richardson (45) – British actress, daughter of actress Vanessa Redgrave and director/producer Tony Richardson, and wife of Irish actor Liam Neeson.
  • Patrick Wayne Swayze (57) – actor, famous for his performance in the film Dirty Dancing.
  • Rob Gauntlet (21) – adventurer and mountaineer, youngest Briton to climb Mount Everest.
  • Robert Enke (32) – German football goalkeeper.
  • Stephen Patrick David Gately (33) – singer, member of Irish band Boyzone.
  • Walter Leland Cronkite, Jr. (92) – broadcast journalist, known as "the most trusted man in America", ended each of his CBS Evening News broadcasts with the phrase "...and that's the way it is" followed by the date.

The Year In Weird

While most of what was poured onto the pages of newspapers wasn't particularly strange or unusual, there were quite a few incidents this year that added a sprinkle of weird to 2009:
  • Balloon Boy: People all over the world watched as a runaway balloon supposedly carrying a six-year-old child, Falcon Heene, floated across the sky of Colorado. The home-made balloon finally landed many hours later, only to reveal that Falcon was never in the balloon, and the incident was just a publicity stunt by the Heene family to help market them for a reality show; they are now facing several felony charges.
  • White House party crashers: Another aspiring reality TV couple attended the White House state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, despite the fact that they lacked an invitation. And when did the security detail find out about their blunder? After the gatecrashers boldly posted pictures from the event on their Facebook page. Best security service ever!
  • Octomom: An American woman, Nadya Suleman, gives birth to the first set of surviving octuplets; only, she has no job, no income, and is already the single mother of six other young children! The world shakes its head in disapproval, then snuggles in front of the tele to watch her reality special, Octo-Mom: The Incredible Unseen Footage, and after that goes off in search of some brain bleach.
  • Kanye West's outburst: Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift's Best Female Video award acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, implying that the award should've gone to BeyoncĂ© instead of Taylor. "If you have nothing nice to say, then don't say anything at all," everyone told him in reply. We haven't heard from him since.
  • Tiger Woods: The world's best-known golfer crashed his car into a tree in front of his house, and this incident somehow unravelled into a story of infidelity and deceit that leaves the athlete's personal life ruined and reputation shattered. Things don't get any stranger than that, do they? Or actually they do…
  • 2009 ICC World Twenty20 tournament: Yes, we won the T20 championship. We really did. How strange is that?!!
- By S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 25 December, 2009

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