Today on New Scientist: 21 December 2012

Cadaver stem cells offer new hope of life after death

Stem cells can be extracted from bone marrow five days after death to be used in life-saving treatments

Apple's patents under fire at US patent office

The tech firm is skating on thin ice with some of the patents that won it a $1 billion settlement against Samsung

Himalayan dam-building threatens endemic species

The world's highest mountains look set to become home to a huge number of dams - good news for clean energy but bad news for biodiversity

Astrophile: Black hole exposed as a dwarf in disguise

A white dwarf star caught mimicking a black hole's X-ray flashes may be the first in a new class of binary star systems

Blind juggling robot keeps a ball in the air for hours

The robot, which has no visual sensors, can juggle a ball flawlessly by analysing its trajectory

Studio sessions show how Bengalese finch stays in tune

This songbird doesn't need technological aids to stay in tune - and it's smart enough to not worry when it hears notes that are too far off to be true

Giant tooth hints at truly monumental dinosaur

A lone tooth found in Argentina may have belonged to a dinosaur even larger than those we know of, but what to call it?

Avian flu virus learns to fly without wings

A strain of bird flu that hit the Netherlands in 2003 travelled by air, a hitherto suspected by unproven route of transmission

Feedback: Are wind turbines really fans?

A tale of "disease-spreading" wind farms, the trouble with quantifying "don't know", the death of parody in the UK, and more

The link between devaluing animals and discrimination

Our feelings about other animals have important consequences for how we treat humans, say prejudice researchers Gordon Hodson and Kimberly Costello

Best videos of 2012: First motion MRI of unborn twins

Watch twins fight for space in the womb, as we reach number 6 in our countdown of the top videos of the year

2012 Flash Fiction winner: Sleep by Richard Clarke

Congratulations to Richard Clarke, who won the 2012 New Scientist Flash Fiction competition with a clever work of satire

Urban Byzantine monks gave in to temptation

They were supposed to live on an ascetic diet of mainly bread and water, but the monks in 6th-century Jerusalem were tucking into animal products

The pregnant promise of fetal medicine

As prenatal diagnosis and treatment advance, we are entering difficult ethical territory

2013 Smart Guide: Searching for human origins in Asia

Africa is where humanity began, where we took our first steps, but those interested in the latest cool stuff on our origins should now look to Asia instead

The end of the world is an opportunity, not a threat

Don't waste time bemoaning the demise of the old order; get on with building the new one

Victorian counting device gets speedy quantum makeover

A photon-based version of a 19th-century mechanical device could bring quantum computers a step closer

Did learning to fly give bats super-immunity?

When bats first took to the air, something changed in their DNA which may have triggered their incredible immunity to viruses

Van-sized space rock is a cosmic oddball

Fragments from a meteor that exploded over California in April are unusually low in amino acids, putting a twist on one theory of how life on Earth began

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Egyptians vote on divisive new constitution

CAIRO: Egyptians voted on Saturday in the final round of a referendum on a new constitution championed by President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist allies against fierce protests from the secular-leaning opposition.

The proposed charter is expected to be adopted after already garnering 57 percent support in the first round of the referendum a week ago.

But the slim margin and the low first-round turnout, in which fewer than one in three eligible voters cast a ballot, has emboldened the opposition, which looks likely to continue its campaign against Morsi after Saturday's voting.

Egypt has already been shaken by a month of protests, some of them violent.

On December 5, eight people were killed and hundreds injured in clashes between rival demonstrators outside the presidential palace in Cairo.

On the eve of Saturday's polling, more clashes erupted in Egypt's second city Alexandria, injuring 62 people, including 12 police officers. Twelve people were arrested, as stone-throwing mobs torched vehicles, the interior ministry said.

Some 250,000 police and soldiers were deployed to provide security during the referendum. The army has also positioned tanks around the presidential palace in Cairo since early this month.

The constitution was drafted by a panel dominated by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-orthodox Salafist groups. Christians and liberals who criticised changes they saw as weakening human and women's rights boycotted the process.

The protests began a month ago on November 22, when Morsi decreed sweeping powers putting himself above judicial review to force through the draft charter.

Although he gave up those powers weeks later under pressure from the protests, he pressed ahead with the referendum.

To do so, he split the voting over two successive Saturdays after more than half of Egypt's judges said they would not provide the statutory supervision of polling stations.

The main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, launched a last-ditch campaign to vote down the charter after deciding a boycott would be counter-productive.

But it and Egyptian human rights groups alleged the first round was marred by fraud, setting up a possible later challenge to the results.

Preliminary tallies from the final round were expected by early Sunday.

"I am voting 'yes' because Egypt needs a constitution to be stable," Mohamed Mamza, a 49-year-old driver lining up to vote in Giza, southwest Cairo, told AFP.

Nearby, another voter, Sayyed Mostafa, a 25-year-old accountant, said he was "of course voting 'no'."

He explained: "This constitution doesn't respect Egyptians. It forgets that there was a revolution in Egypt. We deserve better."

If, as expected, the new constitution is adopted, Morsi will have to call parliamentary elections within two months, to replace the Islamist-dominated assembly ordered dissolved by Egypt's top court in June.

Continued instability will imperil Egypt's economy, which has been limping along ever since the 2011 revolution that overthrew autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak.

The International Monetary Fund has put on hold a $4.8-billion loan Egypt needs to stave off a currency collapse, and Germany has indefinitely postponed a plan to forgive $316 million of Egypt's debt.

National Salvation Front chief Mohamed ElBaradei, a former UN atomic energy agency chief, warned in an online video that "the country is on the verge of bankruptcy."

But he said "a solution is still possible" if Morsi is prepared for "sincere dialogue" and allows a new constitution to be drafted through a more inclusive process.

- AFP/al

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Capture of jail escapee ends with bang, thud

The parents of the man who owned the townhouse where prison escapee Joseph Banks was found talk to the Tribune. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

The spectacular escape from Chicago's high-rise federal jail — the first in nearly 30 years at the facility — fueled theories that convicted bank robber Joseph "Jose" Banks had a sophisticated plan to elude capture with hundreds of thousands of dollars in loot he had stashed away.

But in the end, Banks was hiding in a predictable spot less than five miles from the South Loop jail and was betrayed by someone who had spoken with the fugitive and was able to give authorities his exact location, a law enforcement source said. When he was captured, Banks had no cash, weapon or cellphone, and he was wearing some of the same clothes he had on when he escaped three days earlier, the source said.

Banks, who along with a cellmate scaled down some 15 stories of the sheer wall of the Metropolitan Correctional Center using a rope fashioned from knotted bedsheets, was taken into custody on the North Side by FBI agents and Chicago police about 11:30 p.m. Thursday. He was holed up at the home of a boyhood friend in the 2300 block of North Bosworth Avenue, just blocks from his former apartment and Lincoln Park High School, which he attended in the 1990s.

The second escapee, Kenneth Conley, also a convicted bank robber, remained at large Friday.

Neighbors on the quiet block where Banks was discovered described hearing the loud bang of a flash grenade — designed to stun anyone inside a residence without causing serious injury — followed by agents and officers swarming the Fullerton Court Apartments just west of the DePaul University campus.

Within minutes, agents led Banks away in handcuffs and dressed in a T-shirt and shorts.

"We heard a big boom first," said the Rev. Baggett Collier, who lives in the complex. "We thought a transformer burst or there was a traffic accident. … I went out and I saw (Banks). He was cuffed. His head was down. I didn't hear him say anything. They got him into the wagon peacefully. The police were pretty calm bringing him out."

Hours later, Banks shuffled into a federal courtroom dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and shackled at the waist and ankles with thick, padlocked chains. The slightly built former fashion designer answered questions from U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier softly and politely — a sharp contrast to his defiant behavior during his trial last week on bank robbery charges in the same federal courthouse.

Banks, a prolific bank robber dubbed the Second Hand Bandit because of the used clothing he wore during his holdups, was charged with one count of escaping federal custody that carries a sentence of up to five years in prison on conviction. He also faces sentencing in March for his conviction last week for two bank robberies and two attempted holdups.

Prosecutors objected to any bond being set on the new charge, suggesting matter-of-factly that Banks was a "flight risk" and a danger to the community. Banks' attorney, Beau Brindley, did not argue for his release.

After the brief hearing, Brindley called his client a "mild-mannered" person whose statements at trial were misconstrued as threats toward the court system.

"This is not a violent person," Brindley told reporters in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. "He's a talented artist and clothing designer."

Banks' cousin Theresa Ann Banks said in a telephone interview Friday that he never tried to contact her or anyone else in the family during his short time on the run. Family members were still trying to piece together conflicting information they were getting on the circumstances of his arrest, she said. Asked who lived in the home where her cousin was found, she replied, "Maybe a friend."

Theresa Ann Banks said the family has spent the past few days scared for his safety, especially since he had been described as "armed and dangerous."

"He's not the bad guy they've made him out to be," she said of her cousin. "He's soft and gentle, and he has a good heart."

Banks and Conley were last accounted for in the jail at 10 p.m. Monday during a routine bed check, authorities said. About 7 a.m. the next day, jail employees arriving for work saw ropes made from bedsheets dangling from a hole in the wall near the 15th floor and down the south side of the facade.

The two had put clothing and sheets under blankets in their beds to throw off guards making nighttime checks and removed a cinder block to create an opening wide enough to slide through, authorities said.

The FBI said a surveillance camera a few blocks from the jail showed the two, wearing light-colored clothing, hailing a taxi at Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue. They also appeared to be wearing backpacks, according to the FBI.

The daring escape was an embarrassment for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and a rarity for the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where the only previous successful escape took place in 1985. A high-ranking employee in the facility told the Tribune this week that video surveillance had captured the men making their descent, but that the guard who was supposed to be watching the video monitors for suspicious activity may have been called away on other duties.

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Pictures: Fungi Get Into the Holiday Spirit

Photograph courtesy Stephanie Mounaud, J. Craig Venter Institute

Mounaud combined different fungi to create a Santa hat and spell out a holiday message.

Different fungal grow at different rates, so Mounaud's artwork rarely lasts for long. There's only a short window of time when they actually look like what they're suppose to.

"You do have to keep that in perspective when you're making these creations," she said.

For example, the A. flavus fungi that she used to write this message from Santa grows very quickly. "The next day, after looking at this plate, it didn't say 'Ho Ho Ho.' It said 'blah blah blah,'" Mounaud said.

The message also eventually turned green, which was the color she was initially after. "It was a really nice green, which is what I was hoping for. But yellow will do," she said.

The hat was particularly challenging. The fungus used to create it "was troubling because at different temperatures it grows differently. The pigment in this one forms at room temperature but this type of growth needed higher temperatures," Mounaud said.

Not all fungus will grow nicely together. For example, in the hat, "N. fischeri [the brim and ball] did not want to play nice with the P. marneffei [red part of hat] ... so they remained slightly separated."

Published December 21, 2012

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Obama Still an 'Optimist' on Cliff Deal

gty barack obama ll 121221 wblog With Washington on Holiday, President Obama Still Optimist on Cliff Deal

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON D.C. – Ten days remain before the mandatory spending cuts and tax increases known as the “fiscal cliff” take effect, but President Obama said he is still a “hopeless optimist” that a federal budget deal can be reached before the year-end deadline that economists agree might plunge the country back into recession.

“Even though Democrats and Republicans are arguing about whether those rates should go up for the wealthiest individuals, all of us – every single one of us -agrees that tax rates shouldn’t go up for the other 98 percent of Americans, which includes 97 percent of small businesses,” he said.

He added that there was “no reason” not to move forward on that aspect, and that it was “within our capacity” to resolve.

The question of whether to raise taxes on incomes over $250,000 remains at an impasse, but is only one element of nuanced legislative wrangling that has left the parties at odds.

For ABC News’ breakdown of the rhetoric versus the reality, click here.

At the White House news conference this evening, the president confirmed he had spoken today to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, although no details of the conversations were disclosed.

The talks came the same day Speaker Boehner admitted “God only knows” the solution to the gridlock, and a day after mounting pressure from within his own Republican Party forced him to pull his alternative proposal from a prospective House vote. That proposal, ”Plan B,” called for extending current tax rates for Americans making up to $1 million a year, a far wealthier threshold than Democrats have advocated.

Boehner acknowledged that even the conservative-leaning “Plan B” did not have the support necessary to pass in the Republican-dominated House, leaving a resolution to the fiscal cliff in doubt.

“In the next few days, I’ve asked leaders of Congress to work towards a package that prevents a tax hike on middle-class Americans, protects unemployment insurance for 2 million Americans, and lays the groundwork for further work on both growth and deficit reduction,” Obama said. ”That’s an achievable goal.  That can get done in 10 days.”

Complicating matters: The halls of Congress are silent tonight. The House of Representatives began its holiday recess Thursday and Senate followed this evening.

Meanwhile, the president has his own vacation to contend with. Tonight, he was embarking for Hawaii and what is typically several weeks of Christmas vacation.

However, during the press conference the president said he would see his congressional colleagues “next week” to continue negotiations, leaving uncertain how long Obama plans to remain in the Aloha State.

The president said he hoped the time off would give leaders “some perspective.”

“Everybody can cool off; everybody can drink some eggnog, have some Christmas cookies, sing some Christmas carols, enjoy the company of loved ones,” he said. “And then I’d ask every member of Congress, while they’re back home, to think about that.  Think about the obligations we have to the people who sent us here.

“This is not simply a contest between parties in terms of who looks good and who doesn’t,” he added later. “There are real-world consequences to what we do here.”

Obama concluded by reiterating that neither side could walk away with “100 percent” of its demands, and that it negotiations couldn’t remain “a contest between parties in terms of who looks good and who doesn’t.”

Boehner’s office reacted quickly to the remarks, continuing recent Republican statements that presidential leadership was at fault for the ongoing gridlock.

“Though the president has failed to offer any solution that passes the test of balance, we remain hopeful he is finally ready to get serious about averting the fiscal cliff,” Boehner said. “The House has already acted to stop all of the looming tax hikes and replace the automatic defense cuts. It is time for the Democratic-run Senate to act, and that is what the speaker told the president tonight.”

The speaker’s office said Boehner “will return to Washington following the holiday, ready to find a solution that can pass both houses of Congress.”

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The end of the world is an opportunity, not a threat

Don't waste time bemoaning the demise of the old order; get on with building the new one

Read more: "2013 Smart Guide: 10 ideas that will shape the year"

A FEW days ago, a woman called New Scientist's subscription desk with an unusual question. Was it true that the world would end in a week's time? She was worried about her young relatives: "They don't deserve to die," she told our sympathetic, if nonplussed, representative.

Our usual response to such enquiries is to say there's about as much reason to expect the world to end this week as any other, which is to say: not much ("Countering the new horsemen of the apocalypse", New Scientist, 1 December, p 5). But surprising numbers of people think otherwise. In a recent poll by the US Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), about 2 per cent of people said they expected the world to end before 2012 does; 15 per cent - many of them evangelical Christians - said the end would come in their lifetimes.

Most of us are jokier about prophecies of doom, but still subject to deep-seated anxiety about what the future will bring. The order of things has crumbled in recent years. But we should relish, rather than fear, the challenge of rebuilding it. After all, apocalyptic thinking is also about renewal: those waiting for the world to end usually expect a better one to take its place ("The end is always nigh in the human mind", New Scientist, 4 June 2011, p 30).

There is certainly cause for concern. Struggling western economies eye the fate of Greece uneasily. Democracy's birthplace has plunged abruptly from apparent affluence to penury. Nor are its problems confined to its borders: its economic crisis is turning into a continent-wide public health problem, with long-vanquished "tropical" diseases staging a troubling comeback ("Greek crisis: How to prevent a humanitarian disaster", New Scientist, 26 May, p 6).

There's better news on the global scale - although it still has its befuddling features. The Global Burden of Disease report released last week shows life expectancies to have risen significantly around the world over the past 40 years - but we now die of different causes, from AIDS to traffic accidents. Strikingly, excess weight is now a bigger global health problem than undernutrition (see "Overeating now bigger global problem than lack of food").

And the general increase in living standards is being thrown into doubt by climate change, which is becoming more serious, more quickly, than most feared ("Climate change: It's even worse than we thought", New Scientist, 17 November, p 34). Thankfully, public acceptance of the problem seems also to be on the rise. Some 6 out of 10 people in the PRRI poll think the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of global climate change. That's a bolder link than most scientists would make. But then again, more than a third of those polled took such disasters as evidence of the end of the world.

This is a deeply unhelpful reaction. Our species has certainly made a mess of the atmosphere, and it will take immense efforts to sort it out. But we are capable of them. It's our species that built a huge machine to test our theories of the universe's finest workings. It's also our species that this year winched a giant robot down to the surface of another planet to see what's there. And beyond sating our curiosity, it's our species that's cut the death rate in our under-5s by 60 per cent in 20 years.

So yes, the world is complicated, and the challenges we face are enormous. But we mustn't just throw up our hands in despair: all the ingenuity and determination we can muster will be needed. We have to believe that we can make the world a better place, and act to make it one. We shouldn't view the end of the old world as a threat - but as an opportunity.

If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.

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Kingfisher shares rise on new licence application

NEW DELHI: Shares in India's grounded Kingfisher Airlines climbed nearly three per cent on Friday on news that the stricken carrier has applied to renew its operating licence.

The move came days after Kingfisher, whose liquor baron owner Vijay Mallya has been desperately seeking investment from foreign carriers, said it aims to resume operations in a "phased manner".

Kingfisher's shares rose to 15.88 rupees in morning trade after regulatory authorities confirmed it had applied Thursday for the licence renewal.

An official said, however, that the application had not included the revival plan that has been demanded by regulators.

"This application needs to be made as their licence is expiring but there can be no (licence) renewal without a revival plan," the official at the Directorate General of Civil Aviation told AFP, asking not to be named.

Kingfisher, once India's second-largest airline by market share, could not be immediately reached for comment but it said on Monday it has come up with a full recapitalisation plan.

The firm has not flown since its planes were grounded in October by an employees' strike over unpaid wages, leading the regulator to suspend its operating licence until it comes up with a "viable" revival formula.

The airline, whose current licence expires on December 31, said last week it was in talks with investors including Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways.

But aviation analysts have expressed doubt whether Etihad would be interested in Bangalore-based Kingfisher given its debt load, which is estimated at $2.5 billion by the consultancy firm Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation.

Kingfisher's shares have climbed from an all-time low of 7.05 rupees in August on investor hopes a stake sale will avert a shutdown but they are still trading at a fraction of their record 2007 peak of 334 rupees.

- AFP/il

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Inmate caught 2 days after escape from South Loop lockup

Police entered ahomein Southwest suburban Tinley Park about 11:30 Tuesday morning, searching for two escaped prisoners.

Joseph "Jose" Banks has been caught by authorities late Thursday evening, according to law enforcement sources. He and his cellmate, Kenneth Conley, both convicted bank robbers were awaiting sentencing and last accounted for at 10 p.m. Monday during a routine bed check, authorities said. About 7 a.m. Tuesday, jail employees arriving for work saw the ropes dangling from a hole in an exterior wall near the 15th floor. The duo used sheets to crawl from a window.

The two had put clothing and sheets under blankets in both their beds to throw off guards making nighttime checks, authorities said.

Cameras mounted to the side of the 28-story Metropolitan Correctional Center in the South Loop captured Banks and Conley sliding down the building shortly after 2:30 a.m. Tuesday on a rope constructed from knotted bedsheets, an employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said. The men left view briefly, but it was believed they landed on the roof of a garage below. Moments later, footage from a different camera showed them hopping a black fence marking the perimeter of the property, according to the employee.

The FBI said a surveillance camera a few blocks from the jail showed the men, who wore light-colored clothing, hailing a taxi at Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue. They also appeared to be wearing backpacks, according to the FBI.

The manhunt for the inmates included several high-profile raids Tuesday in the southwest suburbs of Tinley Park and New Lenox, where Conley's family and associates lived. A $50,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the two fugitives was announced by the FBI this week.

Conley is still unaccounted for as of Friday morning.

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Hollies Get Prickly for a Reason

With shiny evergreen leaves and bright red berries, holly trees are a naturally festive decoration seen throughout the Christmas season.

They're famously sharp. But not all holly leaves are prickly, even on the same tree. And scientists now think they know how the plants are able to make sharper leaves, seemingly at will. (Watch a video about how Christmas trees are made.)

A new study published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society suggests leaf variations on a single tree are the combined result of animals browsing on them and the trees' swift molecular response to that sort of environmental pressure.

Carlos Herrera of the National Research Council of Spain led the study in southeastern Spain. He and his team investigated the European holly tree, Ilex aquifolium. Hollies, like other plants, can make different types of leaves at the same time. This is called heterophylly. Out of the 40 holly trees they studied, 39 trees displayed different kinds of leaves, both prickly and smooth.

Five holly leaves from the same tree.

Five holly leaves from the same tree.

Photographs by Emmanuel Lattes, Alamy

Some trees looked like they had been browsed upon by wild goats and deer. On those trees, the lower 8 feet (2.5 meters) had more prickly leaves, while higher up the leaves tended to be smooth. Scientists wanted to figure out how the holly trees could make the change in leaf shape so quickly.

All of the leaves on a tree are genetic twins and share exactly the same DNA sequence. By looking in the DNA for traces of a chemical process called methylation, which modifies DNA but doesn't alter the organism's genetic sequence, the team could determine whether leaf variation was a response to environmental or genetic changes. They found a relationship between recent browsing by animals, the growth of prickly leaves, and methylation.

"In holly, what we found is that the DNA of prickly leaves was significantly less methylated than prickless leaves, and from this we inferred that methylation changes are ultimately responsible for leaf shape changes," Herrera said. "The novelty of our study is that we show that these well-known changes in leaf type are associated with differences in DNA methylation patterns, that is, epigenetic changes that do not depend on variation in the sequence of DNA."

"Heterophylly is an obvious feature of a well-known species, and this has been ascribed to browsing. However, until now, no one has been able to come up with a mechanism for how this occurs," said Mike Fay, chief editor of the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society and head of genetics at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. "With this new study, we are now one major step forward towards understanding how."

Epigenetic changes take place independently of variation in the genetic DNA sequence. (Read more about epigenetics in National Geographic magazine's "A Thing or Two About Twins.")

"This has clear and important implications for plant conservation," Herrera said. In natural populations that have their genetic variation depleted by habitat loss, the ability to respond quickly, without waiting for slower DNA changes, could help organisms survive accelerated environmental change. The plants' adaptability, he says, is an "optimistic note" amidst so many conservation concerns. (Related: "Wild Holly, Mistletoe, Spread With Warmer Winters.")

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Fiscal Cliff 'Plan B' Is Dead: Now What?

Dec 20, 2012 11:00pm

The defeat of his Plan B — Republicans pulled it when it became clear it would be voted down — is a big defeat for Speaker of the House John Boehner.  It demonstrates definitively that there is no fiscal cliff deal that can pass the House on Republican votes alone.

Boehner could not even muster the votes to pass something that would only allow tax rates on those making more than $1 million to go up.

Boehner’s Plan B ran into opposition from conservative and tea party groups -including Heritage Action, Freedom Works and the Club for Growth – but it became impossible to pass it after Senate Democrats vowed not to take up the bill and the president threatened to veto it.  Conservative Republicans saw no reason to vote for a bill conservative activists opposed – especially if it had no hopes of going anywhere anyway.

Plan B is dead.

Now what?

House Republicans say it is now up to the Senate to act.  Senate Democrats say it is now up to Boehner to reach an agreement with President Obama.

Each side is saying the other must move.

The bottom line:  The only plausible solution is for President Obama and Speaker Boehner to do what they have failed repeatedly to do:  come up with a truly bi-partisan deal.

The prospects look grimmer than ever. It will be interesting to see if the markets react.

SHOWS: This Week

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Fail-safe software could stop flash crashes

HIGH-FREQUENCY trading algorithms are seriously profitable. But they are also a serious problem, leading to mysterious "flash crashes" on the world's financial markets. So would emergency fail-safes of the kind used to prevent medical robots and nuclear reactors going haywire be any help?

Philip Bond, a computer scientist at the University of Bristol, UK, thinks so. At present, suspicious trading at an exchange can be stopped by a catch-all "market halt", but that's often too late: what is needed is a reliable way of sensing when wild stock-price variations suggest a build-up to a crash. At that point a smart circuit breaker could step in, Bond told a London meeting of the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation on 11 December.

The idea is to avoid another debacle like the flash crash of 6 May 2010, when $10 trillion was briefly knocked off the Dow Jones Industrial Average after a trading firm's high-frequency algorithm went awry. Prices mostly recovered in a matter of minutes, but the turbulence caused slumps in stock prices around the globe.

High-speed traders have a distinct advantage over traditional investors, according to research by Andrei Kirilenko, chief economist at the US Commodity Trading Futures Commission, and his colleagues. Kirilenko presented the findings on 30 November at the National Bureau of Economic Research's Market Microstructure Meeting. This skewed playing field might increase market instability even more.

Because high-frequency trading algorithms (HFTs) can work at blistering speeds - a trade every 60 microseconds is common - a lot can happen before humans have a chance to intervene. This has left governments scrambling to come up with ways to regulate the practice. The European Parliament is considering legislation that could force traders to increase trading intervals to a "safer" half a second.

But Bond and his colleagues, who examined the risks of high-speed trading for the UK government, say that enforcing a delay is wrong-headed. Making algorithms wait half a second would stop them from reacting to breaking financial news and render them useless.

Instead, they propose using circuit-breaker algorithms that will trip when trading becomes erratic. Such software monitors systems like medical robots and nuclear reactors for potentially dangerous behaviour. "HFT circuit breakers need to be considered as very high reliability software engineered to work under stressed conditions and with multiple backups," he says.

A decision is needed fast. The proportion of high frequency trades has declined in the US in recent years as they have lost some of their initial edge, but they still account for a majority of trades. And the hardware needed to get in the game is becoming more accessible - a server running a high-speed system costs only $270,000, and prices will keep falling.

Any technical backstops will have to distinguish between algorithms gone haywire and simple bad decision-making, warns Fod Barnes, an economist with UK consultants Oxera. "The HFT system is a bit more complex than just engineering," he says. "Why should those who manage to write an algorithm that makes a series of very bad trades be protected from their own folly?"

If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.

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Park Geun-Hye: South Korea's president-elect with history

SEOUL: Park Geun-Hye's historic election victory that will see her installed as South Korea's first woman president of a still male-dominated nation caps a political career founded in privilege and personal tragedy.

One might assume Park's upbringing to be one of privilege, having lived in the presidential Blue House as a child and served there after her mother's murder as first lady to her later-assassinated father.

The Daegu native was just nine years old when her father, Park Chung-Hee, came to power in 1961 in a military coup that set the stage for 18 years of authoritarian rule.

Wednesday's presidential result was, in some ways, a referendum on the legacy of her father whose name still triggers polarised emotions in many South Koreans.

Admired for dragging the war-torn nation out of poverty, but reviled in some quarters for his repression of dissent, his shadow loomed large over Park's election campaign.

Thus, in an effort at reconciliation, Park publicly acknowledged the excesses of her father's regime and apologised to the families of its victims, a move aimed to shed the historic baggage that has plagued her campaign.

"In the shadows of South Korea's rapid growth, there was pain," she said at a news conference held at the Grand National Party's (GNP's) headquarters in Seoul, September 24 earlier this year.

"I deeply apologise to all those who were personally hurt and family members of victims of government abuse."

And like Korea itself, Park was as much the victim of her father's legacy as the beneficiary.

Park was attending graduate school in France in 1974 when she was called back to Seoul after the First Lady Yook Young-soo was killed by a pro-North Korean gunman aiming for her father.

The then 22-year-old took on the duties of her mother and played a sizeable role as the First Lady of Korea, one of which included persuading the 39th US President Jimmy Carter of the importance of the ongoing presence of US troops in Korea when he visited in 1979.

She left the presidential palace after her father was shot dead by his spy chief in 1979 and after a nine-year hiatus finally began her political career in 1998 as an assemblywoman in her home town for the conservative GNP.

The unmarried 60-year-old with no children -- a fact Park used to gain traction with voters tired of corruption scandals surrounding their first families.

"I have no family to take care of and no children to pass wealth to," she said in a televised address on the last day of campaigning, "You, the people, are my family and your happiness is the reason that I stay in politics."

Park's image of a female politician who promised a strong, maternal style of leadership that would steer the country through the challenges of global economic troubles is at odds with that pushed by her critics, an aloof aristocrat they call the "Ice Queen".

But even dissenters acknowledge her strengths as a campaigner that helped her party secure strong results in local and national polls between 2004 and 2006, emerging victorious in all 40 re-elections and by-elections, earning her another royal moniker as the "Queen of Elections".

And despite her privileged upbringing, Park has demonstrated a tough streak.

In 2006, an attacker at an election event where she was speaking slashed her face with a utility knife, leaving an 11-centimetre wound that needed 60 stitches.

Park had previously ran in 2008 to become the presidential nominee for GNP but eventually lost to the now outgoing president Lee Myung-bak by a narrow margin. Park had won the "party member's bid", but she lost the "national bid" which is a larger percentage of the total presidential bid.

Now Park will face numerous challenges when she begins her five-year term in February, not least dealing with a North Korea.

Even before Park won her party's presidential nomination in August, the state-run Korean Central News Agency hat attacked her candidacy, warning that "a dictator's bloodline cannot change away from its viciousness".

Park has signalled a break from outgoing President Lee Myung-Bak's hard line on Pyongyang, and even held out the possibility of an eventual summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un.

But she will be restricted by conservative forces in her party as well as an international community intent on punishing North Korea for its long-range rocket launch last week.

While Park's election as South Korea's first woman president marks a major breakthrough in a male-dominated country, which ranked 108th out of 135 countries in terms of gender equality by the World Economic Forum -- one place below the United Arab Emirates and just above Kuwait.

However, not everyone sees her victory as paving the way for greater women's rights.

Kim Eun-Ju, executive director of the Centre for Korean Women and Politics, believes Park is a female political leader "only in biological terms".

"For the past 15 years, Park has shown little visible effort to help women in politics or anywhere else as a policymaker," Kim told AFP.


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Theater review: Hilarious, hometown 'Book of Mormon'

Most of the audience flocking to “The Book of Mormon,” which officially descended on Chicago Wednesday night like satirical manna from some warped “South Park” heaven, are looking for amusement and escape. They'll surely find salvation from the rough old world in this new production of the deliciously over-eager 2011 Broadway hit, newly crafted for Chicago with a clutch of utterly committed, fresh-faced, faux-Mormon lads.

The true revelation in this brand new Chicago production — directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker and that stands up well to the original Broadway edition — is one Ben Platt, a hilariously funny young actor who finds an entirely different way into Elder Cunningham, the loser-geek Mormon, first played in New York by Josh Gad. He is the partner on this mission to Uganda for the alpha Elder Price (Nic Rouleau, who comes direct from Broadway and is also sharp and generally terrific, although very much in the original mold of the role). Platt, whose comic instincts are exquisite, really leans into this part, throwing himself out there with the abandonment of youth and shrewdly pushing the sincerity and charm of the character while downplaying the obvious manifestation of his quirks. Physical resemblance notwithstanding, Platt kicks the dangerous Jonah Hill-like cliches half way to Christendom, and makes the sidekick role about four times as funny and ten times as believable. He's no “American Idol” vocalist, but you won't care.

Laughs flow like Mormon wagon trains rolling West. But “The Book of Mormon,” like the enigmatic volume it lampoons so mercilessly, is actually a many-layered beast and therein, verily, lies its brilliance.

I'll try and not spoil narrative surprises. Somehow, the writing and composing team of Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone managed to poke wicked fun at the all-American religion without frying on the third rail of religious faith — and all the while convincing their audience that they actually are enjoying a rather sweet show.

“The Book of Mormon” is exquisitely toned. It brilliantly exploits the protection afforded by edges and extremes and mitigates its use of gags about such comedic untouchables as Jesus Christ, AIDS, Africa and genital mutilation (and those are the printable topics) with an earnestness impossible for even a nervous prude to resist. On Wednesday, those prudes were sputtering into their shirt collars with mirth.

In terms of risky content, “The Book of Mormon” makes the Monty Python boys look like they were writing the Acts of the Apostles. Yet it has a sweetness that few other satirical dramatic works have achieved. These Mormons are so lovable you feel half-inclined to take a couple of ‘em home with you. (It’s not like anyone ever wanted to give Mel Brooks a hug.)

Thanks mostly to Lopez, the show not only has a strikingly traditional and whip-tight musical structure; fans of the genre will recognize little stylistic spoofs of “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked,” “Tomorrow” from “Annie” and, of course, the hilarious Act 2 centerpiece wherein earnest Ugandans mangle Mormon doctrine in a skewering of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from “The King and I.” Jesus also looks remarkably like Prince Herbert from “Spamalot.”

But for those who hate musicals — and plenty of “South Park” fans are in that category — the caustic, relentless Parker-Stone worldview is very much is in evidence—especially in the truly inspired “spooky Mormon Hell” nightmare sequence centered on Adolf Hitler, Johnnie Cochran (“if it don't fit ..”) and dancing cups of illicit, mock Starbucks. These, they declare, are what keeps the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints awake at night. They may well be right. This show steers closer to the truth than you might think.

On a further viewing, I was blown away again by the disciplined narrative logic these writers applied to their outrageous storytelling. That's what comes of creating a TV show from whole imaginative cloth, almost every week for 16 years. One learns how to ensure the outlandish makes perfect sense.

Look behind the gags and you can find much pondering of the central problem faced by all people of faith: the apparent inability of religion to end the suffering of the innocent. You can find discussion of how faith is an all-or-nothing proposition; who could believe about 50 percent of Mormonism? The show lampoons the ability of persons of faith to compartmentalize and, most brilliantly of all, the pervasive nature of racial condescension. Indeed, it's in the racial arena (speaking of third rails) that this show is at its most risky and most admirable, as when white Mormon missionaries sing “We Are Africa” (a dead-on take-down of the smugness of “We Are the World”) even as actual Africans (well, African characters) stare at them in quiet amazement. Chicago actor James Vincent Meredith, who plays Mafala likes he's doing Athol Fugard, is a huge asset to the show.

The one performer who needs work is Syesha Mercado, who plays the lead ingenue role of Nabulungi (her name is constantly bungled as “Neutrogena” and the like by Elder Cunningham). Mercado sings well, albeit at a certain remove, but she has yet to grab hold of the necessary vulnerability of her character and hit the lyrical gags. She was a late replacement and surely will improve with time. Pierce Cassedy, as Elder McKinley (a Mormon who insists on turning off his gay identity) is hilarious and, more importantly, very poignant.

With tickets this scarce and prices this high, you might well wonder if “The Book of Mormon” is worth your time and elevated expectations. Be not afraid, suburban pilgrim. The Chicago production pulses with the just the right combination of Broadway production values, proven material, sufficient buy-in by the original creative team (who all took a bow on opening night) and new young men on a mission, not quite from God.


THE BOOK ON ‘THE BOOK': Check out the Tribune's site dedicated to all things “Book of Mormon,” at

When: Through June 2

Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Tickets: $42-$107 at 800-775-2000,

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Detecting Rabid Bats Before They Bite

A picture is worth a thousand words—or in the case of bats, a rabies diagnosis. A new study reveals that rabid bats have cooler faces compared to uninfected colony-mates. And researchers are hopeful that thermal scans of bat faces could improve rabies surveillance in wild colonies, preventing outbreaks that introduce infections into other animals—including humans.

Bats are a major reservoir for the rabies virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Previous research shows that bats can transmit their strains to other animals, potentially putting people at risk. (Popular Videos: Bats share the screen with creepy co-stars.)

Rabies, typically transmitted in saliva, targets the brain and is almost always fatal in animals and people if left untreated. No current tests detect rabies in live animals—only brain tissue analysis is accurate.

Searching for a way to detect the virus in bats before the animals died, rabies specialist James Ellison and his colleagues at the CDC turned to a captive colony of big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus). Previous studies had found temperature increases in the noses of rabid raccoons, so the team expected to see similar results with bats.

Researchers established normal temperature ranges for E. fuscus—the bat species most commonly sent for rabies testing—then injected 24 individuals with the virus. The 21-day study monitored facial temperatures with infrared cameras, and 13 of the 21 bats that developed rabies showed temperature drops of more than 4ÂșC.

"I was surprised to find the bats' faces were cooler because rabies causes inflammation—and that creates heat," said Ellison. "No one has done this before with bats," he added, and so researchers aren't sure what's causing the temperature changes they've discovered in the mammals. (Related: "Bats Have Superfast Muscles—A Mammal First.")

Although thermal scans didn't catch every instance of rabies in the colony, this method may be a way to detect the virus in bats before symptoms appear. The team plans to fine-tune their measurements of facial temperatures, and then Ellison hopes to try surveillance in the field.

This study was published online November 9 in Zoonoses and Public Health.

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Obama Invokes Newtown on 'Cliff' Deal

Invoking the somber aftermath of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., President Obama today appealed to congressional Republicans to embrace a standing "fair deal" on taxes and spending that would avert the fiscal cliff in 13 days.

"If there's one thing we should have after this week, it should be a sense of perspective about what's important," Obama said at a midday news conference.

"I would like to think that members of that [Republican] caucus would say to themselves, 'You know what? We disagree with the president on a whole bunch of things,'" he said. "'But right now what the country needs is for us to compromise.'"

House Speaker John Boehner's response: "Get serious."

Boehner announced at a 52-second news conference that the House will vote Thursday to approve a "plan B" to a broad White House deal -- and authorize simply extending current tax rates for people earning less than $1 million a year and little more.

"Then, the president will have a decision to make," the Ohio Republican said. "He can call on Senate Democrats to pass that bill or he could be responsible for the largest tax increase in American history."

Fiscal Cliff Negotiations: Trying to Make a Deal Watch Video

House Speaker John Boehner Proposes 'Plan B' on Taxes Watch Video

'Fiscal Cliff' Negotiations: Deal Might Be Within Reach Watch Video

Unless Congress acts by Dec. 31, every American will face higher income tax rates and government programs will get hit with deep automatic cuts starting in 2013.

Obama and Boehner have been inching closer to a deal on tax hikes and spending cuts to help reduce the deficit. But they have not yet had a breakthrough on a deal.

Obama's latest plan would raise $1.2 trillion in new tax revenue over 10 years, largely through higher tax rates on incomes above $400,000. He also proposes roughly $930 billion in spending cuts, including new limits on entitlement spending, such as slower annual cost-of-living increases for Social Security beneficiaries.

Boehner has agreed to $1 trillion in new tax revenue, with a tax rate hike for households earning over $1 million. He is seeking more than $1 trillion in spending cuts, with significant changes to Medicare and Social Security.

The president said today that he remains "optimistic" about reaching a broad compromise by Christmas because both sides are "pretty close," a sentiment that has been publicly shared by Boehner.

But the speaker's backup plan has, at least temporarily, stymied talks, with no reported contact between the sides since Monday.

"The speaker should return to the negotiating table with the president because if he does I firmly believe we can have an agreement before Christmas," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a White House ally.

Schumer said Obama and Boehner are "not that far apart" in the negotiations.

"If they were to come to an agreement by Friday, they could write this stuff over the Christmas break and then we'd have to come back before the New Year and pass it," Schumer said.

Obama said he is "open to conversations" and planned to reach out to congressional leaders over the next few days to try to nudge Republicans to accept a "fair deal."

"At some point, there's got to be, I think, a recognition on the part of my Republican friends that -- you know, take the deal," he told reporters.

"They keep on finding ways to say no, as opposed to finding ways to say yes," Obama added. "At some point, you know, they've got take me out of it and think about their voters and think about what's best for the country."

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Today on New Scientist: 18 December 2012

Violent polar storms help control the world's weather

Without the mini-hurricanes which form over the Arctic, the world could face massive weather disruption

Ancient city of Troy rebranded itself after war

Changing styles of pottery 3200 years ago show the Trojans were quick to align themselves with the region's new political power

Court ruling will clarify end-of-life decisions

Canada's supreme court will soon rule on whether doctors can stop treatment for "unconscious" patients, but determining awareness remains a thorny issue

Colourful claw of tiny ocean predator

See a prizewinning photo of the claw of a Phronima: a tiny marine predator whose size belies its ferocity

Gaming chair mimics a full-motion simulator

If you can't afford a full-motion flight or car simulator, here's a cheap way of creating some of the same effects

How an ancient Egyptian code unmasked a cannibal star

Has a papyrus from the time of the pharaohs exposed the ghoulish habits of the baleful Demon Star? Stephen Battersby investigates

Best videos of 2012: Bonobo genius makes stone tools

Watch a creative bonobo fashion tools to retrieve hidden food, at number 9 in our countdown of the year's best videos

Is the obesity epidemic caused by too much sugar?

In Fat Chance, endocrinologist Robert Lustig argues that insidious changes to our eating habits have caused disruptions to our endocrine systems

'The idea we live in a simulation isn't science fiction'

If the universe is just a Matrix-like simulation, how could we ever know? Physicist Silas Beane thinks he has the answer

Fungal frog killer hops into crayfish

Crayfish are vulnerable to the same chytrid fungus already killing frogs all over the world. The discovery provides a clue to how the disease spreads

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Philippine leader signs US$49b anti-poverty budget

MANILA: Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Wednesday signed into law a 2.005 trillion-peso ($49 billion) budget for 2013, vowing to use higher taxes on tobacco and alcohol to boost programmes to reduce poverty.

Education, health, agriculture and a cash-transfer scheme for the poor are the key priorities of the appropriations, which are 10.5 percent higher than the 2012 national budget, he said during the signing ceremony.

"We designed this budget as an instrument to give the common man the power to control and improve his life," Aquino said.

He thanked parliament for passing earlier this month a controversial rise in "sin taxes" on tobacco and alcohol products, which is expected to bring in over $800 million in extra revenues next year.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said the budget law includes 44.2 billion pesos for "conditional cash-transfer", up 12 percent from this year.

The three-year-old scheme gives up to $34 a month to the poorest families who meet certain criteria, like keeping their children in school and getting them as well as pregnant family members regularly to visit government health clinics.

Government officials say this gives their children a better opportunity to climb out of destitution.

More than 26 percent of the Philippines' population of about 100 million are deemed by the government to be living in poverty.

- AFP/al

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Document shows CPS had detailed school closing plans

An internal Chicago Public Schools document obtained by the Tribune shows for the first time that the Emanuel administration has weighed how many elementary and high schools to close in which neighborhoods and how to manage the public fallout.

Labeled a "working draft," the Sept. 10 document lays out the costs and benefits of specific scenarios — revealing that the administration has gone further down the path of determining what schools to target than it has disclosed.

While schools are not listed by name, one section of the document contains a breakdown for closing or consolidating 95 schools, most on the West and South sides, as well as targeting other schools to be phased out gradually or to share their facilities with privately run charter schools.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his top school leaders have said they are in the early stages of making difficult decisions and that the city cannot afford to keep operating deteriorating schools with dwindling student populations in the face of a billion-dollar budget deficit. The document goes well beyond what the administration has outlined to the public.

Amid a September teachers strike, the Tribune reported that the Emanuel administration was considering plans to close 80 to 120 schools, most in poor minority neighborhoods. Administration officials have repeatedly denied they have such a figure.

"Unless my staff has a hidden drawer somewhere where they've got numbers in there, we don't have a number," schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in November.

But the internal document, prepared at a time when school leaders faced a December deadline to make their decisions public, lays out multiple scenarios for closing neighborhood schools and adding privately run charters — a key component of Emanuel's plans for improving public education. Chicago Teachers Union members, aldermen and other charter school critics have accused the administration of favoring the charters while depriving schools in poor neighborhoods of needed improvements.

The document discusses how to deal with public reaction to school closing decisions, with ideas ranging from establishing "a meaningful engagement process with community members" to building a "monitoring mechanism to ensure nimble response to opposition to proposed school actions."

It is unclear how closely the administration is following the ideas in the 3-month-old document; sources told the Tribune the school closing plans are being constantly updated and subsequent proposals have been kept under close wraps.

The detailed document obtained by the Tribune comes from a time when a Chicago teachers strike interrupted the beginning of the school year and Jean-Claude Brizard was still Emanuel's schools chief; the embattled Brizard quit soon after. Byrd-Bennett was a top education official at CPS under Brizard and was named by Emanuel to succeed him.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said Tuesday that "this plan was proposed by past leadership at CPS and is not supported by CEO Byrd-Bennett."

"In terms of whatever document you have, I don't care when it's dated, as of today there's no list and there's no plan," Carroll said. "Maybe there were multiple, different scenarios passed around at some point, I don't know, but there's no list of schools.

"When CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett took this position, she made it very clear that we were going to do this differently than how it's been done in the past," which is why she appointed a commission to take public input on school closings, Carroll said.

But under Byrd-Bennett's tenure, at least one of the proposals outlined in the secret document has come to pass — the idea of a five-year moratorium on further school closings after this school year.

First mention: The September document raises the idea of a moratorium that would extend beyond Emanuel's first term in office as part of the rollout of school closings. But the mayor's first public mention of a moratorium came in November, when he offered it as a sweetener that helped persuade state lawmakers to extend the December deadline for announcing school closings to March.

Critics called the delay a ploy to give opponents less time to organize against the closings. But Emanuel said school officials needed the time to gather community input on the "tough choices" about school closings.

Byrd-Bennett said her decisions on what schools to close won't come until after she receives recommendations from the commission she created. The Tribune reported last week that the commission chairman doesn't plan on issuing recommendations until days before the March 31 deadline for announcing school closings — and even then, there are no plans for the commission to identify individual schools.

While CPS has not released a list of schools to close, it has made publicly available a breakdown of how much a building is used, performance levels per school and how expensive the facility is to keep open. School officials have said underenrollment is a key factor in school closing decisions this year. The school system recently released a list of about 300 "underutilized" schools — nearly half the district — that have dwindling student populations.

But the document obtained by the Tribune contains clues as to how the administration could make those decisions.

Closing breakdown: The most stark page in the document is a graphic that breaks down the 95 schools that could be closed in each of CPS' 19 elementary and high school networks.

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Race Is On to Find Life Under Antarctic Ice

A hundred years ago, two teams of explorers set out to be the first people ever to reach the South Pole. The race between Roald Amundsen of Norway and Robert Falcon Scott of Britain became the stuff of triumph, tragedy, and legend. (See rare pictures of Scott's expedition.)

Today, another Antarctic drama is underway that has a similar daring and intensity—but very different stakes.

Three unprecedented, major expeditions are underway to drill deep through the ice covering the continent and, researchers hope, penetrate three subglacial lakes not even known to exist until recently.

The three players—Russia, Britain, and the United States—are all on the ice now and are in varying stages of their preparations. The first drilling was attempted last week by the British team at Lake Ellsworth, but mechanical problems soon cropped up in the unforgiving Antarctic cold, putting a temporary hold on their work.

The key scientific goal of the missions: to discover and identify living organisms in Antarctica's dark, pristine, and hidden recesses. (See "Antarctica May Contain 'Oasis of Life.'")

Scientists believe the lakes may well be home to the kind of "extreme" life that could eke out an existence on other planets or moons of our solar system, so finding them on Earth could help significantly in the search for life elsewhere.

An illustration shows lakes and rivers under Antarctica's ice.
Lakes and rivers are buried beneath Antarctica's thick ice (enlarge).

Illustration courtesy Zina Deretsky, NSF

While astrobiology—the search for life beyond Earth—is a prime mover in the push into subglacial lakes, so too is the need to better understand the ice sheet that covers the vast continent and holds much of the world's water. If the ice sheet begins to melt due to global warming, the consequences—such as global sea level rise—could be catastrophic.

"We are the new wave of Antarctic explorers, pioneers if you will," said Montana State University's John Priscu, chief scientist of the U.S. drilling effort this season and a longtime Antarctic scientist.

"After years of planning, projects are coming together all at once," he said.

"What we find this year and next will set the stage for Antarctic science for the next generation and more—just like with the explorers a century ago."

All Eyes on the Brits

All three research teams are at work now, but the drama is currently focused on Lake Ellsworth, buried 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) below the West Antarctic ice sheet.

A 12-person British team is using a sophisticated technique that involves drilling down using water melted from the ice, which is then heated to 190 degrees Fahrenheit (88 degrees Celsius).

The first drilling attempt began on December 12, but was stopped at almost 200 feet (61 meters) because of technical problems with the sensors on the drill nozzle.

Drilling resumed on Saturday but then was delayed when both boilers malfunctioned, requiring the team to wait for spare parts. The situation is frustrating but normal due to the harsh climate, British Antarctic team leader Martin Siegert, who helped discover Lake Ellsworth in 2004, said in an email from the site.

After completing their drilling, the team will have about 24 hours to collect their samples before the hole freezes back up in the often below-zero cold. If all goes well, they could have lake water and mud samples as early as this week.

"Our expectation is that microbes will be found in the lake water and upper sediment," Siegert said. "We would be highly surprised if this were not the case."

The British team lives in tents and makeshift shelters, and endures constant wind as well as frigid temperatures. (Take an Antarctic quiz.)

"Right now we are working round the clock in a cold, demanding and extreme location-it's testing our own personal endurance, but it's worth it," Siegert said.

U.S. First to Find Life?

The U.S. team is drilling into Lake Whillans, a much shallower body about 700 miles inland (1,120 kilometers) in the region that drains into the Ross Sea.

The lake, which is part of a broader water system under the ice, may well have the greatest chances of supporting microbial life, experts say. Hot-water drilling begins there in January.

Among the challenges: Lake Whillans lies under an ice stream, which is similar to a glacier but is underground and surrounded by ice on all sides. It moves slowly but constantly, and that complicates efforts to drill into the deepest—and most scientifically interesting—part of the lake.

Montana State's Priscu—currently back in the U.S. for medical reasons—said his team will bring a full lab to the Lake Whillans drilling site to study samples as they come up: something the Russians don't have the interest or capacity in doing and that the British will be trying in a more limited way. (Also see "Pictures: 'Extreme' Antarctic Science Revealed.")

So while the U.S. team may be the last of the three to penetrate their lake, they could be the first to announce the discovery of life in deep subglacial lakes.

"We should have a good idea of the abundance and type of life in the lake and sediments before we leave the site," said Priscu, who plans to return to Antarctica in early January if doctors allow.

"And we want to know as much as possible about how they make a living down there without energy from the sun and without nutrients most life-forms need."

All subglacial lakes are kept liquid by heat generated from the pressure of the heavy load of ice above them, and also from heat emanating from deeper in the Earth's crust.

In addition, the movement of glaciers and "ice streams" produces heat from friction, which at least temporarily results in a wet layer at the very bottom of the ice.

The Lake Whillans drilling is part of the larger Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project, first funded in 2009 by the U.S. National Science Foundation with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

That much larger effort will also study the ice streams that feed and leave the lake to learn more about another aspect of Antarctic dynamism: The recently discovered web of more than 360 lakes and untold streams and rivers—some nearing the size of the Amazon Basin—below the ice. (See "Chain of Cascading Lakes Discovered Under Antarctica.")

Helen Fricker, a member of the WISSARD team and a glaciologist at University of California, San Diego, said that scientists didn't begin to understand the vastness of Antarctica's subglacial water world until after the turn of the century.

That hidden, subterranean realm has "incredibly interesting and probably never classified biology," Fricker said.

"But it can also give us important answers about the climate history of the Earth, and clues about the future, too, as the climate changes."

Russia Returning to Successful Site

While both the U.S. and British teams have websites to keep people up to date on their work, the Russians do not, and have been generally quiet about their plans for this year.

The Russians have a team at Lake Vostok, the largest and deepest subglacial lake in Antarctica at more than 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) below the icy surface of the East Antarctic plateau.

The Vostok drilling began in the 1950s, well before anyone knew there was an enormous lake beneath the ice. The Russians finally and briefly pierced the lake early this year, before having to leave because of the cold. That breakthrough was portrayed at the time as a major national accomplishment.

According to Irina Alexhina, a Russian scientist with the Vostok team who was visiting the U.S. McMurdo Station last week, the Russian plan for this season focuses on extracting the ice core that rose in February when Vostok was breached. She said the team arrived this month and can stay through early February.

Preliminary results from the February breach report no signs of life on the drill bit that entered the water, but some evidence of life in small samples of the "accretion ice," which is frozen to the bottom of the lake, said Lake Vostok expert Sergey Bulat, of the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, in May.

Both results are considered tentative because of the size of the sample and how they were retrieved. In addition, sampling water from the very top of Lake Vostok is far less likely to find organisms than farther down or in the bottom sediment, scientists say.

"It's like taking a scoop of water from the top of Lake Ontario and making conclusions about the lake based on that," said Priscu, who has worked with the Russians at Vostok.

He said he hopes to one day be part of a fully international team that will bring the most advanced drilling and sample collecting technology to Vostok.

Extreme Antarctic Microbes Found

Some results have already revealed life under the ice. A November study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that subglacial Lake Vida—which is smaller and closer to the surface than other subglacial lakes—does indeed support a menagerie of strange and often unknown bacteria.

The microbes survive in water six times saltier than the oceans, with no oxygen, and with the highest level of nitrous oxide ever found in water on Earth, said study co-author Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center.

"What Antarctica is telling us is that organisms can eke out a living in the most extreme of environments," said McKay, an expert in the search for life beyond Earth.

McKay called Lake Vida the closest analog found so far to the two ice and water moons in the solar system deemed most likely to support extraterrestrial life—Jupiter's Europa and Saturn's Enceladus.

But that "closest analog" designation may soon change. Life-forms found in Vostok, Ellsworth, or Whillans would all be living at a much greater depth than at Lake Vida—meaning that they'd have to contend with more pressure, more limited nutrients, and a source of energy entirely unrelated to the sun.

"Unique Moment in Antarctica"

The prospect of finding microscopic life in these extreme conditions may not seem to be such a big deal for understanding our planet—or the possibility of life on others. (See Antarctic pictures by National Geographic readers.)

But scientists point out that only bacteria and other microbes were present on Earth for 3 billion of the roughly 3.8 billion years that life has existed here. Our planet, however, had conditions that allowed those microbes to eventually evolve into more complex life and eventually into everything biological around us.

While other moons and planets in our solar system do not appear capable of supporting evolution, scientists say they may support—or have once supported—primitive microbial life.

And drilling into Antarctica's deep lakes could provide clues about where extraterrestrial microbes might live, and how they might be identified.

In addition, Priscu said there are scores of additional Antarctic targets to study to learn about extreme life, climate change, how glaciers move, and the dynamics of subterranean rivers and lakes.

"We actually know more about the surface of Mars than about these subglacial systems of Antarctica," he said. "That's why this work involves such important and most likely transformative science."

Mahlon "Chuck" Kennicutt, the just-retired president of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, an international coordinating group, called this year "a unique moment in Antarctica."

"There's a growing understanding of the continent as a living, dynamic place—not a locked-in ice desert—and that has created real scientific excitement."

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Newtown Settles In for Prayerful, Somber Christmas

Residents of Sandy Hook, Conn., gather every year under an enormous tree in the middle of town to sing carols and light the tree. The tree is lit this year, too, but the scene beneath it is starkly different.

The tree looms over hundreds of teddy bears and toys, but they are for children who will never receive them. The ornaments are adorned with names and jarringly recent birth dates.

Wreaths with pine cones and white ribbons hang near the tree, one each for a life lost. A small statue of an angel child sleeps among a sea of candles.

A steady flow of well-wishers, young and old, tearfully comes to cry, pray, light candles, leave gifts and share hugs and stories.

CLICK HERE for complete coverage of the massacre at Sandy Hook.

The Christmas season is a normally joyful time for this tight-knit village, but in the wake of a shooting rampage, holiday decorations have given way this year to memorial signs. And instead of cars with Christmas trees on top, there are media vans with satellites.

Connie Koch has lived in Newtown for nine years. She lives directly behind Sandy Hook Elementary School, where Adam Lanza, 20, killed 20 children and six adults before turning the gun on himself. Earlier that Friday morning, he had also killed his mother at home.

President Obama on Newtown Shooting: 'We Must Change' Watch Video

Koch said the shocked town, which includes the Village of Sandy Hook, is experiencing a notably different Christmas this year.

"It's more somber, much more time spent in prayer for our victims' families and our friends that have lost loved ones," she said as she stood near the base of the tree.

CLICK HERE for a tribute to the shooting victims.

Her family has been touched by the tragedy is multiple ways.

"My daughter, she lost her child that she babysat for for six years," she said, holding back tears. "And for her friend who lost her mother. And for my dear friend who lost one of her friends in the school, one of the aides.

"It's hard. And there will be much prayer on Christmas morning for these people, for our community."

Koch said her community always rallies in the face of tragedy, but the term "hits close to home" resonates this time more than ever before. She says the only way to make it through is one day at a time.

"It's all you can do, one hour at a time," Koch said. "For me, I don't even want to wake up in the morning because I don't want to have to face it again. You feel like it's still just a dream and with the funerals starting, it's becoming more real. It's becoming more final."

Another Newtown parent, Adam Zuckerman, stood by the makeshift memorial with a roll of red heart stickers with the words, "In Our" above a drawing of the Sandy Hook Elementary School welcome sign. He was selling the stickers to collect money for a Sandy Hook victims' fund.

"It's a lot," he said of the events of the past few days. "We don't know how it's going to affect our community, but I feel very strongly that I needed to do something to keep it positive, to keep this community positive."

Zuckerman's 20-year-old stepdaughter came home from college for winter break the night before the shooting. As a high school student, she worked in one of the town's popular toy stores.

"She knew a lot of the kids," he said of his daughter. "Their parents brought them in over the years. We have other friends who have lost family here and good friends who are dear friends with the principal of the school. … It's pretty rough."

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Fungal frog killer hops into crayfish

Crayfish are vulnerable to the same fungus that is killing frogs all over the world. The discovery helps explain how the disease spreads even after all the amphibians in an area have been wiped out. Worryingly, chemicals released by the fungus may alone be enough to kill.

Taegan McMahon of the University of South Florida, Tampa, and colleagues discovered infected crayfish in field surveys in Louisiana and Colorado. They found that up to 29 per cent of the animals carried the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. Lab studies proved that crayfish can become infected and die, the first time this has been shown in non-amphibians.

Infected crayfish can pass the disease to tadpoles, and crayfish exposed to water from which the fungus had been filtered still died. McMahon says the distribution of crayfish around the world may explain why the fungus is so widespread.

She adds that it is "is certainly possible" that other invertebrates might carry the fungus. Her team are currently investigating this and are working on possible ways to stop the spread of the toxin.

"It's very compelling, their evidence for crayfish as a disease vector and for a toxic effect secreted in the water," says Trenton Garner at London's Institute of Zoology.

PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1200592110

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Malaysia Airlines to buy 36 turboprop planes

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia Airlines on Tuesday said it will buy 36 new ATR turboprop aircraft for 3.0 billion ringgit ($916 million) as it looks to further expand its regional and domestic networks.

Of the 36 ATR-72-600 planes, the carrier said 20 will go to subsidiary Firefly, which is fast expanding its lucrative routes, while 16 are for MASwings which flies to Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo island.

The purchase comes after struggling flag carrier Malaysia Airlines in November said it had swung back to a profit, ending six straight quarterly losses after slashing unprofitable routes to cut costs.

Malaysia Airlines group CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said Firefly is expected to rapidly expand within the next five years, thanks to growing demand in Asia.

"The additional aircraft will be utilised to continue growing Firefly's network and providing customers with more travel options," said Ahmad Jauhari, who signed the deal with Filippo Bagnato, chief executive of French-Italian firm ATR.

The aircraft are slated to be delivered from the end of the second quarter of 2013.

Launched in April 2007, Firefly provides connections to various points within Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia's Sumatra.

Firefly currently has 12 ATR-72-500 aircraft while MASwings operates 10 similar aircraft.

- AFP/al

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