'Gangnam Style' to Obamamania: 12 reasons to be cheerful about 2012

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If the economic crisis has turned you into a gloomy bunny this year, here are a dozen reasons to look back on the past 12 months and smile.

No. 1 Psy of the times

By John Walsh

Essentially, it's a comic dance in which the participants ride an invisible horse and twirl an invisible lasso. The music is the worst kind of electro-synth pop. The singer is a chubby little geezer in 1950s sunglasses. The hook-line is meaningless to anyone outside Korea. The collective dancing it encourages is a naff mixture of "The Birdie Song" and "The Macarena".

But none of these potential drawbacks stopped the South Korean rapper Psy's "Gangnam Style" from becoming the global music, dance and video phenomenon of the year.Everyone watched it – at the time of writing, the video had been viewed 940 million times on YouTube – and everyone wanted to dance it.

Ban Ki-Moon, secretary-general of the UN, not a man given to busting moves on the dancefloor, had a go, as did Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google; a bunch of Etonians did a parody called "Eton Style" through the school quadrangles, after which Boris Johnson told the Tory Party conference that he and David Cameron had danced it together at Chequers.

The song is, in fact, a social satire: "Gangnam" means "south of the river" and the style under attack is that of nouveau-riche burghers living south of Seoul's Han river. They're the cool, wealthy set with their gym-bunny looks, designer threads and love of hanging out in exclusive bars and clubs (three of which are owned by Psy's mother). Psy's persona is the wannabe from the wrong end of town who longs to be part of the hip world.

But the brilliance of the song lies in its wider adaptability. Ai Wei Wei, the dissident Chinese artist, released a video showing him dancing to a parody of the song, with handcuffs dangling from his crossed wrists, an allusion to his arrest by the Chinese authorities in 2011; he's still under house arrest. Soon after, the artist Anish Kapoor released "Gangnam for Freedom", a video featuring high-profile British artists as well as activists from Amnesty International and Index on Censorship. The silly horsey dance had suddenly become a serious rallying-cry.

At the end of the year, despite warnings (following one man's death) that it could cause ill health in those unused to vigorous activity, it has retained its appeal as a silly burst of collective exuberance that anyone can pick up in minutes – but showed it can simultaneously embody a plea for individual freedom.

No. 2 I am Essex, hear me roar

By Mike Higgins

Like a six-lane motorway through a nature reserve, the London Olympics despoiled the ecosystem of this year's silly season. Where was the equivalent of the attack of the killer chipmunks (2009), or the sufferings of Blackie the donkey (1987)? Crushed under a big pile of Mo, Jessica and Bradley. And then, on Sunday 26 August, a roar came from the wheat fields of Essex that was heard around the world.

That evening, police reported the first sighting "of what holidaymakers described as a lion sitting in grassland off Earls Hall Drive in St Osyth". Once Colchester Zoo had accounted for its three African lions, the police grabbed their thermal-imaging cameras, press-ganged some local zoo staff with a tranq gun and jumped into the helicopter – because there's an alpha predator stalking the Clacton countryside!

Some witnesses were more convinced than others. Rich Baker, a 39-year-old caravanner, was one believer: "A man started running towards us yelling, 'It's a f****** lion!' He looked so panicked you knew it wasn't a joke," he told the Daily Mail, swearing like an asterisk. "It was one-million per cent a lion," he added decisively.

Quite properly the animal got its own Twitter feed up and running: "SITTING ON TOP OF A MARK 2 FORD ESCORT. NICE & COMFY. DRIVER CRYING. I CAN WAIT." By mid-afternoon @Essex Lion had 36,000 followers. The Guardian deployed a journalist to live-tweet developments throughout Monday. The rational and calm assessments to be found in the social media: very promising for the future. (I was driving back from Norfolk with my family, and heard the story on the radio as we sped into Essex; thrillingly, I requested all windows up and reached for the auto-lock.)

And then a picture appeared online, to spoil it all: poor quality, though clearly not a lion but a pussy cat-shaped thing on the other side of a field. The police called their search off that afternoon. The faithful kept the dream of the Essex Lion alive till Tuesday when the Daily Mail ran an interview with a local 50-year-old owner of a 3ft-long Maine Coon cat called Teddy Bear. "We thought it had to be Ted, as he's the only big gingery thing around there and he does wander into that field," she said. "He does look a little lion-like. I can see why someone would think that."

No. 3 Obamamania!

By David Randall

And so, as 2012 sits mumbling to itself in the Father Time Care Home Facility for Terminally Past-it Years, sipping soup through a Tommy Tippee cup and calling all the nurses "mummy", let us give thanks to ethnic-minority Americans, the country's women, its welfare claimants, tree-huggers, nerds, pinko liberals, gays of either coast, geeks, members of the Book of the Month Club, listeners to public radio, and Medicare patients.

These are the real heroes of the past 12 months, for they are the ones who stood between us and a billionaire bozo as leader of the free world. They didn't let us down. Aided by the congenitally centre-leaning mainstream media and an economy at last responding to treatment, together they stopped the planet having to cope with the election of Willard Mitt Romney as president.

There was a time, of course, just after the first presidential debate, when the possibility arose that this most rainbow of coalitions might not pull it off. The polls actually had Romney in the lead. But some of us never lost faith. We were convinced that, even in a nation notorious for spawning more than its share of loony-tunes, the millions who know a right-wing huckster when they see one would finally do right by us all.

And they did. They re-elected Barack Obama – a thoughtful politician whose aversion to knee-jerkery, cronyism, and trying to bomb Muslim countries into oversized hamburger-eating democracy has been such a welcome contrast with his predecessor. Just think: a president who not only reads books, but appears to understand them as well.

The alternative result in November hardly bears contemplating. Romney is a multibillionaire who declined to come clean about his past tax-paying, who dismissed 47 per cent of his fellow countrymen and women – that's close to 100 million people in real money – as feckless ne'er-do-wells, and who chose as his running mate a man whose economic policies make George Osborne look like a Trotskyite.

All you need do to appreciate the enormity of what we avoided is to tot up those elements and interest groups who would have been throwing their hats in the air at a Romney victory: bankers, the gun lobby, billionaires and country-club types, Middle East extremists, Fox News, rabidly conservative bloggers, al-Qa'ida, Goldman Sachs bonus-getters, Sarah Palin and assorted camouflage-wearing, Bowie-knife-owning libertarian nut-jobs.

God bless America – especially 47 per cent of it.

No. 4 Let's get it on

By Holly Williams

Don't groan too loudly (ahem). Yes, we know it prompted 50 shades of terrible spin-offs, copycats and parodies, not to mention 50 shades of poorly pegged media stories and punning headlines, meaning anyone not reading it became thoroughly sick of it. But you just can't ignore its popularity: millions of people were reading it – more than 14 million just in the UK – and evidently groaning with, ahem, pleasure. Fifty Shades of Grey is the bestselling book in Britain of all time. Its author, EL James, is clearly on to something.

It is notable that it has been successful despite being appallingly written; while it's been a boon to online self-publishing (starting life on the web as fan-fic), the book is also a very effective advert for why we really need editors. I'm sure most readers would have found it a more erotic experience had the narrator not interjected "Holy crap!" at every steamy moment.

It's not as though erotic literature – or poorly penned but satisfyingly filthy online stories – haven't long been available. But James's achievement has been in bringing it all out from under the covers. Fifty Shades packages what might have been seen as the kinkier or nastier sides of sex as perfectly palatable.

It's a fun, safe, sexy read. The story is a standard romantic narrative: young innocent falls for rich, powerful, handsome man; they adore each other but he has a dark past to work through. And where your average airport bonkbuster would have inserted some mildly salacious bedroom scenes to perk it all up a bit, Fifty Shades does the same but with some really-not-that-hardcore BDSM action.

And while some of us may baulk at the idea of reading an account of orgasm-by-whipping on the bus, it seems that once a book reaches a certain level of popularity, many people aren't ashamed to be seen enjoying it.

That's no bad thing. Fifty Shades of Grey has proven, very publically, that women do enjoy a form of imaginative, in-your-head titillation as much as men traditionally enjoy porn. And the phenomenal business done by both the book and its offshoots – increased sales of both written erotica and sex toys, suggesting a certain saucy example of life imitating art – should finally put to bed that tired old stereotype: that men like sex, and women just put up with it.

No. 5 One giant leap

By Simon Usborne

There was a lot to dislike about the Red Bull Stratos Mission, as we had to call it to satisfy its corporate sponsors. Rumours circulated that the drinks company had always planned to abort its first attempt to send a man plummeting to Earth from space. If the world's media could be compelled to broadcast and print the Red Bull logo, why not make them do it twice?

So it was with a certain cynicism that many greeted the news, days after wind had grounded Felix Baumgartner, that the mission was back on. On a low-energy Sunday afternoon in October, our eyes were on pedestrian pursuits: ironing, joints in ovens, the working week ahead. But then something extraordinary happened.

Baumgartner looked like a spaceman on a Portaloo as he rose above the New Mexico desert. It took more than two hours for the chiselled Austrian to reach the jumping height of 24 miles. Newspaper graphics and teasing shots of test jumps started to appear real and we stopped what we were doing. The viewer count on YouTube's live feed ticked up like a crazed altimeter, news channels cut to the jump, and social networks buzzed in expectation. Bloody hell, we thought, this man is actually going to do this.

And so Baumgartner left his pod and stood for a moment on the world's scariest balcony. After a few muffled words, he leant forwards from his perch and gave in to gravity. The view from above showed him plummeting so fast that he was reduced to the size of a pinprick in barely a second.

A frisson of fear took hold as he began to spin out of control at 800mph. He was suddenly totally vulnerable, his tiny form a white dot against a black sky captured by a shaky long lens. The Challenger disaster came to mind. Were we about to witness something awful? Would the directors cut away?

Then Baumgartner stabilised, we breathed, he landed. And that was it: we returned to our laundry and lunches and Sunday supplements, and soon forgot about supersonic Felix. He had jumped higher and fallen faster than any man, and even cynical observers of a corporate stunt had been gripped for a moment by a small sense of wonder and jeopardy that has little space in modern life. For that, we were grateful.

No. 6 Harry does Vegas

By Kate Wills

This was the year we saw a different side to the royals. The Queen became a Bond Girl and Kate proved that even princesses worry about tan lines. But all of that was overshadowed by one, um, "member" of the Firm, and his ceaseless fight for his right to parrrrty (naked).

Prince Harry's had his fair share of gaffes – the time he raided the Nazi dressing-up box, the "spicy" cigarettes, the racist "banter" – but the Vegas incident took the Duchy biscuit. Yes, Dirty Harry has always been the wild child, falling out of Boujis after a treasure chest or 10, but when two photos of him cupping his crown jewels were leaked on a US gossip website on 21 August, he took the Royal scandal to Baudelairian levels. Sin City, the VIP suite, full-frontal nudity and sleazy cameraphone pics – it was one tiger in the bathroom away from re-enacting The Hangover.

Harry was "letting off steam" in Vegas after some jolly hard work including a stint in Afghanistan (flying ruddy big helicopters), his first official overseas tour (dutty wining in Jamaica) and his role as Olympic ambassador (watching the beach volleyball). When the first pictures emerged of the Prince at a pool party, in Hawaiian-print board shorts, dodgy leather necklace and slightly pink cheeks, Hazza looked like every other gap-yah student whose idea of a holiday is to get hooned on a giant inflatable. But the best was yet to come.

That night Harry invited several random girls up to his penthouse suite for a casual game of "strip billiards" – but they clearly didn't get the "what happens in Vegas" memo. Just days later an estimated 54 million people had seen grainy shots of the redhead in various poses, like a bargain-basement Botticelli. With a pastier bum.

Despite warnings from the Palace's lawyers, The Sun eventually printed the pics in a souvenir edition with the headline "Heir It Is!". Celebrities tweeted their approval, from Lady Gaga's "HOLY MOTHER HARRY LOOKS FIT" to Piers Morgan's "Why wasn't I invited???". And when further cringe-worthy details emerged about that night – Harry's drunken fumbles and "playing air guitar with a pool stick" – we imagine the Queen did little more than roll her eyes. After all, it's the job of "the spare" to live it up enough for the rest of them. But there was something deeply unforgivable about it all – he didn't take off that awful necklace.

No. 7 On the trail of the pine

By Michael McCarthy

It's the loveliest British mammal, with a flowing sinuous body, a coat of chocolate brown and buff, and spectacular agility; but it's also one of the most elusive and one of the rarest, and as far as most people are concerned, the pine marten is a creature that belongs to Scotland: it's confined to Caledonia.

Yet even though it's believed to have been driven extinct long ago south of the border, for nearly 40 years naturalists and wildlife lovers have been wondering whether Martes martes wasn't holding out in some of the other, wilder recesses of Britain, in Wales especially; and a real reason to be cheerful in 2012, if you love the natural world, was proof at long last, that it is.

Earlier this year, the body of a young male pine marten that had been killed by a car was found on the roadside near Newtown in Powys, in mid-Wales's mountainous heart. The finding brought to a climax the organised hunt for pine martens in Wales, which has been carried out in recent decades by an independent wildlife conservation charity, the Vincent Wildlife Trust.

Over the years, the Trust has received more than 300 credible reports of sightings of pine martens in Wales and has built up a map of "hot spot" areas. It has organised numerous hunts for pine-marten scats (droppings) using teams of volunteers, and deployed remote cameras. Yet until now the most recent unequivocal evidence of the animal's continued existence was a pine-marten scat found in 2007, in Cwm Rheidol forest, 30 miles from Newtown, and later positively DNA-tested.

Somehow it doesn't really set the heart racing, does it, a piece of pine-marten poo? Even though it's evidence that the beastie is out there. But finding the animal itself, close to the village of Aberhafesp – despite the fact that it was an ex-pine marten – was truly tangible evidence at last that this tree-climbing relative of the otter and the stoat is still with us in Wales.

The known presence of a rare animal, even if unseen, adds a marvellous feel of mystery to a landscape, like the snow leopard in the Himalayas: might we glimpse it? The Cambrian Mountains of Powys and Ceredigion are more, after 2012, than they were before: Martes martes has brought to them its own elusive mystery.

No. 8 Life, the universe…

By Steve Connor

The ecstatic reaction of the excited boffins sitting in the lecture theatre that July morning said it all. As scientists at Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva, announced their latest results, there was little doubt among their colleagues that the Higgs boson, or something very similar to the fabled sub-atomic particle, had been found.

For almost half a century, theoretical physicists have fantasised about discovering the particle that would, they hope, confirm the Standard Model on which physicists have based almost their entire understanding of the universe and the forces that make it what it is.

Named after Peter Higgs, a retired professor at Edinburgh University, who first conceived of it in 1964 while walking in the Cairngorms, the elusive particle could explain why matter has mass and why other particles, such as photons of light, do not.

It took 30 years of painstaking experimentation and a massive £2.6bn machine – an underground "atom smasher" – to tease out the Higgs particle from the multitude of "background noises". Searching for it was like trying to find a single straw in a wheat field, as scientists sifted and filtered myriad sub-atomic signals coming from the collisions of opposing proton beams each travelling just a whisker short of the speed of light.

In the end, there was little doubt the Cern scientists thought that they had finally found what they had been looking for. In fact they were as sure as they could be to a "five sigma" level of statistical significance, meaning there was only a one-in-several-million chance of it being a random error. Still, more work needs to be done to achieve the level of absolute certainty that these scientists demand.

In 2012, they have definitely found a new sub-atomic particle that fits the description of the Higgs boson, but they are still uncertain what kind of Higgs they have found. And why does it matter? Finding the Higgs may not stop us from falling over the edge of a fiscal cliff, but it does further our fundamental understanding of the universe, from the largest galaxies to the elemental particles that constitute our atoms.

Some have likened the discovery to the Apollo Moon landings or the unravelling of the DNA double helix. In some respects it could be even more significant because of what it says about the universe and our part in it.

No. 9 Flour power

By Hugh Montgomery

It's the perennial complaint of those who don't actually watch television that the medium has become coarser, nastier and plain dimmer with each passing year – and chiefly, they will surmise, because of the birth of that hideous genre known as reality TV. But in 2012, the contrasting passage of two reality vessels gave these sniffy "idiot-box" types cause for cheer. On the one hand, The X Factor ship began to run aground amid increasing indifference to its foghorn-like performers. And on the other, BBC2's ever-so-refined The Great British Bake Off quietly steered its way into the national conversation, at watercoolers, on Twitter and beyond.

An amateur baking contest, set in a bunting-bedecked marquee, where soggy bottoms are more prevalent than sorry arses? When it kicked off 2010, it seemed to be a nice bit of food-programming filler for a rare part of the year not colonised by the Masterchef franchise. But since then, its popularity has risen as assuredly as the standard of its baking puns: where 2 million tuned in at the start, 6.5 million watched October's series three final.

Meanwhile it's turned unfeasibly genteel co-judge Mary Berry and unfeasibly perky co-host Sue Perkins (below) into our 3,036th and 3,037th national treasures; revolutionised the use of the word "bake" as a noun; and even proved a fashion trendsetter, after Berry induced pandemonium at Zara with her typically "mad for it" modelling of an acid house-style floral bomber jacket in week seven.

How has TGBBO caked itself in glory so? Well, it's obviously no coincidence that this year's series began on 14 August, two days after a certain sporting shindig finished: what greater comfort for the Olympically bereft than another competition promoting Britishness, decency and "oo-er" discussion of buns? Then there's the fact that baking has long been the retro-nostalgic middle-class lifestyle choice.

But, above all, it has thrived by being consistently, thoroughly boring. And I mean that in the nicest way: where provocative, high-octane TV shows are 10-a-penny, there's something blissful about the way its history-lesson interludes and detailed technical commentary can leave you as glazed as a tarte tatin. It won't last, of course: come 2015, expect Berry to be engaged in a weekly frock-off with new judge Kelly Brook.

No. 10 On yer bikes, then

By Robert Epstein

Rarely has a sporting event united the capital quite like the 2012 Olympics: it's going to bankrupt us, I'm leaving the country till it's over, I won't be able to get to work because of all those bloody tourists. Those were the cries this time last year of a people immune to optimism.

Yet any look back on Britain's Greatest Sporting Year™ would be remiss in not beginning with the Games, which startled the lot of us by actually being rather extraordinary, from Danny Boyle's opening ceremony right through to seconds before the closing ceremony.

It was a Games where we discovered that we are at our very best in sports that involve sitting down and could otherwise be described as "travel": rowing, horse-dancing and cycling. And from Mo on the move to Nicola in the ring to Jess just about everywhere, it was a Games in which the public was so invested that athletes took on the mantle of Beyoncé, Kylie, Madonna et al, and no longer needed surnames.

The excitement was maintained by the Paralympics, where Ellie kept it mononymous, the nation took pride in packing out stadia, and Sarah Storey topped even our all-inspiring Olympic cyclists with four golds.

Of those cyclists, Wiggo, of course, gave us not only one of the images of the summer – sitting like a grumpy giraffe on his time-trial throne – but also the Rosbifs' greatest blow to the Frenchies since Agincourt by taking their maillot jaune all the way to Paris and becoming the first Brit to win their fancy-schmancy Tour.

As far as individual achievements go, Mr SPOTY just about pipped Andy Murray, who finally cracked a smile on becoming our first Grand Slam champ for 76 years; and Rory McIlroy, who blew away the US Masters field and was then part of the British-led band of brothers who stuck it to the Yanks in the Ryder Cup.

As for team achievements, it's hard to look beyond England's 3-0 rugby whitewashing of the perennially awesome Kiwis – though the way the nation's footballers strode into Euro 2013 was mighty impressive, too.

That was the women, of course. The best the men could do? Well, Chelsea's triumph of attrition over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final said a lot for good-old British (Czech, Brazilian, Spanish, Ivorian…) spunk, and let's not forget that ridiculously young Welsh rugby team, who managed to reverse time itself, taking us back to the 1970s with a sublime style of play that brought the Principality the 6 Nations Grand Slam and made George North seem like the most impressive winger in the world. For a couple of weeks, anyway.

No. 11 Raspberry ripple

By Adam Jacques

It's not much to look at, really: a small, green circuit board about the size of a credit card that's packed with components. But, since its release earlier this year, the programmable Raspberry Pi computer has become a global sensation, selling more than a million units.

Though slender, this slice of silicon has proven capable of everything from piloting a helium balloon 25 miles above the Earth to powering miniature weather stations. What's more, it has everything a basic computer needs – processor, graphics, memory – and, with a little tinkering, once you hook it up to a keyboard and TV – you've got a £25 credit-crunch PC that will let you surf the web, watch films or play games (there's enough horsepower to match the first Xbox).

But none of these functions are really what spurred six University of Cambridge designers to create the Pi; rather, their ambitious aim is to help reverse our woeful approach to teaching children information technology and inspire a new generation of whiz kids.

The current problems are two-fold: first, computer science isn't taught as standard in British schools – the number of pupils taking the subject at A-level has dropped 60 per cent since 2003. Second is our reliance on the slick tablets and gaming devices that have created a nation of Facebook and Angry Birds users who play on, not with, their tech.

And why does that matter? It was tinkering with basic home-computer set-ups that set Bill Gates and Steve Jobs on their way; if we want our economy to thrive in the digital future, we need a new generation that understands all facets of our growing hi-tech economy.

So how could the Pi provide the answer? The vision of its creators – who set up a charitable foundation to broaden the reach of the gizmo – is to take advantage of planned changes to the Information and Communications Technology curriculum to focus more on programming and less on PowerPoint, by delivering the kit to all UK schoolkids and, with free downloadable software, allow them to tinker, creating rudimentary games and applications, and rediscovering the lost art of programming.

While critics have argued that it's only geeks who'll benefit, a growing number of Pi clubs are already introducing the device to children. Watch out, Zuckerberg – the kids are coming for your crown.

No. 12 Free at last

By Peter Popham

It is becoming hard to recall how completely hopeless Burma used to seem. For years and years those of us who had become interested in the place were wearily resigned to the fact that nothing ever got better.

The great uprising of 1988 was a prelude to the collapse of communism elsewhere, sparked by many of the same frustrations, but while across the Soviet empire the shackles fell away, in Burma the junta's tactics of mass murder had their intended effect. Aung San Suu Kyi went into house arrest, her colleagues into Insein Jail, and the rest of the country into sullen silence. A couple of false dawns were quickly followed by the return of the long night.

The general election of 2010 seemed but another of those treacherous moments of fake reform, producing a pre-cooked result. The election of Thein Sein to the new civilian presidency looked like more of the same – after all, this was the retired general who, as prime minister, presided over the crushing of the Saffron Revolution.

But then something happened. Even now the experts struggle to explain exactly what. Partly it was fear of the Arab Spring effect sparking a new uprising. Partly it was the exasperation of the ruling elite at the way China was steadily turning the country into a de facto province. But mostly it was just Thein Sein, this improbable new strongman with his pebble glasses and pacemaker.

The rest of the world may have treated his government's democratic mandate as a bad joke, but for the man himself, it apparently mattered. "He understands that he can't run the government the way it used to be run," said one of his closest colleagues, "that this government is elected by the people. If you don't do what the people want, you won't survive."

The changes began in August 2011 with Thein Sein's first meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, but this was the year they made themselves felt. Pre-censorship of the media was abolished, tight control of the internet ended. Plain-clothes spooks vanished from the streets. Most political prisoners were set free.

Dissident media including news magazine The Irrawaddy, founded in 1992 by Burmese exiles living in Thailand, came home. Parliament, which had seemed merely ornamental, began to flux its muscles. As the new MP for the impoverished constituency of Kawhmu, Suu Kyi made her political debut, 24 years late. Burma still has gruesomely difficult problems to solve. But at long last the tyranny has lifted.

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