If you're anything like us, you took a much-needed break from your RSS feeds and cable news shows over the long holiday weekend. But that doesn't mean 2012 didn't start off with a slew of newsworthy events. Here's a look at five stories to help you jumpstart the conversation around the water cooler.
1. Bird Flu is Back
OK, so it's never really gone away, but the deadly H5N1 avian flu claimed its latest victim when a 39-year old Chinese bus driver died Saturday in the southern city of Shenzhen. Chinese health authorities are saying this particular strain of H5N1 spread directly from poultry to the victim—meaning we haven't yet reached the nightmare scenario of person-to-person infection—but scientists are still closely monitoring the situation for any signs of mutation.
2. Israel and the Palestinians Are (Finally) Talking Again
Will 2012 see a breakthrough in the quest for Middle East peace? Not likely. Still, anyone holding out hope for some kind of movement will be happy to see the two sides are sitting down in Jordan for the first time in more than a year. Talks broke down in September 2010 over Israel's refusal to agree to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank.
3. Thousands of Dead Fish Washed Up in Norway
We're pretty sure 20 tons of dead herring on a beach in Norway isn't a sign of the apocalypse. But hey: maybe the Mayans were right about 2012. The more likely explanation for the smelly situation in Kvennes, Norway: predatory fish or a recent storm.
4. Leaving the Seat Up is Bad For Your Health
One more reason to shut the toilet lid: flushing can spray diarrhea-causing bacteria. Researchers in the U.K. found C. Difficile bacteria—which can cause a potentially deadly inflammation of the colon—as much as 10 inches above the toilet seat when they flushed lidless commodes. Researchers are concerned about the findings, since many public facilities use lidless toilets.
5. Two More States Recognize Gay Couples
At the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, Hawaii and Delaware became the fourth and fifth states to recognize civil unions for gay couples, joining Rhode Island, Illinois and New Jersey. Six other states, and the District of Columbia, allow same-sex marriage. Just two years ago, Hawaii's then-governor, Republican Linda Lingle, vetoed similar legislation.