Zebrafish made to grow pre-hands instead of fins

PERHAPS the little fish embryo shown here is dancing a jig because it has just discovered that it has legs instead of fins. Fossils show that limbs evolved from fins, but a new study shows how it may have happened, live in the lab.

Fernando Casares of the Spanish National Research Council and his colleagues injected zebrafish with the hoxd13 gene from a mouse. The protein that the gene codes for controls the development of autopods, a precursor to hands, feet and paws.

Zebrafish naturally carry hoxd13 but produce less of the protein than tetrapods - all four-limbed vertebrates and birds - do. Casares and his colleagues hoped that by injecting extra copies of the gene into the zebrafish embryos, some of their cells would make more of the protein.

One full day later, all of those fish whose cells had taken up the gene began to develop autopods instead of fins. They carried on growing for four days but then died (Cell, DOI: 10.1016/j.devcel.2012.10.015).

"Of course, we haven't been able to grow hands," says Casares. He speculates that hundreds of millions of years ago, the ancestors of tetrapods began expressing more hoxd13 for some reason and that this could have allowed them to evolve autopods.

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US police seek clues in school shooting

NEWTOWN, Connecticut: US police indicated on Saturday they are homing in on the mystery of what triggered the massacre of 20 children and six adults at a school by a young lone gunman.

Police have yet to make public the identities of the dead or almost any of the details of what happened inside Sandy Hook Elementary School just after classes started Friday.

The motives of the shooter, identified by US media as 20-year-old Adam Lanza, were the biggest mystery.

But Connecticut State Police spokesman Lieutenant Paul Vance said detectives in Newtown, a picturesque small town north-east of New York City, had begun to "peel back the onion."

Asked whether any suicide note, emails or other clues to the killer's mind had been found, he said the crime scene "did produce some very - very good evidence in our investigation."

"Investigators will be able to use (this) in hopefully painting the complete picture as to how and more importantly why this occurred," he told a news conference.

Bodies were removed from the blood-soaked school overnight Saturday and relatives were privately given formal identification of the dead.

In addition to the dead in the school, police found a woman's body in the house where Lanza and his mother were believed to have lived.

News reports quoted police saying she was Lanza's mother and that he'd shot her in the face before heading to the school, armed at least with two semi-automatic pistols and a military grade rifle - all registered in his mother's name.

At the school, where a black-clad Lanza concentrated his fire on just two rooms, the child victims were aged between five and 10. Among the dead adults were the school principal.

A new security system had been recently installed, but Vance said the shooter forced his way in to the school.

Police then entered from several points, breaking "many windows" as they frantically tried to get survivors out and to locate the gunman.

Mary Ann Jacob, who works in the school library, told reporters Saturday that she had sheltered 18 children during the mayhem.

"We were locked in our room," she said. "It was hard to keep them quiet. We told them it was a joke. I think they didn't really know what was going on."

Amid a flurry of rumours about how the murders played out, NBC reported that Lanza may have had an altercation earlier with four school staff, and that three of them were among the slain.

Late Friday, as darkness fell over the town, locals gathered for a church vigil, spilling onto the street in large numbers.

"This is a kind of community, when things like that happen, they really pull together," the priest, Robert Weiss, said during the Roman Catholic Mass.

A letter from Pope Benedict XVI was also read during the service.

The pope "has asked me to convey his heartfelt grief and the assurance of his closeness in prayer to the victims and their families, and to all affected by the shocking event," Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone said.

"Our faith is tested," state Governor Dan Malloy told the congregants. "Not just necessarily our faith in God, but our faith in community, and who we are, and what we collectively are."

President Barack Obama, wiping away tears and struggling to maintain his composure, said Friday he was aghast over the tragedy.

There were similar statements of grief and shock around the world.

The head of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, spoke of his "deep shock and horror," Britain's Queen Elizabeth II sent a message to Obama in which she said she was "deeply shocked and saddened," and French President Francois Hollande expressed his condolences to Obama, saying the news "horrified me."

Of all US campus shootings, the toll was second only to the 32 murders in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech university.

The latest number far exceeded the 15 killed in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, which triggered a fierce but inconclusive debate about the United States' relaxed gun control laws.

However, the White House on Friday scotched any suggestion that the politically explosive subject would be quickly reopened.

- AFP/de

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Actor decapitated student, killed girlfriend, DA alleges

Image: Family photo of Samuel Herr taken in  2009. Credit: Handout

Clinging to keepsakes and memories more than two years after their
children were killed, the parents of two slain Orange Coast College
students say the pain of reliving the details of their deaths in court
can't match their desire for justice.

On Thursday, the families of Juri "Julie" Kibuishi, 23, and Samuel Herr, 26, sat in Orange County Superior Court
for a preliminary hearing to determine whether prosecutors could move
forward with charges of accessory after the fact against Rachel Buffett,
25, the then-fiancee of alleged killer Daniel Patrick Wozniak. Buffett is accused of helping Wozniak by lying to police after the crime.

The victims' families said that in spite of media attention garnered by the prosecution of Buffett,  who has claimed innocence of murder charges, they trust the legal system to do its job.

"We're not detectives," said Kibuishi's mother, June Kibuishi, expressing her faith in Deputy Dist. Atty. Matt Murphy. "We just want the truth."

"We're here to support Matt Murphy, the Costa Mesa Police Department
and the Orange County D.A.," said Samuel's father, Steve Herr.

Asked how he felt, Herr replied with a tired sigh. "How do you feel every day in court?"

Kibuishi said it never gets easier.

During a recess in the lengthy and at times gruesome hearing, Kibuishi tugged at a silver ring that had belonged to her daughter hanging on a chain around her neck.

"This is the only thing that we got back after it happened," she
said. "And a necklace in a little envelope. I wasn't able to see her
until the day before the service. And then we found out what happened to
Sam. Just .... " She shook her head.

"It doesn't make any sense to me," Kibuishi said. "My daughter was
not at the wrong place at the wrong time. She was used. She thought she
was helping out a friend."

Julie Kibuishi, police say, was Costa Mesa actor Wozniak's second victim.

On the afternoon of May 21, 2010, Wozniak shot and killed Herr, his upstairs neighbor, and then dismembered his body, prosecutors say. Wozniak, 28, a community theater actor, then allegedly lured Kibuishi, Herr's friend and tutor, to Herr's apartment.

When she arrived, prosecutors say Wozniak shot her and then staged her body to look as though Herr had sexually assaulted her.

To lure Kibuishi to her death, prosecutors say, Wozniak posed as Herr, using Herr's cellphone to send text messages telling her that
he was having family problems and wanted to talk to someone he could

Buffett is accused of making misleading statements to detectives investigating the slayings, including an allegedly fictitious third man who was involved in the crime. The judge Friday ultimately found there was enough evidence to move forward with the case against Buffett, but said it would be a tough case for prosecutors.


Helping children cope with Connecticut shooting

Maligned UC logo shelved; 'time to move on,' official says

Jenni Rivera vigil keeps growing as family plans memorial

-- Jill Cowan, Times Community News

Photo: Samuel Herr. Credit: Family photo

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Space Pictures This Week: Frosty Mars, Mini Nile, More

Photograph by Mike Theiss, National Geographic

The aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, illuminates the Arctic sky in a recent picture by National Geographic photographer Mike Theiss.

A storm chaser by trade, Theiss is in the Arctic Circle on an expedition to photograph auroras, which result from collisions between charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere and gaseous particles in Earth's atmosphere.

After one particularly amazing show, he wrote on YouTube, "The lights were dancing, rolling, and twisting, and at times looked like they were close enough to touch!" (Watch his time-lapse video of the northern lights.)

Published December 14, 2012

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Egyptians vote on divisive constitution

CAIRO/ALEXANDRIA (Reuters) - Egyptians queued in long lines on Saturday to vote on a constitution promoted by its Islamist backers as the way out of a political crisis and rejected by opponents as a recipe for further divisions in the Arab world's biggest nation.

Soldiers joined police to secure the referendum after deadly protests during the buildup. Street brawls erupted again on Friday in Alexandria, Egypt's second city, but voting proceeded quietly there, with no reports of violence elsewhere.

President Mohamed Mursi provoked angry demonstrations when he issued a decree last month expanding his powers and then fast-tracked the draft constitution through an assembly dominated by his Muslim Brotherhood group and its allies. At least eight people were killed in clashes last week outside the presidential palace.

His liberal, secular and Christian opponents says the constitution is too Islamist and tramples on minority rights. Mursi's supporters say the charter is needed if progress is to be made towards democracy nearly two years after the fall of military-backed strongman Hosni Mubarak.

"The sheikhs (preachers) told us to say 'yes' and I have read the constitution and I liked it," said Adel Imam, a 53-year-old queuing to vote in a Cairo suburb. "The country will move on."

Opposition politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on Twitter: "Adoption of (a) divisive draft constitution that violates universal values and freedoms is a sure way to institutionalize instability and turmoil."

Official results will not be announced until after a second round of voting next Saturday. But partial results and unofficial tallies are likely to emerge soon after the first round, giving some idea of the outcome.

In order to pass, the constitution must be approved by more than 50 percent of voters who cast ballots. A little more than half of Egypt's electorate of 51 million are eligible to vote in the first round in Cairo and other cities.

Rights groups reported some abuses, such as polling stations opening late, officials telling people to vote "yes", bribery and intimidation.

But Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, which is monitoring the vote, said nothing reported so far was serious enough to invalidate the referendum.

"Until now, there is no talk of vote rigging," said Eid.


Christians, making up about 10 percent of Egypt's 83 million people and who have long grumbled of discrimination, were among those waiting at a polling station in Alexandria to oppose the basic law. They fear Islamists, long repressed by Mubarak, will restrict social and other freedoms.

"I voted 'no' to the constitution out of patriotic duty," said Michael Nour, a 45-year-old Christian teacher in Alexandria. "The constitution does not represent all Egyptians."

Howaida Abdel Azeem, a post office employee, said: "I said 'yes' because I want the destruction the country is living through to be over and the crisis to pass, and then we can fix things later."

Islamists are counting on their disciplined ranks of supporters and the many Egyptians who may fall into line in the hope of ending turmoil that has hammered the economy and sent Egypt's pound to eight-year lows against the dollar.

Mursi was among the early voters after polls opened at 8 a.m. (1:00 a.m. Eastern Time). He was shown on television casting his ballot shielded by a screen and then dipping his finger in ink - a measure to prevent people voting twice.

Turnout was high enough for voting on Saturday to be extended by four hours to 11 p.m. (4 p.m. Eastern Time). One senior official on the committee overseeing the referendum said Saturday's vote could continue on Sunday if crowds were too heavy to allow everyone to cast ballots in one day. Voting for Egyptians abroad that began on Wednesday has been extended to Monday, the state news agency reported.

After weeks of turbulence, there has been limited public campaigning. Opposition politicians and parties, beaten in two elections since Mubarak's overthrow, only announced on Wednesday that they backed a "no" vote instead of a boycott.


The second round will be held in other regions on December 22 because there are not enough judges willing to monitor all polling stations after some said they would boycott the vote.

Egyptians are being asked to accept or reject a constitution that must be in place before a parliamentary election can be held next year to replace an Islamist-led parliament dissolved in June. Many hope this will lead Egypt towards stability.

If the constitution is voted down, a new assembly will have to be formed to draft a revised version, a process that could take up to nine months.

The army has deployed about 120,000 troops and 6,000 tanks and armored vehicles to protect polling stations and other government buildings. While the military backed Mubarak and his predecessors, it has not intervened in the present crisis.

(Writing by Edmund Blair and Giles Elgood; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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Today on New Scientist: 14 December 2012

Global cuteness increased by discovery of new loris

Three new species of Bornean slow loris have been discovered, quadrupling the world's cuteness index

Time-travelling 3D tour shows birth of Eiffel Tower

Watch an ultra-realistic 3D reconstruction that lets you experience Paris through the ages

Warning, speedsters: you can't fool quantum radar

A technique borrowed from quantum cryptography could make it impossible to spoof military and police radar systems

Leaked IPCC report reaffirms dangerous climate change

Despite claims to the contrary, a leaked draft of next year's IPCC report on climate does not let us off the hook by blaming warming on the sun

Satellite upgrade should let planes slash emissions

Air traffic controllers will know exactly where planes are and could direct them to fly closer together along the best flight paths

Looks like we've got allergies all wrong

From pollen to peanuts, we humans are an allergic lot. So could it be that allergies serve an evolutionary purpose, ask Noah Palm and Ruslan Medzhitov

Mysterious star deaths are really mergers in disguise

A star that appeared to explode this year might actually have merged with another massive star - shedding light on the chemical make-up of the universe

Feedback: Healthscare insurance

The palaeontological love of poo, healthscare insurance, a fat-free cream conundrum, and more

AI designer learns to build games from scratch

An artificially intelligent video game designer, Angelina, has built a new festive game by adopting bits of existing games and tweaking its own early attempts

The end of race history? Not yet

Two books illuminate how ideas of a post-racial world conflict with ongoing use of race in science, says Osagie K. Obasogie

Touchpad steering wheel keeps eyes on the road

A head-up screen and a touchpad allow drivers to flick controls without having to look down at the dashboard or satnav

Permian mass extinction triggered by humble microbe

Was it a volcano? Was it a meterorite? No, a humble microbe wiped out 90 per cent of Earth's species 251 million years ago

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Football: Runaway Bayern go 12 clear despite Gladbach draw

BERLIN: Runaway leaders Bayern Munich needed a second-half equaliser to snatch a point in a 1-1 draw at home to Borussia Moenchengladbach on Friday in their final Bundesliga match of 2012.

The draw left Bayern 12 points clear of the chasing pack, who are all in action during the rest of the weekend's programme, while 'Gladbach move up to sixth.

"The team fought hard, they gave everything and we're happy to take that point at home," said Bayern's director of sport Matthias Sammer.

Having already opened the season with a record eight straight wins, Bayern are hoping to finish the weekend with another achievement as they look to break Borussia Dortmund's record 10-point lead at the halfway stage.

Bayern hammered 'Gladbach's goal, enjoying 65 percent ball possession, and finished with 25 shots on goal, compared to their guests' five.

After Gladbach claimed a half-time lead through a Thorben Marx penalty, Bayern battered their visitors' goal and the torrent of chances finally paid off when Swiss star Xherdan Shaqiri equalised with half an hour left.

Gladbach took the lead when Bayern defender Jerome Boateng leapt to block a cross from midfielder Tolga Cigerci and the ball struck his hand.

Referee Tobias Welz immediately pointed to the spot, despite furious protestations from Germany star Boateng, and Marx slammed home the 21st-minute penalty.

"I don't know how the referee could class that as a penalty," fumed Boateng.

"I seriously don't think it was justified.

"I think we deserved to win."

The goal came against the run of play and took the wind out of Bayern's sails and it looked like history was about to repeat itself after Gladbach had poached a 1-0 win in Munich on their previous visit in August 2011.

Things refused to go the hosts' way in the first-half as defender Dante headed over while winger Franck Ribery had a shot saved.

Adding injury to insult, defensive midfielder Javi Martinez went off with a facial injury from a stray elbow as Gladbach goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen pulled off a string of superb saves.

Bayern attacked in waves in the first-half with 11 shots on target compared to the guests' single attempt.

Only another fine ter Stegen save denied Bastian Schweinsteiger early in the second-half, but the Gladbach defence was finally beaten following a mistake by Cigerci.

His badly-timed pass was snapped up by Shaqiri, who levelled on 59 minutes.

Bayern kept up the pressure as the minutes ticked down, but Gladbach's defence held firm, despite Bayern's 14 corners, to leave Lucien Favre's team unbeaten in their last seven games.

Leverkusen can trim Bayern's lead back to nine points if they win at home to Hamburg on Saturday.


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Man sought to videotape girlfriend's murder for Christmas, DA says

ChristmasA south Orange County man who solicited his ex-girlfriend's murder and asked that the killing be videotaped so he could watch it on Christmas was sentenced Thursday to 31 years to life in state prison.

Mark Alan Jarosik, a Ladera Ranch resident, was in custody at the time of the murder solicitation, being held on suspicion of raping his former girlfriend.

Jarosik, 46, was found guilty in October of forcible rape, solicitation to commit murder and attempted murder with premeditation and deliberation, according to the Orange County district attorney's office.

Prosecutors said Jarosik went to the Ladera Ranch home of his 41-year-old ex-girlfriend in May 2009 to use her computer. They had broken up a month before, after living together and dating for several years.

The woman was at dinner with friends and when she returned, prosecutors said, the two got into an argument. The woman allegedly thought Jarosik had been spying on her, driving past the restaurant where she had been having dinner.

Prosecutors said the argument escalated into a physical and sexual assault, with Jarosik raping the woman.

On May 16, 2009, the incident was reported to law enforcement, and within days, prosecutors had filed rape charges. Jarosik was held in lieu of $100,000 bail. 

A protective order was issued requiring him -- should he make bail -- to stay more than 200 yards away from the woman at all times and forbidding any contact, directly or through a third party.

But after he posted bail, prosecutors said, Jarosik attempted to break into the woman's home. The woman's two children saw a hand come through a window near the front door of the house and screamed, and Jarosik fled.

The next morning, prosecutors said, Jarosik violated the protective order, attacking the woman outside her home. He pushed her to the ground, punched her in the face and banged her head against the curb, according to prosecutors.

Neighbors who witnessed the attack pulled Jarosik off of her, called authorities and pinned him down until police arrived. The woman was left in serious condition with a concussion and lacerations to the head.

While he was in custody at the Orange County Jail, prosecutors said, Jarosik asked another inmate to have a relative murder the woman, requesting that he have it videotaped.

The solicitation was never carried out.


State appellate court backs release of Scouts' 'perversion files'

Pilot's death in Burbank due to natural causes, authorities say

Ex-reserve deputy, security firm owner is convicted in fraud case

-- Rick Rojas and Richard Winton

Photo: Mark Alan Jarosik. Credit: Orange County District Attorney.

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Space Pictures This Week: Frosty Mars, Mini Nile, More

Photograph by Mike Theiss, National Geographic

The aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, illuminates the Arctic sky in a recent picture by National Geographic photographer Mike Theiss.

A storm chaser by trade, Theiss is in the Arctic Circle on an expedition to photograph auroras, which result from collisions between charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere and gaseous particles in Earth's atmosphere.

After one particularly amazing show, he wrote on YouTube, "The lights were dancing, rolling, and twisting, and at times looked like they were close enough to touch!" (Watch his time-lapse video of the northern lights.)

Published December 14, 2012

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U.S., rebels urge gloomy Moscow to help oust Assad

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria's rebel leadership and the United States seized on Russian pessimism over President Bashar al-Assad's future to urge Moscow to help push its ally into ceding power and end the battles closing in around his capital.

"We want to commend the Russian government for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime's days are numbered," the U.S. State Department spokeswoman said after a senior Kremlin envoy conceded publicly on Thursday that Assad's opponents could win the 20-month-old civil war.

"The question now is, will the Russian government join those of us in the international community who are working with the opposition to try to have a smooth democratic transition?" U.S. spokeswoman Victoria Nuland added in Washington.

In Marrakech, where his new coalition won recognition from other international powers as the legitimate leadership of Syria, rebel political leader Mouaz al-Khatib said he believed Russia, ally and arms supplier to the Assad dynasty since Soviet times, was looking for ways out of its support for a lost cause.

"I believe that the Russians have woken up and are sensing that they have implicated themselves with this regime, but they don't know how to get out," al-Khatib told Reuters. He held them "particularly responsible" for helping Assad with arms but said Moscow need not "lose everything" in Syria if it changed tack.

Under President Vladimir Putin, wary since last year's Libyan war of what Russia sees as a Western drive to use the United Nations to overthrow national leaders it dislikes, Russia has blocked U.N. efforts to squeeze Assad, who has also had strong support from his long-time sponsor Iran.

But Mikhail Bogdanov, a deputy foreign minister and the Kremlin's special envoy for Middle East affairs, was quoted as saying in Moscow: "One must look the facts in the face."

"Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out." The Syrian government, he said, was "losing control of more and more territory" and Moscow was preparing to evacuate Russian citizens if necessary.

Nuland said Bogdanov's comments demonstrated that Moscow now "sees the writing on the wall" on Syria and said Russia should now rally behind U.N. efforts to prevent a wider bloodbath.

"They can withdraw any residual support for the Assad regime, whether it is material support (or) financial support," she said. "They can also help us to identify people who might be willing, inside of Syria, to work on a transitional structure."


International envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who has met Russian and U.S. officials twice in the past week, is seeking a solution based on an agreement reached in Geneva in June that called for the creation of a transitional government in Syria.

But Russia has repeated warnings that recognition of al-Khatib's coalition, notably by the United States, is undermining diplomacy, and rejected U.S. contentions that the Geneva agreement sent a clear message that Assad should step down.

Nuland said the Brahimi meetings could lay the framework for a political structure to follow Assad:

"We've said all along to the Russians that we are concerned that the longer that this goes on, and the longer it takes us to get to an alternative political path for Syria, the only path is going to be the military one and that is just going to bring more violence.

"We all ought to be working together."

Bogdanov, whose government has suggested that Assad himself should be allowed to see through a transition he has promised, suggested the rebels and their allies were set on a military solution and he gave little hint of detente with Washington.

"The fighting will become even more intense and (Syria) will lose tens of thousands and, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of civilians," Bogdanov was quoted as saying. "If such a price for the removal of the president seems acceptable to you, what can we do? We, of course, consider it absolutely unacceptable."

The head of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said elsewhere: "I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse."

A U.S. official said: "Assad probably still believes that Syria is his and illusions can die hard. But Assad and those closest to him have got to be feeling the psychological strain of fighting a long war that is not going their way."


But Al-Khatib, who played down Western concerns of sectarian Sunni Islamists in rebel ranks, warned that the fighting was far from over, even as it has begun to rattle the heart of Assad's power in Damascus. On Wednesday, a car bomb killed at least 16 people in a nearby town which is home to many military families.

"The noose is tightening around the regime," al-Khatib said.

"(But) the regime still has power. People think that the regime is finished, but it still has power left, but it is demoralized and however long it lasted its end is clear."

Day and night, Damascenes can hear the thunderous sound of bombardment aimed at rebel-held and contested neighborhoods.

The city's streets have now turned into a labyrinth of checkpoints and road blocks, with several major roads permanently closed off to traffic by concrete barriers.

"We escape from one place and trouble follows," said one grandmother, Um Hassan, as she described to Reuters her family's flight from one neighborhood to another as fighting seeps into the capital. "I don't know where we can keep running to."

Nonetheless, al-Khatib played down demands for their allies to provide heavier weaponry - a request long resisted by governments wary of anti-aircraft missiles and other hardware reaching Islamist rebels who might turn them against the West.

"The Syrian people ... no longer need international forces to protect them," he said, not specifying whether he meant a no-fly zone, arms supplies or other military support.

The opposition chief said he was willing to listen to proposals for Assad to escape with his life - "The best thing is that he steps down and stops drinking the blood of the Syrian people" - and outlined three scenarios for a change of power:

Al-Khatib ruled out the Russian proposal suggesting Assad hand over power to a transitional government while remaining president, saying it was "disgraceful for a slaughtered nation to accept to have a killer and criminal at its head".

The British-based Syrian Observatory said war planes bombed rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus on Thursday and artillery was hitting Daraya and Moadamiyeh, southwestern areas near the centre where rebels have been fighting for a foothold.

Syria has relied on war planes and helicopters to bombard rebel districts but Damascus denied accusations by U.S. and NATO officials that it had fired Scud missiles in recent days. The foreign ministry said the long-range missiles were not used against "terrorist groups," a term it uses for the rebels.

At least 40,000 people have been killed in Syria's uprising, which started in March 2011 with street protests which were met with gunfire by Assad's security forces, and which spiraled into the most enduring and destructive of the Arab revolts.

(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Michael Roddy) For an interactive look at the uprising in Syria, please click on http://link.reuters.com/rut37s

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Today on New Scientist: 13 December 2012

Violent beauty at the end of an Alaskan glacier

You can almost hear the crash of ice on water in this stunning image of an ice sheet calving off the Chenega glacier in Alaska

Overeating now bigger global problem than lack of food

The most comprehensive disease report ever produced confirms that, for the first time, there is a larger health problem from people eating too much than too little

In search of the world's oldest cave etching

Strange markings on the walls of a cave in Australia's vast Nullarbor Plain could have been a tactile code for ancient Aboriginal flint miners

Higgs boson having an identity crisis

Six months on from its announcement, the mass and decay rates of the particle thought to be the Higgs boson are proving hard to pin down

Go forth and print: 3D objects you can print yourself

We pick our favourite objects to 3D-print, including a mathematical cookie cutter, a wormhole and a New Scientist holiday tree ornament inspired by fractals

Laser drills could relight geothermal energy dreams

High-powered lasers that can drill through igneous rocks may make reaching oil and geothermal sources much easier

Robots should be cleaning your home

Tech investor Dmitri Grishin explains why the time is right for sleek, versatile robots that will be our everyday helpers rather than factory equipment

Welcome to the personal drone revolution

Sophisticated, affordable drones could soon be so commonplace that they will become our personal servants, says Michael Brooks

Finding dangerous asteroids, before they find us

Near-Earth Objects: Finding them before they find us by Donald Yeomans is a fascinating tour guide of the asteroids we should worry about

World's loneliest bug turns up in Death Valley

A microbe that survives deep below Earth's surface without the sun's energy has reappeared, in California

Search for aliens poses game theory dilemma

The complex question of whether to risk contact with ET may be navigable with a new spin on the "prisoner's dilemma"

'Robot ecosystem' in sight as apps get a cash boost

The first company dedicated to investing in consumer robotics stakes $250,000 on robot apps

First results from James Cameron's trip to the abyss

It's not Pandora, but the Mariana trench holds life just as strange as that in James Cameron's film Avatar

UK government urged to consider relaxing drug rules

A parliamentary report calls for a fresh programme of research to monitor the effects of European drug legalisation

Read More..

Tehran hosts UN nuclear team talks with Iran on Jan 16

TEHRAN: Iran and the UN atomic watchdog, following a day of discussions on the Islamic republic's controversial nuclear programme, agreed on Thursday to resume negotiations in Tehran on January 16 , a senior Iranian official said.

"We agreed to have the next round of talks on January 16 in Tehran," said Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency was quoted by media as saying.

The one day of talks held on Thursday was "constructive, positive, and good progress has been made," he added.

No other information came out of the talks, which ran from the morning late into the evening.

The agency wants to inspect Parchin, a restricted military complex near Tehran where the IAEA suspects experiments with explosives capable of triggering a nuclear weapon could have been carried out.

But the media did not say whether that request was granted.

In Vienna, the IAEA had no comment, but chief inspector Herman Nackaerts, who was leading the seven-strong team, was expected to make a statement on his return there on Friday morning.

The IAEA says the talks aim to reach agreement on a "structured approach" for Tehran to address allegations of weaponisation and for the watchdog to gain broader access to Iran's nuclear sites and people working in the programme.

"We also hope that Iran will allow us to go to the site of Parchin, and if Iran would grant us access we would welcome that chance and we are ready to go," Nackaerts told reporters in Vienna on Wednesday before leaving for Iran.

The IAEA, which visited Parchin twice in 2005, accuses Tehran of carrying out clean-up operations at the base to undermine its efforts to probe possible past nuclear weapons research work. Iran denies that.

Thursday's talks were the latest in a string of fruitless meetings this year between Iran and the IAEA, with the latest in August in the Austrian capital.

One diplomat in Vienna said the team in Tehran is larger than in past visits in February and in May, and now included two "technical experts" who could conduct verification work at Parchin -- if invited to do so.

Iran denies seeking or ever having sought an atomic bomb and has refused the IAEA access to Parchin, saying that as a non-nuclear site the agency has no right to conduct inspections there.

Foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said on Tuesday the visit would focus on discussions regarding "Iran's nuclear rights as well as its peaceful nuclear activities."

But "certain issues that have possibly become a source of concern for (IAEA) officials can also be discussed," he said, without being more specific.

Iran, under international sanctions, rejects as baseless suspicions by Western governments and echoed by the IAEA that it intends to develop a nuclear weapons capability under the guise of its energy programme.

It stresses that IAEA demands to examine Parchin exceed Iran's obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which it is a signatory.

The inspectors' visit also came against the backdrop of renewed efforts by world powers engaging Iran over its nuclear programme to discuss possible dates and venues for a new meeting to resolve the dispute.

The P5 + 1 -- the US, Russia, China, France and Britain plus Germany -- are hoping to agree with Iran "rapidly" on a new meeting, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in Brussels.


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'Evil' actor killed college students, girlfriend says

A woman authorities say helped her then-fiance after he allegedly killed two people said at a news conference Tuesday night that she is "completely innocent."

Rachel Mae Buffett, 25, addressed the media at her brother's Long
Beach wine bar flanked by her brothers, sister and mother. She declared
her innocence and vowed to assist Costa Mesa police in their ongoing
investigation into the May 2010 killings of two Orange Coast College

"I will meet them anywhere, anytime," Buffett said. "I'm very compliant."

Police and prosecutors have said that Buffett helped her then-fiance
Daniel Patrick Wozniak, 28, after he killed Samuel Herr, 26,
his neighbor in the Camden Martinique apartments, and Herr's friend and
tutor Juri "Julie" Kibuishi, 23. Authorities say Buffett lied to police
after the slayings, telling police Herr had family problems when he did not.

Authorities said that Herr was killed at a Los Alamitos military base and later dismembered,
and that Kibuishi was killed at Herr's apartment, her body
positioned in such a way to make authorities believe she had been sexually

In a previous interview with the Daily Pilot from jail, Buffett described both victims as "so sweet" and said she continues to grieve for them.

"I'm really sorry such evil has occurred," Buffett said.

In addressing the charges facing her former fiance, Buffett said: "I'm glad that I don't have to do the sentencing.

"I think that they're very justified in going for the death penalty," Buffett said.


Rain, snow headed to Southern California

Jenni Rivera death: No emergency calls before plane crash

N.Y. gunman who shot L.A. man didn't act alone, police say

-- Lauren Williams, Times Community News

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Global Checkup: Most People Living Longer, But Sicker

If the world's entire population went in for a collective checkup, would the doctor's prognosis be good or bad? Both, according to new studies published in The Lancet medical journal.

The vast collaborative effort, called the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2010, includes papers by nearly 500 authors in 50 countries. Spanning four decades of data, it represents the most comprehensive analysis ever undertaken of health problems around the world.

It reveals that, globally, we're living longer but coping with more illness as adults. In 1990, "childhood underweight"—a condition associated with malnutrition, measles, malaria, and other infectious diseases—was the world's biggest health problem. Now the top causes of global disease are adult ailments: high blood pressure (associated with 9.4 million deaths in 2010), tobacco smoking (6.2 million), and alcohol use (4.9 million).

First, the good news:

We're living longer. Average life expectancy has risen globally since 1970 and has increased in all but eight of the world's countries within the past decade.

Both men and women are gaining years. From 1970 to 2010, the average lifespan rose from 56.4 years to 67.5 years for men, and from 61.2 years to 73.3 years for women.

Efforts to combat childhood diseases and malnutrition have been very successful. Deaths in children under five years old declined almost 60 percent in the past four decades.

Developing countries have made huge strides in public health. In the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Iran, and Peru, life expectancy has increased by more than 20 years since 1970. Within the past two decades, gains of 12 to 15 years have occurred in Angola, Ethiopia, Niger, and Rwanda, an indication of successful strategies for curbing HIV, malaria, and nutritional deficiencies.

We're beating many communicable diseases. Thanks to improvements in sanitation and vaccination, the death rate for diarrheal diseases, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases has dropped by 42 percent since 1990.

And the bad:

Non-infectious diseases are on the rise, accounting for two of every three deaths globally in 2010. Heart disease and stroke are the primary culprits.

Young adults aren't doing as well as others. Deaths in the 15 to 49 age bracket have increased globally in the past 20 years. The reasons vary by region, but diabetes, smoking, alcohol, HIV/AIDS, and malaria all play a role.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is taking a toll in sub-Saharan Africa. Life expectancy has declined overall by one to seven years in Zimbabwe and Lesotho, and young adult deaths have surged by more than 500 percent since 1970 in South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

We drink too much. Alcohol overconsumption is a growing problem in the developed world, especially in Eastern Europe, where it accounts for almost a quarter of the total disease burden. Worldwide, it has become the top risk factor for people ages 15 to 49.

We eat too much, and not the right things. Deaths attributable to obesity are on the rise, with 3.4 million in 2010 compared to 2 million in 1990. Similarly, deaths attributable to dietary risk factors and physical inactivity have increased by 50 percent (4 million) in the past 20 years. Overall, we're consuming too much sodium, trans fat, processed meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages, and not enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fiber, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Smoking is a lingering problem. Tobacco smoking, including second-hand smoke, is still the top risk factor for disease in North America and Western Europe, just as it was in 1990. Globally, it's risen in rank from the third to second leading cause of disease.

To find out more and see related charts and graphics, see the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which led the collaboration.

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Russia says Syrian rebels might win

MOSCOW/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels are gaining ground and might win, Russia's Middle East envoy said on Thursday, in the starkest such admission from a major ally of President Bashar al-Assad as the 20-month-old civil war closes in on Damascus.

Moscow was "finally waking up to reality", the United States said and it called on Russia to withdraw all support for Assad, who NATO and the rebels' new political leader forecast was heading for collapse.

"One must look the facts in the face," Russia's state-run RIA quoted Mikhail Bogdanov as saying. "Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out."

Bogdanov, a deputy foreign minister and the Kremlin's special envoy for Middle East affairs, said the Syrian government was "losing control of more and more territory" and Moscow was preparing to evacuate Russian citizens if necessary.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: "We want to commend the Russian government for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime's days are numbered.

"The question now is, will the Russian government join those of us in the international community who are working with the opposition to try to have a smooth democratic transition?"

Syria has relied on war planes and helicopters to bombard rebel districts but Damascus denied accusations by U.S. and NATO officials that it had fired Scud missiles in recent days.

The foreign ministry said the long-range missiles were not used against "terrorist groups," a term it uses for the rebels, who now hold an almost continuous arc of territory from the east to the southwest of Damascus.

The head of NATO said he thought Assad's government was nearing collapse and the new leader of Syria's opposition told Reuters the people of Syria no longer needed international forces to protect them.

"The horrific conditions which the Syrian people endured prompted them to call on the international community for military intervention at various times," said Mouaz al-Khatib, a preacher who heads Syria's National Coalition.

"Now the Syrian people have nothing to lose. They handled their problems by themselves. They no longer need international forces to protect them," he added in the interview on Wednesday night, accusing the international community of slumbering while Syrians were killed.

He did not specify whether by intervention he meant a no-fly zone that rebels have been demanding for month, a ground invasion - which the opposition has warned against - or arms.

He said the opposition would consider any proposal from Assad to surrender power and leave the country, but would not give any assurances until it saw a firm proposal.

In the latest blow to the government, a car bomb killed at least 16 men, women and children in Qatana, a town about 25 km (15 miles) southwest of Damascus where many soldiers live, activists and state media said.

The explosion occurred in a residential area for soldiers in Qatana, which is near several army bases, said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

He put the death toll as 17, including seven children and two women. State news agency SANA said 16 people had died.

State television showed soldiers walking by a partly collapsed building, with rubble and twisted metal on the road.

The pro-government Al-Ikhbariya TV said a second car bomb in the Damascus suburb of al-Jadideh killed eight, most of them women and children.

Apart from gaining territory in the outskirts of Damascus in recent weeks, rebels have also made hit-and-run attacks or set off bombs within the capital, often targeting state security buildings or areas seen as loyal to Assad, such as Jaramana, where twin bombs killed 34 people in November.

The Pakistani Foreign Office said security concerns had prompted it to withdraw the ambassador and all Pakistani staff from the embassy in the central suburb of East Mezzeh, a couple miles from the Interior Ministry.


With his back to the wall, Assad was reported to be turning ever deadlier weapons on his adversaries.

"I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Thursday.

Human Rights Watch said some populated areas had been hit by incendiary bombs, containing flammable materials such as napalm, thermite or white phosphorous, which can set fire to buildings or cause severe burns and respiratory damage.

The British-based Syrian Observatory said war planes were bombing rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus on Thursday and artillery was hitting Daraya and Moadamiyeh, southwestern areas near the centre where rebels have been fighting for a foothold.

At least 40,000 people have been killed in Syria's uprising, which started in March 2011 with street protests which were met with gunfire by Assad's security forces, and which spiraled into the most enduring and destructive of the Arab revolts.

The United States, European powers and Arab states bestowed their official blessing on Syria's newly-formed opposition coalition on Wednesday, despite increasing signs of Western unease at the rise of militant Islamists in the rebel ranks.

Western nations at "Friends of Syria" talks in Marrakech, Morocco rallied around a new opposition National Coalition formed last month under moderate Islamist cleric al-Khatib.

Russia, which along with China has blocked any U.N. Security Council measures against Assad, criticized Washington's decision to grant the coalition formal recognition, saying it appeared to have abandoned any effort to reach a political solution.

Bogdanov's remarks were the clearest sign yet that Russia is preparing for the possible defeat of Assad's government.

"We are dealing with issues of preparations for an evacuation. We have mobilization plans and are clarifying where our citizens are located," Bogdanov said.

The fall of Damascus to the rebels was not a prospect Moscow relished: "The fighting will become even more intense and (Syria) will lose tens of thousands and, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of civilians," Bogdanov told Russia Today television.

"If such a price for the removal of the president seems acceptable to you, what can we do? We, of course, consider it absolutely unacceptable."

Nuland said Russia should now back away from Assad: "They can withdraw any residual support for the Assad regime, whether it is material support (or) financial support," she said.

"They can also help us to identify people who might be willing inside of Syria to work on a transitional structure."

A British Foreign Office spokesperson said the Russian position remained largely unchanged but the situation on the ground gave Moscow an interest in finding an agreed solution, even if the chances of such a solution remained slim.

"If Russia's position on Syria had been a brick wall, it is now a brick wall with a crack in it," the spokesperson said.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, Samia Nakhoul and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Marrakech, Andrew Quinn in Washington and Mohammed Abbas in London; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Alastair Macdonald)

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UK government urged to consider relaxing drug rules

JUST say yes to considering relaxed drug controls, urged a panel of UK parliamentarians this week - but Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected the calls.

Many countries have loosened their penalties for drug use, including the Czech Republic and Portugal, which introduced a "de-penalisation" strategy in 2000. Citizens caught in possession avoid criminal records but must attend drug advice sessions. Last month, the US states of Colorado and Washington voted to legalise the recreational use of cannabis.

The UK report calls for the effects of these legal moves to be monitored. "Drugs policy ought to be evidence-based as much as possible," it concludes. "We recommend that the government fund a detailed research project to monitor the effects of each legalisation system."

The report notes that 21 countries have now introduced some form of decriminalisation. But the government's response has been lukewarm. "I don't support decriminalisation," said Cameron. "We have a policy which actually is working in Britain. Drugs use is coming down."

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Fed sets inflation, jobless targets for hiking rates

WASHINGTON: The US Federal Reserve laid out target levels on unemployment and inflation for raising interest rates for the first time Wednesday, surprising analysts who expected such a move would wait until next year.

In an effort to better signal its policy path, after its benchmark rate has been locked at 0-0.25 percent for four years, the Fed said it would not lift rates as long as the inflation outlook was below 2.5 percent and the jobless rate, now at 7.7 percent, stays above 6.5 percent.

Saying the economy continues to grow only at a "moderate" rate, the Federal Open Market Committee also launched a new, open-ended $45 billion a month bond-buying program to replace the bond-swap Operation Twist program that expires at year-end.

That will take its total "quantitative easing" asset purchases, of both Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, aimed at pushing down long-term rates to encourage investment, to $85 billion a month.

After a two-day policy meeting, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke stressed that the economy, while growing at a moderate pace, was still hindered by high unemployment, which he called "an enormous waste of human and economic potential."

He also warned that Congress and the White House needed to urgently find a solution to the fiscal cliff crisis, which could send the economy back into recession next year.

"Even though we have not even reached the point of the fiscal cliff potentially kicking in, it's already affecting business investment and hiring decisions by creating uncertainty or creating pessimism," Bernanke said at a post-meeting news conference.

Even with the new target thresholds, the FOMC essentially held close to its course of the past year, stressing that its current "highly accommodative" monetary policy will stay in place even after the economy starts turning up.

Its benchmark interest rate would hold at the current level "at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6.5 percent" and inflation over the horizon of one to two years is projected at lower than 2.5 percent.

Such a stipulation was far more explicit than previous Fed guidance, which forecast that its easy-money policy would be in place "at least through mid-2015."

With prospects low for a rebound in inflation, it also further enshrined combatting unemployment as the primary focus of Fed policy for the next two or three years.

Jim O'Sullivan of High Frequency Economics said the change in the forecasting language suggested that FOMC members see the economy possibly improving over the next couple years more firmly than they had previously forecast.

"The signal is similar but is more clearly conditional," O'Sullivan said.

"As we have been writing, we see risks tilted toward a more rapid-than-expected decline in unemployment continuing."

But Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke stressed that the FOMC was not signaling greater optimism.

Tying future monetary policy moves to specific conditions will make policy more transparent and predictable, he told journalists.

"The change in the form of the committee's forward guidance does not in itself imply any change in the committee's expectations of the likely future path of the federal funds rate since the October meeting," he said.

Indeed, the FOMC cut very slightly its growth forecast for next year to 2.3-3.0 percent, from around 1.8 percent this year.

And the survey of FOMC participants showed only five of 19 saw monetary policy tightening by 2014, the same as the October meeting.

Markets liked the news for only a short time, shooting up before falling back to around break-even level at the close.

The dollar suffered, though, falling to $1.3065 against the euro.


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Doctor caught with 1,000 child porn images, police say

Dr. Pete ThomasA
Santa Ana foot doctor was arrested Tuesday on a warrant accusing him of possessing more
than 1,000 images of child pornography on his company computer.

Dr. Pete Thomas, 58, of Coastline Podiatry in Santa Ana, surrendered to a judge
Tuesday and was booked into Santa Ana jail before being released on $50,000 bail,
Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said.

The images were first discovered by a
computer technician who was servicing company computers, Bertagna said. The technician told his bosses, who alerted
police in late October.

Detectives then seized the computer, and upon being
granted a search warrant, sent it to an FBI forensics lab, authorties said. There, investigators
located more than 1,000 images of children between age 7 and “early teenage
years,” who were  “involved
in sex acts with other kids and adults,” Bertagna

“Right now, there is no evidence that he’s had any
personal contact with the children in the photographs,” Bertagna added.


Jenni Rivera death: Investigators examine crash debris

'Ear Gauge Stalker' sexually assaulted two Sylmar women, police say

School knew Cal State San Bernardino student was bipolar, family says

--Matt Stevens

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Who’s Watching? Privacy Concerns Persist as Smart Meters Roll Out

Energy consultant Craig Miller, who spends much of his time working to make the smart grid a reality, got a jolt when he mentioned his work to a new acquaintance. The man, who happened to be a lineman at a Pennsylvania utility, responded earnestly:  "Smart meters are a plot by Obama to spy on us."

The encounter was a disheartening sign of the challenge ahead for proponents of the smart grid, who say that the technology can help the industry meet power demand, fix problems faster, and help consumers lower their electricity bills. Advocates of such a 21st-century grid are learning that they need to take privacy concerns seriously. Though smart meters are not, in fact, a domestic espionage scheme, they do raise questions: In a world where households start talking with the power grid, what exactly will be revealed? And who will be listening? (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Electricity.")

The term "smart grid" encompasses an array of technologies that can be implemented at various points along the line of transmission from power plant to electricity user, but for many consumers, it is symbolized by one thing: the smart meter.  A majority of U.S. states have begun deploying the wireless meters, which can send electricity usage information from a household back to the utility remotely at frequent intervals. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more than 36 million smart meters were installed across the nation as of August 2012, covering about a quarter of all electrical customers. In the European Union, only 10 percent of households have smart meters but they are being deployed rapidly to meet an EU mandate that the technology reach 80 percent of households by 2020.

Because smart meters can provide real-time readings of household energy use instead of the familiar monthly figures most customers now see in their electric bills, the devices offer a new opportunity for consumers to learn more about their own power use and save money. But the ability to track a household's energy use multiple times a day also presents some unsettling possibilities. In theory, the information collected by smart meters could reveal how many people live in a home, their daily routines, changes in those routines, what types of electronic equipment are in the home, and other details. "It's not hard to imagine a divorce lawyer subpoenaing this information, an insurance company interpreting the data in a way that allows it to penalize customers, or criminals intercepting the information to plan a burglary," the private nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in a blog post about smart meters. (Related: "Pictures: The Energy Drain of Recreational Drugs")

The European Union's data protection watchdog warned earlier this year that smart meters, while bringing significant potential benefits, also could be used track whether families "are away on holiday or at work, if someone uses a specific medical device or a baby-monitor, how they like to spend their free time and so on." The European Data Protection Supervisor urged that member states provide the public with more information on how the data is being handled. (Related: "The 21st Century Grid")

A State-by-State Effort

As with many of the rules governing utility operations, regulations to address privacy concerns in the United States are currently embedded in a patchwork of state laws and public utility commission policy.  Most experts point to California as a leader: Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) adopted rules governing access to, and usage of, customer data. The state has also passed legislation that requires utilities to obtain the customer's consent for release of their information to any third party. The CPUC was involved in producing a comprehensive report on privacy with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that summarizes, often in chilling detail, the many ways in which privacy breaches could occur on the smart grid, and recommends best practices for preventing those breaches. "As Smart Grid implementations collect more granular, detailed, and potentially personal information, this information may reveal business activities, manufacturing procedures, and personal activities in a given location," the NIST report said.

George Arnold, national coordinator for smart grid interoperability at NIST, points out that many of these privacy and security issues have been dealt with in the health care and telecommunications sectors, for example. "Protecting the privacy of the information [on the smart grid] has been taken very seriously. . . . I think it's a good news story that policymakers recognize the importance, and both policy and technical tools are well in hand to deal with this," Arnold said.  (See related photos: "World's Worst Power Outages.")

But no existing federal or state laws can be counted on to protect consumers' utility data as smart meters are rolled out across the country. At least one utility in California argued early on that it was subject to a number of existing laws that would address privacy concerns, according to Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology, which worked with the CPUC on its privacy framework. However, Dempsey's group found that no single law provided a clear answer regarding utility data, and that a new set of rules was necessary. "Almost every state has some kind of [privacy] law already," Dempsey said. "But the point is, those laws predate the smart grid, and they do not really account for the complexity of the smart-grid ecosystem."

With other states—including Colorado, Maine, and Texas—now formulating policy on smart meters, a consensus is emerging. Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum, which advocates for responsible handling of consumer data, says there is general agreement that utilities should have rules that govern how they can use smart meter data, and that a customer should be able to know and have access to the data being collected. Still, Polonetsky points out that as energy-saving applications and devices (such as the Nest wireless thermostat) proliferate, state privacy frameworks may have limited power. Utility sharing of data is restricted, but "some device that I buy and I activate may not be subject to utility regulations," Polonetsky said. His organization has introduced a privacy seal for companies that handle smart-grid data, with the goal of highlighting companies that are being proactive about privacy.

Resistance to smart meters in some areas, though confined to a small fraction of utility customers, has been vociferous enough that a handful of communities have declared moratoriums on installations. The city of Ojai, California, for example, declared such a moratorium in May, though it is effectively unenforceable. In Texas, one woman pulled a gun on a utility employee who was trying to install a smart meter. Beyond privacy issues, many smart-meter opponents cite fear of exposure to radio frequency waves, even though radio frequency exposure from smart meters falls "substantially below the protective limits set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the general public," according to a study from the Electric Power Research Institute, the nonprofit research organization funded by the electric power industry. (Related: "Putting a (Smiley) Face on Energy Savings")

Some states, including California and Maine, which has the highest penetration rate in the country for advanced meters, have allowed residents to opt out of smart-meter installation. So far, few customers have done so: In California, according to Chris Villarreal of the CPUC, the opt-out rate was less than half of one percent. The Texas Public Utility Commission is currently weighing whether or not to allow customers to opt out.

Miller, the energy consultant, has been working on a $68 million effort partially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to implement smart-grid technology with rural electric cooperatives. He said many of the concerns about smart meter privacy run counter to how utilities actually operate. "The utilities go through all kinds of effort to reduce the amount of information they get," he said. "They see no advantage [in] collecting data with no operational value. If the data did not allow you [as a utility] to make a better decision about the operation of your grid, then there's no reason for a utility to collect it, and they won't."

High Ambitions, Low Public Awareness

Protecting homeowner data from interested outsiders will be crucial for the electric industry as it seeks customer buy-in on the smart grid, but the real challenge may lie in boosting the interest of homeowners themselves. "Our research shows that consumers generally overwhelmingly are unaware of the smart grid [and smart meters] and don't even know what those terms mean," said Patty Durand, executive director of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC), a nonprofit dedicated to consumer education about the smart grid.

In most cases, the utility notifies the customer that the smart meter is coming, swaps in the new meter, and recovers the cost of deployment through a slight rate adjustment, so a homeowner may have little involvement in the installation process. That decreases the likelihood that a homeowner will understand what the smart meter does or how it is beneficial. (Related: "Smart Meters Take Bite Out of Electricity Theft")

"For the longest time, the relationship between the utility and the customer has been, 'Here's the power and you can pay for it'," said Villarreal of the CPUC. "Now with smart grid and smart meters, we're asking the customers to get more involved and providing them with a lot more information, and now they're starting to ask questions."

Villarreal said that not all utilities have been quick to embrace a world that demands more of a dialogue with customers. In response to the notion of posting a privacy policy, one utility representative from another part of the country told him, " 'We don't want to do that, because we don't want customers calling us and asking us questions about it.' That's not a very proactive response to working with your customers. You're probably just raising the ire of customers more than solving the problem," he said.

California's public utilities have learned to employ robust communication strategies for smart-meter rollouts. San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) sent out at least five notifications to customers leading up to installations. "I think that really helped, because it wasn't like it was somebody knocking on the door," said Caroline Winn, SDG&E's vice president of customer services and chief customer privacy officer. "People weren't surprised to get the smart meter when we installed them."

While a combination of proactive communication and opt-out policies can help prevent customer confusion and minimize backlash against smart-meter rollouts, utilities have the long-term task of making sure that they add value for both customers and themselves. Some benefits involve little or no customer engagement: Smart meters can tell utilities, for example, when outages occur and help generate outage maps for customers (in the analog days, the utility didn't know about an outage unless a customer called).

Other aspects of smart meters involve more attention from a household. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which has installed 9.1 million smart meters across northern and central California at a total cost of $2.2 billion, has experimented with a variety of methods for getting customers more interested in their data. "We deploy reporting with your bill that shows you your usage compared to your neighbor's, and that's highly motivating for some people," said PG&E Chief Information Officer Karen Austin.

PG&E's other programs include rate incentives for energy conservation during peak times, text messages that alert customers when their electricity usage crosses into a new pricing tier, and participation in the Green Button Initiative, which allows people to download their energy-usage information in a standardized format. The goal is to create a level of engagement with energy-usage data among consumers that has barely existed before. Ultimately, the hope is that when consumers see how much energy they use, they can try to use less.

"The utilities have been challenged with not properly educating consumers and not understanding who their consumers are, because they've never had to," said Durand of the SGCC. "In the past, it's been a one-way relationship . . . but those days are over." (Related: "Can Hurricane Sandy Shed Light on Curbing Power Outages?")

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

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North Korea rocket launch raises nuclear stakes

SEOUL/TOKYO (Reuters) - North Korea successfully launched a rocket on Wednesday, boosting the credentials of its new leader and stepping up the threat the isolated and impoverished state poses to opponents.

The rocket, which North Korea says put a weather satellite into orbit, has been labeled by the United States, South Korea and Japan as a test of technology that could one day deliver a nuclear warhead capable of hitting targets as far away as the continental United States.

"The satellite has entered the planned orbit," a North Korean television news reader clad in traditional Korean garb announced, after which the station played patriotic songs with the lyrics "Chosun (Korea) does what it says".

The rocket was launched just before 10 a.m. (0100 GMT), according to defense officials in South Korea and Japan, and was more successful than a rocket launched in April that flew for less than two minutes.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a joint U.S.-Canadian military organization, said that the missile had "deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit".

North Korea followed what it said was a similar successful launch in 2009 with a nuclear test that prompted the U.N. Security Council to stiffen sanctions that it originally imposed in 2006 after the North's first nuclear test.

North Korea is banned from developing nuclear and missile-related technology under U.N. resolutions, although Kim Jong-un, the youthful head of state who took power a year ago, is believed to have continued the state's "military first" programs put in place by his late father, Kim Jong-il.

North Korea hailed the launch as celebrating the prowess of all three members of the Kim family to rule since it was founded in 1948.

"At a time when great yearnings and reverence for Kim Jong-il pervade the whole country, its scientists and technicians brilliantly carried out his behests to launch a scientific and technological satellite in 2012, the year marking the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung," its KCNA news agency said. Kim Il Sung, the current leader's grandfather, was North Korea's first leader.

The United States condemned the launch as "provocative" and a breach of U.N. rules, while Japan's U.N. envoy called for a Security Council meeting. However, diplomats say further tough sanctions are unlikely from the Security Council as China, the North's only major ally, will oppose them.

"The international community must work in a concerted fashion to send North Korea a clear message that its violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions have consequences," the White House said in a statement.

U.S. intelligence has linked North Korea with missile shipments to Iran. Newspapers in Japan and South Korea have reported that Iranian observers were in the North for the launch, something Iran has denied.

Japan's likely next prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who is leading in opinion polls ahead of an election on Sunday and who is known as a hawk on North Korea, called on the United Nations to adopt a resolution "strongly criticizing" Pyongyang.

A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated that the rocket was a "peaceful project".

"The attempt to see our satellite launch as a long-range missile launch for military purposes comes from hostile perception that tries to designate us a cause for security tension," KCNA cited the spokesman as saying.


China had expressed "deep concern" prior to the launch which was announced a day after a top politburo member, representing new Chinese leader Xi Jinping, met Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang.

On Wednesday, its tone was measured, regretting the launch but calling for restraint on any counter-measures, in line with a policy of effectively vetoing tougher sanctions.

"China believes the Security Council's response should be cautious and moderate, protect the overall peaceful and stable situation on the Korean peninsula, and avoid an escalation," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told journalists.

Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation, said: "China has been the stumbling block to firmer U.N. action and we'll have to see if the new leadership is any different than its predecessors."

A senior adviser to South Korea's president said last week it was unlikely there would be action from the United Nations and Seoul would expect its allies to tighten sanctions unilaterally.

Kim Jong-un, believed to be 29 years old, took power when his father died on December 17 last year and experts believe the launch was intended to commemorate the first anniversary of his death. The April launch was timed for the centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung.

Wednesday's success puts the North ahead of the South which has not managed to get a rocket off the ground.

"This is a considerable boost in establishing the rule of Kim Jong-un," said Cho Min, an expert at the Korea Institute of National Unification.

There have been few indications the secretive and impoverished state, where the United Nations estimates a third of people are malnourished, has made any advances in opening up economically over the past year.

North Korea remains reliant on minerals exports to China and remittances from tens of thousands of its workers overseas.

Many of its 22 million people need handouts from defectors, who have escaped to South Korea, for basic medicines.

Given the puny size of its economy - per capita income is less than $2,000 a year - one of the few ways the North can attract world attention is by emphasizing its military threat.

It wants the United States to resume aid and to recognize it diplomatically, although the April launch scuppered a planned food deal.

The North is believed to be some years away from developing a functioning nuclear warhead although it may have enough plutonium for about half a dozen nuclear bombs, according to nuclear experts.

It has also been enriching uranium, which would give it a second path to nuclear weapons as it sits on big natural uranium reserves.

"A successful launch puts North Korea closer to the capability to deploy a weaponized missile," said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.

"But this would still require fitting a weapon to the missile and ensuring a reasonable degree of accuracy. The North Koreans probably do not yet have a nuclear weapon small enough for a missile to carry."

The North says its work is part of a civil nuclear program although it has also boasted of it being a "nuclear weapons power".

(This story has been refiled to clarify reference to NORAD in paragraph five)

(Additional reporting by Jumin Park and Yoo Choonsik in SEOUL; David Alexander, Matt Spetalnick and Paul Eckert in WASHINGTON; Linda Sieg in TOKYO, Sui-Lee Wee and michael Martina in BEIJING,; Rosmarie Francisco in MANILA; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Robert Birsel)

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Today on New Scientist: 11 December 2012

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US blacklists Al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria

WASHINGTON: Washington blacklisted an Al-Qaeda-linked rebel group in Syria Tuesday, warning extremists could play no role in building the nation's future as the US readies to recognize the new Syrian alliance.

The move against the Al-Nusra Front came ahead of talks in Morocco on Wednesday, when the United States is expected to give full recognition to the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Though a minority, Al-Nusra has been one of the most effective rebel groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, raising concerns that hardline extremists are hijacking the 21-month-old revolt.

"What is important is to understand that extremists fighting the Assad regime are still extremists and they have no place in the political transition that will come," a senior State Department official said.

"Extremists should not dictate that political transition," he insisted on a conference call with journalists, asking to remain anonymous.

The State Department designated the group linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) a foreign terrorist organization, while the Treasury also slapped sanctions on two of its leaders, Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab.

"Exposing the operation and the identities of Al-Nusra's leaders is a key objective here," another top US official said.

Topping the agenda at the Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakech will be two key issues -- the political transition after Assad's fall and mobilizing humanitarian aid as winter sets in amid a growing refugee crisis.

Declaring Al-Nusra a terrorist group freezes its assets and bans Americans from any transactions with it, but US officials said it would also help ensure that vital aid is falling into the right hands.

Countries wanting to support the opposition need to ensure they are helping "those opposition groups who truly have the best interest of Syria and Syrians in mind," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

They should not back "groups coming from the outside who want to hijack what the Syrian people have started for their own means, and have a very different future in mind, a future that is based in Al-Qaeda-based values and principles, not democratic-based principles and values."

The group has claimed responsibility for recent suicide bombings that killed scores of people, and has said it hopes to replace the Assad family's four-decade hold on power with a strict Islamic state.

Wednesday's talks could mark a step forward for the Syrian opposition, which had struggled for months to unite until a new coalition arose from November meetings in Qatar.

"Now that there is a new opposition formed, we are going to be doing what we can to support that opposition," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Brussels last week.

Clinton had planned to attend the Marrakesh meeting but canceled her trip on Monday due to illness. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns is traveling in her place.

She also met on her Europe trip with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to see if there were ways to increase the pressure on Assad to step down and end the bloodshed.

Since the last Friends of Syria meeting in Paris in July, the number of people killed has risen from 16,000 to more than 42,000, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq has carried out scores of massive bombings aimed at Shiite civilians and regularly targeted US forces before their withdrawal a year ago.

The Treasury Department also sanctioned two armed militia groups supporting the Assad regime -- Jaysh al-Sha'bi and Shabiha -- as well as two Shabiha commanders.

The United States "will target the pro-Assad militias just as we will the terrorists who falsely cloak themselves in the flag of the legitimate opposition," said David Cohen, under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

The Treasury Department said the militias have been "instrumental in the Asad regime's campaign of terror and violence against the citizens of Syria."

Nuland warned the US may target other groups. "There's a lot of morphing and changing within these militia groups," she said. "What we are saying is this is a false flag that we can identify and beware."


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Actor's girlfriend says he killed, dismembered college students

BuffetHours before he played the romantic lead in a community theater play opposite his real-life fiancee, authorities allege Daniel Patrick Wozniak shot and killed his neighbor.

Not long after that evening’s performance, he slipped out of the Costa Mesa apartment he shared with his then-fiancee, Rachel Buffett, 25, and killed a second person , according to police, prosecutors and Buffett's account of events.

Authorities say that when they questioned Buffett, she lied to protect Wozniak, who is now facing double murder charges.

More than two years after the May 2010 crimes, Buffett was charged with being an accessory to murder after the fact. It is a charge she disputes. 

"I'm innocent, and he's guilty, and he confessed to that," she told the Daily Pilot in a jailhouse interview. She said Wozniak told her that he confessed to police that he killed the two victims.

She said she's always been honest and forth-coming with police and doesn't understand why she is now facing felony charges and a possible prison sentence of more than three years.

"You go over it in your mind, 'How could I possibly give someone wrong information?' " she said. "I was trying to be helpful and give them every conception in my mind."

Police, however, say their investigation, which included interviews with Buffett and multiple witnesses, indicates she wasn't truthful.

"She told us a story we know not to be true," said Costa Mesa Police Sgt. Ed Everett. "We waited that long basically because we didn't want to prematurely arrest her for accessory and find out she was complicit in the homicides." 

Police said Wozniak killed his neighbor Samuel Herr in the theater of the Joint Forces Training Center in Los Alamitos before dismembering his body and leaving his head and hands at the nearby El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach.

Authorities allege that Wozniak then killed Herr's friend and tutor, Juri "Julie" Kibuishi, 23, in Herr's apartment, then staged the crime to make it look like a sexual assault.

Wozniak reportedly told detectives he was motivated by money. He and Buffett had planned to marry soon. Authorities said Wozniak killed Herr to secure his ATM card. Herr had saved money from his time in the military.

Wozniak remains in Orange County Jail on murder charges. If convicted, he could receive the death penalty.

Buffett faces three felony charges of accessory to murder after the fact. She faces a three-year, eight-month, sentence if convicted.


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-- Lauren Williams, Times Community News

Photo: Rachel Buffett. Credit: Daily Pilot

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