Weekly Review — December 31, 2008, 11:59 pm

Yearly Review

The United States marked the five-year anniversary of the
war in Iraq. Over four million Iraqis had fled the country
or been internally displaced, and the total cost of the
war, currently about $650 billion, was expected to rise to
$2 trillion over the next five years. Oil rose above $147
a barrel, and Abu Dhabi bought New York City’s Chrysler
Building for $800 million. Somali pirates stole a Saudi
supertanker. President George W. Bush announced that North
Korea was no longer a state sponsor of terrorism. The CIA
expanded its covert operations in Iran. Bozo the Clown
died, as did Jesse Helms, William F. Buckley Jr., Paul
Newman, Heath Ledger, Indonesian dictator Suharto,
comedian George Carlin, didgeridoo master Alan Dargin,
and, at age 110, Louis de Cazenave of the Fifth Senegalese
Rifles, one of the last two living French veterans of
World War I. “War,” he once explained, “is something
absurd, useless, that nothing can justify.” Ariel Sharon
was still alive, and Israel bombed Gaza in retaliation for
ongoing rocket attacks. Tom Jones insured his chest hair
for $7 million.

Australian police tasered a ram. France banned TV shows
for babies. Pope Benedict XVI toured the United States,
and the Vatican released a list of seven “social”
sins–including littering, genetic tampering, and creating
poverty–to complement the seven cardinal vices. The World
Health Organization announced that virtually untreatable
drug-resistant tuberculosis could now be found in 45
countries. Japanese men began to wear bras. The cost of
rice increased by 30 percent, and food riots broke out in
30 countries. The United Nations expected the number of
starving people in the world to rise to 950 million. North
Korean hunger scientists announced a new noodle. In an
expanding thousand-square-mile low-oxygen zone growing
along the coast of Oregon and Washington, every fish,
crab, and sea worm was dead. A 7.9-magnitude earthquake
centered in China’s Sichuan Province left tens of
thousands of people dead and millions homeless. The Summer
Olympics were held in Beijing, heralded on television by
fake, computer-generated fireworks. Structures built for
the 2004 Athens Olympics were falling into ruin. A man in
Swansea, Wales, died from eating too much fairycake, and
an elderly German woman filed a lawsuit against a hospital
in Bavaria after she went in for a leg operation and was
instead given a new anus. Paddington Bear turned 50; both
the cubicle and the assassination of Martin Luther King
turned 40; Viagra turned 10. One in 100 American adults
was behind bars.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that detainees held as “enemy
combatants” by the United States at Guantanamo Bay have a
constitutional right to challenge their detention through
habeas corpus petitions in federal courts. Scientists
located the part of the brain responsible for
understanding sarcasm. Global stock markets lost $3.1
trillion in four days, and the Dow Jones Industrial
Average fell below 10,000 for the first time in five
years. The real estate boom in Dubai slowed. Nobel
Laureate V. S. Naipaul declared that there are “no more
great writers,” and Bob Dylan won a Pulitzer Prize.
Illinois Senator Barack Obama was elected President of the
United States. Gunmen terrorized Mumbai, and inflation in
Zimbabwe reached 23 million percent. Iceland went
bankrupt. Zookeepers across the United States put their
animals on diets, feeding gorillas according to a Weight
Watchers point system and offering polar bears sugar-free
Jell-O. The thoughts of a monkey in North Carolina
controlled the actions of a robot in Japan. New York
researchers used carbon nanotubes to create the darkest
material known to man. Two teams of physicists, one in
Calgary and the other in Tokyo, successfully stored
nothing within a gas in the form of squeezed vacuum
composed of uncertainty.

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Discussed in this essay:

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt. 352 pages. $28.

The extinction symbol is a spare graphic that began to appear on London walls and sidewalks a couple of years ago. It has since become popular enough as an emblem of protest that people display it at environmental rallies. Others tattoo it on their arms. The symbol consists of two triangles inscribed within a circle, like so:

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