Today on New Scientist: 21 December 2012

Cadaver stem cells offer new hope of life after death

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

Apple's patents under fire at US patent office

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

Himalayan dam-building threatens endemic species

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

Astrophile: Black hole exposed as a dwarf in disguise

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

Blind juggling robot keeps a ball in the air for hours

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

Studio sessions show how Bengalese finch stays in tune

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

Giant tooth hints at truly monumental dinosaur

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

Avian flu virus learns to fly without wings

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

Feedback: Are wind turbines really fans?

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

The link between devaluing animals and discrimination

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

Best videos of 2012: First motion MRI of unborn twins

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

2012 Flash Fiction winner: Sleep by Richard Clarke

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

Urban Byzantine monks gave in to temptation

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

The pregnant promise of fetal medicine

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

2013 Smart Guide: Searching for human origins in Asia

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

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

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

Victorian counting device gets speedy quantum makeover

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

Did learning to fly give bats super-immunity?

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

Van-sized space rock is a cosmic oddball

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

Read More..

Iran fighting 'smart economic war': Ahmadinejad

TEHRAN: Iran is engaged in a "smart economic war" with Western powers whose sanctions against its nuclear programme are hurting some Iranians, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Saturday.

"Targeted sanctions, which the enemies say are supposed to be crippling, have led to a drop in our oil" sales, Ahmadinejad said in a live interview on state television, referring to an oil embargo imposed by the European Union.

"They do not even let us transfer the oil money," he said. "They thought Iran's economy would break down, but it did not."

"Iran is engaged in a smart economic war with the enemy," he said.

The EU measure, which came into effect in July, ended European purchases of Iranian crude, and has since decreased Tehran's oil exports to its Asian customers from between 10 to 30 per cent.

According to the International Energy Agency, Iranian exports in November were estimated at 1.3 million barrels per day, down from nearly 2.3 million last year.

Ahmadinejad said his government had "so far managed to control" the effects of sanctions on the economy but admitted that "heavy pressure had been exerted on some Iranians because of sanctions."

He did not elaborate on how Iran was fighting off sanctions for fear the methods would be found by Western powers trying to goad Iran back to the negotiating table over its nuclear ambitions.

"I cannot say what heavy pressure the enemy has imposed, and how we are dealing with them."

"We have so far managed to control this blow, and it hasn't turned out the way they predicted," he said.

Ahmadinejad has faced increasingly scrutiny at home for economic woes, including the collapse of the national currency, which lost more than two-thirds of its value in a 20-day span starting in late September.

Iran's economy is struggling to cope with the gradual tightening of sanctions by the United States and the European Union over the past two years.

The sanctions have also targeted Iran's access to the global banking system, slowing its economy, accelerating inflation and boosting the ranks of the jobless.

Ahmadinejad was speaking to report on his government's implementation two years ago of a controversial plan to cut subsidies on food and energy and redistribute it in form of social assistance.

The plan to generate tens of billions of dollars in additional revenues for his government has been criticised by his opponents, who blame it partially for Iran's runaway inflation.

Ahmadinejad said his government had devised schemes to diffuse the effects of Western sanctions in the "long-term."

"We have prepared long-term plans to decrease dependency on the oil-generated money. We will not allow them to use economic measures as a tool for putting pressure on us anymore," he said.

He said without elaborating that Iran was to "increase its non-oil exports."

His remarks came as Western powers engaging Iran to resolve a years-long dispute over its nuclear programme are pressuring Tehran to return to the negotiating table.

Iran has yet to respond to offers of renewed negotiations with the so-called P5+1 group, consisting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

Iran insists its programme of uranium enrichment is for purely peaceful purposes, and denies Western and Israeli allegations that it wants to manufacture nuclear weapons.

In addition to US and EU measures, Iran is also under four rounds of Security Council sanctions.

- AFP/jc

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Husband sets wife on fire during fight, police say

A Fresno man was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and domestic violence after he allegedly set his common-law wife on fire Sunday afternoon, authorities said.

The 21-year-old man apparently "became emotional" while discussing his relationship with the woman in a car in southeast Fresno, police Sgt. Steve Crawford told the Fresno Bee. The man allegedly threw gasoline on the woman and lighted her on fire.

When police arrived, Crawford said, the woman was rolling on the ground to put out the flames. The vehicle was also on fire.

The woman was taken to an area hospital with minor injuries, Crawford said. The couple's 2-year-old boy, who was near the car when the fire began, was not hurt.

The suspect's name has not been released by authorities.


Full coverage: Connecticut school shooting

Rain, chilly temperatures expected for Southern California

Jenni Rivera's generosity to needy honored; memorials planned

-- Kate Mather

Follow Kate Mather on Twitter or Google+.

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Pictures: Fungi Get Into the Holiday Spirit

Photograph courtesy Stephanie Mounaud, J. Craig Venter Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published December 21, 2012

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Egyptians vote on Islamist-inspired constitution

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians voted on Saturday in the second round of a referendum expected to approve an Islamist-drafted constitution that lays foundations for transition to democracy but is criticized as divisive by the opposition.

Counting began after voting, extended by four hours as queues formed at polling stations, closed at 11 p.m. (2100 GMT). Last week's first round, which an opposition leader said was marred by "serious violations", returned 57 percent in favor of the constitution, according to unofficial figures.

Analysts expect another "yes" because the second stage includes rural areas with more Islamist sympathizers. Egyptians exhausted by two years of upheaval may also vote in favor.

Islamist backers of President Mohamed Mursi say the constitution is vital to move to democracy, nearly two years after an Arab Spring revolt overthrew authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak. It will provide stability for a weak economy, they say.

But the opposition accuses Mursi of pushing through a text that favors Islamists and ignores the rights of Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, as well as women.

"I'm voting 'no' because Egypt can't be ruled by one faction," said Karim Nahas, 35, a stockbroker, heading to a polling station in Giza, a province included in the second, decisive round of voting which included parts of greater Cairo.

At another polling station, some voters said they were more interested in ending Egypt's long period of political instability than in the Islamist aspects of the charter.

"We have to extend our hands to Mursi to help fix the country," said Hisham Kamal, an accountant.

Hours before polls closed, Vice President Mahmoud Mekky announced his resignation. He said he wanted to quit last month but stayed on to help Mursi tackle a crisis that blew up when the Islamist leader assumed wide powers.

Mekky, a prominent judge who said he was uncomfortable in politics, disclosed earlier he had not been informed of Mursi's power grab. The timing of his resignation appeared linked to the lack of a vice-presidential post under the draft constitution.

The referendum committee may not declare a result for the two rounds until Monday, after hearing appeals, although unofficial results may come sooner.


As polling opened on Saturday, a coalition of Egyptian rights groups reported a number of alleged irregularities.

They said some polling stations opened late, that Islamists illegally campaigned at some of them, and complained of voter registration irregularities, including listing of a dead person.

The new basic law sets a limit of two four-year presidential terms. It says sharia law principles remain the main source of legislation but adds an article to explain this further. It also says Islamic authorities will be consulted on sharia - a source of concern to Christians and other non-Muslims.

If the constitution passes, there will be parliamentary elections in about two months. If not, an assembly will have to be set up to draft a new one.

After the first round of voting, the opposition said alleged abuses meant the first stage of the referendum should be re-run.

But the committee overseeing the two-stage vote said its investigations showed no major irregularities in voting on December 15, which covered about half of Egypt's 51 million voters.


If the charter is approved, the opposition says it is a recipe for trouble since it will not have received sufficiently broad backing and that it will not have been a fair vote.

"I see more unrest," said Ahmed Said, head of the liberal Free Egyptians Party and a member of the National Salvation Front, an opposition coalition formed after Mursi expanded his powers on November 22 and then pushed the constitution to a vote.

Protesters accused the president of acting like a pharaoh, and he was forced to issue a second decree two weeks ago that amended a provision putting his decisions above legal challenge.

Said cited "serious violations" on the first day of voting, and said anger against Mursi was growing. "People are not going to accept the way they are dealing with the situation."

At least eight people were killed in protests outside the presidential palace in Cairo this month. Islamists and rivals hurled stones at each other on Friday in Alexandria, the second-biggest city. Two buses were torched.

The head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mursi's power base, said Egypt could move on after the vote.

"After the constitution is settled by the people, the wheels in all areas will turn, even if there are differences here and there," the Brotherhood's supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, said as he went to vote in Beni Suef, south of Cairo.

"After choosing a constitution, all Egyptians will be moving in the same direction," he said.

The vote was split over two days after many judges refused to supervise the ballot.

Islamists, who have won successive ballots since Mubarak's overthrow, albeit by narrowing margins, dismiss charges they are exploiting religion and say the constitution reflects the will of a majority in the country where most people are Muslim.

In a resignation letter, Mekky said "the nature of political work did not suit my professional background as a judge".

A cabinet spokesman denied a state television report that the central bank governor, Farouk El-Okdah, had resigned.

(Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan; Writing by Edmund Blair and Giles Elgood; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Jason Webb)

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Today on New Scientist: 21 December 2012

Cadaver stem cells offer new hope of life after death

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

Apple's patents under fire at US patent office

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

Himalayan dam-building threatens endemic species

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

Astrophile: Black hole exposed as a dwarf in disguise

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

Blind juggling robot keeps a ball in the air for hours

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

Studio sessions show how Bengalese finch stays in tune

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

Giant tooth hints at truly monumental dinosaur

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

Avian flu virus learns to fly without wings

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

Feedback: Are wind turbines really fans?

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

The link between devaluing animals and discrimination

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

Best videos of 2012: First motion MRI of unborn twins

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

2012 Flash Fiction winner: Sleep by Richard Clarke

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

Urban Byzantine monks gave in to temptation

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

The pregnant promise of fetal medicine

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

2013 Smart Guide: Searching for human origins in Asia

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

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

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

Victorian counting device gets speedy quantum makeover

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

Did learning to fly give bats super-immunity?

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

Van-sized space rock is a cosmic oddball

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

Read More..

Deadly winter storm snarls US holiday travel

CHICAGO: A deadly winter storm blanketed a huge swath of the United States Friday, grounding flights, turning highways into ice rinks and knocking out power to tens of thousands preparing for the Christmas holiday.

At least eight people in five states were killed by the dangerous road conditions since the storm formed near the Rocky Mountains and moved slowly eastward.

The powerful system dumped as much as 60 centimetres of snow in some areas and knocked down trees and power lines with winds gusting as high as 100 kilometres per hour.

Emergency shelters were opened to help those who lost power stay warm as utility crews struggled to reach downed lines on icy and snow-covered roads. Schools and government offices were closed, as were scores of businesses.

After pounding Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois and Missouri on Thursday, the storm was centred over the Great Lakes and Appalachians on Friday morning and was expected to reach New England on Saturday.

"Strong winds will cause blowing and drifting, causing near blizzard conditions and very dangerous driving conditions," the National Weather service warned.

"Only travel in an emergency."

Smaller systems also snarled travel in California, Nevada and Oregon while high winds grounded and delayed flights in New York.

Thankfully, on Friday, the busiest travel day of the year, skies were clear in Chicago -- where an estimated 266,000 people will pass through the major aviation hub.

More than 600 flights were cancelled Thursday at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports as the storm dumped freezing rain and a dusting of snow on runways and whipped up dangerously strong winds.

Hundreds more were cancelled at smaller airports like Detroit, Minneapolis, and Kansas City, according to tracking service FlightAware.

Nearly 500 flights had been cancelled by early afternoon Friday, primarily due to high winds in New York and San Francisco.

"This storm is not as large as some winter storms we've seen in the past that can result in thousands of cancelations in a day, but the impact is significant due to the number of holiday travellers," FlightAware chief Daniel Baker said.

More than 30,000 people remained without power in Wisconsin, where the governor declared a state of emergency and called up the National Guard to help rescue people stranded on snow-covered roads.

Two people were killed when their car slid into the path of a semi-trailer on a highway in Wisconsin's rural Rock County on Thursday, Channel 3000 news reported.

And an ambulance transporting a woman in labour got stuck on a Wisconsin highway at about 12:30 am local time Friday, the state's emergency management centre said. A second ambulance sent to help also got stuck, so a snowplough was sent to drive in front of a third ambulance and get her safely to hospital.

In Iowa, two more people were killed and seven injured in a 25-vehicle pileup after conditions got so bad on a major highway Thursday that people couldn't see the cars and big trucks that had slowed down or stopped ahead of them, the State Patrol there said.

Dozens of people were also trapped in their cars, many for hours. One pileup was so bad emergency crews brought food and water to the stranded motorists while they waited for snow blowers and tow trucks to arrive.

Further west in Utah, one woman died of exposure after her car got stuck on an isolated road on Tuesday and she tried to walk out for help, KSL news reported. A man who was with her in the car was able to walk farther and reach shelter, but by the time rescue crews on snowmobiles found the woman she was dead.

And in Nebraska, two people were killed in separate crashes, KETV news reported. One man died after his car was struck by a big rig when blizzard conditions smothered a Kansas highway, the Dodge City Daily Globe reported.

- AFP/jc

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18,000 'horrendously' abused rodents found inside business


Animal control officials have euthanized the entire inventory of an animal dealer in Lake Elsinore that were kept in “horrendous” conditions,  including more than 600 reptiles and 18,000 rodents.

Authorities raided Global Captive Breeders after receiving information from a two-month undercover operation at the facility conducted by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

VIDEO: Undercover investigation of animal abuse

3 2012_11_26_P23_Floods and rats 2“It was the largest rodent seizure in the United States,’’ said Willa Bagwell, executive director of  Animal Friends of the Valley, a private nonprofit agency contracted to provide animal control services to Lake Elsinore and other southwest Riverside County cities.

The snakes were so emaciated that their ribs bulged out. Freezers filled with dead rats were also found.

“It was horrible. It was horrendous,’’ Bagwell said. “There were dead animals. They were in filth. The suffering that was going on in that building was horrible.’’

Veterinarians and animal control officers have been at the facility for the last week assessing the health of the reptiles and rodents, and documenting the alleged abuse, she said. The animals were in such poor condition, and the conditions so “toxic,” that the veterinarians decided to euthanize all the creatures found at the facility.

Bagwell said the case is being investigated by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and district attorney’s office.

--Phil Willon in Riverside

Photos: A severely dehydrated rat found in a tub at the Lake Elsinore business, and the flooded warehouse where rats were stored. Source: PETA

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The Healing Power of Dogs

One boy confided in the gentle-faced golden retriever about exactly what happened in his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School that day—which his parents said was more than he'd been able to share with them. A little girl who hadn't spoken since the shootings finally started talking to her mother again after petting one of the "comfort dogs." Groups of teenagers began to open up and discuss their fear and grief with each other as they sat on the floor together, all stroking the same animal.

The dogs are therapy dogs—professional comforters that were brought to Newtown, Connecticut, almost immediately after the horrific shootings on December 14 that left 20 young children and 6 staff members dead.

Tim Hetzner, leader of the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K9 Comfort Dogs team, traveled to Newtown with nine specially trained golden retrievers and their volunteer handlers from the Addison, Illinois-based group.

Using a local Lutheran church as their base, the K9 teams have spent the past few days visiting schools, churches, activity centers, and private homes in the community. They only go where they're invited and are careful to let people approach the dogs instead of vice versa, in case anyone is afraid of or allergic to the animals.

Counselors With Fur

The response to the dogs has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Hetzner.

"A lot of times, kids talk directly to the dog," he said. "They're kind of like counselors with fur. They have excellent listening skills, and they demonstrate unconditional love. They don't judge you or talk back."

The dogs are also used to reassure victims of natural disasters—most recently, Superstorm Sandy—and to brighten the days of nursing home patients. Hetzner said he got the idea after seeing how well students responded to therapy dogs in the wake of a 2008 school shooting at Northern Illinois University. Now, in addition to the core of 15 that make up LCC's K9 Comfort Dogs team, the group has deployed about 20 other dogs to be based in schools and churches that apply for them.

The human volunteers' main job is to make sure the dogs don't get burned out, which means taking a break to play ball or nap after about two hours of work. Although some handlers have a background in counseling or pastoral care, "the biggest part of their training is just learning to be quiet," Hetzner said.

"I think that's a common mistake people make in crisis situations—feeling obligated to give some sort of answer or advice, when really, those who are hurting just need to express themselves."

The Human-Canine Bond

Why does petting a dog make us feel better? It's not just because they're cute, says Brian Hare, director of Duke University's Canine Cognition Center.

The human-canine bond goes back thousands of years. Dogs descend from wolves and have been attracted to humans ever since we began living in settlements—a source of tasty garbage. That created an advantage for wolves to live near humans, and since it tended to be the less aggressive wolves that could do this more effectively, they essentially self-domesticated over time, according to Hare.

(Read more about the evolutionary history of dogs in the February 2012 National Geographic magazine cover story, "How To Build a Dog.")

Part of what makes dogs special is that they are one of the only species that does not generally exhibit xenophobia, meaning fear of strangers, says Hare.

"We've done research on this, and what we've found is that not only are most dogs totally not xenophobic, they're actually xenophilic—they love strangers!" Hare said. "That's one way in which you could say dogs are 'better' than people. We're not always that welcoming."

People also benefit from interacting with canines. Simply petting a dog can decrease levels of stress hormones, regulate breathing, and lower blood pressure. Research also has shown that petting releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and affection, in both the dog and the human.

Do Dogs Have Empathy?

In situations like the Newtown shootings, it makes a lot of sense that dogs would be an effective form of comfort, says psychologist Debbie Custance of Goldsmiths College, University of London.

"Dogs are social creatures that respond to us quite sensitively, and they seem to respond to our emotions," she said.

Custance recently led a study to see whether dogs demonstrated empathy. She asked volunteers to either pretend to cry, or just "hum in a weird way." Would the dogs notice the difference?

"The response was extraordinary," she said. Nearly all of the dogs came over to nuzzle or lick the crying person, whether it was the owner or a stranger, while they paid little attention when people were merely humming.

"We're not saying this is definitive evidence that dogs have empathy—but I can certainly understand why people would think they do, at least," Custance said.

Other animals can also be useful in what's known as "animal-assisted therapy." The national organization Pet Partners has 11,000 registered teams of volunteer handlers and animals that visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and victims of tragedy and disaster. Although most of the teams use dogs, some involve horses, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, and even barnyard animals like pigs and chickens.

The presence of an animal can help facilitate a discussion with human counselors or simply provide wordless emotional release, said Rachel Wright, director of Pet Partners' therapy animal program. The group plans to deploy several teams of therapy dogs to Newtown in the near future, working closely with agencies that are already present in the community, she said.

To some, the idea of sending a dog to a grieving person might seem too simplistic. But Custance says that very simplicity is part of what makes the connection between humans and canines so powerful.

"When humans show us affection, it's quite a complicated thing that involves expectations and judgments," she said. "But with a dog, it's a very uncomplicated, nonchallenging interaction with no consequences. And if you've been through a hard time, it's lovely to have that."

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Italy PM Monti resigns, elections likely in February

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti tendered his resignation to the president on Friday after 13 months in office, opening the way to a highly uncertain national election in February.

The former European commissioner, appointed to lead an unelected government to save Italy from financial crisis a year ago, has kept his own political plans a closely guarded secret but he has faced growing pressure to seek a second term.

President Giorgio Napolitano is expected to dissolve parliament in the next few days and has already indicated that the most likely date for the election is February 24.

In an unexpected move, Napolitano said he would hold consultations with political leaders from all the main parties on Saturday to discuss the next steps. In the meantime Monti will continue in a caretaker capacity.

European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso have called for Monti's economic reform agenda to continue but Italy's two main parties have said he should stay out of the race.

Monti, who handed in his resignation during a brief meeting at the presidential palace shortly after parliament approved his government's 2013 budget, will hold a news conference on Sunday at which he is expected clarify his intentions.

Ordinary Italians are weary of repeated tax hikes and spending cuts and opinion polls offer little evidence that they are ready to give Monti a second term. A survey this week showed 61 percent saying he should not stand.

Whether he runs or not, his legacy will loom over an election which will be fought out over the painful measures he has introduced to try to rein in Italy's huge public debt and revive its stagnant economy.

His resignation came a couple of months before the end of his term, after his technocrat government lost the support of Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party in parliament earlier this month.

Speculation is swirling over Monti's next moves. These could include outlining policy recommendations, endorsing a centrist alliance committed to his reform agenda or even standing as a candidate in the election himself.

The centre-left Democratic Party (PD) has held a strong lead in the polls for months but a centrist alliance led by Monti could gain enough support in the Senate to force the PD to seek a coalition deal which could help shape the economic agenda.


Senior figures from the alliance, including both the UDC party, which is close to the Roman Catholic Church, and a new group founded by Ferrari sports car chairman Luca di Montezemolo, have been hoping to gain Monti's backing.

He has not said clearly whether he intends to run, but he has dropped heavy hints he will continue to push a reform agenda that has the backing of both Italy's business community and its European partners.

The PD has promised to stick to the deficit reduction targets Monti has agreed with the European Union and says it will maintain the broad course he has set while putting more emphasis on reviving growth.

Berlusconi's return to the political arena has added to the already considerable uncertainty about the centre-right's intentions and increased the likelihood of a messy and potentially bitter election campaign.

The billionaire media tycoon has fluctuated between attacking the government's "Germano-centric" austerity policies and promising to stand aside if Monti agrees to lead the centre right, but now appears to have settled on an anti-Monti line.

He has pledged to cut taxes and scrap a hated housing tax which Monti imposed. He has also sounded a stridently anti-German line which has at times echoed the tone of the populist 5-Star Movement headed by maverick comic Beppe Grillo.

The PD and the PDL, both of which supported Monti's technocrat government in parliament, have made it clear they would not be happy if he ran against them and there have been foretastes of the kind of attacks he can expect.

Former centre-left prime minister Massimo D'Alema said in an interview last week that it would be "morally questionable" for Monti to run against the PD, which backed all of his reforms and which has pledged to maintain his pledges to European partners.

Berlusconi who has mounted an intensive media campaign in the past few days, echoed that criticism this week, saying Monti risked losing the credibility he has won over the past year and becoming a "little political figure".

(Additional reporting by Gavin Jones, Massimiliano Di Giorgio and Paolo Biondi; Writing by Gavin Jones and James Mackenzie; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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Van-sized space rock is a cosmic oddball

The shattered remains of a high-profile space rock are oddly low in organic materials, the raw ingredients for life. The discovery adds a slight wrinkle to the theory that early Earth was seeded with organics by meteorite impacts.

In April a van-sized meteor was seen streaking over northern California and Nevada in broad daylight. The fireball exploded with a sonic boom and sprayed the region with fragments. Videos, photographs and weather radar data allowed the meteor's trajectory to be reconstructed, and teams quickly mobilised to search for pieces in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in northern California.

Researchers readily identified the meteorites as rare CM chondrites, thought to be one of the oldest types of rock in the universe. "Because the meteorites were discovered so freshly, for the first time we had a chance to study this type of meteorite in a pristine form," says Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, who led the search effort and the subsequent study of the space rocks.

Jenniskens personally found a fragment in a parking lot, where it remained relatively free of soil contaminants. "That's the best you could hope for, other than landing in a freezer," says Daniel Glavin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Battered past

CM chondrites make up only about 1 per cent of known meteorites. Most of them contain plenty of organic materials, including amino acids, the building blocks of life on Earth.

Jenniskens and colleagues found that the California fragments also have amino acids, including some not found naturally on Earth. But in three rocks collected before a heavy rainstorm, which bathed the other pieces in earthly contaminants, organics are less abundant by a factor of 1000 than in previously studied CM chondrites.

These three rocks could not have lost organics due to space "weathering": analysis of the meteorites' exposure to cosmic rays suggests the original meteor was flying through space for only about 50,000 years before hitting Earth.

Based on its trajectory and its relatively short flight time, Jenniskens thinks the meteor can be traced back to a family of asteroids dominated by 495 Eulalia, a group known as a possible source of CM chondrites. It is probably a piece that broke off during an impact, revealing the relatively pristine material inside.

So what happened to its organics? Jenniskens' team found that the meteorites are breccia – smaller rocks cemented together – which suggests that the asteroid from which they came took a series of beatings. Those impacts, or possibly other processes inside the asteroid, could have heated it enough to destroy most organic material.

Limited delivery

The result might have implications for the organics delivery theory, says Bill Bottke of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

"It shows that not all asteroids can deliver sufficient quantities. One of the disappointments is that, from a prebiotic organic chemistry perspective, it was very limited," says Bottke. "But this is an unusual case. Most [CM chondrites] are loaded with organic compounds."

Still, studying the space rocks will help us prepare future missions to asteroids such as OSIRIS-Rex, scheduled to take off for asteroid 1999 RQ36 in 2016 and bring a sample back in 2023.

"In some ways, we've had a sample, a very fresh one, come to us," says Bottke. "This is a test bed for the techniques we'll use in that mission."

Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1227163

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Former River Valley High principal linked to woman

SINGAPORE: Former River Valley High School Principal Mr Steven Koh Yong Chiah, 58, who is assisting investigations by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), has been linked to a woman in the educational services industry.

According to Lianhe Wanbao, the woman is said to be running several businesses, most of them providing education-related services to schools, such as organising educational trips overseas for schools.

Mr Koh had served as Principal of Chinese High School from 1999 to 2002, before it merged with Hwa Chong Junior College in 2005 to become HCI.

Former staff of Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) were grilled by CPIB for more than 10 hours on the relationship between Mr Koh and the mystery woman, reported Lianhe Wanbao. The woman is believed to be married to a foreigner.

On December 19, the Ministry of Education (MOE) had announced that Mr Koh was assisting the CPIB in its investigations, and that it was redeploying him from River Valley High to the MOE Headquarters as Principal (Special Projects).

Shin Min Daily quoted Mr Koh saying that he has "nothing to be worried about", though he was initially taken aback when the CPIB contacted him.

"I thought, why are they looking for me? But I have nothing to be worried about," he told the newspaper's reporter on December 19.

When asked what the investigation was about, Mr Koh said it was not appropriate for him to reveal details as it was ongoing.


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Executive accused of dumping dead wife on Mexico border free on bail

Peter ChadwickA man accused of
killing his wife at their Newport Coast home and leaving her body on the U.S.
side of the Mexican border was released from jail Wednesday, court records

Peter Gregory
Chadwick, 48, who is charged with murder, posted bail and was released from
jail at 1:47 a.m., jail records show.

One of the
sentencing enhancements against him, murder for financial gain, was dropped,
according to court records. The charge carried "special circumstance
enhancements," meaning his penalty could have been enhanced upon

"At this
point we felt it was appropriate to proceed on one felony count of
murder," district attorney spokeswoman Farrah Emami told the Daily Pilot.

She said the
investigation was ongoing and a special circumstance enhancement could be added

Authorities were
first alerted that something was amiss between Chadwick and his wife, Quee Choo
Chadwick, 46, when no one picked up their children from school Oct. 10,
prosecutors have said.

When police
searched their Newport Coast home, they saw blood and signs of a struggle. A
neighbor told the Daily Pilot she heard screaming about the time of the crime.

Chadwick was
arrested after contacting authorities in San Diego County, near the border with
Mexico, according to prosecutors.


Dec. 21, 2012: Fearful "end of world" callers flood NASA

Hollywood's ArcLight theater evacuated as popcorn burns

Temperatures expected to rise after record-setting cold its SoCal

-- Lauren Williams, Times Community News

Photo: Peter Chadwick. Credit: Orange County district attorney's office

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Detecting Rabid Bats Before They Bite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Syrian rebels fight for strategic town in Hama province

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rebels began to push into a strategic town in Syria's central Hama province on Thursday and laid siege to at least one town dominated by President Bashar al-Assad's minority sect, activists said.

The operation risks inflaming already raw sectarian tensions as the 21-month-old revolt against four decades of Assad family rule - during which the president's Alawite sect has dominated leadership of the Sunni Muslim majority - rumbles on.

Opposition sources said rebels had won some territory in the strategic southern town of Morek and were surrounding the Alawite town of al-Tleisia.

They were also planning to take the town of Maan, arguing that the army was present there and in al-Tleisia and was hindering their advance on nearby Morek, a town on the highway that runs from Damascus north to Aleppo, Syria's largest city and another battleground in the conflict.

"The rockets are being fired from there, they are being fired from Maan and al-Tleisia, we have taken two checkpoints in the southern town of Morek. If we want to control it then we need to take Maan," said a rebel captain in Hama rural area, who asked not to be named.

Activists said heavy army shelling had targeted the town of Halfaya, captured by rebels two days earlier. Seven people were killed, 30 were wounded, and dozens of homes were destroyed, said activist Safi al-Hamawi.

Hama is home to dozens of Alawite and Christian villages among Sunni towns, and activists said it may be necessary to lay siege to many minority areas to seize Morek. Rebels want to capture Morek to cut off army supply lines into northern Idlib, a province on the northern border with Turkey where rebels hold swathes of territory.

From an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, Alawites have largely stood behind Assad, many out of fear of revenge attacks. Christians and some other minorities have claimed neutrality, with a few joining the rebels and a more sizeable portion of them supporting the government out of fear of hardline Islamism that has taken root in some rebel groups.

Activists in Hama said rebels were also surrounding the Christian town of al-Suqeilabiya and might enter the city to take out army positions as well as those of "shabbiha" - pro-Assad militias, the bulk of whom are usually Alawite but can also include Christians and even Sunnis.

"We have been in touch with Christian opposition activists in al-Suqeilabiya and we have told them to stay downstairs or on the lowest floor of their building as possible, and not to go outside. The rebels have promised not to hurt anyone who stays at home," said activist Mousab al-Hamdee, speaking by Skype.

He said he was optimistic that potential sectarian tensions with Christians could be resolved but that Sunni-Alawite strife may be harder to suppress.


U.N. human rights investigators said on Thursday that Syria's conflict was becoming more "overtly sectarian", with more civilians seeking to arm themselves and foreign fighters - mostly Sunnis - flocking in from 29 countries.

"They come from all over, Europe and America, and especially the neighboring countries," said Karen Abuzayd, one of the U.N. investigators, told a news conference in Brussels.

Deeper sectarian divisions may diminish prospects for post-conflict reconciliation even if Assad is ousted, and the influx of foreigners raises the risk of fighting spilling into neighboring countries riven by similar communal fault lines.

Some activists privately voiced concerns of sectarian violence, but the rebel commander in Hama said fighters had been told "violations" would not be tolerated and argued that the move to attack the towns was purely strategic.

"If we are fired at from a Sunni village that is loyal to the regime we go in and we liberate it and clean it," he said. "So should we not do the same when it comes to an Alawite village just because there is a fear of an all-out sectarian war? We respond to the source of fire."

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Assad's main ally and arms supplier, warned that any solution to the conflict must ensure government and rebel forces do not merely swap roles and fight on forever. It appeared to be his first direct comment on the possibility of a post-Assad Syria.

The West and some Arab states accuse Russia of shielding Assad after Moscow blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions intended to increase pressure on Damascus to end the violence, which has killed more than 40,000 people. Putin said the Syrian people would ultimately decide their own fate.

Assad's forces have been hitting back at rebel advances with heavy shelling, particularly along the eastern ring of suburbs outside Damascus, where rebels are dominant.

A Syrian security source said the army was planning heavy offensives in northern and central Syria to stem rebel advances, but there was no clear sign of such operations yet.

Rebels seized the Palestinian refugee district of Yarmouk earlier this week, which put them within 3 km (2 miles) of downtown Damascus. Heavy shelling and fighting forced thousands of Palestinian and Syrian residents to flee the Yarmouk area.

Rebels said on Thursday they had negotiated to put the camp - actually a densely packed urban district - back into the hands of pro-opposition Palestinian fighters. There are some 500,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants living in Syria, and they have been divided by the uprising.

Palestinian factions, some backed by the government and others by the rebels, had begun fighting last week, a development that allowed Syrian insurgents to take the camp.

A resident in Damascus said dozens of families were returning to the camp but that the army had erected checkpoints. Many families were still hesitant to return.


Elsewhere, Syrian insurgents took over an isolated border post on the western frontier with Lebanon earlier this week, local residents told Reuters on Thursday.

The rebels already hold much of the terrain along Syria's northern and eastern borders with Turkey and Iraq respectively.

They said around 20 rebels from the Qadissiyah Brigade overran the post at Rankus, which is linked by road to the remote Lebanese village of Tufail.

Video footage downloaded on the Internet on Thursday, dated December 16, showed a handful of fighters dressed in khaki fatigues and wielding rifles as they kicked down a stone barricade around a small, single-storey army checkpoint.

Syrian Interior Minister Ibrahim al-Shaar arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday for treatment of wounds sustained in a bomb attack on his ministry in Damascus a week ago.

Lebanese medical sources said Shaar had shrapnel wounds in his shoulder, stomach and legs but they were not critical.

The Syrian opposition has tried to peel off defectors from the government as well as from the army, though only a handful of high-ranking officials have abandoned Assad.

The conflict has divided many Syrian families. Security forces on Thursday arrested an opposition activist who is also the relative of Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, the Syrian Observatory said. The man was arrested along with five other activists who are considered pacifists, it said.

Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim who has few powers in Assad's Alawite-dominated power structure, said earlier this week that neither side could win the war in Syria. He called for the formation of a national unity government.

(Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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Today on New Scientist: 19 December 2012

Cassini captures spectacle in Saturn's shadow

Saturn blocks out the sun to reveal its rings in all their splendour in this image from the Cassini spacecraft

Fabricated future: The sceptic's guide to 3D printing

3D printing is a revolutionary technology, but never mind the hype, says MacGregor Campbell - it will make its impact in unexpected ways

Best videos of 2012: Soap bubbles create 3D display

Watch the world's thinnest screen display vivid images, at number 8 in our countdown of this year's top videos.

Nearby Tau Ceti may host two planets suited to life

A star that is a mainstay of science fiction and resembles our sun has become a prime candidate for having habitable planets

Dogs - great people pleasers, less good as chauffeurs

Videos of dogs driving cars have become a global hit and prompted wild claims of canine intelligence. Not so fast, argues an animal cognition researcher

'Pinch-and-paste' app boosts your interior design skills

Want to see what your couch would look like in any colour or fabric? A new augmented reality app lets you virtually trick out your living room before you buy

Our deep relationship with water

A look back through history gives our modern commercial dealings with water a new perspective in Drinking Water by James Salzman

Blame bacteria if you start putting on weight

A man lost about 30 per cent of his body mass on a diet designed to inhibit Enterobacter - adding to mounting evidence that bacteria causes obesity

Micro-origami uses cells to fold itself

Watch cell forces do origami with tiny plastic sheets

2013 Smart Guide: Revolutionary human stem cell trial

Next year will see the first person receive induced pluripotent stem cells - "rewound" adult cells that can grow into any tissue in the body

App for quizzing your way to being a mastermind

Software that harnesses principles of cognitive science aims to turn you into a grade-A student

Twin attack could deliver universal flu vaccine

Combining two approaches to preventing flu might create lasting immunity against novel types

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US to open military ties soon with Myanmar

WASHINGTON: The United States is poised to take "nascent steps" to open up military ties with Myanmar as a way of bolstering political reforms undertaken by the former state, a senior US defence official said on Wednesday.

The Pentagon said the cooperation likely would take the form of "non-lethal" training for Myanmar officers focusing on humanitarian assistance, military medicine and defence "reform," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters.

"We're looking at nascent steps on the US-Burmese military-military relationship. We generally support the proposition that carefully calibrated, appropriately targeted and scoped military-to-military contact is effective in advancing overall reform efforts in Burma," the official said.

"The bottom line is we're interested, we're looking at ways to move forward and I think you'll see appropriately calibrated steps in the near future," he said.

Relations between the two countries have undergone a sea change since Myanmar's ruling military ceded power last year.

US President Barack Obama's historic visit last month to Yangon underscored the transformation, as both Washington and Myanmar see benefits to bolstering diplomatic and security ties.

The Obama administration, seeking a strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific to counter Beijing's role, is keen to expand its influence in a country where China has had almost unchallenged dominance.

Officials said in October that the United States was willing to allow Myanmar to participate as an observer in major joint exercises in Thailand in 2013, an event that includes military teams from the US and Asian allies.

Senior US military officers, including Lieutenant General Francis Wiercinski, the commanding general of the US Army in the Pacific, and civilian defence officials were part of a US government delegation that held talks in Myanmar in October, opening the door to a defence dialogue.

- AFP/de

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Scarlett Johansson: Hacker who stole nude photos 'perverted'

Actress Scarlett Johansson said she was "truly humiliated and
embarrassed" by a Florida man who hacked into celebrity email accounts
and procured naked images of her, actions she called "perverted and reprehensible."

Johansson, whose then-husband Ryan Reynolds' email was hacked, videotaped a statement that was played in U.S. District Court on
Monday as Judge S. James Otero sentenced Christopher Chaney, 35, to 10
years in prison.

Chaney, who has maintained he made no money from his actions, had
already pleaded guilty in Los Angeles federal court to nine counts of
computer hacking and wiretapping for the unauthorized access of email
accounts of 50 people in the entertainment industry.

Once Chaney got photos of the celebrities and other information, he
forwarded the material to another hacker and two celebrity websites that
made them public, according to a plea agreement.

Singer Christina Aguilera, whose email also was hacked, taped a
similar message to the court, saying, "That feeling of security can never be
given back and there is no compensation that can restore the feeling one
has from such a large invasion of privacy."

Actress Renee Olstead, the 23-year-old star of ABC Family Channel's
"The Secret Life of the American Teenager," appeared in court and
described how much the stolen naked images hurt her.

"I just really hope this doesn't happen to someone else," Olstead
said, sobbing. "You can lose everything because of the actions of a

Olstead said she comes from a conservative family and worked for a
family network. She said she considered suicide after the photos were

Chaney has admitted that from at least November 2010 to October 2011,
he hacked into the email accounts of Johansson  and others by
taking their email addresses, clicking on the "Forgot your password?"
feature and then resetting the passwords by correctly answering their
security questions using publicly available information he found by
searching the Internet.

Most victims did not check their account settings, so even after they
regained control of their email accounts, Chaney's alias address
remained in their settings, the plea agreement said. He continued to
receive copies of thousands of their incoming emails, including
attachments, for weeks or months without his victims'  knowledge.

Prosecutors said Chaney began using a proxy service to "cover his tracks" and avoid detection by authorities. Even after investigators took his home computers, they said, Chaney used another computer to hack into another victim's email account.

Though his celebrity victims might have drawn the most attention, prosecutors said Chaney stalked two non-celebrities for more than a decade.


Sandy Hook massacre creates 'new reality,' LAPD chief says

Fashion Island shooting suspect 'totally different,' cousin says

Jenni Rivera: Exec linked to plane had been sued by Los Tigres

— Richard Winton

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Grabbing Water From Future Generations

This piece is part of Water Grabbers: A Global Rush on Freshwater, a special National Geographic Freshwater News series on how grabbing land—and water—from poor people, desperate governments, and future generations threatens global food security, environmental sustainability, and local cultures.

Suresh Ponnusami sat back on his porch by the road south of the Indian textile town of Tirupur. He was not rich, but for the owner of a two-acre farm in the backwoods of a developing country he was doing rather well. He had a TV, a car, and a maid to bring him drinks and ensure his traditional white Indian robes were freshly laundered every morning.

The source of his wealth, he said, was a large water reservoir beside his house. And as we chatted, a tanker drew up on the road. The driver dropped a large pipe from his vehicle into the reservoir and began sucking up the contents.

Ponnusami explained: "I no longer grow crops, I farm water. The tankers come about ten times a day. I don't have to do anything except keep my reservoir full." To do that, he had drilled boreholes deep into the rocks beneath his fields, and inserted pumps that brought water to the surface 24 hours a day. He sold every tanker load for about four dollars. "It's a good living, and it's risk-free," he said. "While the water lasts."

A neighbor told me she does the same thing. Water mining was the local industry. But, she said, "every day the water is reducing. We drilled two new boreholes a few weeks ago and one has already failed."

Surely this is madness, I suggested. Why not go back to real farming before the wells run dry? "If everybody did that, it would be well and good," she agreed. "But they don't. We are all trying to make as much money as we can before the water runs out."

Ponnusami and his neighbors were selling water to dyeing and bleaching factories in Tirupur. The factories once got their water from a giant reservoir on southern India's biggest river, the Kaveri (see picture). But the Kaveri was now being pumped dry by farmers and industry farther upstream. The reservoir was nearly empty most of the year. So the factories had taken to buying up underground water from local farmers.

It is a trade that is growing all over India—and all over the world.

Draining Fossil Aquifers

We are used to thinking of water as a renewable resource. However much we waste and abuse it, the rains will come again and the rivers and reservoirs will refill. Except during droughts, this is true for water at the surface. But not underground. As we pump more and more rivers dry, the world is increasingly dependent on subterranean water. That is water stored by nature in the pores of rocks, often for thousands of years, before we began to tap it with our drills and pumps.

We are emptying these giant natural reservoirs far faster than the rains can refill them. The water tables are falling, the wells have to be dug ever deeper, and the pumps must be ever bigger. We are mining water now that should be the birthright of future generations.

In India, the water is being taken for industry, for cities, and especially for agriculture. Once a country of widespread famine, India has seen an agricultural revolution in the past half century. India now produces enough food to feed all its people; the fact that many Indians still go hungry today is an economic and political puzzle, because the country exports rice.

But that may not last. Researchers estimate that a quarter of India's food is irrigated with underground water that nature is not replacing. The revolution is living on borrowed water and borrowed time. Who will feed India when the water runs out?

Nobody knows how much water is buried beneath our feet. But we do know that the reserves are being emptied. The crisis is global and growing, but remains largely out of sight and out of mind.

The latest estimate, published in the journal Water Resources Research this year, is that India alone is pumping out some 46 cubic miles (190 cubic kilometers) of water a year from below ground, while nature is refilling only 29 cubic miles (120 cubic kilometers), a shortfall of 17 cubic miles (70 cubic kilometers) per year. A cubic kilometer is 264.2 billion gallons, or about enough water to fill 400,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Close behind India, Pakistan is overpumping by 8.4 cubic miles (35 cubic kilometers), the United States by 7.2 cubic miles (30 cubic kilometers), and China and Iran by 4.8 cubic miles (20 cubic kilometers) each per year. Globally, the shortfall is about 60 cubic miles (250 cubic kilometers) per year, more than three times the rate half a century ago. Egypt, Uzbekistan, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Australia, Israel, and others are all pumping up their water at least 50 percent faster than the rains replenish. In some places, water that you could once bring to the surface with a bucket on a short rope is now a mile or more down.

See pictures of the Nile at work >>

Farming's Big Thirst

Overwhelmingly, the problem is agriculture. Farming takes two-thirds of all the water we grab from nature, but that figure rises to 90 percent in many of the driest and most water-stressed regions.

This cannot go on, as the United States is already discovering. For more than half a century now, farmers have been pumping out one of the world's greatest underwater reserves, the Ogallala aquifer, which stretches beneath the High Plains from Texas to South Dakota. The pumping began in order to revive the plains after the horrors of the 1930s Dust Bowl. By the 1970s there were 200,000 water wells, supplying more than a third of the U.S.'s irrigated fields.

For a while it was a huge success. In a good year, the High Plains produced three-quarters of the wheat traded on international markets, restocking Russian grain stores and feeding millions of starving Africans. But the Ogallala water is drawing down, many wells are going dry, and the output of the pumps has halved. A quarter of the aquifer is gone in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, and over wide areas the water table has fallen by more than 100 feet. In some places, the sagebrush is returning because farmers are giving up on irrigated planting. (See "That Sinking Feeling About Groundwater in Texas.")

Other countries are heading in the same direction. Water tables are falling by more than a meter a year beneath the North China Plain, the breadbasket of the most populous nation on Earth. Saudi Arabia has almost pumped dry a vast water reserve beneath the desert in just 40 years.

Libya is doing the same beneath the Sahara. Muammar Qaddafi, Libya's late ruler, spent $30 billion of his country's oil revenues on giant pump fields in the desert, and a 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) network of pipes to bring underground water that is thousands of years old to coastal farms. Even though it was bombed by NATO forces last year, what Qaddafi called the Great Manmade River Project appears to still be functioning. But nature will eventually accomplish what the bombs did not. Water tables are dropping, pumping is getting harder, and the water is getting saltier.

Soon we may have a full global picture of how the world's underground water reserves are disappearing. Researchers are using NASA's GRACE satellite, which measures changes in the Earth's gravity field, to spot where the pores in rocks are being emptied of water. Jay Famiglietti, an earth science professor at the University of California, Irvine, is analyzing the findings. He says water security will soon rival energy security as the fastest-rising issue on the global geopolitical agenda.

More and more countries are so short of water for farming that they can feed their citizens only by importing crops grown using someone else's water. But the number of countries with spare water to export in this way is diminishing. The fear is that as the world's water supplies run on empty, the world's stomachs will as well.

Often, even before the water runs out, the pumps start to bring up water that is salty or toxic. In parts of India, there are epidemics of fluoride poisoning caused by drinking water containing high levels of this natural compound, which dissolves from hard rocks beneath water-bearing strata. I have seen villages full of severely disabled children, and adults suffering muscle degeneration, organ failure, and cancer caused by these poisons. Some communities call it "the devil's water."

We should not be doing this, says Brian Richter, freshwater strategist at The Nature Conservancy. "Falling groundwater levels are the bellwethers of the unsustainability of our water use," Richter said. "We're raiding our savings accounts with no payback plan."

We should not be stealing water from future generations, Richter said. We should instead use underground water sparingly and with caution.

Seeking Solutions

This can be done, starting with agriculture. Scientists are already working on new varieties of crops that need much less water to grow. And technologists are coming up with less wasteful ways to irrigate those crops. (See "Saving a River, One Farm at a Time.")

The truth is that, despite growing shortages, water is still usually so cheap that it is often wasted. The majority of the world's farmers irrigate simply by flooding their fields. But only a fraction of that water gets absorbed by the plants. Some of it percolates underground and can eventually be pumped to the surface again. But much of it is lost to evaporation.

Even spraying from pivots loses huge amounts of water to the air, where it may get carried out to sea or otherwise lost to local use. So the race is on to develop cheap drip irrigation, in which water is distributed across fields in pipes and dripped into the soil close to plant roots. That way we may be able to save our underground water reserves for future generations.

Meanwhile, communities across the world are running out of water. Where are things worst? The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) nominates the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave on the shores of the Mediterranean between Israel and Egypt. It looks as though it will become the first territory in the world to lose its only water supply.

Gaza has no rivers. It cannot afford desalinated seawater. So its 1.7 million inhabitants drink from the underground reserves. But pumping is being done at three times the recharge rate, water tables are falling fast, and what comes through the wells is increasingly contaminated by seawater seeping into the emptying rocks. A UN report this year said Gaza's water probably will be undrinkable by 2016. What then?

Gaza is an extreme case. And water is only one of its many problems. But it offers a warning for the world. It shows what can happen as the water runs out—what will happen in many other places if we continue to steal water from our children and their children.

Fred Pearce is a journalist and author on environmental science. His books include When the Rivers Run Dry and The Land Grabbers, both for Beacon Press, Boston. He writes regularly for New Scientist magazine, Yale Environment 360, and The Guardian, and has been published by Nature and The Washington Post.

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Clinton not responsible for Benghazi shortcomings: inquiry

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The leaders of an official inquiry into the fatal attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, did not find Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responsible for security lapses even as they outlined widespread failings within her department.

The unclassified version of the report, released late Tuesday by the State Department, concluded that the mission was completely unprepared to deal with a September 11 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Responsibility for security shortcomings in Benghazi lay farther down the State Department command chain, said Retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who lead the inquiry.

"We fixed (responsibility) at the assistant secretary level, which is, in our view, the appropriate place to look for where the decision-making in fact takes place, where - if you like - the rubber hits the road," Pickering said after closed-door meetings with congressional committees.

A deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern affairs resigned after the report, a Capitol Hill source said. Media outlets reported other resignations, including Eric Boswell, the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, one of his deputies and another official.

State Department officials declined to comment.

The report by the Accountability Review Board probing the attack and comments by its two lead authors suggested that Clinton, who accepted responsibility for the incident, would not be held personally culpable.

"The secretary of state has been very clear about taking responsibility here, it was from my perspective not reasonable in terms of her having a specific level of knowledge," said retired Admiral Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and the other inquiry leader.

Pickering and Mullen spoke to the media after briefing members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee behind closed doors on classified elements of their report.

Clinton had been expected to appear at an open hearing on Benghazi on Thursday, but is recuperating after suffering a concussion, dehydration and a stomach bug last week and will instead be represented by her top two deputies.


The unclassified version of the report cited "leadership and management" deficiencies, poor coordination among officials and "real confusion" in Washington and in the field over who had the authority to make decisions on policy and security concerns.

The scathing report could tarnish Clinton's four-year tenure as secretary of state, which has seen her consistently rated as the most popular member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet.

Clinton, who intends to step down in January, said in a letter accompanying the review that she would adopt all of its recommendations, which include stepping up security staffing and requesting more money to fortify U.S. facilities.

The National Defense Authorization Act for 2013, which is expected to go to Congress for final approval this week, includes directing the Pentagon increase the Marine Corps presence at diplomatic facilities by up to 1,000 Marines.

Some Capitol Hill Republicans who had criticized the Obama administration's handling of the Benghazi attacks said they were impressed by the report.

"It was very thorough," said Senator Johnny Isakson. Another Republican, Senator John Barrasso said: "It was very, very critical of major failures at the State Department at very high levels." Both spoke after the closed-door briefing.

But Republicans continued to call for Clinton to testify as soon as she is able.

Senator Bob Corker, who will be the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the new Congress is seated early next year, said Clinton should testify about Benghazi before her replacement is confirmed by the Senate.

"I do think it's imperative for all concerned that she testify in an open session prior to any changing of the regime," Corker said.

Republicans have focused much of their firepower on U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who appeared on television talk shows after the attack and suggested it was the result of a spontaneous protest rather than a premeditated attack.

The report concluded that there was no such protest.

Rice, widely seen as President Barack Obama's top pick for the State job, withdrew her name from consideration last week.

(Additional reporting by Toby Zakaria; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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Today on New Scientist: 18 December 2012

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Best videos of 2012: Bonobo genius makes stone tools

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Is the obesity epidemic caused by too much sugar?

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South Koreans vote in presidential election

SEOUL: South Koreans went to the polls Wednesday to choose a new president in a close and potentially historic election that could result in Asia's fourth-largest economy getting its first female leader.

Voters face a clear choice between the ruling conservative party candidate Park Geun-Hye and her liberal rival from the main opposition party, Moon Jae-In, with opinion polls unable to separate the two.

The eventual occupant of the presidential Blue House will face numerous challenges, including a belligerent North Korea, a slowing economy and soaring welfare costs in one of the world's most rapidly ageing societies.

Polling booths opened at 6:00 am (2100 GMT Tuesday) and were scheduled to close at 6:00 pm with a national holiday declared to allow maximum turnout among the 40 million-plus registered voters.

Park, 60, is looking to make history by becoming the first female president of a still male-dominated nation, and the first to be related to a former leader.

She is the daughter of one of modern Korea's most polarising figures, the late dictator Park Chung-Hee, who is both admired for dragging the country out of poverty and reviled for his ruthless suppression of dissent during 18 years of autocratic rule.

He was shot dead by his spy chief in 1979. Park's mother had been killed five years earlier by a pro-North Korea gunman aiming for her father.

Moon, who was chief of staff to the late left-wing president Roh Moo-Hyun, is a former human rights lawyer who was once jailed for protesting against the Park Chung-Hee regime.

After locking in the support of their respective conservative and liberal bases, the two candidates put a lot of campaign effort into wooing crucial centrist voters, resulting in significant policy overlap.

Both have talked of "economic democratisation" -- a campaign buzzword about reducing the social disparities caused by rapid economic growth -- and promised to create new jobs and increase welfare spending.

Moon has been more aggressive in his proposals for reining in the power of the giant family-run conglomerates, or "chaebol" that dominate the economy and there are significant differences on North Korea.

While both have signalled a desire for greater engagement with Pyongyang, Park's approach is far more cautious than Moon's promise to resume aid without preconditions and seek an early summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

Although North Korea has not been a major campaign issue, its long-range rocket launch last week -- seen by critics as a disguised ballistic missile test -- was a reminder of the unpredictable threat from across the border.

Pyongyang has made no effort to conceal its election preference, having spent months attacking Park's New Frontier Party (NFP) and outgoing President Lee Myung-Bak, whose five-year term was marked by a freeze in inter-Korean contacts.

On Tuesday, North newspapers urged voters to reject the NFP as "a group of gangsters bereft of elementary ethics and morality" and warned that Park was "hell-bent" on confrontation with Pyongyang.

The never-married Park has promised a strong, maternal style of leadership that would steer the country through the challenges of global economic troubles.

"I have no family to take care of and no children to pass wealth to. You, the people, are my family and your happiness is the reason that I stay in politics," Park said in a televised press conference on Tuesday.

"Like a mother who dedicates her life to her family, I will become the president who takes care of the lives of each one of you," she said.

A female president would be a big change for a country that the World Economic Forum recently ranked 108th out of 135 countries in terms of gender equality -- one place below the United Arab Emirates and just above Kuwait.

Moon has stressed the need for a change after what he described as five years of a corrupt and incompetent NFP presidency.

"If you spare them punishment, past wrongs will be extended," he said on the last day of campaigning.

Turnout is expected to be crucial.

Older Koreans, who generally favour Park, are seen as more dependable voters and Moon's camp has pushed hard to ensure the younger demographic that make up his support base actually cast their ballots.

- AFP/fa

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Man kills grandmother with barbeque fork, police say

Police are trying to determine a motive after a 22-year-old man allegedly killed his grandmother Sunday using a barbecue fork.

Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Paul Vernon called the incident in Mission Hills "especially sad and tragic."

The suspect, identified as Joe Calderon, was raised by his
grandparents and stabbed his grandmother at their Mission Hills home
Sunday morning, police said.

Investigators believe Calderon fought with his grandparents Saturday
night and, after his grandfather went to work Sunday, again argued with
his grandmother, Vernon said. This time, the suspect allegedly began
beating his grandmother, who called her daughter for help.

When the daughter arrived at the home in the 11100 block of Rincon
Avenue, Calderon "confronted her" outside the home "with a long metal
stick," Vernon said. She went around the corner and called police about 9

Responding officers detained Calderon, whom Vernon said had blood on his hands.

The grandmother was found dead in the kitchen, Vernon said. Her name
has not been released, though authorities described her as a woman in
her 70s. It was unclear what relationship her daughter is to the suspect.

Vernon said investigators found several possible weapons at the
scene, including the barbecue fork that "appeared to have blood on the
prongs." Forensic tests will be conducted to determine if the utensil
was in fact the murder weapon, he added.


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— Andrew Blankstein and Kate Mather

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Pictures: "Beautiful" Geminid Meteor Showers Grace Skies


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