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A great portrait captures the very essence of its subject, and this year, TIME continued its long legacy of storytelling with a number of compelling photographs. 2012 saw newsmakers in several categories and countries, so we sent photographers around the world to capture them as they made their mark. In Turkey, Peter Hapak photographed several Syrian families who had sought refuge in the country after fleeing their homeland to escape the brutality of Assad’s regime; in Iowa, Martin Schoeller captured Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas as the young gymnast trained — both in the gym and at home; and in Israel, Marco Grob photographed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, in 2012, proved that his influence is not only large, but lasting. Their portraits — and the rest in this gallery — are visual testaments to the diverse and colorful personalities who made 2012 memorable; herewith, a look at TIME’s best commissioned portraits this year.

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That crazy leap that Felix Baumgartner made was astonishing.

And if you’re interested in the future of Web video, YouTube’s ability to serve up eight million livestreams at the same time is a really big deal, too.

As I noted yesterday, that number blows away YouTube’s previous peak of 500,000 concurrent streams, which it hit this summer during the Olympics, as well as last year during the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

So it doesn’t take much imagination to envision YouTube doing this kind of stuff, at this scale, on a regular basis. Which would mean the Web finally has a chance to rival TV when it comes to serving up live events with huge audiences — one of TV’s last remaining advantages over the Internet.

That won’t happen anytime soon, though. Death-defying jumps from outer space aside, there are only a few live events that millions of people want to watch at the same time. Basically, a handful of award shows like the Oscars, and big-time sports.

Even if YouTube wanted to pay up to get its hands on that programming, it’s going to have to wait, because the TV guys have the rights locked up for a long time. The next set of NFL deals, for instance, won’t be available for a decade.

But YouTube is still going to be an important platform for live stuff. It’s just that you probably won’t see most of it, unless you’re in a very particular niche.

Here’s some of the stuff YouTube has streamed live in the last year or so:

  • A concert from Psy, the “Gangnam style” guy
  • A concert from AKB48, a Japanese girl group
  • A bunch of EDM shows (that’s “DJs playing music for big crowds,” for the rest of us)
  • A concert by Jay-Z at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn
  • A World of Warcraft launch event, which featured gamers playing Mists of Pandaria around the world
  • A bunch of solar and lunar eclipses

None of these shows drew more than a couple-hundred-thousand concurrent viewers, which would make them the equivalent of a poorly rated cable TV show.

And that makes sense: Since the Internet has trained us to watch anything we want, whenever we want to, why do we have to watch when everyone else does? (A semi-secret about the live video streaming that news sites like the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal* and the Huffington Post do, for instance: Almost all the viewing comes after the fact, via on-demand clips.)

On the other hand, as YouTube proved conclusively yesterday, it can now mount this stuff without breaking a sweat. Now it’s basically a plug-and-play option for any grown-up company that wants to do business with Google. And YouTube is going to make it increasingly available to the rest of us, too.

That’s the result of a year of around-the-clock work by a couple-dozen YouTube engineers, to prep the video site for the Olympics in July.

YouTube software engineering director Jason Gaedtke,who oversaw that effort, says the livestreams the company put out during the Olympics were seven times better than the standard video-on-demand stuff YouTube puts out everyday. His team is now applying the lessons it learned from that effort, and using it to upgrade YouTube’s video more broadly.

So, yes. If someone else wants to grab the world’s attention by breaking the sound barrier aided only by gravity, you’ll be able to watch it alongside a global audience of millions.

But the future of live video on YouTube is probably going to look like something else: You and several thousand other people, watching something most of the world doesn’t care about.

And that can be thrilling in its own way.

*The Journal is owned by News Corp., which also owns this Web site.

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We just finished the documentation for emoto – a data art project visualising the online response to the Olympics London 2012.

In many ways, the crowning piece of the project, and a conceptual counterpoint to the ephemeral web activities, our data sculpture preserved the more than 12 million tweets we collected in physical form. We had 17 plates CNC-milled — one for each day of the games — with a relief heatmap indicating the emotional highs and lows of each day. Overlay projections highlighted individual stories, and visitors could scroll through the most retweeted tweets per hour for each story using a control knob.

The tweets and topics displayed in the installation can also be investigated in interactive heatmaps. Rollover the rows to see a tooltip display of the most retweeted tweet on the given topic at the respective point in time.

Thanks so much to my fantastic collaborators at Studio NAND, and Drew Hemment and the team at and around Future Everything and everyone involved!

Plenty-plenty Sentimenti!

Find a brief documentation at moritz.stefaner.eu/projects/emoto/

or read more on the project here:
nand.io/visualisation/emoto-installation
nand.io/visualisation/emoto
Article and interview on Creators Project
Data Stories podcast episode #11 with Stephan Thiel on emoto

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The Republicans held their convention in Tampa, Florida, against a backdrop of Hurricane Isaac which hit the Gulf Coast on the seventh anniversary of Katrina. The Summer Olympics wrapped up in London with Usain Bolt comfortably defending his title as the world’s fastest man.

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Imagine for a moment hurtling down a roadway as fast as your legs could carry you—all the while blindfolded. Sound scary? Henry Wanyoike does it every day, along the dirt roads around his Kenyan village and on the speedy tracks of Olympic stadiums. Wanyoike, 38, has won three gold medals in three Paralympics—his first in the 5000m at Sydney in 2000—setting two world records for a blind runner in the process. This year in London, he is aiming to medal in his first Paralympic marathon.

The fact that Wanyoike runs at such intense speeds while totally blind is truly remarkable, a testament to both his raw athletic talent and iron guts. I know that from personal experience. I, too, am losing my sight, due to a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa. There is no treatment or cure, no way of slowing the descent into blindness. Today, I still see much better than Wanyoike, but I can barely find my way at night or down a crowded street. As I visited Wanyoike in his village outside of the town of Kikuyu, I joined him for a stretch of a morning run. The weather was terrible. A cold rain fell on the unpaved roads, turning them into cauldrons of mud. My sight doesn’t allow me to spot potholes or other potential ankle-twisters, and the raindrops splattering my eyeglasses made that task even more difficult. I struggled to keep my footing. Yet Wanyoike ran beside me, unfazed and sure-footed. He can’t run alone, of course. He is joined by a guide, Joseph Kibunja, who acts as his eyes.

Wanyoike didn’t always have such confidence. As a young man, he seemed headed for a promising career as part of Kenya’s famed running teams, until disaster struck in May 1995. At only 20 years old, Wanyoike went suddenly blind, due to a stroke. Unable to care for himself, let alone run, he became despondent, even suicidal. “I was thinking that was the end of me,” he says. “My dream would never come true.”

Yet it did. After several years, with the help of encouraging teachers and doctors, Wanyoike learned to run again with the aid of a guide. Now he participates in races from Hong Kong to Hamburg, an inspiration not only to disabled people in Kenya, but also to the poor children of his home region of Kikuyu as well. Wanyoike still lives near to where he was born, humbly in little more than an upgraded shack. Though he wishes he could see his wife and children at least once, Wanyoike doesn’t look backwards, to the life he had when he was sighted. “For 17 years, since I lost my sight, I think I have done so many (more) things than what I did for 21 years before,” Wanyoike says. “The most important thing is to accept yourself.”

I’d like to say I found Wanyoike and his life story inspiring, especially since I am facing a similar fate. He is an inspiration, of course, to anyone dealing with disability or adversity. But what struck me most is how differently Wanyoike and I have approached our condition. Wanyoike has come to accept what has happened to him, and has gained strength from that acceptance. I, however, strive to overcome my failing sight by stubbornly refusing to accept the problem exists. My visit with Wanyoike made me wonder if his way is better.

Read more about Henry Wanyoike at TIME.com.

Dominic Nahr, a TIME contract photographer, is represented by Magnum.

Michael Schuman writes about Asia and global economic issues as a correspondent for TIME in Beijing.

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Jiawei Li of Singapore competes against Hajung Seok of Korea during the women's team table tennis bronze medal match on Day 11 of the London Olympic Games at ExCeL on August 7, 2012.

Photo: Feng Li/Getty Images

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The athletics aren’t the only competition at the Olympics. In addition to drawing the world’s top athletes, the games pit some of the best sports photographers on the planet against each other for the chance to show audiences what they can do.

But while the work can be physically and mentally demanding, the fight for an iconic photo is invisible and thankless. To remedy that, we’ve compiled our personal favorites from the thousands of photos we saw during our London 2012 Olympics coverage. These are not the best, most historic moments or comprehensive highlights, they’re simply the photos that stood out to us as exceptional.

What were your favorites? Let us know in the comments.

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The day after the London Olympics closing ceremony, the stadium was empty, save for clean-up crews. During the height of the games, 80,000 spectators watched track and field events. See a side-by-side comparison of those two occasions.

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Take a look back at the best photos from the 2012 London Summer Olympics. Sort by category and click on images to enlarge and read captions.

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