Kenyan elephant numbers plummet by 1000 in four years

IT'S a case of up then down for Kenya's second largest population of elephants. After a promising growth spurt, the elephants are now dying faster than they are being born. The decline is being blamed on illegal poaching, driven by Asia's demand for ivory.

The Kenya Wildlife Service recently conducted a census of the Samburu/Laikipia population, the country's second largest. It found that the population lost over 1000 elephants in just four years, and now stands at 6361. Previous censuses in 1992, 1998, 2002 and 2008 had revealed a growing population, which appears to have peaked at 7415 in 2008.

Poaching is suspected. A July report by three conservation groups found that it has been on the rise across Africa since 2006. Poaching is also spreading eastwards from central Africa into countries like Kenya, says Richard Thomas of TRAFFIC in Cambridge, UK, one of the three groups that drafted the report. The July report found that more than half of all elephants found dead in Africa in 2011 had been illegally killed.

The rise in poaching appears to be driven by increasing affluence in China and Thailand, where ivory is often used to make religious sculptures and other decorations.

Organised criminal gangs have capitalised on this increased demand. "If it's worth someone's while to smuggle the ivory, they'll take the risk," Thomas says. There is evidence that gangs are moving into Kenya to hunt elephants.

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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Italy's Monti to resign as premier

ROME: Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti is stepping down, the president's office announced Saturday, just hours after the man he replaced, Silvio Berlusconi, said he would run again for head of government.

Monti "does not think it possible to continue his mandate and consequently made clear his intention to present his resignation," said the statement from President Giorgio Napolitano's office.

The announcement came after Monti met with the president at the presidential palace for more than an hour. Already Friday, Monti had held talks with parliamentary political leaders, including Angelino Alfano, of Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party.

Monti would check to see if the various political parties were ready to approve the budget his government had advanced as soon as possible. But once that had been done, he would step down, said the statement.

Comments Alfano has made in parliament amounted to a declaration of no confidence in Monti's government and its policies, the statement added.

"We believe the experience of the Monti government is over, Alfano told parliament earlier this week. But he added that as the PDL wanted an "orderly conclusion" to the legislature, it would not try to bring down the government.

Monti's government had in any case been due to step down in spring next year. A general election had been expected in March or April, though the precise date has not been set.

But Berlusconi's right-wing PDL fired a shot across the government's bows on Thursday, twice abstaining from confidence votes in the government to protest Monti's policies.

Recent polls have suggested that the centre-left Democratic Party would win an election poll -- but not with an outright majority, forcing it to seek coalition partners. The party is now led by Luigi Bersani, who was voted into the post only last weekend.

Berlusconi meanwhile said in his statement earlier Saturday that he had opened talks with former coalition allies the Northern League to try to agree on backing a single candidate.

- AFP/fa

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Graphic details of Notorious B.I.G. murder revealed

Notorious B.I.G.
Notorious B.I.G. autopsy

The night rapper Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in one of L.A.'s most famous unsolved homicides he had no drugs or alcohol in his system, according to a Los Angeles County coroner's report unsealed Friday.

A coroner's medical examiner ran toxicology screens for alcohol, cocaine, codeine, morphine and methamphetamine with negative results for all.

The autopsy report has been on a security hold and sealed for more than 15 years, ever since the rapper was killed in a drive-by shooting in March 1997.

DOCUMENT: Read Notorious B.I.G.’s full autopsy

The report shows that although he was shot four times, it was a single bullet that ended his life. One of the bullets entered the rapper's right hip, and fatally pierced several organs.

Notorious B.I.G., whose real name was Christopher George Latore Wallace, was killed by an unknown assailant on Wilshire Boulevard as the music star sat in the front passenger seat of a Chevrolet Suburban. The killing of the rapper, also known as Biggie Smalls, remains unsolved despite an LAPD task force that examined the death.

According to the autopsy, one bullet struck Wallace's left forearm and traveled down to his wrist while a another bullet hit him in the back and exited his body through his left shoulder.  Another shot  hit his left thigh and traveled through to his inner thigh before glancing off his scrotum. None of those rounds were fatal.

Notorious B.I.G.: FBI investigation files

The fatal shot, according to Dr. Lisa Scheinin, entered his right hip before slicing through his colon, liver, heart and part of his lung before wedging in his left shoulder area.

Two medium-caliber bullets were recovered from the hospital gurney, according to the report.

At the time of his death, Wallace was one of the biggest stars in rap music. His slaying shocked the hip-hop community, coming just months after the Las Vegas slaying of another marquee rapper, Los Angeles-based Tupac Shakur.

Once friends, the rappers became rivals whose respective camps regularly traded violent barbs in song lyrics and in interviews. Shakur's slaying also remains unsolved.

Various theories have linked the two homicides. Some believe the two men were killed as part of a rivalry between East Coast and West Coast rappers, or between their two music labels at the time, Los Angeles-based Death Row and New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment.

Amid questions about the killing, the FBI investigated various theories, including one from a former LAPD detective, who later publicly suggested that Wallace may have been killed by a hit man hired by a corrupt ex-LAPD officer on behalf of Marion "Suge" Knight, the founder of Death Row Records.

The FBI opened its probe after Wallace's family accused the city of covering up LAPD involvement in the rapper's slaying. Los Angeles police officials last year said they exhaustively searched for answers in the case without an arrest.


Man finds $175,000 in pot in backyard, then things get weird

D.A. dismissed tennis umpire case without seeing defense report

35,000 rubber ducks in Santa, reindeer outfits seized at L.A. port

-- Richard Winton

Follow Richard Winton (@LACrimes) on Twitter and Google+

Photo: Notorious  B.I.G. accepts his award for rap artist and rap single of the year at the 1995 Billboard Music Awards in New York. Credit: Mark Lennihan / Associated Press

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Plants Grow Fine Without Gravity

When researchers sent plants to the International Space Station in 2010, the flora wasn't meant to be decorative. Instead, the seeds of these small, white flowers—called Arabidopsis thaliana—were the subject of an experiment to study how plant roots developed in a weightless environment.

Gravity is an important influence on root growth, but the scientists found that their space plants didn't need it to flourish. The research team from the University of Florida in Gainesville thinks this ability is related to a plant's inherent ability to orient itself as it grows. Seeds germinated on the International Space Station sprouted roots that behaved like they would on Earth—growing away from the seed to seek nutrients and water in exactly the same pattern observed with gravity. (Related: "Beyond Gravity.")

Since the flowers were orbiting some 220 miles (350 kilometers) above the Earth at the time, the NASA-funded experiment suggests that plants still retain an earthy instinct when they don't have gravity as a guide.

"The role of gravity in plant growth and development in terrestrial environments is well understood," said plant geneticist and study co-author Anna-Lisa Paul, with the University of Florida in Gainesville. "What is less well understood is how plants respond when you remove gravity." (See a video about plant growth.)

The new study revealed that "features of plant growth we thought were a result of gravity acting on plant cells and organs do not actually require gravity," she added.

Paul and her collaborator Robert Ferl, a plant biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, monitored their plants from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida using images sent from the space station every six hours.

Root Growth

Grown on a nutrient-rich gel in clear petri plates, the space flowers showed familiar root growth patterns such as "skewing," where roots slant progressively as they branch out.

"When we saw the first pictures come back from orbit and saw that we had most of the skewing phenomenon we were quite surprised," Paul said.

Researchers have always thought that skewing was the result of gravity's effects on how the root tip interacts with the surfaces it encounters as it grows, she added. But Paul and Ferl suspect that in the absence of gravity, other cues take over that enable the plant to direct its roots away from the seed and light-seeking shoot. Those cues could include moisture, nutrients, and light avoidance.

"Bottom line is that although plants 'know' that they are in a novel environment, they ultimately do just fine," Paul said.

The finding further boosts the prospect of cultivating food plants in space and, eventually, on other planets.

"There's really no impediment to growing plants in microgravity, such as on a long-term mission to Mars, or in reduced-gravity environments such as in specialized greenhouses on Mars or the moon," Paul said. (Related: "Alien Trees Would Bloom Black on Worlds With Double Stars.")

The study findings appear in the latest issue of the journal BMC Plant Biology.

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Egyptian military says only dialogue can avert disaster

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's military, stepping into a crisis pitting Islamist President Mohamed Mursi against opponents who accuse him of grabbing excessive power, said on Saturday only dialogue could avert "catastrophe".

State broadcasters interrupted their programs to read out an army statement telling feuding factions that a solution to the upheaval in the most populous Arab nation should not contradict "legitimacy and the rules of democracy".

That sounded like a swipe at protesters who have besieged the palace of the freely elected president and called for his removal, going beyond mainstream opposition demands for him to retract a decree that expanded his powers.

The statement also called for a "serious" national dialogue - perhaps one more credible than talks convened by Mursi on Saturday in the absence of opposition leaders. They insist he must first scrap his November 22 decree, defer next week's popular vote on a new constitution and allow the text to be revised.

Deep rifts have emerged over the destiny of a country of 83 million where the end of Hosni Mubarak's 30 years of military-backed one-man rule led to a messy army-led transition, during which the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies won two elections. Many Egyptians crave stability and economic recovery.

The spokesman for the main Islamist coalition demanded that the referendum go ahead on time on the constitution drafted by an Islamist-led assembly from which liberals had walked out.

The army, which ran Egypt for months after Mubarak fell in February 2011, again cast itself primarily as the neutral guarantor of the nation. A military source said there was no plan to retake control of the country or its turbulent streets.


"The armed forces affirm that dialogue is the best and only way to reach consensus," the statement said. "The opposite of that will bring us to a dark tunnel that will result in catastrophe and that is something we will not allow."

Mursi's office said the president opened his "national dialogue" with about 40 political and other public figures discussing "means to reach a solution to differences over the referendum...and the constitutional decree".

Prime Minister Hisham Kandil told an Egyptian television channel that the talks had led to creating a committee to review Mursi's November 22 decree and to work out legal ways to postpone the referendum. He said a new decree could be issued.

"All options are on the table to reach consensus," he said, adding that it was vital to take action to shore up Egypt's economy that has been battered by the turmoil.

The main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, which boycotted Mursi's dialogue repeated its call on Saturday for scrapping the decree and the referendum on the constitution.

Instability in Egypt worries the West, especially the United States, which has given Cairo billions of dollars in military and other aid since it made peace with Israel in 1979.

The army might be pushing the opposition to join dialogue and Mursi to do more to draw them in, said Hassan Abu Taleb of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

He discounted the chance of direct military intervention, adding: "They realize that interfering again in a situation of civil combat will squeeze them between two rocks."

However, the military did seem poised to take a more active role in security arrangements for the December 15 referendum.

A cabinet source said the cabinet had discussed reviving the army's ability to make arrests if it were called upon to back up police, who are normally in charge of election security.

According to the state-run daily al-Ahram, an expanded military security role might extend to the next parliamentary election and, at the president's discretion, even beyond that.

The army issued its statement while protesters were still camped out by the gates of the presidential palace.

The tens of thousands of Mursi foes who surged past tanks and barbed wire to reach the palace gates on Friday night had dispersed. But a hard core stayed overnight in a score of tents.


Some had spray-painted "Down with Mursi" on tanks of the elite Republican Guard posted there after clashes between rival groups killed at least seven people and wounded 350 this week.

Others draped the tanks with posters of Mursi and the word "Leave" scored across his face in red letters.

"We are no longer calling for scrapping the decree and delaying the referendum," Samir Fayez, a Christian protester at the palace, said. "We have one demand in five letters: leave."

Nearby, a Mursi supporter named Mohamed Hassan was quietly observing the scene. He suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood and its ultra-orthodox Salafi Islamist allies could easily overwhelm their foes if they chose to mobilize their base.

"The Brotherhood and Salafis by themselves are few but they have millions of supporters who are at home and haven't taken it to the streets yet," murmured the 40-year-old engineer.

The Muslim Brotherhood's supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, denounced opposition protests that have swirled around the walls of Mursi's palace, saying they "ruin legitimacy".

Badie said eight people, all of them Brotherhood members, had been killed this week and urged the interior minister to explain why police had failed to prevent assailants from torching the organization's headquarters and 28 other offices.

"Get angry with the Brotherhood and hate us as much as you like, but be reasonable and preserve Egypt's unity," he told a news conference. "We hope everyone gets back to dialogue."

The well-organized Brotherhood, which thrust Mursi from obscurity to power, remains his surest source of support.

(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair, Omar Fahmy and Yasmine Saleh; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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Today on New Scientist: 9 December 2012

Climate talks stumbling towards a deal

As the Qatar climate summit looks set to run into the weekend, we look at some key issues, such as compensation for poor countries harmed by climate change

Twin spacecraft map the mass of the man in the moon

Two satellites called Ebb and Flow have revealed the fine variations in the moon's surface with the most detailed gravity map ever

Just cut down on fat to shed weight

A review of studies involving 75,000 people shows that simply eating less fat made them lighter

North-east Japan quake rattles same fault as last year

A new quake off Japan's Pacific coast revives memories of 2011 tsunami; Fukushima nuclear power station "undamaged"

YouTube reorganises video with automated channels

Software that automatically classifies video into channels catering to specific interests is YouTube's latest ploy to become the future of television

A mathematician's magnificent failure to explain life

An attempt to explain life was career suicide for mathematician Dorothy Wrinch, we learn from Marjorie Senechal's biography I Died for Beauty

Parasite makes mice fearless by hijacking immune cells

The Toxoplasma parasite does its dirty work by getting immune cells to make a chemical normally found in the brain

'Specialist knowledge is useless and unhelpful' has turned data prediction into sport. People competing to solve problems are outclassing the specialists, says its president Jeremy Howard

Feedback: Numerical value of 'don't know'

The value of indifference, carbon-free sugar, scientists massacred in the nude, and more

Friday Illusion: 100-year-old quilt reveals 3D vortex

See a mind-bending effect crafted into a recently discovered quilt that changes depending on its colours and dimensions

Space-time waves may be hiding in dead star pulses

The first direct detection of gravitational waves may happen in 2013, if new studies of pulsars affected by galaxy mergers are correct

2012 Flash Fiction shortlist: Go D

From nearly 130 science-inspired stories, our judge Alice LaPlante has narrowed down a fantastic shortlist. Story five of five: Go D by Michael Rolfe

Captured: the moment photosynthesis changed the world

For the first time, geologists have found evidence of how modern photosynthesis evolved 2.4 billion years ago

Commute to work on the roller coaster train

A Japanese train based on a theme park ride could make getting around cleaner - and more fun

BSE infected cattle have prions in saliva

The discovery of tiny levels of prions in cow saliva might pave way for a test for BSE before symptoms develop, and raises questions about transmission

Space bigwigs offer billion-dollar private moon trips

Robots aren't the only ones heading to the moon. The Golden Spike Company will sell you a ticket whether you want to explore, mine or just show off

Human eye proteins detect red beyond red

Tweaking the structure of a protein found in the eye has given it the ability to react to red light that is normally unperceivable

Read More..

Oil slips amid concerns about demand for crude

NEW YORK: Oil prices slipped Friday as a dip in the US unemployment rate failed to allay skepticism about economic recovery in the United States and Europe and the strength of crude demand.

New York's main contract, West Texas Intermediate for delivery in January, finished at $85.93 a barrel, down 33 cents from Thursday's closing level.

In London trade, Brent North Sea crude for January fell one cent to $107.02

Oil prices were up initially following the release of US government data showing a surprise fall in the nation's unemployment rate to 7.7 per cent in November, its lowest level since December 2008.

"Of course the job report this morning was better than expected," said independent analyst Andy Lipow.

However, he added, there was some amount of skepticism about the impact of Superstorm Sandy, which hit the East Coast in late October and early November. In releasing its statistics, the Labour Department said the hurricane "did not substantively impact" the data.

"Other than that, there (is) still concern with some of the economic news that came out of Europe, notably regarding growth in Germany," he added.

"Those type of headlines continue to weigh on market sentiment."

Also dulling the economic outlook was the release of the University of Michigan consumer sentiment index, which declined to 74.5 from November's 82.7 -- the best level in five years.

The data is crucial for the oil market because the United States is the world's largest consumer of crude.

Market sentiment was also dampened somewhat after Germany's Bundesbank warned that the eurozone powerhouse could sink into recession early next year, but was well placed to rebound strongly.

The German central bank, in its latest updated twice-yearly forecasts, said there were "indications that economic activity may actually fall in the final quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013."

- AFP/fa

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Soccer coach who molested boys 'a vulture,' judge says

This post has been corrected. See note at bottom for details.

Luis Alberto PinedaAn Anaheim man who worked as a soccer coach and martial arts instructor was sentenced to 298 years in prison Thursday for sexually assaulting 11 of his young students, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office.

Luis Alberto Pineda, 31, was convicted last month of committing forcible sodomy and other lewd acts on children and teen-agers whom he met through his coaching jobs, the district attorney’s office said.

Pineda was an assistant instructor at Moo Yea Do Martial Arts in Fullerton between 2005 and 2010, and coached in the North Orange County Youth Soccer Premier League, the D.A. said.

Authorities said Pineda befriended his victims’ parents and won their trust, and sexually assaulted the children after games and practices, during outings to dinner or movies, and while driving them home from soccer or karate class.

“Rats don’t do this to their children,” Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard King said in imposing a sentence of 298 years to life in state prison. “Vultures don’t do this to their children.”

[For the Record, Dec. 6, 1:55 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Luis Pineda was sentenced to 285 years in prison. He was sentenced to 298 years.]


Northridge shooting victims identified as suspects await extradition

Woman assaulted, held captive in attic for two weeks, police say

Villaraigosa urges 'fiscal cliff' solution, defends Fix the Debt

-- Christopher Goffard

Photo: Luis Alberto Pineda. Credit: Orange County district attorney's office

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Pictures: Timbuktu Under al Qaeda


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Protesters surge around Egypt's presidential palace

CAIRO (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters surged around the presidential palace on Friday and the opposition rejected President Mohamed Mursi's call for dialogue to end a crisis that has polarized the nation and sparked deadly clashes.

The Islamist leader's deputy said he could delay a December 15 referendum on a constitution that liberals opposed, although the concession only partly meets a list of opposition demands that include scrapping a decree that expanded Mursi's powers.

"The people want the downfall of the regime" and "Leave, leave," crowds chanted after bursting through barbed wire barricades and climbing on tanks guarding the palace of Egypt's first freely elected president.

Their slogans echoed those used in a popular revolt that toppled Mursi's predecessor Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

Vice President Mahmoud Mekky said in a statement sent to local media that the president was prepared to postpone the referendum if that could be done without legal challenge.

The dialogue meeting was expected to go ahead on Saturday in the absence of most opposition factions. "Tomorrow everything will be on the table," a presidential source said of the talks.

The opposition has demanded that Mursi rescind a November 22 decree giving himself wide powers and delay the vote set for December 15 on a constitution drafted by an Islamist-led assembly which they say fails to meet the aspirations of all Egyptians.

The state news agency reported that the election committee had postponed the start of voting for Egyptians abroad until Wednesday, instead of Saturday as planned. It did not say whether this would affect the timing of voting in Egypt.

Ahmed Said, leader of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, told Reuters that delaying expatriate voting was made to seem like a concession but would not change the opposition's stance.

He said the core opposition demand was to freeze Mursi's decree and "to reconsider the formation and structure of the constituent assembly", not simply to postpone the referendum.

The opposition organized marches converging on the palace which elite Republican Guard units had ringed with tanks and barbed wire on Thursday after violence between supporters and opponents of Mursi killed seven people and wounded 350.

Islamists, who had obeyed a military order for demonstrators to leave the palace environs, held funerals on Friday at Cairo's al-Azhar mosque for six Mursi partisans who were among the dead. "With our blood and souls, we sacrifice to Islam," they chanted.


In a speech late on Thursday, Mursi had refused to retract his November 22 decree or cancel the referendum on the constitution, but offered talks on the way forward after the referendum.

The National Salvation Front, the main opposition coalition, said it would not join the dialogue. The Front's coordinator, Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate, dismissed the offer as "arm-twisting and imposition of a fait accompli".

Murad Ali, spokesman of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), said opposition reactions were sad: "What exit to this crisis do they have other than dialogue?" he asked.

Mursi's decree giving himself extra powers sparked the worst political crisis since he took office in June and set off renewed unrest that is dimming Egypt's hopes of stability and economic recovery after nearly two years of turmoil following the overthrow of Mubarak, a military-backed strongman.

The turmoil has exposed contrasting visions for Egypt, one held by Islamists, who were suppressed for decades by the army, and another by their rivals, who fear religious conservatives want to squeeze out other voices and restrict social freedoms.

Caught in the middle are many of Egypt's 83 million people who are desperate for an end to political turbulence threatening their precarious livelihoods in an economy under severe strain.

"We are so tired, by God," said Mohamed Ali, a laborer. "I did not vote for Mursi nor anyone else. I only care about bringing food to my family, but I haven't had work for a week."


A long political standoff will make it harder for Mursi's government to tackle the crushing budget deficit and stave off a balance of payments crisis. Austerity measures, especially cuts in costly fuel subsidies, seem inevitable to meet the terms of a $4.8-billion IMF loan that Egypt hopes to clinch this month.

U.S. President Barack Obama told Mursi on Thursday of his "deep concern" about casualties in this week's clashes and said "dialogue should occur without preconditions".

The upheaval in the most populous Arab nation worries the United States, which has given billions of dollars in military and other aid since Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979.

The conflict between Islamists and opponents who each believe the other is twisting the democratic rules to thwart them has poisoned the political atmosphere in Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood's spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, told Reuters that if the opposition shunned the dialogue "it shows that their intention is to remove Mursi from the presidency and not to cancel the decree or the constitution as they claim".

Ayman Mohamed, 29, a protester at the palace, said Mursi should scrap the draft constitution and heed popular demands.

"He is the president of the republic. He can't just work for the Muslim Brotherhood," Mohamed said of the eight-decade-old Islamist movement that propelled Mursi from obscurity to power.

(Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy; Writing by Edmund Blair and Alistair Lyon; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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Space bigwigs offer billion-dollar private moon trips

Robots aren't the only ones heading to the moon. The first private company offering regular trips to the lunar surface plans to start flights in 2020, shuttling people two at a time on exploratory missions. However, with an expected price tag of $1.4 billion per flight, or around $750 million per person, the trek would likely be out of reach for all but the wealthiest moonwalkers.

Today's announcement, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC backs up recent rumours that Alan Stern, a former administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, had founded a company called Golden Spike in Colorado to run commercial moon trips.

Named for the final spike driven into the first US transcontinental railroad line, Golden Spike plans to market to governments, corporations and individuals to routinely send people to the moon for scientific purposes, to mine for resources or simply for prestige.

"Why the moon? Because it's close, because it's enormous, and because we think that there's going to be a strong market for it," says Stern. No tickets have yet been sold. But preliminary talks with space agencies in Asia and Europe are underway, he adds. "We see our main market as selling expeditions to foreign space agencies."

In 2010 President Barack Obama scrapped NASA's Constellation program for sending astronauts to the moon. Shortly afterwards, Stern convened a secret meeting of heavy-hitters in the space industry in Telluride, Colorado, to discuss the possibility of a private lunar mission. A four-month feasibility study led to the company's quiet founding later that year.

Beyond robots

Golden Spike now has several experienced directors and advisors, including Gerry Griffin, former director of NASA's Johnson Spaceflight Center, and Wayne Hale, former chief of NASA's space shuttle programme. It also boasts some colourful characters: Newt Gingrich, a former US presidential candidate who previously championed a lunar colony, and Mike Okuda, a set designer for the Star Trek franchise, are also on the advisory panel.

"One thing you can say about Stern is that he knows the game," says William Whittaker, CEO of Astrobotic Technology, one of many teams competing to put a robot on the moon and win the $20-million Google Lunar X Prize. "As NASA's former science director, he had a favoured insider's perspective. He knows people."

Although several of the firm's directors have NASA experience, Golden Spike will be a purely private enterprise that will not seek government funding, Stern says. The plan is to purchase a rocket and a crew capsule from one or more of the other private space enterprises that have sprung up in recent years, such as SpaceX or Blue Origin.

Golden Spike has signed contracts to begin development of a lunar lander and space suits. Its first lunar mission is expected to cost the company between $7 and $8 billion. To help cover expenses, the company plans to merchandise each mission, for instance, by selling the naming rights for their spacecraft.

Meanwhile, Space Adventures of Arlington, Virginia says it is on track to send people on flights that would circle the moon starting in 2016 or 2017. The price for each flight is $300 million, or $150 million per seat. There are two seats available for the maiden voyage, and one has already been sold, spokesperson Stacey Tearne told New Scientist.

Fred Bourgeois, head of FREDNET, another Lunar X Prize team, worries that the idea of sending people to the moon on private ships is premature. "We need to prove some things with robotic systems first, so we don't put lives at risk," he says. "I would not get on a private mission to the moon today, even though I would love to go."

But Stern says he's confident that robots will get to the moon's surface long before the first Golden Spike flights at the end of the decade. Human beings, he says, will then be needed for activities beyond the capabilities of a robot – from doing field geology to maintaining mining equipment. Says Stern: "We need to start now in order to be ready for the next phase."

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ECB forecast cuts send oil lower

NEW YORK: Oil prices sank along with the euro Thursday after the European Central Bank forecast that the eurozone would continue to contract next year and only return to growth in 2014.

New York's main contract, WTI crude for delivery in January, recoiled $1.62 to $86.26 a barrel.

In London trade, Brent North Sea crude for January dived $1.78 to $107.03 a barrel.

The falls paralleled that of the euro, which sank about 0.8 percent after the ECB announcements following its policy board meeting.

In its regular quarterly staff economic projections, the ECB forecast that the euro area economy will shrink by 0.5 percent in 2012 and another 0.3 percent in 2013, instead of growing by 0.5 percent next year as previously estimated.

The Frankfurt-based central bank also opted not to cut its benchmark interest rate, but ECB chief Mario Draghi left the door open for one in the future.

"Crude oil extended its losses today on a combination of technical selling and growth concerns after the ECB trimmed its GDP forecasts for the eurozone," said analyst Fawad Razaqzada at trading group GFT Markets.

No break in the impasse over the fiscal cliff in Washington meanwhile kept a cloud over the oil market in afternoon trade.

Congress and the White House have until the end of the month to come up with new legislation to avert the harsh spending cuts and tax hikes programmed for January under the "cliff" package.


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Church volunteer had sex with kids he met at church school, police allege

Christopher Bryan McKenzieA well-known Orange County church has been roiled by allegations that a volunteer sexually assaulted children.

A Sunday school volunteer at Rock Harbor Church in Costa Mesa
allegedly formed relationships with children in his church and went on
to sexually abuse at least one of them multiple times between November
2009 and November 2011, according to church leaders and court documents.

Two families at Rock Harbor came forward with new allegations
against Christopher Bryan McKenzie, the pool cleaner accused of
years-long sexual relationships with at least three children younger
than 14, pastors said Monday night.

McKenzie, 48, of Costa Mesa, attended Rock Harbor and applied to be a
child-care volunteer at the 3,000-member campus in late 2007,
Communications Director Jeff Gideon said.

On Saturday, Newport Beach police announced
they had arrested McKenzie on suspicion of sexually abusing two boys,
one from the late 1990s to 2005 and one from 2005 to 2007. Neither had
ties to the church, police said.

At a Monday night meeting, Rock Harbor pastors announced two families from the congregation added allegations against McKenzie.

Lead Pastor Todd Proctor said the families approached Rock Harbor leadership after the announcement and were directed to police.

It's alleged McKenzie had substantial sexual conduct with one of the
children on at least three occasions, according to court documents.

In total, McKenzie is charged with inappropriate interaction with
four children. The fourth, who pastors said is also from Rock Harbor,
was allegedly used to distribute obscene material.

Pastors told congregants Monday that they don't believe McKenzie had
inappropriate contact with any children at the church or during a church
function. Volunteers are never allowed to be alone with children,
Proctor said.

However, he said, leaders believe McKenzie most likely met the
children and formed relationships with their parents at Rock Harbor
where he volunteered in a fifth-grade classroom for about five years.

At Rock Harbor, all child-care applicants are background checked,
screened on the Megan's Law website, must produce references and are
interviewed, leaders said.

McKenzie pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of
alcohol in 2007. Gideon said the team conducting a background check was
not informed of the incident. If a crime does appear on a volunteer’s
application, a committee weighs the severity and how much time has
elapsed, Gideon said.

McKenzie was ultimately granted approval to volunteer.

"Our kids probably had different levels of interaction with Chris,
and we need to recognize that," Proctor said, adding that he had spoken
to each of his three boys about the allegations. "One of my sons in
particular had way more exposure under Chris' leadership."

Throughout the meeting, pastors repeatedly encouraged parents to talk
to their children and contact police if they believe something
inappropriate occurred.

"It's all heartbreaking," Proctor said.

McKenzie was charged with 10 felony counts of lewd acts upon a child
younger than 14, four felony counts of using a minor for the
distribution of obscene matter, and two felony counts of distributing
pornography to a minor with sentencing enhancements for substantial
sexual conduct with a child and committing lewd acts upon a child
younger than 14 against more than one victim.

If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 45 years to life in state prison. He is being held on $1-million bail.


New litigation related to alleged lewd conduct at Miramonte

Officials blame leak, not explosion, for ammonia spill at Dole plant

More than 1,600 unidentified, unclaimed remains buried in Boyle Heights

--Jeremiah Dobruck, Times Community News

Photo: Christopher Bryan McKenzie. Credit: Daily Pilot

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High-Voltage DC Breakthrough Could Boost Renewable Energy

Patrick J. Kiger

Thomas Edison championed direct current, or DC, as a better mode for delivering electricity than alternating current, or AC. But the inventor of the light bulb lost the War of the Currents. Despite Edison's sometimes flamboyant efforts—at one point he electrocuted a Coney Island zoo elephant in an attempt to show the technology's hazards—AC is the primary way that electricity flows from power plants to homes and businesses everywhere. (Related Quiz: "What You Don't Know About Electricity")

But now, more than a century after Edison's misguided stunt, DC may be getting a measure of vindication.

An updated, high-voltage version of DC, called HVDC, is being touted as the transmission method of the future because of its ability to transmit current over very long distances with fewer losses than AC. And that trend may be accelerated by a new device called a hybrid HVDC breaker, which may make it possible to use DC on large power grids without the fear of catastrophic breakdown that stymied the technology in the past.  (See related photos: "World's Worst Power Outages.")

Swiss-based power technology and automation giant ABB, which developed the breaker, says it may also prove critical to the 21st century's transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, by tapping the full potential of massive wind farms and solar generating stations to provide electricity to distant cities.

So far, the device has been tested only in laboratories, but ABB's chief executive, Joe Hogan, touts the hybrid HVDC breaker as "a new chapter in the history of electrical engineering," and predicts that it will make possible the development of "the grid of the future"—that is, a massive, super-efficient network for distributing electricity that would interconnect not just nations but multiple continents. Outside experts aren't quite as grandiose, but they still see the breaker as an important breakthrough.

"I'm quite struck by the potential of this invention," says John Kassakian, an electrical engineering and computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "If it works on a large scale and is economical to use, it could be a substantial asset."

Going the Distance

The hybrid HVDC breaker may herald a new day for Edison's favored mode of electricity, in which current is transmitted in a constant flow in one direction, rather than in the back-and-forth bursts of AC. In the early 1890s, DC lost the so-called War of the Currents mostly because of the issue of long-distance transmission.

In Edison's time, because of losses due to electrical resistance, there wasn't an economical technology that would enable DC systems to transmit power over long distances. Edison did not see this as a drawback because he envisioned electric power plants in every neighborhood.

But his rivals in the pioneering era of electricity, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, instead touted AC, which could be sent long distances with fewer losses. AC's voltage, the amount of potential energy in the current (think of it as analogous to the pressure in a water line), could be stepped up and down easily through the use of transformers. That meant high-voltage AC could be transmitted long distances until it entered neighborhoods, where it would be transformed to safer low-voltage electricity.

Thanks to AC, smoke-belching, coal-burning generating plants could be built miles away from the homes and office buildings they powered. It was the idea that won the day, and became the basis for the proliferation of electric power systems across the United States and around the world.

But advances in transformer technology ultimately made it possible to transmit DC at higher voltages. The advantages of HVDC then became readily apparent. Compared to AC, HVDC is more efficient—a thousand-mile HVDC line carrying thousands of megawatts might lose 6 to 8 percent of its power, compared to 12 to 25 percent for a similar AC line. And HVDC would require fewer lines along a route. That made it better suited to places where electricity must be transmitted extraordinarily long distances from power plants to urban areas. It also is more efficient for underwater electricity transmission.

In recent years, companies such as ABB and Germany's Siemens have built a number of big HVDC transmission projects, like ABB's 940-kilometer (584-mile) line that went into service in 2004 to deliver power from China's massive Three Gorges hydroelectric plant to Guangdong province in the South. In the United States, Siemens for the first time ever installed a 500-kilovolt submarine cable, a 65-mile HVDC line, to take additional power from the Pennsylvania/New Jersey grid to power-hungry Long Island. (Related: "Can Hurricane Sandy Shed Light on Curbing Power Outages?") And the longest electric transmission line in the world, some 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles), is under construction by ABB now in Brazil: The Rio-Madeira HVDC project will link two new hydropower plants in the Amazon with São Paulo, the nation's main economic hub. (Related Pictures: "A River People Await an Amazon Dam")

But these projects all involved point-to-point electricity delivery. Some engineers began to envision the potential of branching out HVDC into "supergrids." Far-flung arrays of wind farms and solar installations could be tied together in giant networks. Because of its stability and low losses, HVDC could balance out the natural fluctuations in renewable energy in a way that AC never could. That could dramatically reduce the need for the constant base-load power of large coal or nuclear power plants.

The Need for a Breaker

Until now, however, such renewable energy solutions have faced at least one daunting obstacle. It's much trickier to regulate a DC grid, where current flows continuously, than it is with AC. "When you have a large grid and you have a lightning strike at one location, you need to be able to disconnect that section quickly and isolate the problem, or else bad things can happen to the rest of the grid," such as a catastrophic blackout, explains ABB chief technology officer Prith Banerjee. "But if you can disconnect quickly, the rest of the grid can go on working while you fix the problem." That's where HVDC hybrid breakers—basically, nondescript racks of circuitry inside a power station—could come in. The breaker combines a series of mechanical and electronic circuit-breaking devices, which redirect a surge in current and then shut it off.  ABB says the unit is capable of stopping a surge equivalent to the output of a one-gigawatt power plant, the sort that might provide power to 1 million U.S. homes or 2 million European homes, in significantly less time than the blink of an eye.

While ABB's new breaker still must be tested in actual power plants before it is deemed dependable enough for wide use, independent experts say it seems to represent an advance over previous efforts. (Siemens, an ABB competitor, reportedly also has been working to develop an advanced HVDC breaker.)

"I think this hybrid approach is a very good approach," says Narain Hingorani, a power-transmission researcher and consultant who is a fellow with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "There are other ways of doing the same thing, but they don't exist right now, and they may be more expensive."

Hingorani thinks the hybrid HVDC breakers could play an important role in building sprawling HVDC grids that could realize the potential of renewable energy sources. HVDC cables could be laid along the ocean floor to transmit electricity from floating wind farms that are dozens of mile offshore, far out of sight of coastal residents. HVDC lines equipped with hybrid breakers also would be much cheaper to bury than AC, because they require less insulation, Hingorani says.

For wind farms and solar installations in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions, HVDC cables could be run underground in environmentally sensitive areas, to avoid cluttering the landscape with transmission towers and overhead lines. "So far, we've been going after the low-hanging fruit, building them in places where it's easy to connect to the grid," he explains. "There are other places where you can get a lot of wind, but where it's going to take years to get permits for overhead lines—if you can get them at all—because the public is against it."

In other words, whether due to public preference to keep coal plants out of sight, or a desire to harness the force of remote offshore or mountain wind power, society is still seeking the least obtrusive way to deliver electricity long distances. That means that for the same reason Edison lost the War of the Currents at the end of the 19th century, his DC current may gain its opportunity (thanks to technological advances) to serve as the backbone of a cleaner 21st-century grid. (See related story: "The 21st Century Grid: Can we fix the infrastructure that powers our lives?")

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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Military halts clashes as political crisis grips Egypt

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's Republican Guard restored order around the presidential palace on Thursday after clashes killed seven people, but passions ran high in a contest over the country's future.

President Mohamed Mursi had been due to address the nation, but a presidential source said the Islamist leader, criticized by his opponents for his silence in the last few days, might speak on Friday instead. He did not explain the possible delay.

Mursi supporters withdrew before a mid-afternoon deadline set by the Republican Guard, an elite unit whose duties include protecting the palace. Opposition protesters remained, kept away by a barbed wire barricade guarded by tanks, and by evening their numbers had swelled to a few thousand.

The military played a big role in removing President Hosni Mubarak during last year's popular revolt, taking over to manage a transitional period, but had stayed out of the latest crisis.

Thousands of Mursi's Islamist partisans fought protesters well into Thursday's early hours during dueling demonstrations over the president's November 22 decree to expand his powers to help him push through a mostly Islamist-drafted constitution.

Officials said seven people were killed and 350 wounded in the violence, for which each side blamed the other. Six of the dead were Mursi supporters, the Muslim Brotherhood said.

The street clashes reflected a deep political divide in the most populous Arab nation, where contrasting visions of Islamists and their liberal rivals have complicated a struggle to embed democracy after Mubarak's 30 years of one-man rule.

The United States, worried about the stability of an Arab partner which has a peace deal with Israel and which receives $1.3 billion a year in U.S. military aid, has urged dialogue.

Prosecutors investigating the unrest said Brotherhood members had detained 49 wounded protesters and were refusing to release them to the authorities, the state news agency said.


The Brotherhood's spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan denied this, saying all "thugs" detained by members of the Islamist group had been handed over to the police or the Republican Guard.

Opposition factions called for mass protests after Friday prayers aimed at "the downfall of the militia regime", a dig at what they see as the Brotherhood's organized street muscle.

A communique from a leftist group urged protesters to gather at mosques and squares across Egypt, and to stage marches in Cairo and its sister city Giza converging on the presidential palace. "Egyptian blood is a red line," the communique said.

Hardline Islamist Salafis urged their supporters to protest against what they consider biased coverage of the crisis by some private Egyptian satellite television channels.

The commander of the Republican Guard said deployment of tanks and troop carriers around the presidential palace was intended to separate the adversaries, not to repress them.

"The armed forces, and at the forefront of them the Republican Guard, will not be used as a tool to oppress the demonstrators," General Mohamed Zaki told the state news agency.

Outside Cairo, supporters and opponents of Mursi clashed in his home town of Zagazig in the Nile Delta, state TV reported.

Egypt plunged into renewed turmoil after Mursi issued his November 22 decree and an Islamist-dominated assembly hastily approved a new constitution to go to a referendum on December 15.

Since then six of the president's advisers have resigned. Essam al-Amir, the director of state television, quit on Thursday, as did a Christian official working at the presidency.

The Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, to which Mursi belonged before he was narrowly elected president in June, appealed for unity. Divisions among Egyptians "only serve the nation's enemies", Mohamed Badie said in a statement.

Rival factions used rocks, petrol bombs and guns in the clashes around the presidential palace.


"We came here to support President Mursi and his decisions. He is the elected president of Egypt," said demonstrator Emad Abou Salem, 40. "He has legitimacy and nobody else does."

Opposition protester Ehab Nasser el-Din, 21, his head bandaged after being hit by a rock the day before, decried the Muslim Brotherhood's "grip on the country", which he said would only tighten if the new constitution is passed.

Mursi's opponents accuse him of seeking to create a new "dictatorship". The president says his actions were necessary to prevent courts still full of judges appointed by Mubarak from derailing a constitution vital for Egypt's political transition.

U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay urged the Egyptian authorities to protect peaceful protesters and prosecute anyone inciting violence, including politicians.

"The current government came to power on the back of similar protests and so should be particularly sensitive to the need to protect protesters' rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," Pillay said in Geneva.

The Islamists, who have dominated presidential and parliamentary elections since Mubarak was overthrown, are confident they can win the referendum and the parliamentary election to follow.

Mahmoud Hussein, the Brotherhood's secretary-general, said holding the plebiscite was the only way out of the crisis, dismissing the opposition as "remnants of the (Mubarak) regime, thugs and people working for foreign agendas".

As well as relying on his Brotherhood power base, Mursi may also tap into a popular yearning for stability and economic revival after almost two years of political turmoil.

Egypt's pound hit an eight-year low on Thursday, after previously firming on hopes that a $4.8 billion IMF loan would stabilise the economy. The stock market fell 4.6 percent.

Foreign exchange reserves fell by nearly $450 million to $15 billion in November, indicating that the Central Bank was still spending heavily to bolster the pound. The reserves stood at about $36 billion before the anti-Mubarak uprising.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Edmund Blair and Marwa Awad; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Peter Graff)

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Chemical key to cell division revealed

In each of our cells, most of the genetic material is packaged safely within the nucleus, which is protected by a double membrane. The biochemistry behind how this membrane transforms when cells divide has finally been unravelled, offering insights that could provide new ways of fighting cancer and some rare genetic disorders.

During cell division, the membrane that surrounds the nucleus breaks down and reforms in the two daughter cells. Researchers have been split on the precise mechanisms that govern membrane reformation. One view is that proteins alone control the membrane's transformations. Another possibility is that changes in lipids – a vast group of fat-related compounds – are responsible.

Experiments had failed to show which of these two ideas was right, because it was difficult to alter lipid levels in specific compartments of cells without affecting other cellular processes.

Banafshe Larijani at Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute and her colleagues have now overcome that hurdle. They came up with a technique that transforms a type of lipid called a diacylglycerol (DAG) into another lipid, within the nuclear membrane.

Chemical cascade

The technique involves inserting two fragments of DNA into the nucleus of a cell. This causes the cell to make two proteins: the first attaches itself to the nuclear membrane, the second floats around the cell. Adding a drug – rapalogue – to the mix causes the second protein to stick to the first, which in turn causes a chemical cascade that transforms the DAG into a different kind of lipid.

Crucially, they targeted a form of DAG that does not bind to proteins, so converting it into a different lipid does not affect any processes involving proteins in the cell.

The team tested the effect of this lipid manipulation on cell division in monkey and human cancer cells. The lower the level of DAG present in the nuclear membrane, the greater the membrane malformation and chance of cell death.

This demonstrates that lipids play a role in nuclear membrane reformation that does not depend on proteins.

Larijani says it "opens the door to finding ways to kill cancerous cells" by focusing on lipids that are important to the nuclear membrane's development.

Sausage pieces

As the nucleus divides, sausage-shaped fragments of its membrane float around the cell. The fragments have curved ends, and Larijani says that changes in lipid composition generate these curves, without which the fragments cannot reassemble correctly into new membranes.

More than a dozen rare genetic conditions such as Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, which is characterised by premature ageing in children, have been linked to irregularities in cell division. A better understanding of the way the nuclear membrane forms when cells divide could be key to treating these disorders.

The research also offers a new focus for preventing the irregular cell division that underlies many cancers.

"As a result of this work we now know with confidence that DAG plays a structural role in membrane dynamics," says Vytas Bankaitis, at the Texas A&M Health Science Center in College Station, who was not involved in the study. "If we could find a molecule with suitable characteristics, this manipulation could be done [in humans], which is something that has not really been considered before."

Journal reference: PLoS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051150

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Ferry to Tanjong Pinang stranded after hitting corals

SINGAPORE: A ferry travelling from Singapore to the Indonesia island of Tanjong Pinang was stranded after hitting corals on Wednesday evening.

Indonesian online media Batam Today reported the incident happened near Lobam island, in the Bintan region at about 6.50pm local time.

No casualties were reported. However, one passenger suffered head injuries and was sent to a nearby hospital. The remaining 97 passengers were evacuated to a port at Tanjung Uban via several Indonesian boats.

Local media reported that 13 of the passengers are Singaporean, with the rest being Indonesians.

The ferry, MV Sindo 31, left Singapore's Tanah Merah Terminal at 6.30pm Singapore time. After travelling more than an hour, the ferry suddenly stalled when it hit corals. At the time of reporting, the ferry was still stranded at that location.


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Man lived with dead girlfriend for months, faced murder charges

Devon Epps during a December 2011 court appearance.

A jury is being selected in Stockton to hear the murder case against a
man accused of living for months with his girlfriend's dead body.

Devon Epps was evicted from his apartment in December 2011. The next
day, when the apartment manager stopped by, they found a dead body in
the bathroom.

The body had been there for some time, authorities said.

Epps was arrested and then arraigned a few days later. At an earlier hearing, he yelled at a San Joaquin County judge, according to Fox 40.

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Giant Sequoias Grow Faster With Age

Aging giant sequoia trees are growing faster than ever, with some of the oldest and tallest trees producing more wood, on average, in old age than they did when they were younger. (Read about redwoods, another species of giant tree, in National Geographic magazine.)

A 2,000-year-old giant sequoia is just cranking out wood, said Steve Sillett, a professor at Humboldt State University in California and author of recent research on the big trees.

Other long-lived trees like coast redwoods and Australia's Eucalyptus regnans also show an increase in wood production during old age, according to the journal Forest Ecology and Management.

That may be because a tree's leaf area increases as its crown expands over a long life span. The leaves produce more sugars through photosynthesis, Sillett said, and these sugars build wood across a growing cambium, or the living surface separating bark and wood in trees.

"What we're finding," Sillett said, "is that the rate of wood production in some species doesn't slow down until a tree gets to the end of its lifetime."

Sequoias Active in Old Age

Sillett's team recently measured the President, a 3,200-year-old giant sequoia tree in California's Sequoia National Park. By climbing and measuring the tree, they calculated that the 247-foot-tall (75-meter-tall) giant holds more than 54,000 cubic feet (1,500 cubic meters) of wood and bark, earning it the ranking of second largest tree on Earth, as reported in National Geographic. (Watch video: Photographing the President.)

"Eventually every tree will suffer structural collapse and fall apart," said Sillett. "All Earthlings have finite life spans, but some trees live more than a thousand years without slowing down."

(Interactive gallery: The creatures that call giant sequoias home.)

Sillett is also co-leading the Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative group investigating how climate changes may affect tree growth. They've established long-term monitoring plots throughout the geographic ranges of both redwood species in California and have recorded growth histories of over a hundred trees.

Because the trees are still alive, Sillett said, they can go back to specific trees and evaluate predictions about their growth responses to climate variation.

"Annual rings provide a wonderful, long-term record of a tree's performance," Sillett said. "By studying a tree's rings, we can, in a sense, translate what it knows about the forest."

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Clashes erupt in Egypt despite proposal to end crisis

CAIRO (Reuters) - Islamists fought protesters outside the Egyptian president's palace on Wednesday, while inside the building his deputy proposed a way to end a crisis over a draft constitution that has split the most populous Arab nation.

Stones and petrol bombs flew between opposition protesters and supporters of President Mohamed Mursi, and the Interior Ministry said 32 people had been arrested and three police vehicles destroyed.

Two Islamists were hit in the legs by what their friends said were bullets fired during clashes in streets around the compound in northern Cairo. One of them was bleeding heavily. And a leftist group said Islamists had cut off the ear of one of its members.

Medical sources said 33 people had been wounded, but despite reports of fatalities, the Health Ministry said there had been no deaths.

Riot police were deployed between the two sides in Cairo to try to stop confrontations that flared after dark despite an attempt by Vice President Mahmoud Mekky to ease the crisis.

Mekky said amendments to disputed articles in the draft constitution could be agreed with the opposition. A written agreement could then be submitted to the next parliament, to be elected after a referendum on the constitution on December 15.

"There must be consensus," he told a news conference, saying opposition demands had to be respected to reach a solution.

Prime Minister Hisham Kandil called for calm to "give the opportunity" for efforts underway to start a national dialogue.

Facing the gravest crisis of his six-month-old tenure, Mursi has shown no sign of buckling to the protests, confident that Islamists can win the referendum and a parliamentary election to follow.

Many Egyptians yearn for an end to political upheaval that began with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and which has hurt the economy as investors and tourists have fled.

Protests spread to other cities, and offices of the Brotherhood's political party in Ismailia and Suez were torched.

Egypt's opposition coalition blamed Mursi for the violence and said it was ready for dialogue if the Islamist leader scrapped a decree he issued on November 22 that gave him wide powers and shielded his decisions from judicial review.


"We hold President Mursi and his government completely responsible for the violence happening in Egypt today," opposition coordinator Mohamed ElBaradei told a news conference.

"We are ready for dialogue if the constitutional decree is cancelled ... and the referendum on this constitution is postponed," he said of the document written by an Islamist-led assembly that the opposition says ignores its concerns.

But liberals, leftists, Christians, ex-Mubarak followers and others opposed to Mursi have yet to generate a mass movement or a grassroots base to challenge the Brotherhood, which has come out on top in two elections since Mubarak's overthrow.

"Today what is happening in the Egyptian street, polarisation and division, is something that could and is actually drawing us to violence and could draw us to something worse," said ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Opposition leaders have previously urged Mursi to retract the November 22 decree, defer the referendum and agree to revise the constitution, but have not echoed calls from street protesters for his overthrow and the "downfall of the regime".

Mursi has said his decree was needed to prevent courts still full of judges appointed by ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak from derailing a constitution vital for Egypt's political transition.

Earlier on Wednesday Islamist supporters of Mursi tore down tents erected outside the presidential palace by leftist foes who had begun a sit-in there.

"They hit us and destroyed our tents. Are you happy, Mursi? Aren't we Egyptians too?" asked protester Haitham Ahmed.

Mohamed Mohy, a pro-Mursi demonstrator who was filming the scene, said: "We are here to support our president and his decisions and save our country from traitors and agents."

Mekky said street mobilisation by both sides posed a "real danger" to Egypt. "If we do not put a stop to this phenomenon right away ... where are we headed? We must calm down."


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed into Egypt's political debate, saying dialogue was urgently needed on the new constitution, which should "respect the rights of all citizens".

Clinton and Mursi worked together last month to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip.

Washington is worried about rising Islamist power in Egypt, a staunch U.S. security partner under Mubarak, who preserved the U.S.-brokered peace treaty Cairo signed with Israel in 1979.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague called for restraint on all sides. He said Egypt's authorities had to make progress on the transition in an "inclusive manner" and urged dialogue.

The Muslim Brotherhood had summoned supporters to an open-ended demonstration at the presidential palace, a day after about 10,000 opposition protesters had encircled it for what organizers dubbed a "last warning" to Mursi.

State institutions, with the partial exception of the judiciary, have mostly fallen in behind Mursi.

The army, the muscle behind all previous Egyptian presidents in the republic's six-decade history, has gone back to barracks, having apparently lost its appetite to intervene in politics.

In August Mursi sacked Mubarak-era army commander and defense minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and removed the sweeping powers that the military council, which took over after Mubarak fell, had grabbed two months earlier.

Investors have seized on hopes that Egypt's turbulent transition, which has buffeted the economy for two years, may soon head for calmer waters, sending stocks 1.6 percent higher after a 3.5 percent rally on Tuesday.

Egypt has turned to the IMF for a $4.8 billion loan after the depletion of its foreign currency reserves. The government said on Wednesday the process was on track and its request would go to the IMF board as expected.

The board is due to review the facility on December 19.

Elijah Zarwan, a fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that if Egypt was to find a compromise solution to its crisis, it would not be through slogans and blows.

"It will be through quiet negotiation, not through dueling press conferences, street brawls, or civil strife," he said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Tamim Elyan; Writing by Alistair Lyon and Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Roche and Will Waterman)

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