Herbal Viagra actually contains the real thing



































IF IT looks too good to be true, it probably is. Several "herbal remedies" for erectile dysfunction sold online actually contain the active ingredient from Viagra.












Michael Lamb at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and colleagues purchased 10 popular "natural" uplifting remedies on the internet and tested them for the presence of sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. They found the compound, or a similar synthetic drug, in seven of the 10 products – cause for concern because it can be dangerous for people with some medical conditions.












Lamb's work was presented last week at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Washington DC.












This article appeared in print under the headline "Herbal Viagra gets a synthetic boost"


















































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.




































All comments should respect the New Scientist House Rules. If you think a particular comment breaks these rules then please use the "Report" link in that comment to report it to us.


If you are having a technical problem posting a comment, please contact technical support.








Read More..

Malaysia threatens 'drastic' steps in Borneo siege






LAHAD DATU, Malaysia: Malaysia threatened Saturday to take "drastic action" against intruding followers of a self-proclaimed Filipino sultan after a tense standoff erupted into a shootout that killed 14 people.

Twelve followers of the little-known sultan of Sulu and two Malaysian security personnel were killed in Friday's firefight, police said, as the more than two-week-old siege in a remote corner of Malaysia turned deadly.

Dozens of Filipinos have been holed up on Borneo island, surrounded by a massive Malaysian police and military cordon, since landing by boat from their nearby Philippine islands to insist the area belongs to their Islamic leader.

"We want them to surrender immediately. If they don't, they will face drastic action," Hamza Taib, police chief of the Malaysian state of Sabah where the drama was taking place, told AFP.

He declined to provide details of what security forces had in store but his comments echoed growing Malaysian impatience with the situation.

In Manila, Philippine President Benigno Aquino urged the gunmen to surrender immediately.

"To those who have influence and the capacity to reason with those in (the affected town of) Lahad Datu, I ask you to convey this message: surrender now, without conditions," he said in a statement.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose government has been embarrassed by the security breach, said in the shootout's aftermath that he told police and armed forces to take whatever action was necessary to end the impasse.

"Now there is no grace period for the group to leave," he was quoted as saying by Malaysian media, blaming the intruders for sparking the violence.

But the deadly clash drew criticism from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

"Why is our government lax about national security,?" he said in a statement late Friday, adding that the government must explain what transpired in the bloody clash claiming two Malaysian lives.

Muslim-majority Malaysia had previously avoided tough talk, expressing hope the intruders would leave peacefully.

But even if they give up, they will face Malaysian prosecution, Hamza said, after he met with Malaysia's home minister and other top security officials.

Local residents were staying indoors and the usually bustling coastal town of Lahad Datu was quiet with most shops closed on Saturday.

Georgina Paulino, a 50-year-old street vendor, complained that her business has been badly hit.

"People are afraid they could be shot if they come out," she told AFP.

The Filipinos, who are estimated to number between 100 and 300, sailed from their remote islands to press Jamalul Kiram III's claim to Sabah.

Kiram, 74, claims to be the heir to the Islamic sultanate of Sulu, which once controlled parts of the southern Philippines and a portion of Borneo.

The Sulu sultanate's power faded about a century ago but it has continued to receive nominal payments from Malaysia for Sabah under a historical lease arrangement passed down from European colonial powers.

- AFP/ck



Read More..

Redflex execs out as scandal grows in red light camera firm









The president, chief financial officer and top lawyer for Chicago's red light camera company resigned this week amid an escalating corruption scandal that has cost Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. its lucrative, decadelong relationship with the city.


The resignations came as Redflex said it was winding down a company-funded probe into allegations of an improper relationship between the company and the former city transportation manager who oversaw its contract until 2011, a relationship first disclosed by the Tribune in October. A longtime friend of that city manager was hired by Redflex for a high-paid consulting deal.


The company recently acknowledged it improperly paid for thousands of dollars in trips for the former city official, the latest in a series of controversial revelations that have shaken Redflex from its Phoenix headquarters to Australia, the home of parent company Redflex Holdings Ltd.








Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration banned the company from competing for the upcoming speed camera contract and went further last month by announcing that Redflex would lose its red light contract when it expires in June. The Chicago program, with more than 380 cameras, has been the company's largest in North America and is worth about 13 percent of worldwide revenue for Redflex Holdings. Since 2003 it has generated about $100 million for Redflex and more than $300 million in ticket revenue for the city.


In an email addressed to all company employees, Redflex Holdings CEO and President Robert T. DeVincenzi announced the resignations of three top executives in Phoenix: Karen Finley, the company's longtime president and chief executive officer; Andrejs Bunkse, the general counsel; and Sean Nolen, the chief financial officer. Their exits follow those of the chairman of the board of Redflex Holdings, another Australian board member and the company's top sales executive who Redflex has blamed for much of its Chicago problems.


"Today's announcement of executive changes follows the conclusion of our investigation in Chicago and marks the dividing line between the past and where this company is headed," said DeVincenzi, who took over as CEO of the Phoenix company. "This day, and each day going forward, we intend to be a constructive force in our industry, promoting high ethical standards and serving the public interest."


The company also held town hall meetings in Arizona to unveil reforms, including new requirements to put all company employees through anti-bribery and anti-corruption training, hiring a new director of compliance to ensure that employees adhere to company policies and establishing a 24-hour whistle-blower hotline.


The resignations and a second consecutive halt to public trading of the company's stock are the latest in a string of events that followed Tribune reports last year regarding 2-year-old internal allegations of corruption in the Chicago contract that the company previously said were investigated and discounted.


The scandal now enveloping the company centers on its relationship to former Chicago transportation official John Bills, who retired in 2011 after overseeing the company's contract since it began in 2003.


A whistle-blower letter obtained by the Tribune said Bills received lavish vacations directly on the expense report of a company executive and raised questions about improper ties between Bills and a Redflex consultant who received more than $570,000 in company commissions.


Bills and the consultant, a longtime friend, have denied wrongdoing.


The company told the Tribune in October that its investigation into the 2010 letter found only one instance of an inadvertent expenditure for Bills, a two-day hotel stay at the Arizona Biltmore expensed by the executive. Redflex lawyer Bunkse told the newspaper that the company responded by sending the executive to "anti-bribery" training and overhauling company expense procedures.


But after additional Tribune reports, the company hired a former Chicago inspector general, David Hoffman, to conduct another investigation. Hoffman made an interim report of his findings to company board members this month. That report prompted the company officials to acknowledge a much deeper involvement with Bills, including thousands of dollars for trips to the Super Bowl and White Sox spring training over many years.


The chairman of the company's Australian board of directors resigned, trading on company stock was temporarily suspended and the company acknowledged that it is sharing information with law enforcement.


Trading was halted again this week pending more details about the company's latest actions.


dkidwell@tribune.com





Read More..

Black Hole Spins at Nearly the Speed of Light


A superfast black hole nearly 60 million light-years away appears to be pushing the ultimate speed limit of the universe, a new study says.

For the first time, astronomers have managed to measure the rate of spin of a supermassive black hole—and it's been clocked at 84 percent of the speed of light, or the maximum allowed by the law of physics.

"The most exciting part of this finding is the ability to test the theory of general relativity in such an extreme regime, where the gravitational field is huge, and the properties of space-time around it are completely different from the standard Newtonian case," said lead author Guido Risaliti, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and INAF-Arcetri Observatory in Italy. (Related: "Speedy Star Found Near Black Hole May Test Einstein Theory.")

Notorious for ripping apart and swallowing stars, supermassive black holes live at the center of most galaxies, including our own Milky Way. (See black hole pictures.)

They can pack the gravitational punch of many million or even billions of suns—distorting space-time in the region around them, not even letting light to escape their clutches.

Galactic Monster

The predatory monster that lurks at the core of the relatively nearby spiral galaxy NGC 1365 is estimated to weigh in at about two million times the mass of the sun, and stretches some 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) across-more than eight times the distance between Earth and the moon, Risaliti said. (Also see "Black Hole Blast Biggest Ever Recorded.")

Risaliti and colleagues' unprecedented discovery was made possible thanks to the combined observations from NASA's high-energy x-ray detectors on its Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) probe and the European Space Agency's low-energy, x-ray-detecting XMM-Newton space observatory.

Astronomers detected x-ray particle remnants of stars circling in a pancake-shaped accretion disk surrounding the black hole, and used this data to help determine its rate of spin.

By getting a fix on this spin speed, astronomers now hope to better understand what happens inside giant black holes as they gravitationally warp space-time around themselves.

Even more intriguing to the research team is that this discovery will shed clues to black hole's past, and the evolution of its surrounding galaxy.

Tracking the Universe's Evolution

Supermassive black holes have a large impact in the evolution of their host galaxy, where a self-regulating process occurs between the two structures.

"When more stars are formed, they throw gas into the black hole, increasing its mass, but the radiation produced by this accretion warms up the gas in the galaxy, preventing more star formation," said Risaliti.

"So the two events—black hole accretion and formation of new stars—interact with each other."

Knowing how fast black holes spin may also help shed light how the entire universe evolved. (Learn more about the origin of the universe.)

"With a knowledge of the average spin of galaxies at different ages of the universe," Risaliti said, "we could track their evolution much more precisely than we can do today."


Read More..

Obama Signs Order to Begin Sequester Cuts












President Obama and congressional leaders today failed to reach a breakthrough to avert a sweeping package of automatic spending cuts, setting into motion $85 billion of across-the-board belt-tightening that neither had wanted to see.


President Obama officially initiated the cuts with an order to agencies Friday evening.


He had met for just over an hour at the White House Friday morning with Republican leaders House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic allies, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Vice President Joe Biden.


But the parties emerged from their first face-to-face meeting of the year resigned to see the cuts take hold at midnight.


"This is not a win for anybody," Obama lamented in a statement to reporters after the meeting. "This is a loss for the American people."


READ MORE: 6 Questions (and Answers) About the Sequester


Officials have said the spending reductions immediately take effect Saturday but that the pain from reduced government services and furloughs of tens of thousands of federal employees would be felt gradually in the weeks ahead.








Sequestration Deadline: Obama Meets With Leaders Watch Video











Sequester Countdown: The Reality of Budget Cuts Watch Video





Federal agencies, including Homeland Security, the Pentagon, Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Education, have all prepared to notify employees that they will have to take one unpaid day off per week through the end of the year.


The staffing trims could slow many government services, including airport screenings, air traffic control, and law enforcement investigations and prosecutions. Spending on education programs and health services for low-income families will also get clipped.


"It is absolutely true that this is not going to precipitate the crisis" that would have been caused by the so-called fiscal cliff, Obama said. "But people are going to be hurt. The economy will not grow as quickly as it would have. Unemployment will not go down as quickly as it would have. And there are lives behind that. And it's real."


The sticking point in the debate over the automatic cuts -- known as sequester -- has remained the same between the parties for more than a year since the cuts were first proposed: whether to include more new tax revenue in a broad deficit reduction plan.


The White House insists there must be higher tax revenue, through elimination of tax loopholes and deductions that benefit wealthier Americans and corporations. Republicans seek an approach of spending cuts only, with an emphasis on entitlement programs. It's a deep divide that both sides have proven unable to bridge.


"This discussion about revenue, in my view, is over," Boehner told reporters after the meeting. "It's about taking on the spending problem here in Washington."


Boehner: No New Taxes to Avert Sequester


Boehner says any elimination of tax loopholes or deductions should be part of a broader tax code overhaul aimed at lowering rates overall, not to offset spending cuts in the sequester.


Obama countered today that he's willing to "take on the problem where it exists, on entitlements, and do some things that my own party doesn't like."


But he says Republicans must be willing to eliminate some tax loopholes as part of a deal.


"They refuse to budge on closing a single wasteful loophole to help reduce the deficit," Obama said. "We can and must replace these cuts with a more balanced approach that asks something from everybody."


Can anything more be done by either side to reach a middle ground?


The president today claimed he's done all he can. "I am not a dictator, I'm the president," Obama said.






Read More..

Space gold rush should not be a free-for-all






















We need a consensus on regulations surrounding space mining if it’s to enrich us all
















EVER since we took our first steps out of Africa, human exploration has been driven by the desire to secure resources. Now our attention is turning to space.












The motivation for deep-space travel is shifting from discovery to economics. The past year has seen a flurry of proposals aimed at bringing celestial riches down to Earth. No doubt this will make a few billionaires even wealthier, but we all stand to gain: the mineral bounty and spin-off technologies could enrich us all.












But before the miners start firing up their rockets, we should pause for thought. At first glance, space mining seems to sidestep most environmental concerns: there is (probably!) no life on asteroids, and thus no habitats to trash. But its consequences – both here on Earth and in space – merit careful consideration.












Part of this is about principles. Some will argue that space's "magnificent desolation" is not ours to despoil, just as they argue that our own planet's poles should remain pristine. Others will suggest that glutting ourselves on space's riches is not an acceptable alternative to developing more sustainable ways of earthly life.












History suggests that those will be hard lines to hold, and it may be difficult to persuade the public that such barren environments are worth preserving. After all, they exist in vast abundance, and even fewer people will experience them than have walked through Antarctica's icy landscapes.











There's also the emerging off-world economy to consider. The resources that are valuable in orbit and beyond may be very different to those we prize on Earth (see "Space miners hope to build first off-Earth economy"). Questions of their stewardship have barely been broached – and the relevant legal and regulatory framework is fragmentary, to put it mildly.













Space miners, like their earthly counterparts, are often reluctant to engage with such questions. One speaker at last week's space-mining forum in Sydney, Australia, concluded with a plea that regulation should be avoided. But miners have much to gain from a broad agreement on the for-profit exploitation of space. Without consensus, claims will be disputed, investments risky, and the gains made insecure. It is in all of our long-term interests to seek one out.


















This article appeared in print under the headline "Taming the final frontier"


















































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.









































































All comments should respect the New Scientist House Rules. If you think a particular comment breaks these rules then please use the "Report" link in that comment to report it to us.


If you are having a technical problem posting a comment, please contact technical support.








Read More..

US sailors jailed for Okinawa rape: report






TOKYO: Two US sailors who raped a Japanese woman in Okinawa last October, sparking island-wide anger, were on Friday jailed for nine and 10 years, a report said.

The Naha District Court in Okinawa said Christopher Browning, 24, should go to prison for 10 years while Skyler Dozierwalker, 23, should serve nine, Jiji Press reported.

Browning and Dozierwalker, who were not stationed in Okinawa, had been drinking on the evening of the attack, which took place on the street and left the unidentified woman with neck injuries.

During an earlier court appearance the two men had admitted the offence, which caused outrage on the sub-tropical islands and beyond, and led to a nationwide night-time curfew on all US military personnel in Japan.

Despite the curfew, misconduct involving US servicemen, much of it drunken, has continued to fuel anti-US sentiment in communities with bases.

Wary of yet another public relations disaster, the US moved quickly to try to lower the temperature in the immediate aftermath of the rape, with ambassador John Roos holding a special news conference at which he appeared visibly angry and upset.

"The United States will cooperate in every way possible with the Japanese authorities to address this terrible situation."

"I understand the anger that many people feel with respect to this reported incident," he said. "I have a 25-year-old daughter myself, so this is very personal to me."

The attack came amid already high tensions in Okinawa, which saw demonstrations last year against the US deployment to the island of the tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft.

The aircraft's perceived poor safety record has been picked over in Japanese media and by local opponents, but commentators say it is a proxy issue and resentment over what many see as an unfair burden is at the root of objections.

Okinawa is the reluctant host to more than half of the 47,000 American service personnel in Japan, and the crimes, noise and risk of accidents associated with their bases regularly provoke ire in the local community.

In 1995 the gang rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by US servicemen sparked mass protests resulting in a US-Japan agreement to reduce the huge US military presence on the Okinawan chain.

Okinawans say other parts of Japan should take more of the burden and want bases closed or reduced in size.

- AFP/xq



Read More..

Tax on pack of cigarettes sold in Chicago up $1 to $6.67









On the eve of a $1-per-pack Cook County cigarette tax increase, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle stood in the glow of X-rays showing damaged lungs, surrounded by some of Stroger Hospital's top pulmonary specialists as she discussed how smoking shortens people's lives.

The setting and talking points made clear the message Preckwinkle wanted to convey Thursday: This is a public health problem, one she plans to fight by giving smokers an incentive to quit and teens a reason not to start.

But the county's tax increase is more than just a campaign to protect people from emphysema and lung cancer. Preckwinkle is counting on $25.6 million this year from the move to help balance the budget. The history of cigarette tax increases suggests the county will be lucky to get that much in 2013 and should expect diminishing returns in the years ahead.

Smokes are a financial well that public officials have gone to repeatedly to shore up shaky finances at the local and state level. When the county tax increase takes effect Friday, a pack of cigarettes purchased in Chicago will come with $6.67 tacked on by the city, county and state. That's just behind New York City's nation-leading $6.86 in taxes per pack. It will also push the cost of a pack of cigarettes in Chicago to as much as $11.

Recent cigarette tax increases have had only a short-term benefit to the government bottom line. Some people quit, while others buy cigarettes online or outside the county or state.

When the county last raised the cigarette tax — by $1 per pack in 2006 — collections initially shot up by $46.5 million, hitting $203.7 million, county records show. But by 2009, the county collected $20.4 million less than it had in 2005.

Mayor Richard M. Daley bumped up the city of Chicago's share of the cigarette tax by 32 cents in 2005 and another 20 cents in 2006, to 68 cents per pack. He saw collections rise from $15.6 million in 2004 to $32.9 million in 2006, according to a city report. But city cigarette tax revenue fell to $28.4 million in 2007, and continued dropping to $18.7 million by 2011, records show.

At the state level, Quinn pushed through a $1-a-pack hike in June.

Before that, state lawmakers and Gov. George Ryan agreed on a 40-cent increase in 2002. Cigarette tax proceeds went up by more than $178 million in 2003, to $643.1 million, and rose to $729.2 million in 2004. The revenue then fell steadily to $549 million by 2010 before edging back up to $580 million last year, according to state records.

The county is preparing for the windfall from the $1 increase to be strong this year, then decline. County officials project that after bringing in $25.6 million for the remainder of this budget year, the increase will net about $29 million for 2014, $21 million in 2015, $15 million in 2016 and just $9 million in 2017.

Preckwinkle says that's OK with her.

"My hope would be that over the long run this is no longer a way in which governments look to raise money, because fewer and fewer people are smoking," she said. "So I would hope that we have the effect of reducing our revenue because more people quit."

The county could end up saving money as cigarette tax revenue falls because uninsured people with ailments related to smoking are such a heavy financial burden to the public hospital system, Preckwinkle said.

In the meantime, Preckwinkle pledged to hire more staff this year to crack down on stores selling untaxed packs and large-scale tobacco smuggling from surrounding states. "We anticipate that there may be some noncompliance, as there always is when you institute an increase like this," she said.

Preckwinkle also acknowledged that the higher tax rate will push some smokers into surrounding counties or Indiana to pick up their packs, but she predicted such cross-border runs will not last.

"While people may initially, when the prices rise, go to other states — Indiana, Wisconsin or wherever — over time that trek gets very tiresome and time-consuming, and they return to their former habits of buying their cigarettes nearby," Preckwinkle said.

But David Vite, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said he thinks the cigarette taxes in Cook County are now so high compared with surrounding areas that smokers will continue to make the longer drive, and Illinois stores near jurisdictions with lower taxes will struggle even more.

"You might see people return to their old patterns if we were talking about a slight disparity, say 25 cents a pack," Vite said. "But now we're talking about a difference of nearly $3 a pack compared to Indiana, almost $30 a carton. You're going to see guys working in factories saying, 'It's my week to make a run,' heading to Indiana and coming back with $1,500 worth of cigarettes for all their co-workers."

jebyrne@tribune.com

Twitter @_johnbyrne



Read More..

Scarred Duckbill Dinosaur Escaped T. Rex Attack


A scar on the face of a duckbill dinosaur received after a close encounter with a Tyrannosaurus rex is the first clear case of a healed dinosaur wound, scientists say.

The finding, detailed in the current issue of the journal Cretaceous Research, also reveals that the healing properties of dinosaur skin were likely very similar to that of modern reptiles.

The lucky dinosaur was an adult Edmontosaurus annectens, a species of duckbill dinosaur that lived in what is today the Hell Creek region of South Dakota about 65 to 67 million years ago. (Explore a prehistoric time line.)

A teardrop-shaped patch of fossilized skin about 5 by 5 inches (12 by 14 centimeters) that was discovered with the creature's bones and is thought to have come from above its right eye, includes an oval-shaped section that is incongruous with the surrounding skin. (Related: "'Dinosaur Mummy' Found; Have Intact Skin, Tissue.")

Bruce Rothschild, a professor of medicine at the University of Kansas and Northeast Ohio Medical University, said the first time he laid eyes on it, it was "quite clear" to him that he was looking at an old wound.

"That was unequivocal," said Rothschild, who is a co-author of the new study.

A Terrible Attacker

The skull of the scarred Edmontosaurus also showed signs of trauma, and from the size and shape of the marks on the bone, Rothschild and fellow co-author Robert DePalma, a paleontologist at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History in Florida, speculate the creature was attacked by a T. rex.

It's likely, though still unproven, that both the skin wound and the skull injury were sustained during the same attack, the scientists say. The wound "was large enough to have been a claw or a tooth," Rothschild said.

Rothschild and DePalma also compared the dinosaur wound to healed wounds on modern reptiles, including iguanas, and found the scar patterns to be nearly identical.

It isn't surprising that the wounds would be similar, said paleontologist David Burnham of the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, since dinosaurs and lizards are distant cousins.

"That's kind of what we would expect," said Burnham, who was not involved in the study. "It's what makes evolution work—that we can depend on this."

Dog-Eat-Dog

Phil Bell, a paleontologist with the Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative in Canada who also was not involved in the research, called the Edmontosaurus fossil "a really nicely preserved animal with a very obvious scar."

He's not convinced, however, that it was caused by a predator attack. The size of the scar is relatively small, Bell said, and would also be consistent with the skin being pierced in some other accident such as a fall.

"But certainly the marks that you see on the skull, those are [more consistent] with Tyrannosaur-bitten bones," he added.

Prior to the discovery, scientists knew of one other case of a dinosaur wound. But in that instance, it was an unhealed wound that scientists think was inflicted by scavengers after the creature was already dead.

It's very likely that this particular Edmontosaurus wasn't the only dinosaur to sport scars, whether from battle wounds or accidents, Bell added.

"I would imagine just about every dinosaur walking around had similar scars," he said. (Read about "Extreme Dinosaurs" in National Geographic magazine.)

"Tigers and lions have scarred noses, and great white sharks have got dings on their noses and nips taken out of their fins. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and [Edmontosaurus was] unfortunately in the line of fire from some pretty big and nasty predators ... This one was just lucky to get away."

Mysterious Escape

Just how Edmontosaurus survived a T. rex attack is still unclear. "Escape from a T. rex is something that we wouldn't think would happen," Burnham said.

Duckbill dinosaurs, also known as Hadrosaurs, were not without defenses. Edmontosaurus, for example, grew up to 30 feet (9 meters) in length, and could swipe its hefty tail or kick its legs to fell predators.

Furthermore, they were fast. "Hadrosaurs like Edmontosaurus had very powerful [running] muscles, which would have made them difficult to catch once they'd taken flight," Bell said.

Duckbills were also herd animals, so maybe this one escaped with help from neighbors. Or perhaps the T. rex that attacked it was young. "There's something surrounding this case that we don't know yet," Burnham said.

Figuring out the details of the story is part of what makes paleontology exciting, he added. "We construct past lives. We can go back into a day in the life of this animal and talk about an attack and [about] it getting away. That's pretty cool."


Read More..

Sequestration: Surrender Is in the Air












The budget ax is about to fall, and there's little lawmakers in Washington are doing to stop it.


Despite a parade of dire warnings from the White House, an $85 billion package of deep automatic spending cuts appears poised to take effect at the stroke of midnight on Friday.


The cuts – known in Washington-speak as the sequester – will hit every federal budget, from defense to education, and even the president's own staff.


On Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats and Republicans each staged votes Thursday aimed at substituting the indiscriminate across-the-board cuts with more sensible ones. Democrats also called for including new tax revenue in the mix. Both measures failed.


Lleaders on both sides publicly conceded that the effort was largely for show, with little chance the opposing chamber would embrace the other's plan. They will discuss their differences with President Obama at the White House on Friday.


"It isn't a plan at all, it's a gimmick," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said today of the Democrats' legislation.


"Republicans call the plan flexibility" in how the cuts are made, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Let's call it what it is. It is a punt."


The budget crisis is the product of a longstanding failure of Congress and the White House to compromise on plans for deficit reduction. The sequester itself, enacted in late 2011, was intended to be so unpalatable as to help force a deal.








Eric Holder Says Sequester Makes America Less Safe Watch Video









Eric Holder Sounds Sequester Alarm: Exclusive Watch Video









Sequestration: Democrats, Republicans Play Blame Game Watch Video





Republicans and Democrats, however, remain gridlocked over the issue of taxes.


Obama has mandated that any steps to offset the automatic cuts must include new tax revenue through the elimination of loopholes and deductions. House Speaker John Boehner and the GOP insist the approach should be spending cuts-only, modifying the package to make it more reasonable.


"Do we want to close loopholes? We sure do. But if we are going to do tax reform, it should focus on creating jobs, not funding more government," House Speaker John Boehner said, explaining his opposition to Obama's plan.


Boehner, McConnell, Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will huddle with Obama at the White House on Friday for the first face-to-face meeting of the group this year.


"There are no preconditions to a meeting like this," White House spokesman Jay Carney said today. "The immediate purpose of the meeting is to discuss the imminent sequester deadline and to avert it."


Even if the leaders reach a deal, there's almost no chance a compromise could be enacted before the deadline. Lawmakers are expected to recess later today for a long weekend in their districts.


What will be the short-term impact of the automatic cuts?


Officials say it will be a gradual, "rolling impact" with limited visible impact across the country in the first few weeks that the cuts are allowed to stand.


Over the long term, however, the Congressional Budget Office and independent economic analysts have warned sequester could lead to economic contraction and possibly a recession.


"This is going to be a big hit on the economy," Obama said Wednesday night.


"It means that you have fewer customers with money in their pockets ready to buy your goods and services. It means that the global economy will be weaker," he said. "And the worst part of it is, it's entirely unnecessary."


Both sides say that if the cuts take effect, the next best chance for a resolution could come next month when the parties need to enact a new federal budget. Government funding runs out on March 27, raising the specter of a federal shutdown if they still can't reach a deal.


"As we anticipate an across-the-board budget cuts across our land, we still expect to see your goodness prevail, O God, " Senate Chaplain Barry Black prayed on the Senate floor this morning, "and save us from ourselves."



Read More..

Resale prices of private homes rebound in January






SINGAPORE: Prices of resale private homes rebounded in January, rising 0.3 per cent, reversing the previous month's 0.2 per cent decline, according to the Singapore Residential Price Index flash estimates published by the Institute of Real Estate Studies at the National University of Singapore.

The increase in January was led by price growth in the small unit segment, defined as homes below 506 square feet.

In January, prices of small units rose 2.6 per cent, reversing a 0.7 per cent fall in December.

Prices of resale homes located in the central region also climbed by 0.7 per cent in January, following a 1.5 per cent decrease in the previous month.

Meanwhile, the only segment that registered a price drop last month was homes outside the central area.

Prices fell 0.1 per cent in January, compared with a 0.8 per cent increase in December.

- CNA/ck



Read More..

Chicago archdiocese to close 5 schools in cost-cutting move









Budget cuts announced Wednesday by the Archdiocese of Chicago signal that the area's Roman Catholics are entering a period of austerity when there will be less money for their parishes and schools.


The cuts, which were officially announced as Cardinal Francis George and other leaders of the church gathered at the Vatican to select a new pope, include closing five schools, eliminating 75 positions at the archdiocese's headquarters and placing a moratorium on loans to parishes from the archdiocese bank for three years. Other changes include creating stricter guidelines for local parishes applying for subsidies and reducing the number of the agencies in the archdiocese.


George, who spoke publicly about the cuts when asked by reporters in Rome, said they are needed to address the archdiocese's chronic financial problems. The archdiocese has run deficits of more than $30 million annually over the last four years, including being $40 million in the red for the fiscal year ending in June 2012.








All told, the measures will save tens of millions of dollars over the next few years, officials said.


“The expenses have gone up, and the income is pretty well flat,” George said after a news conference in Rome about Pope Benedict XVI's last audience Wednesday in St. Peter's Square. “We tried to ride out the recession without making any changes — and we can't do that. We're giving more grants to parishes and schools that need more money. The budget is not balanced. Not just layoffs, but a lot of other things being done, other ways to use the resources we have.”

The archdiocese sold $150 million in bonds in 2012 that helped it get through a cash-flow problem, but ultimately that wasn't enough, George said. He hopes the cuts will enable the archdiocese to balance its budget in two years.

Although the cardinal's announcement made headlines, the archdiocese's financial situation has been no secret to its priests. Several clergymen said they knew the archdiocese had planned to scale back loans to parishes.

“We have already made adjustments,” said the Rev. Dennis Ziomek of St. Barbara Parish in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood. “We have to be responsible stewards with the money.”

In a letter posted on the archdiocese website, the cardinal thanked parishioners for their generosity and asked them to pray for the employees now out of a paycheck.

At the archdiocese's Pastoral Center headquarters on Wednesday, people funneled in and out of the building during their lunch breaks but declined comment on the layoffs. Before the announcement, staffers received memos asking them to report to their desks early Wednesday.

Of the 75 positions, 55 were full-time jobs. Sixty people were let go, while the remaining posts had been vacant. Those cuts are expected to save $11 million to $13 million annually by fiscal 2015, George wrote in his letter.

Employees who received pink slips will get job counseling, extended health benefits and generous severance packages.

“We're keeping up counseling for helping people find jobs, looking for places where they might look for jobs,” George said.

Along with the layoffs, the archdiocese will reduce the number of capital loans and grants it gives parishes, while creating “stricter criteria” for them to qualify for the financial assistance.

A Parish Transformation initiative in the works for at least two years will also try to save money by laying out measures to provide more financial stability, though the letter did not give details.

Those cuts are expected to save an additional $13 million to $15 million annually by fiscal 2015, the letter states.

By next year, the archdiocese will reduce its aid to Catholic schools by $10 million. It plans to give scholarships to children affected by the five school closings so they can attend nearby Catholic schools. Officials said low enrollment was a key factor for closing the schools: St. Gregory the Great High, St. Paul-Our Lady of Vilna Elementary and St. Helena of the Cross Elementary in Chicago, plus St. Bernardine in Forest Park and St. Kieran in Chicago Heights.

Now, Catholic schools will start relying on scholarships for student financial aid instead of grants from the archdiocese to make tuition affordable, Superintendent Sister Mary Paul McCaughey said.

She pointed to a new partnership with the Big Shoulders Fund, a charity supporting urban Catholic schools, that will help families pay for school with scholarships.

McCaughey did not expect tuition at other Catholic schools to immediately rise because grants from the archdiocese have been reduced. About two-thirds of schools already have posted their tuition rates for the upcoming school year, she added.

“Although things are challenged, I think (Chicago) is a Catholic community that's always supported its schools,” McCaughey said. “I think the support will be there.”

Outside of St. Bernardine Elementary in west suburban Forest Park, one of the schools that will close this summer, Maria Maxham said she was devastated when she heard last month that she'd have to send her children, one in second grade and the other in fourth grade, to a different school.

Maxham, who lives in Forest Park, said she is not sure the two will attend another local Catholic school because some lack what she thought was St. Bernardine's strength.

“There is so much diversity at St. Bernardine, and that's part of what makes it so fantastic,” Maxham said. “It was a special place and a second family for us.”

The school, which has been open since 1915, has about 100 students currently enrolled in its preschool-through-eighth-grade classrooms.

Administrators, teachers and parents were notified of the closing in January, when McCaughey led a meeting at the school and explained the large amount of money that the archdiocese needed to reduce from the schools budget, Principal Veronica Skelton Cash said.

One family left the school shortly after hearing the news, she added.

Cash, who joined the school in the fall, said there was much frustration among staff members afterward. Many believed they would have at least a few years to turn things around.

“I could see a lot of things changing for the better at this school,” Cash said. “The culture of the community is changing, and we were getting more and more inquiries about the school. There was momentum going forward.”

Current employees were given guidance on severance and benefits by the archdiocese's human resources officials, Cash said. Teachers without jobs will also be placed on a priority list for future employment with the archdiocese, she said.

“I'm incredibly disheartened,” said Daniel Kwarcinski, who hopes to find a job at another private school after teaching art for seven years at St. Bernardine. “There's a need for a school like this where we are at.”

In Rome, George said the decisions to let people go and reduce aid were not easy. But he reiterated that the archdiocese's financial situation drove the decision.

“We have to balance the budget, especially if it's precarious,” he said. “The growth being very slow means we can no longer ignore the kinds of deficit situations that have been imposed on us. We have to take action.”


Tribune reporter Manya A. Brachear reported from Rome, with Tribune reporters Bridget Doyle and Jennifer Delgado in Chicago.


mbrachear@tribune.com


bdoyle@tribune.com


jmdelgado@tribune.com



Read More..

Why African Rhinos Are Facing a Crisis


The body count for African rhinos killed for their horns is approaching crisis proportions, according to the latest figures released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

To National Geographic reporter Peter Gwin, the dire numbers—a rhinoceros slain every 11 minutes since the beginning of 2013—don't come as a surprise. "The killing will continue as long as criminal gangs know they can expect high profits for selling horns to Asian buyers," said Gwin, who wrote about the violent and illegal trade in rhino horn in the March 2012 issue of the magazine.

The recent surge in poaching has been fueled by a thriving market in Vietnam and China for rhino horn, used as a traditional medicine believed to cure everything from hangovers to cancer. Since 2011, at least 1,700 rhinos, or 7 percent of the total population, have been killed and their horns hacked off, according to the IUCN. More than two-thirds of the casualties occurred in South Africa, home to 73 percent of the world's wild rhinos. In Africa there are currently 5,055 black rhinos, listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, and 20,405 white rhinos. (From our blog: "South African Rhino Poaching Hits New High.")

Trying to snuff out poaching by itself won't work, said Gwin. The South African government is fighting a losing battle on the ground to gangs using helicopters, dart guns, high-powered weapons—and lots of money. (National Geographic pictures: The bloody poaching battle over rhino horn [contains graphic images].)

"Every year they get tougher on poaching, but rhino killings continue to rise astronomically," said Gwin. "Somehow they have to address the demand side in a meaningful way. This means either shutting down the Asian markets for rhino horn, or controversially, finding a way to sustainably harvest rhino horns, control their legal sale, and meet what appears to be a huge demand. Either will be a formidable endeavor."

Hope and Hurdles

The signing in December of a memorandum of understanding between South Africa and Vietnam to deal with rhino poaching and other conservation issues raises hope for some concrete action. Observers say the next step is for the two governments to follow through with tangible crime-stopping efforts such as intelligence sharing and other collaboration. The highest hurdle to stopping criminal trade, though, is cultural, Gwin believes. "In Vietnam and China, a lot of people simply believe that as a traditional cure, rhino horn works." (Related: "Blood Ivory.")

The recent climb in rhino deaths threatens what had been a conservation success story. Since 1995, due to better law enforcement, monitoring, and other actions, the overall rhino numbers have steadily risen. The poaching epidemic, the IUCN warns, could dramatically slow and possibly reverse population gains.

The population growth is also being stymied by South Africa's private game farmers, who breed rhinos for sport hunting and tourism and for many years have helped rebuild rhino numbers. Many of them are getting out of the business due to the high costs of security and other risks associated with the poaching invasions.

Those who still have rhinos on their farms will often pay a veterinarian to cut the horns off—under government supervision—to dissuade poachers, but the process costs more than $2,000 and has to be repeated when the horns grow back every two years. Even then the farmers are stuck with horns that are illegal to sell—and which criminals seek to obtain.

Room for Debate

Rhino killings and the trade in their horns will be a major topic at a high-profile conference, the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which opens in Bangkok March 3. What won't surprise Gwin is if the issue of sustainably harvesting rhino horns from live animals comes up for discussion.

"It's an idea that seems to be gaining traction among some South African politicians and law enforcement circles," he said, noting that the international conservation community strongly opposes any talk of legalizing the trade of rhino horn, sustainably harvested or not. The bottom line for all parties in the discussion is clear, said Gwin: "The slaughter has to stop if rhinos are to survive."


Read More..

Arias Prosecutor Too Combative, Experts Say












He has barked, yelled, been sarcastic and demanded answers from accused murderer Jodi Arias this week.


And in doing so, prosecutor Juan Martinez and his aggressive antics may be turning off the jury he is hoping to convince that Arias killed her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander in June 2008, experts told ABCNews.com today.


"Martinez is his own worst enemy," Mel McDonald, a prominent Phoenix defense attorney and former judge, told ABC News. "He takes it to the point where it's ad nauseam. You have difficulty recognizing when he's driving the point home because he's always angry and pushy and pacing around the courtroom. He loses the effectiveness, rather than build it up."


"He's like a rabid dog and believes you've got to go to everybody's throat," he said.


"If they convict her and give her death, they do it in spite of Juan, not because of him," McDonald added.


Martinez's needling style was on display again today as he pestered Arias to admit that she willingly participated in kinky sex with Alexander, though she previously testified that she only succumbed to his erotic fantasies to please him.


Arias, now 32, and Alexander, who was 27 at the time of his death, dated for a year and continued to sleep together for another year following their break-up.


Arias drove to his house in Mesa, Ariz., in June 2008, had sex with him, they took nude photos together and she killed him in his shower. She claims it was in self-defense. If convicted, Arias could face the death penalty.








Jodi Arias, Prosecutor Butt Heads in Cross-Examination Watch Video









Jodi Arias Maintains She 'Felt Like a Prostitute' Watch Video









Jodi Arias Admits to Killing Man, Lying to Police Watch Video





Martinez also attempted to point out inconsistencies in her story of the killing, bickering with her over details about her journey from Yreka, Calif., to Mesa, Ariz., including why she borrowed gas cans from an ex-boyfriend, when she allegedly took naps and got lost while driving, and why she spontaneously decided to visit Alexander at his home in Mesa for a sexual liaison.


"I want to know what you're talking about," Arias said to Martinez at one point.


"No, I'm asking you," he yelled.


Later, he bellowed, "Am I asking you if you're telling the truth?"


"I don't know," Arias said, firing back at him. "Are you?"


During three days of cross examining Arias this week, Martinez has spent hours going back and forth with the defendant over word choice, her memory, and her answers to his questions.


"Everyone who takes witness stand for defense is an enemy," McDonald said. "He prides himself on being able to work by rarely referring to his notes, but what he's giving up in that is that there's so much time he wastes on stupid comments. A lot of what I've heard is utterly objectionable."


Martinez's behavior has spurred frequent objections of "witness badgering" from Arias' attorney Kirk Nurmi, who at one point Tuesday stood up in court and appealed to the judge to have a conference with all of the attorneys before questioning continued. Judge Sherry Stephens at one point admonished Martinez and Arias for speaking over one another.


Andy Hill, a former spokesperson for the Phoenix police department, and Steven Pitt, a forensic psychiatrist who has testified as an expert witness at many trials in the Phoenix area, both said that despite his aggressive style, Martinez would likely succeed in obtaining a guilty verdict.


"When it comes to cross examination, one size does not fit all," said Pitt. "But if you set aside the incessant sparring, what the prosecutor I believe is effectively doing is pointing out the various inconsistencies in the defendant's version of events."






Read More..

We need a piece of Mars to continue search for life


































THERE'S no need to cry over spilt chemicals. Thanks to an accident inside one of its instruments, NASA's Curiosity rover has detected the presence of a substance called perchlorate in Martian soil (see "Curiosity's spills add thrills to the Mars life hunt").












Not exactly earth-shattering, you might think. But it adds a new twist to the most controversial chapter in Martian history: did the Viking landers detect life?













This is a question that has divided the Viking missions' researchers for almost three decades. One group has resolutely stuck to its guns that the landers detected signs of life. Equally adamant is a second group who say they absolutely did not – a view that has always been the official version of events.












The unexpected discovery of perchlorate supplies a legitimate reason to reopen the debate. Perchlorate is an oxidising agent that destroys organic molecules. Its presence could finally explain the disputed results.












The episode highlights another important issue. Curiosity is a sophisticated machine, but there is only so much soil chemistry we can do from millions of kilometres away. A sample return mission must be a priority.












This article appeared in print under the headline "We need a piece of Mars"


















































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.

















































































All comments should respect the New Scientist House Rules. If you think a particular comment breaks these rules then please use the "Report" link in that comment to report it to us.


If you are having a technical problem posting a comment, please contact technical support.








Read More..

Japan robot suit gets global safety certificate






TOKYO: A robot suit that can help the elderly or disabled get around was given its global safety certificate in Japan on Wednesday, paving the way for its worldwide rollout.

The Hybrid Assistive Limb, or HAL, is a power-assisted pair of legs developed by Japanese robot maker Cyberdyne, which has also developed similar robot arms.

A quality assurance body issued the certificate based on a draft version of an international safety standard for personal robots that is expected to be approved later this year, the ministry for the economy, trade and industry said.

The metal-and-plastic exoskeleton has become the first nursing-care robot certified under the draft standard, a ministry official said.

Battery-powered HAL, which detects muscle impulses to anticipate and support the user's body movements, is designed to help the elderly with mobility or help hospital or nursing carers to lift patients.

Cyberdyne, based in Tsukuba, northeast of Tokyo, has so far leased some 330 suits to 150 hospitals, welfare and other facilities in Japan since 2010, at 178,000 yen (US$1,950) per suit per year.

"It is very significant that Japan has obtained this certification before others in the world," said Yoshiyuki Sankai, the head of Cyberdyne.

The company is unrelated to the firm of the same name responsible for the cyborg assassin played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1984 film "The Terminator".

"This is a first step forward for Japan, the great robot nation, to send our message to the world about robots of the future," said Sankai, who is also a professor at Tsukuba University.

A different version of HAL -- coincidentally the name of the evil supercomputer in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- has been developed for workers who need to wear heavy radiation protection as part of the clean-up at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.

Industrial robots have long been used in Japan, and robo-suits are gradually making inroads into hospitals and retirement homes.

But critics say the government has been slow in creating a safety framework for such robots in a country whose rapidly-ageing population is expected to enjoy ever longer lives.

-AFP/fl



Read More..

Kelly easily wins Democratic race to replace Jackson Jr.









Former state Rep. Robin Kelly easily won the special Democratic primary Tuesday night in the race to replace the disgraced Jesse Jackson Jr. in Congress, helped by millions of dollars in pro-gun control ads from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's political fund.


A snowstorm and lack of voter interest kept turnout low as Kelly had 52 percent to 25 percent for former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson and 11 percent for Chicago 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale with 99 percent of precincts counted.


Kelly will formally take on the winner of the Republican primary in an April 9 special general election in the heavily Democratic district. In the GOP contest, less than 25 votes separated convicted felon Paul McKinley and businessman Eric Wallace.








Kelly framed her win as a victory for gun control forces.


"You sent a message that was heard around our state and across the nation," Kelly told supporters in a Matteson hotel ballroom. "A message that tells the NRA that their days of holding our country hostage are coming to an end.


"To every leader in the fight for gun control ready to work with President (Barack) Obama and Mayor (Rahm) Emanuel to stop this senseless violence, thank you for your leadership and thank you for your courage," she said.


Halvorson told supporters to rally around Kelly as the Democratic nominee. But Halvorson also made it clear she believed her biggest opponent was the mayor of New York, whose anti-gun super political action committee spent more than $2.2 million attacking her previous support from the National Rifle Association while backing Kelly.


"We all know how rough it was for me to have to run an election against someone who spent ($2.2) million against me," Halvorson said at Homewood restaurant. "Every 71/2 minutes there was a commercial."


Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC was the largest campaign interest in the race and dominated the Chicago broadcast TV airwaves compared to a marginal buy by one minor candidate.


Beale also called Bloomberg's influence "the biggest disservice in this race."


"If this is the future of the Democratic Party, then we are all in big trouble," Beale said.


Bloomberg, an Emanuel ally in the fight for tougher gun restrictions, called Kelly's win "an important victory for common sense leadership on gun violence" as well as sign that voters "are demanding change" in a Congress that has refused to enact tougher gun restrictions, fearing the influence of the NRA.


But as much as Bloomberg sought to portray the Kelly win as a victory over the influential NRA, the national organization stayed out of the contest completely while the state rifle association sent out one late mailer for Halvorson.


Be it the TV ads or a late consolidation toward Kelly in the campaign, the former Matteson lawmaker made an impressive showing with Democratic voters in suburban Cook County, where the bulk of the district's vote was located, as well as on the South Side.


Despite the size of the field, Kelly got more than half of the votes cast in the two most populated areas of the district. Halvorson won by large percentages over Kelly in Kankakee County and the district's portion of Will County, but those two areas have very few votes.


The special primary election, by its nature, already had been expected to be a low-turnout affair — an expedited contest with little time for contenders to raise money or mount a traditional campaign.


Adding to the lack of interest was the fact that there were no other contests on the ballot in Chicago and most of the suburban Cook County portion of the district. Few contests were being held in Kankakee County and the portion of Will County within the 2nd District.


Turnout was reported to be around 15 percent in the city and suburban Cook. More than 98 percent of the primary votes cast in Chicago were Democratic, as were 97 percent of those cast in suburban Cook.


On the Republican side, the unofficial vote leader was McKinley, 54, who was arrested 11 times from 2003 to 2007, mostly for protesting, with almost all of the charges dropped. In the 1970s and '80s, McKinley was convicted of six felony counts, serving nearly 20 years in prison for burglaries, armed robberies and aggravated battery. He previously declined to discuss the circumstances of those crimes but has dubbed himself the "ex-offender preventing the next offender" in his campaign.


Records show McKinley also owes $14,147 in federal taxes, which might explain his answer at a forum when asked if he would cut any federal programs. "Certainly," he said. "The IRS."





Read More..

A History of Balloon Crashes


A hot-air balloon exploded in Egypt yesterday as it carried 19 people over ancient ruins near Luxor. The cause is believed to be a torn gas hose. In Egypt as in many other countries, balloon rides are a popular way to sightsee. (Read about unmanned flight in National Geographic magazine.)

The sport of hot-air ballooning dates to 1783, when a French balloon took to the skies with a sheep, a rooster, and a duck. Apparently, they landed safely. But throughout the history of the sport, there have been tragedies like the one in Egypt. (See pictures of personal-flight technology.)

1785: Pioneering balloonist Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and pilot Pierre Romain died when their balloon caught fire, possibly from a stray spark, and crashed during an attempt to cross the English Channel. They were the first to die in a balloon crash.

1923: Five balloonists participating in the Gordon Bennett Cup, a multi-day race that dates to 1906, were killed when lightning struck their balloons.

1924: Meteorologist C. LeRoy Meisinger and U.S. Army balloonist James T. Neely died after a lightning strike. They had set off from Scott Field in Illinois during a storm to study air pressure. Popular Mechanics dubbed them "martyrs of science."

1995: Tragedy strikes the Gordon Bennett Cup again. Belarusian forces shot down one of three balloons that drifted into their airspace from Poland. The two Americans on board died. The other balloonists were detained and fined for entering Belarus without a visa. (Read about modern explorers who take to the skies.)

1989: Two hot air balloons collided during a sightseeing trip near Alice Springs, Australia. One balloon crashed to the ground killing all 13 people on board. The pilot of the other balloon was sentenced to a two-year prison term for "committing a dangerous act." Until today, this was considered the most deadly balloon accident.

2012: A balloon hit a power line and caught fire in New Zealand, killing all 11 on board. Investigators later determined that the pilot was not licensed to fly and had not taken  proper safety measures during the crash, like triggering the balloon's parachute and deflation system.

2012: A sightseeing balloon carrying 32 people crashed and caught fire during a thunderstorm in the Ljubljana Marshes in Slovenia. Six died; many other passengers were injured.


Read More..

Inside Organized Retail Crime Raids












We used to call it shoplifting, but these days the foot soldiers of retail crime rings are known as boosters. Police even have an acronym for these operations: ORC, which stands for Organized Retail Crime.


"It's just like a Fortune 500 company," said Sergeant Eric Lee of the Gardena Police Department in Gardena, Calif. "All of this is just organized."


Watch the full story on "Nightline" TONIGHT at 12:35 a.m. ET


Police say big retail stores, from Walgreens to J.C. Penny, are getting hit by highly sophisticated shoplifting networks that steal and resell everything from underwear to razors to milk. According to the National Retail Federation, theft can amount to annual losses as high as a $37 billion for retail businesses.


"Every store in every city has to go through this," Lee said. "They wait until no one's paying attention and they walk out."


Tide detergent is currently a hot target because it is compact, expensive and easy to sell on the streets for profit, police said. The Street name: "liquid gold."


"Sometimes we get rings that just do alcohol," Lee said. "And then we get some that do just meat and seafood."


Investigators say boosters move the loot for cents on the dollar to fencing operations -- the black market resellers of the stolen goods -- which sell the stolen merchandise in plain sight in stores. Boosters, fencers, Mr. Bigs, all of those involved in these shoplifting operations can potentially make millions a year from boosting and re-selling stolen goods.








Craigslist Crackdown: Cops Go After Thieves Watch Video







And Mike Swett is on the case. A former Riverside County sheriff's deputy in Los Angeles, Swett was badly injured in a car wreck and now works as a full-time private investigator on the ORC beat who has worked with Target, Marshalls, T.J. Maxx. Stores hire him to do his own undercover police work, catching thieves before involving local law enforcement.


"Kind of like working a narcotics case, it's like you've got low-level, mid-level and then top dog," Swett said. "We like to go after the top dog and the only way to get to the top dog is mid-level first."


At his command center -- his apartment -- Swett showed off the boxes upon boxes of tapes and photographs he has collected, the fruits of countless silent stake-out hours.


Swett said he has been casing two joints in L.A. for months, both alleged to be mid-level fencing operations. "Nightline" was invited to ride along with him when he sent undercover agents in for a final reconnaissance mission.


At some stores and shopping malls, clerks do little to stop shoplifters and often let them run, which has contributed to the growing fencing operations.


"[The stores] don't want their employees to get injured," Swett said. "So oftentimes they will call the police, but by the time we get there they are already in their car and they are gone."


This leaves professional investigators like Swett to put the pieces together and bust open the gangs to lead over-stretched police departments to the prey.


When raid day arrived, a motorcade of squad cars departed from the Gardena, Calif., police department and pulled up to one fencing operation. Swett said the merchandise being sold was boosted goods.


"There is Victoria's Secret, expensive Victoria's Secret, the gift sets," he said, pointing down a line of tables. "J.C. Penny, Miramax, its real stuff not counterfeit."


He spotted a bottle of Katy Perry brand perfume, which usually retails for around $90 but one seller had it priced at $59.






Read More..

Today on New Scientist: 25 February 2013







First fruits of a groundbreaking art-science tie-up

A pioneering collaboration between two of London's most prestigious cultural institutions shows that sci-art has come of age



The great illusion of the self

Your mind's greatest trick is convincing you of your own reality. Discover the elaborate illusions involved and what they mean in our special feature



Stunning seeds: a biological meteor wreathed in flames

Some seeds have a look that evokes all-consuming fire, says an artist who captures their portraits with a flatbed scanner



Armband adds a twitch to gesture control

The Myo band turns electrical activity in the muscles of a user's forearm into gestures for controlling computers and other devices



Treat malware as biology to know it better

Treating computer viruses as a biological puzzle could help computer scientists get a better handle on the wide world of malware



Take my taxi to the moon

Susmita Mohanty, the founder of India's first private space company, Earth2Orbit, wants India to claim bigger piece of the space-launch pie



How electrodes in the brain block obsessive behaviour

Why deep brain stimulation can help people with OCD was a mystery, but now it seems the treatment fixes brain signalling well beyond the stimulated area



Ancient continent hides beneath Indian Ocean

The sands on Mauritius's beaches are older than the island itself, suggesting a hidden continent is the source



New blood test finds elusive fetal gene problem

Take parents' DNA and make a computer model of their fetus's genome - comparison with the real thing will show up problems that other tests miss



Amazon to open market in second-hand MP3s and e-books

A new market for second-hand digital downloads could let us hold virtual yard sales of our ever-growing piles of intangible possessions



People in a vegetative state may feel pain

Scans have revealed activity in areas of the brain responsible for the emotional aspects of pain in people thought to have no subjective awareness



Sewage solutions: Six alternative toilet technologies

Two-and-a-half billion people don't have access to sanitary toilets, but standard designs aren't an option without a sewer network. See some alternatives here



Rusty rocks reveal ancient origin of photosynthesis

Iron oxide in the world's oldest sedimentary rocks suggest photosynthesis evolved 370 million years earlier than we thought, not long after life began




Read More..

KFC cuts suppliers after China chicken scare






SHANGHAI: Fast food giant KFC has cut more than 1,000 farms from its supplier network in China to ensure food safety after a scandal over tainted chicken hurt sales in the key market last year.

The issue came to light when China's commercial hub of Shanghai and the northern province of Shanxi said in December that they were investigating KFC suppliers over claims of high levels of antibiotics in chicken.

The food scare caused a six percent fall in the China sales of KFC's parent Yum! Brands in the fourth quarter last year, deeper than its previous estimate of a four percent decline.

KFC will stop using chicken farms that have potential risk, improve the screening process of suppliers and step up self-inspections to address food safety concerns, the company said in a statement late Monday.

"It will always be our top priority to provide customers with the safest chicken with the best quality," Yum China's chairman and chief executive, Sam Su, said in the statement.

"We have seen some safety problems from the incident... and we aim to address the issue within the shortest time."

KFC also pledged to enhance communication with the government and the public, after the Chinese arm of Yum admitted last month that it failed to inform authorities about tests showing high levels of antibiotics in chicken.

Yum was aware of the issue through testing by a third-party in 2010 and 2011 but did not report to the authorities, the Shanghai government said in December.

China has seen several food safety incidents in recent years, including one of the biggest in 2008, when the industrial chemical melamine was found in dairy products which killed at least six babies and made 300,000 ill.

-AFP/sb



Read More..

Chicago could see 6 inches of snow in Tuesday storm









Abundant sunshine and temperatures close to 50 degrees in the past few days teased sober Midwestern sensibilities.


Encouraged perhaps by spring training photos, some people deliberately ventured outside. Some even hopped on bicycles for spins. Maybe they dared to think that spring could break a little early this year.


But on Tuesday morning, for the second time in less than a week, a blustery mix of freezing rain, sleet and snow is forecast to hit the Chicago area. Accumulations could reach 6 inches.








Sure, weather predictions being what they are around here, many will shrug off the warnings and be brazenly optimistic. But it might be best to recall the adage that those who ignore history are sure to be victimized by it.


Chicago has plenty of late-season snow history and, regardless of what materializes, the prudent will keep their salt dry, snow shovels handy and snowblowers primed for the next couple of months.


National Weather Service records from 2011 show that 54 of the previous 139 years — nearly 40 percent — experienced at least one day with an inch or more of snowfall on or after March 25. A total of 17 of those years brought multiple days with more than an inch of snow to Chicago.


One year, 1926, included six days when more than an inch of snow fell after March 25.


And, like some cruel trick, the later in the season the snow falls, the heavier and deadlier it tends to be. On the other hand, it also generally melts faster.


Among the grimmest of those late snowfalls was the deadly storm of April 15-17, 1961, when a rainy low-pressure system stalled and kept looping over the Chicago region. It transformed cold rain into nearly 7 inches of snow. Six people died from the storm's effects; four were victims of snow-shoveling heart attacks.


That storm remains the latest major snowfall of 6 inches or more in the Chicago area.


More recently, the area was hit with nearly 2 inches of snow on March 27, 2008. On March 29, 2009, 1.2 inches accumulated. A week later, more than 2 inches of snow fell.


Tuesday's forecast, which calls for heavier snow north of Interstate 80 and winds whipping up to 35 mph, weighed on Jason Marker's mind while he stood at the Downers Grove Metra station Monday.


"I have a job interview tomorrow," said Marker, 30, of Downers Grove. "It's going to be tough getting there because I have to ride my bike."


Still, he said the winter has been a moderate one so far, "but maybe it will catch up with us tomorrow."


Ashley Feuillan and Bernard Thomas, also of Downers Grove, will be commuting in opposite directions Tuesday morning. Thomas commutes to a job in Aurora, which he starts at 7 a.m. Feuillan hops the train to Columbia College Chicago three times a week.


Both said they plan to leave earlier Tuesday.


"I actually like the snow," said Feuillan, 24, "but it can be a hassle when you're trying to get someplace."


Rather than focusing on what could be a nasty storm, Thomas, 40, kept an upbeat perspective.


"It hasn't been a bad winter," he said. "We haven't really had any big snowstorms."


If the forecast is accurate, Jake Weimer could receive a little relief.





Read More..

Sharks Warn Off Predators By Wielding Light Sabers


Diminutive deep-sea sharks illuminate spines on their backs like light sabers to warn potential predators that they could get a sharp mouthful, a new study suggests.

Paradoxically, the sharks seem to produce light both to hide and to be conspicuous—a first in the world of glowing sharks. (See photos of other sea creatures that glow.)

"Three years ago we showed that velvet belly lanternsharks [(Etmopterus spinax)] are using counter-illumination," said lead study author Julien Claes, a biologist from Belgium's Catholic University of Louvain, by email.

In counter-illumination, the lanternsharks, like many deep-sea animals, light up their undersides in order to disguise their silhouette when seen from below. Brighter bellies blend in with the light filtering down from the surface. (Related: "Glowing Pygmy Shark Lights Up to Fade Away.")

Fishing the 2-foot-long (60-centimeter-long) lanternsharks up from Norwegian fjords and placing them in darkened aquarium tanks, the researchers noticed that not only do the sharks' bellies glow, but they also had glowing regions on their backs.

The sharks have two rows of light-emitting cells, called photophores, on either side of a fearsome spine on the front edges of their two dorsal fins.

Study co-author Jérôme Mallefet explained how handling the sharks and encountering their aggressive behavior hinted at the role these radiant spines play.

"Sometimes they flip around and try to hit you with their spines," said Mallefet, also from Belgium's Catholic University of Louvain. "So we thought maybe they are showing their weapon in the dark depths."

To investigate this idea, the authors analyzed the structure of the lanternshark spines and found that they were more translucent than other shark spines.

This allowed the spines to transmit around 10 percent of the light from the glowing photophores, the study said.

For Predators' Eyes Only

Based on the eyesight of various deep-sea animals, the researchers estimated that the sharks' glowing spines were visible from several meters away to predators that include harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena), and blackmouth catsharks (Galeus melastomus).

"The spine-associated bioluminescence has all the characteristics to play the right role as a warning sign," said Mallefet.

"It's a magnificent way to say 'hello, here I am, but beware I have spines,'" he added.

But these luminous warning signals wouldn't impede the sharks' pursuit of their favorite prey, Mueller's bristle-mouth fish (Maurolicus muelleri), the study suggested. These fish have poorer vision than the sharks' predators and may only spot the sharks' dorsal illuminations at much closer range.

For now, it remains a mystery how the sharks create and control the lights on their backs. The glowing dorsal fins could respond to the same hormones that control the belly lights, suggested Mallefet, but other factors may also be involved.

"MacGyver" of Bioluminescence

Several other species use bioluminescence as a warning signal, including marine snails (Hinea brasiliana), glowworms (Lampyris noctiluca) and millipedes (Motyxia spp.).

Edith Widder, a marinebiologist from the Ocean Research and Conservation Association who was not involved in the current study, previously discovered a jellyfish whose bioluminescence rubs off on attackers that get too close.

"It's like paint packages in money bags at banks," she explained.

"Any animal that was foolish enough to go after it," she added "gets smeared all over with glowing particles that make it easy prey for its predators."

Widder also points out that glowing deep-sea animals often put their abilities to diverse uses. (Watch: "Why Deep-Sea Creatures Glow.")

"There are many examples of animals using bioluminescence for a whole range of different functions," she said.

Mallefet agrees, joking that these sharks are the "MacGyver of bioluminescence."

"Just give light to this shark species and it will use it in any possible way."

And while Widder doesn't discount the warning signal theory, "another possibility would be that it could be to attract a mate."

Lead author Julien Claes added by email, "I also discovered during my PhD thesis that velvet belly lanternsharks have glowing organs on their sexual parts."

And that, he admits, "makes it very easy, even for a human, to distinguish male and female of this species in the dark!"

The glowing shark study appeared online in the February 21 edition of Scientific Reports.


Read More..

Take my taxi to the moon






















Susmita Mohanty, the founder of India’s first private space company, Earth2Orbit, wants India to claim bigger piece of the space-launch pie






















How active is India's space programme?
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which was founded in 1969, launches rockets, builds and uses satellites extensively for earthly applications and has recently started planetary exploration. It tested its first astronaut capsule for atmospheric re-entry in 2007, and is planning to build a residential astronaut training facility. ISRO is also planning a lunar lander mission for 2014 and will launch a mission to Mars this year.












How does your company, Earth2Orbit, fit in with this programme?
We want to commercialise India's space capabilities, in particular the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. It is one of the world's most reliable in its class. I want to make it the rocket of choice for international satellite-makers looking to get to low Earth or sun-synchronous orbits. India could build and launch up to six each year, but currently launches only two. We need to step up to full throttle. The same goes for satellites and ground equipment. Over the next decade or two, I think India should be aiming for at least a quarter of the multibillion-dollar global space market, if not more.












What do you think of the way spacecraft for carrying humans are currently designed?
The way the world aerospace industry is set up, it is closely linked to the defence sector – they share the technology, the tooling and the cumbersome contractual processes. Unlike commercial automobile or consumer-product companies, where the end user is the primary design driver, aerospace companies tend to please government customers. As a result, we often end up with over-engineered, under-designed crew craft with an exorbitant price tag.












How can we improve on these designs?
I want us to push the boundaries of technology and design and build intelligent spaceships – spaceships that think. Imagine if an international consortium of companies such as Apple, Samsung, Pininfarina, Space X and MIT Media Lab got together to design and build a spaceship! What would it look like? Could it think? Could it self-repair or self-clean? Would it challenge the crew?












The private sector is changing how we get into space. How has the X Prize contributed?
It created a tectonic shift in mindsets and showed how we can accelerate innovation in space exploration without having to spend taxpayer money. The first X Prize led to the first privately funded and designed spaceplane built by Burt Rutan. Then Richard Branson seized the opportunity: if all goes well, Virgin Galactic could fly more people to space in a year than the Russians or Americans have over the past 50 years!












What is next for space travel?
It barely takes 10 minutes to reach low Earth orbit. It probably takes longer for most urbanites to commute to work. I want to be able to "cab it" to low Earth orbit. I am dreaming of private astronaut taxis. The first generation will take paying passengers into orbit. The second generation will ferry us to the moon and Mars.












This article appeared in print under the headline "One minute with... Susmita Mohanty"




















Profile







Susmita Mohanty is CEO of Earth2Orbit, which recently launched its first client satellite. She has worked at NASA and Boeing, and holds a PhD in aerospace architecture











































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.




































All comments should respect the New Scientist House Rules. If you think a particular comment breaks these rules then please use the "Report" link in that comment to report it to us.


If you are having a technical problem posting a comment, please contact technical support.








Read More..