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Issue: "Tidings of discomfort and joy," Dec. 28, 2013

Wednesday, Nov. 27

Fernando and Sophia Richter
Tucson Police Department and Associated Press
Fernando and Sophia Richter

Captives at home

Fernando Richter, 34, and his wife Sophia, 32, appeared in court on multiple counts of kidnapping and child abuse the day after police discovered the couple had imprisoned their three daughters, ages 12, 13, and 17, in their Tucson, Ariz., house for up to two years. Police said the girls, daughters of Sophia and stepdaughters of Fernando, were filthy and malnourished when found. The girls said their parents had confined them to their rooms, forced them to listen to loud music around the clock, and given them only one meal a day. Prosecutors also charged Fernando with sexual abuse.

Challenge in the air 

China acknowledged that two American B-52 bombers had flown observed but unhindered through an area in the East China Sea that China had said it would defend against foreign aircraft. The area includes islands that both China and Japan claim as their own, and China only days earlier had said it would police an “air defense identification zone” around the islands. The Pentagon said the flights were part of a routine training mission but, one official told The New York Times, were also “a demonstration of long-established international rights to freedom of navigation and transit through international airspace.”

Thursday, Nov. 28

Working holiday 

At least a dozen major retailers broke with tradition and opened their doors on Thanksgiving Day. Millions shopped at the stores on Thanksgiving, including 15,000 who lined up for the 8 p.m. opening of a Macy’s store in New York City, but it wasn’t clear whether the holiday opening helped sales. The National Retail Federation estimates that spending over the four-day period that ended Sunday was 2.9 percent lower than last year. Overall, though, retailers expect Christmas sales to be stronger this year, with early November discounts attracting shoppers to stores before Thanksgiving.

Sun burned 

The comet ISON, which scientists have been watching closely for the past year, came within 730,000 miles of the Sun’s surface on Nov. 28. Scientists at first thought the Sun had destroyed the comet, but then they weren’t sure. “It now looks like some chunk of ISON’s nucleus has indeed made it through the solar corona, and re-emerged,” Karl Battams, a comet scientist for the Naval Research Laboratory, told CNN. “It’s throwing off dust and (probably) gas, but we don’t know how long it can sustain that.” 

Saturday, Nov. 30

Chris Davis
Associated Press/Photo by Butch Dill
Chris Davis

Happy return

College football’s annual “Iron Bowl”—which pits in-state rivals Alabama and Auburn—was one for the ages this year. With one second remaining in the game and the score tied 28-28, Alabama attempted a field goal. The kick missed its target but was fielded in the back of the end zone by Auburn’s Chris Davis, who then returned the kick the length of the field for the game-winning touchdown. “When I was running, I said, ‘God is good,’” said Davis. With the victory Auburn landed a spot in the SEC championship game against Missouri. The next weekend Auburn won that game and landed a spot in the BCS national championship game against Florida State.

Night and day? 

The self-imposed deadline for the Obama administration to fix the Obamacare website arrived on Nov. 30. The next day Jeff Zients, who directed the repair operation, said the administration had fixed about 400 bugs and the site was “night and day from what it was” after its disastrous Oct. 1 rollout. On Dec. 3, insurers were warning of a new headache: The problem of faulty data they were receiving from healthcare.gov had not been addressed. If millions are able to sign up for insurance on the repaired website, insurers could be flooded with forms containing erroneous information or missing applications.

Sunday, Dec. 1

Walt Disney Pictures

Big tickets 

Frozen was hot at the box office. The Disney animated film brought in $67 million during Thanksgiving weekend, the biggest opening ever for the holiday weekend. The record opening was not enough to give Frozen first place at the box office, though. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire hauled in $75 million, giving it $300 million worldwide after only two weeks.

Bronx disaster 

A train wreck in the Bronx, N.Y., killed four passengers and injured about 60. The train derailed on Metro-North Railroad’s Hudson Line while going around a steep curve. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, after retrieving two data recorders from the wreckage, reported the train entered the 30 mph curve going 82 mph.

Tuesday, Dec. 3

Joe Skipper/Reuters/Newscom

Far from home

A fishing guide and park volunteers spotted dozens of pilot whales trapped in Florida’s Everglades National Park on Dec. 3. Rescue efforts began for the whales, which apparently had traveled 20 miles from waters deep enough to support them and then became stranded in the park by the low tide. By Dec. 5, at least 11 whales had died in the park and five were unaccounted for. Rescuers, meanwhile, tried to herd the remaining 35 whales into deeper water.

Password heist 

The cyber security firm Trustwave reported that hackers over the previous seven weeks had stolen more than 2 million passwords from such sites as Facebook, Google, and Twitter and stored them on a server in the Netherlands. Trustwave said thousands of the victims had weak passwords such as “123456” or “password.”

Wednesday, Dec. 4

President Obama
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
President Obama

Sea change 

A survey of young Americans had bad news for President Obama. The poll, conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, found the president’s approval rating among Americans between ages 18 and 29 had fallen to a record low of 41 percent. Forty-seven percent of these “Millennials” even said they would support removing Obama from office. For the youngest of this age group—those between 18 and 24—52 percent wanted to fire Obama. The Millennial generation voted overwhelmingly in favor of Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Out at MSNBC 

Nearly three weeks after Martin Bashir read on-air a scripted and disgusting attack on Sarah Palin, the MSNBC host resigned from the network. Bashir had called Palin an “idiot” and a “dunce” with “a long-diseased mind.” He said someone should defecate in Palin’s mouth, making reference to the punishment a slave owner had reportedly ordered for his slaves. (Palin had compared U.S. debt to China to slavery.) Bashir later apologized and took a two-week vacation before resigning.

Thursday, Dec. 5

Ronnie Smith
Associated Press/Photo by Omaima ElFaitori
Ronnie Smith

Gunned down

Assailants murdered American teacher Ronnie Smith, 33, as he was jogging near the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Hospital officials said Smith, a chemistry teacher for the past 18 months at the International School Benghazi, had been shot multiple times. Smith’s wife and young son had returned to the United States for a Christmas break, and Smith was planning to join them in a matter of days. He was a long-time member of Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas. His murder came 15 months after a terrorist attack on the consulate killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Family ties 

It turns out that President Obama does in fact know his 69-year-old uncle, Omar Obama—pretty well in fact. White House spokespersons had previously said the president had never met Omar, who has been in the United States illegally for two decades. But on Dec. 5, the White House confirmed Omar’s claim in court that Barack Obama had stayed with him briefly while going to law school. Spokesman Jay Carney said the uncle and nephew had not spoken in 10 years, and that spokespersons had not asked the president directly about Omar before making previous statements.

Daddies needed 

New research from the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre found that the absence of a father during childhood may cause defects in a child’s brain structure that can lead to negative social and behavioral consequences. The researchers studied monogamous mice, but senior research author and psychiatrist Gabriella Gobbi told Science Daily the findings are “extremely relevant” to humans. The findings, said Gobbi, are similar to studies that measure the behavior of human children raised without fathers.

Friday, Dec. 6

Associated Press/Photo by LM Otero

Icy cold 

A strong winter storm brought snow, freezing rain, and frigid temperatures to much of the country, including the South. The National Weather Service issued winter storm and ice warnings for several states, including parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Earlier in the week, Texans enjoyed temperatures in the 80s. The website willigetawhitechristmas.com gave Dallas, Texas, a 50 percent chance of snow on Christmas Day.

Monday, Dec. 9

Associated Press/Photo by Patrick Semansk

Search terms

Apple, Facebook, and Google were among the web giants that penned an open letter to President Obama calling for “global government surveillance reform.” The companies specifically want limits on governmental authority to collect information about users from service providers, better judicial oversight of the process, and transparency about the scope of government demands for user information. The letter came in the wake of revelations this summer by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the web companies had allowed governmental access to users’ personal data.

L.A. Law 

Federal prosecutors announced indictments against 18 current or former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies, alleging they had beaten and humiliated prisoners and tried to cover up their crimes during an FBI investigation. U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr. said “these incidents did not take place in a vacuum—in fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized.” Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca disputed that assessment, saying that “99.9 percent of our employees are on the right track, doing the right thing.”

Hindu wave 

The BJP, a Hindu nationalist party associated with militants who have used violence against non-Hindus, won 70 percent of the assembly seats in elections in four of India’s states. The sweeping victories come as the BJP and its leader, Narendra Modi, prepare for next year’s general elections.

Tuesday, Dec. 10

John Kerry
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images
John Kerry

Dealing with Iran 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tried to sell a skeptical House Foreign Affairs Committee on the merits of the nuclear agreement the United States—along with Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia—struck with Iran last month in Geneva, Switzerland. Kerry said the United States and its allies in the region “are more secure than they were the day before we entered into this agreement.” The deal aims to slow Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons in return for limited relaxed sanctions. Republicans and Democrats alike challenged the secretary on the deal. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., said Iran will continue to operate 9,000 centrifuges over the next six months. He said Kerry was “asking us to be asleep and do nothing while 9,000 centrifuges turn.”

Budget deal

Negotiations between the leaders of the House and Senate budget committees resulted in a deal to fund the government for the next two years at a higher spending level. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., reached the deal, which restores some of the sequester cuts and sets spending at $1.012 trillion next year. Without the deal, the government would have spent $967 billion. The deal achieves deficit reduction by increasing some fees, such as those for airlines. It also promises to reduce long-term spending on military and federal-employee pensions. Ryan called those cuts a step in the right direction: “This bill reduces the deficit by $23 billion, and it does not raise taxes, and it cuts spending in a smarter way.”

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