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9 to watch in 2009

Normalcy. Center of the action. Nuclear family and nucleic reactions. Middle of the road. Middle-class needs and middle-class aspirations. Our list reads like a rejection of extremes. And we make no apologies for that. After the year we had, some humdrum, get 'er done, here comes the sun is what we all want and deserve.


Train wreck

In the flash-lit world of celebrity culture, time heals all blonds.

Skirt-blown Marilyn became a symbol of grace. Madonna, once like a virgin, is now like a visionary. And in 2009, Britney Spears, that bed-hopping, bad-parenting, sedan-smashing, over­exposed mess, will be a savior.

That's right: When the 27-year-old pop star spent most of '08 holed up and healing her raggedy rep, tab rags and trash TV were forced to find new dye-jobs to exploit. In walked Heidi Montag, star of reality show The Hills, a woman with no conceivable skill save for stuffing a wild bikini. Oooh, look, Heidi eloped with some creep. Please. Britney's first marriage lasted 55 hours! Now that's style.

In America, we demand top-shelf train wrecks. And there's no one like Britney. With a supposedly straightened halo, Spears is poised to dominate 2009 with a new concert tour (coming to Tampa on March 8), new music from a new album (Circus) and a fresh outlook on love, life and raising young boys.

Some will root for her salvation; some will drool over her demise; some might even clamor for K-Fed. But all of us will be watching, thankful that someone has bumped those wannabes off the sacred cover of US Weekly.

Welcome back, angel.



At this time last year, David Price had never thrown a pitch in a professional baseball game.

Since then, the 6-6 left-hander moved from Class A to Double A to Triple A to the big leagues and the World Series. And, somewhere along the way, managed to find time to introduce Barack Obama at a political rally.

Technically, he is still a rookie — he has only 16 days of major league experience — but to much of the nation, Price is already the face of the Tampa Bay Rays.

The No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft out of Vanderbilt, Price was a sensation in the 2008 postseason, winning Game 2 and getting the save in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox. That made him the first player in major league history to get a postseason victory and save before getting either in the regular season. Then, for good measure, he picked up his second save in Game 2 of the World Series.

He may begin 2009 back in Triple A for extra seasoning, but there is little doubt baseball fans in Tampa Bay, and everywhere else, will be paying close attention to Price's big league encore.



He's got the whole world economy in his hand.

The 71-year-old Indian industrialist heads a conglomerate of 98 companies that span the globe. Tea, telephones, information technology, power — it's said that you can't go a day in India without using a Tata product. Tata's ownership of Jaguar-Land Rover, major steel companies and hotels makes it increasingly difficult to do that outside of India, as well.

For Tata, 2008 was bookended by setbacks. Production of his Nano car project (sale price $2,500) halted over a labor dispute at the factory in West Bengal. In November, his signature hotel, the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, was the scene of the bloody siege by Pakistani terrorists.

But look how he has rebounded.

Last weekend, the Taj reopened with Tata pledging to restore the landmark to its previous glory. "We can be hurt, but not knocked out," he said. And the Nano project is back online with at a new plant on the other side of the country, and the first vehicles will roll out the door early next year.

The Cornell graduate won't be content to transform Indian society. He plans to market an electric version of his two-cylinder car — so stripped down it doesn't even have sun visors — around the world.

Take that, Detroit.



First black first lady? That's just the start.

Speculation has fixated on which of Michelle Obama's predecessors she will emulate. The soigne Mrs. Kennedy? She's certainly got the wardrobe for it. The hard-driving Mrs. Clinton? She certainly has enough Ivy League ed and real world cred to match.

But instead of retreading someone else's style, Mrs. Obama, the mother of daughters 10 and 7, seems determined to define her own role. She calls it "Mom-in-Chief."

The furor that this announcement provoked among working women — "How could you sell us out like that?" — and the smug response of the stay-at-homers — "You bet it's a full-time job" — only shows how crippling partisanship has infected the postpartum arena as well as the political.

Next year we will watch her model a new version of modern American womanhood. Neither trapped at home nor chained to a career, she will show families across America that women can shuttle between these realms on their own terms, without self-recrimination or cultural penalty.

That's worth a fist bump.


Worthy opponent

"The majority of our people are tired of extremism and the exaggerations of the factions on the right and left, and generally factionalism altogether."

Sounds like a certain bipartisan-promoting president-elect, doesn't it? Actually, it's the mayor of Tehran. He may run for president next June. And he could win.

Turns out Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's domestic bumbling — 30 percent inflation and 10 percent unemployment thanks to him recklessly pumping state money into the economy — has made him almost as unpopular at home as he is abroad.

Qalibaf, 47, ran against Ahmadinejad in 2005 and lost, but moderates have gained in parliamentary elections since then. Openly hostile to the president, Qalibaf wants to encourage a "Third Wave" that will "put people with expertise in charge, people who are both idealistic and realistic."

He is said to have the support of some of Iran's leading clerics and still talks glowingly of the revolution that deposed the Shah. But he does not demonize the West.

"I think in fact that Iran and the U.S. have many common interests in the region — our position in the region should not be one of opposition but friendly competition with other powers."

Imagine him across a table from President Obama. It could happen.



The Polk County Republican turned heads when he announced on Election Day that he would not run for re-election as chairman of the House Republican Conference, his party's third-highest post in the U.S. House.

At only 34, Putnam has enjoyed a meteoric rise during his eight years in Congress, and many people in Washington of both parties believe he has the smarts, ambition and respect to become speaker of the House one day.

But don't mistake his stepping down with stepping out.

The main job of the conference chairman is shaping, and carrying, the message of the day for Republicans in the House, who as a group have moved increasingly to the right in the past two elections.

That might not be the best place for a young politician whose state just voted for the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1996. While the Republican Party debates whether it should sacrifice ideological purity for political pragmatism, or hope that ideological purity proves pragmatic, Putnam has made up his mind in favor of the former.

That will make it easier to pass legislation in a Democrat-held House. But it's also a smart way to focus on his future. Let's see whether his party follows his example.



Cell phone sales are projected to drop in 2009 because of the slumping world economy, analysts say, but smartphone sales will climb 9 percent.

This isn't just e-mail obsessed middle-managers driving this. It's kids who think it's a hoot to turn their iPhone into a flat flute with the touch of finger and deal-savvy moms who use their new G1s' barcode-scanning application to comparison shop without leaving the store.

And it won't be long before you can walk down the aisle of your supermarket, wave your cell phone across the barcode of a nicely marbled Delmonico and purchase it right there. No more standing in line, penned in between "Bat Boy" and the breath mints.

Sometime in 2009 you'll pay your first bill on your cell phone (there's already an iPhone application that lets Bank of America customers do this) or move money into your freshman daughter's checking account — because she texted you in a panic from the checkout line at the college bookstore.

Who knows, some of you world travelers might even bribe your way out of a jam in Lagos by transferring cell phone minutes to the policeman in exchange for letting you go. In places where formal financial systems are inaccessible to many people, minutes are as good as gold.

This year you will realize that the one thing you absolutely always must have in your pocket is not your wallet or your keys. It's your cell phone.


Underutilized tool

Did you realize when we started 2008 that 4.6 percent of us were out of work? By year's end that number was 7.3 percent — over 10 percent if you live in Hernando County. Ten percent?! When was the last time that happened?

This stinks. We're begging on our knees for jobs at the landfill, giving serious thought to joining the military (sure, there's a couple of wars on, but the health plan is tops) and the only thing to be thankful for is that the gas is cheap while we drive around chasing work.

So is it crazy to predict that you, the Florida Worker, will be busy next year? Yeah, a little, at least for the first half of next year.

But a combination of President Obama's new deal money and the normal cycle of a recession should put many of us back to work before the year's out. (We sooo hope that's true.) You might be wearing a hard hat on a road project rather than a headset in a call center, but it'll be a job.

In the meantime, we'll all get a lesson in pulling together. That's something no government program can do.


Magic bullet

Remember that scene in The Graduate when Benjamin Braddock gets a word of advice from a family friend? "Plastics," the man tells him.

Here's the word for 2009: catalysis.

It's the process by which a catalyst starts or hastens a chemical reaction.

Why's it so important? Ask Steven Chu, President-elect Obama's choice for energy secretary.

During his tenure at the head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Chu promoted research into catalysis, reckoning that the key to solving our energy issues and slowing the effects of climate change depends on making more efficient use of available fuels.

All fuels.

Better catalysts might make it possible to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, or ferment the cellulose in agricultural trash to make ethanol. More efficient fuel consumption means less carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere. It means using less water — a fragile resource — in the ethanol process.

So any time you hear Secretary Chu talk about funding research into energy independence, you'll know that what he's really thinking about are the dozens of catalysis projects under way at labs around the country.

Times staff writers John Romano, Wes Allison, Sean Daly and Bill Duryea contributed to this report.

How'd we do in '08?

Not bad, if we do say so.

Oscar Pistorius: The debate over whether the double-amputee sprinter from South Africa would be permitted to compete against able-bodied runners in Beijing dragged on until May. Ultimately he didn't run fast enough to qualify for the national team. But he cleaned up at the Paralympics in September.

Nicolas Sarkozy: The French president married a supermodel, brokered a cease-fire between Georgia and Russia and celebrated the release of hostages held in the Colombian jungle. Relevant at home and abroad? Mais, bien sur!

Oprah: Barack Obama won and she still hasn't failed at anything.

Darwin: Though not a hot issue in a campaign dominated by the economy, Darwin and his much-maligned theory still didn't make any ground. Turns out 60 percent of Republicans remain unconvinced. Proof of "devolution?"

Florida voter: Saddled with an almost meaningless primary, we managed to torpedo Rudy and give Hillary hope. Our desperate attempt to be relevant fostered months of utterly confounding stories about counting delegates. When it counted, we swung Democrat and helped make history.

Hannah Montana: "The Pied Pipette of the Tween set," otherwise known as Miley Cyrus, had a huge year, but maybe not as big as her legion of 8- to 12-year-old fans who continued their domination of pop culture sales and marketing.

Gen. Petraeus: Until the economy tanked, the biggest issue in the presidential race had to be Petraeus' surge in Iraq. The general's name was mentioned nine times in one debate, mostly by John McCain, but no one wanted to appear at odds with the man credited with turning the war around.

Hurricane Arthur and Co.: Fourth busiest season on record, but except for flooding from Tropical Storm Fay, Florida wasn't touched. Thousands of people in Haiti, Cuba and Texas wish they could say the same.

Kathy Castor: Is anyone in the Tampa Bay area enjoying the Democratic revival more than U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa? She was one of two Democratic members from Florida who backed Barack Obama in the party's primary. This month, she got her wish to sit on the House committee that will usher Obama's health care reform through Congress.

Michael Kalt: The November vote on the stadium proposal didn't happen, mostly for lack of a well-placed champion, but Kalt, the point man for the ambitious plan, is still plugging away.

• • •

9 to watch in 2009 12/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 29, 2008 11:37am]
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