Silent Skype calls can hide secret messages

Got a secret message to send? Say it with silence. A new technique can embed secret data during a phone call on Skype. "There are concerns that Skype calls can be intercepted and analysed," says Wojciech Mazurczyk at the Institute of Telecommunications in Warsaw, Poland. So his team's SkypeHide system lets users hide extra, non-chat messages during a call.

Mazurczyk and his colleagues Maciej Karaś and Krysztof Szczypiorski analysed Skype data traffic during calls and discovered an opportunity in the way Skype "transmits" silence. Rather than send no data between spoken words, Skype sends 70-bit-long data packets instead of the 130-bit ones that carry speech.

The team hijacks these silence packets, injecting encrypted message data into some of them. The Skype receiver simply ignores the secret-message data, but it can nevertheless be decoded at the other end, the team has found. "The secret data is indistinguishable from silence-period traffic, so detection of SkypeHide is very difficult," says Mazurczyk. They found they could transmit secret text, audio or video during Skype calls at a rate of almost 1 kilobit per second alongside phone calls.

The team aims to present SkypeHide at a steganography conference in Montpellier, France, in June.

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Four shot dead near scene of US cinema massacre

LOS ANGELES: A gunman killed three people before police shot him dead on Saturday in a shooting at a house in the Colorado town of Aurora, scene of a massacre at a cinema last year, police said.

A statement from the Aurora police department said a woman had escaped from the home and raised the alarm. When officers arrived, the man had barricaded himself inside with the corpses of his three victims.

"The male was given multiple commands to come out of the house both on the phone and from a bullhorn outside. He did not comply," the statement said.

"He was behaving very irrationally throughout the incident and often hanging up on the negotiators," it added, describing how a SWAT team of armed specialist officers had approached the building shielded by an armoured van.

"Upon doing so, the suspect fired multiple rounds striking the vehicle but not injuring any officers. Officers did not return fire. Over the next hour, gas was introduced and more commands were given to the suspect," it said.

"Shortly before 9:00 am, the suspect appeared in a second story window and engaged officers again with gunfire. Officers returned fire, striking the suspect," the statement added.

Entering the property, the team found the shooter dead, along with two other men and a woman. They have not identified the victims and an investigation has been launched.

Aurora made global headlines in July 2012 after a horrific shooting at a movie theatre that left 12 people dead and 58 others wounded during the first midnight screening of the latest Batman film, "The Dark Knight Rises."

The Aurora cinema shooting revived America's perennial gun control debate, a dispute that only intensified last month when a gunman attacked a Connecticut elementary school, killing 20 young children and six staff members.

- AFP/de

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Girl found dead in snow after casino New Year's Eve party

After days of searching, the body of a teenager missing since New Year’s Eve was found in the snow near South Lake Tahoe.

Authorities said there was no evidence of foul play but stressed the investigation was continuing.

Alyssa Byrne, 19, went to the Snow Globe Music Festival in South Lake Tahoe on Monday night and hadn't been seen since.

"Our preliminary investigation with this morning's discovery, it would
tend to point in the direction that Alyssa had elected to walk home from
the event," Douglas County sheriff's official  Paul Howell told reporters at a news conference.

A utility worker found the body, later identified as Byrne's, about
10 feet from a road. The body was not visible from the road because of high piles of snow.

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Best Pictures: 2012 Nat Geo Photo Contest Winners


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Venezuela lawmakers elect Chavez ally as Assembly chief

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan lawmakers re-elected a staunch ally of Hugo Chavez to head the National Assembly on Saturday, putting him in line to be caretaker president if the socialist leader does not recover from cancer surgery.

By choosing the incumbent, Diosdado Cabello, the "Chavista"-dominated legislature cemented the combative ex-soldier's position as the third most powerful figure in the government, after Chavez and Vice President Nicolas Maduro.

"As a patriot ... I swear to be supremely loyal in everything I do, to defend the fatherland, its institutions, and this beautiful revolution led by our Comandante Hugo Chavez," Cabello said as he took the oath, his hand on the constitution.

He had earlier warned opposition politicians against attempting to use the National Assembly to "conspire" against the people, saying they would be "destroyed" if they tried.

Thousands of the president's red-clad supporters gathered outside parliament hours before the vote, many chanting: "We are all Chavez! Our comandante will be well! He will return!"

If Chavez had to step down, or died, Cabello would take over the running of the country as Assembly president and a new election would be organized within 30 days. Chavez's heir apparent, Maduro, would be the ruling Socialist Party candidate.

Chavez, who was diagnosed with an undisclosed form of cancer in his pelvic area in mid-2011, has not been seen in public nor heard from in more than three weeks.

Officials say the 58-year-old is in delicate condition and has suffered multiple complications since the December 11 surgery, including unexpected bleeding and severe respiratory problems.

Late on Friday, Maduro gave the clearest indication yet that the government was preparing to delay Chavez's inauguration for a new six-year term, which is scheduled for Thursday.


Maduro said the ceremony was a "formality" and that Chavez could be sworn in by the Supreme Court at a later date.

The opposition says Chavez's absence would be just the latest sign that he is no longer fit to govern, and that new elections should be held in the South American OPEC nation.

Brandishing a copy of the constitution after his win in the Assembly, Cabello slammed opposition leaders for writing a letter to foreign embassies in which they accused the government of employing a "twisted reading" of the charter.

"Get this into your heads: Hugo Chavez was elected president and he will continue to be president beyond January 10. No one should have any doubt ... this is the constitutional route," he said as fellow Socialist Party lawmakers cheered.

The opposition sat stony-faced. One of their legislators had earlier told the session that it was not just the head of state who was ill, "the republic is sick."

Last year, Chavez staged what appeared to be a remarkable comeback from the disease to win re-election in October, despite being weakened by radiation therapy. He returned to Cuba for more treatment within weeks of his victory.

Should the president have to step down after 14 years in office, a new vote would probably pit Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader, against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state.

Capriles lost to Chavez in October's presidential election.

"I don't think Maduro would last many rounds in a presidential race. He's not fit for the responsibility they have given him," Capriles said after the vice president's appearance on state television.

Chavez's condition is being watched closely by leftist allies around Latin American who have benefited from his oil-funded generosity, as well as investors attracted by Venezuela's lucrative and widely traded debt.

The country boasts the world's biggest crude reserves. Despite the huge political upheaval Chavez's exit would cause, the oil industry is not likely to be affected much in the short term, with an extension of "Chavismo" keeping projects on track, while a change in parties could usher in more foreign capital.

(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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Graphic in-car crash warnings to slow speeding drivers

Paul Marks, chief technology correspondent


(Image: Cityscape/a.collection/Getty)

"You would die if you crashed right now." Would such a warning make you take your foot off the accelerator? That's the idea behind a scheme to warn drivers of the consequences of speeding developed by engineers at Japan's Fukuoka Institute of Technology and heavy goods vehicle maker UD Trucks, also in Japan. They are developing what they call a "safe driving promotion system" that warns drivers what kind of crash could ensue if they don't slow down.

Their patent-pending system uses the battery of radar, ultrasound sonar and laser sensors found in modern cars and trucks to work out the current kinetic energy of a vehicle. It also checks out the distance to the vehicle in front and keeps watch on its brake lights, too. An onboard app that has learned the driver's reaction time over all their previous trips then computes the likelihood of collision - and if the driver's speed is risky, it displays the scale of damage that could result.

The warning that flashes up could vary from something like a potential whiplash injury due to a rear-end shunt to a fatal, car-crushing collision with fire. The inventors hope this kind of in-car advice will promote safety more forcefully than current warning systems, which merely display the distance to the vehicle in front. "A sense of danger will be awakened in the driver that makes them voluntarily refrain from dangerous driving," they predict.

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Congress approves US$9.7b aid for storm Sandy victims

WASHINGTON: The US Congress finally approved emergency disaster aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy on Friday, but only after a delay that sparked East Coast Republican outrage against their own party leadership.

The House voted 354-67 to provide the Federal Emergency Management Agency with US$9.7 billion to pay the flood insurance claims of thousands of victims of the killer October storm that devastated coastal communities.

The legislation, just a wedge of a much larger package sought by the White House, then breezed through the Senate by voice vote, and goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

"We should not have parades down the street because this bill has passed," said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who has spearheaded efforts to speed up congressional approval for aid.

"The major work of helping the victims of Sandy is still ahead of us. The bad news is that we had to even go through this dog and pony show in the first place."

The Senate had approved a comprehensive US$60.4 billion Sandy aid package last week, but Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who was stung by fractious negotiations over the deal to avert the fiscal cliff crisis, refused to bring it to the floor.

The delay enraged Democrats and Republicans alike in the New York and New Jersey delegations.

Friday's bill boosts borrowing authority for the depleted National Flood Insurance Program, which is meant to cover the roughly 120,000 Sandy-related claims filed to date.

FEMA has said the program would have run dry next week without additional funds.

Even as Boehner has since vowed to bring the remaining US$51 billion of the package to a vote on January 15, bitter debate is likely to continue, and Schumer expressed worry about the package's future.

"To be a bride and left at the altar once is bad enough. To be left twice would be unconscionable," he said.

Republican congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey told the House that the bill was "the first step of what we need to do to rebuild lives."

"It's been 70 days and many have been living in misery and heartache," he said.

Several lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, pointed to the swift action by Congress to fund relief efforts in the aftermath of deadly Hurricane Katrina.

"We were there within days," Reid said of the 2005 disaster that ravaged the Gulf Coast. "It's too bad that it's taken so long" for Sandy.

Boehner had scrambled to tamp down fury over the delay on aid to victims of the storm, which killed 120 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses in New York, New Jersey and neighbouring northeastern states.

Obama had joined New Jersey's outspoken Republican Governor Chris Christie in leading the charge against Boehner's delay, which Christie described as "absolutely disgraceful."

The outrage quickly gained the national spotlight, and Boehner wasted little time announcing the two-part vote.

"This is not a handout, this is not something we're looking for as a favour," Republican congressman Peter King of New York, who had lashed out at Boehner when he learned of the delay, told the House.

"What we're asking for is to be treated the same as victims (from) other natural disaster victims have been treated."

Some Republicans including Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, a hurricane-prone state which has received billions in federal disaster aid, voted against the Sandy bill in the Senate, claiming it was stuffed with "pork" -- funding for projects or elements unrelated to Sandy relief.

Darrell Issa, the powerful Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, continued in that vein Friday, saying "we need to get the pork out" and pointing to funding in the Senate bill that went to programs in Alaska, clear across the country from the Sandy disaster zone.

Issa expressed hope the new legislation would be a "clean bill" focused exclusively on Sandy relief.

- AFP/jc

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Teens drugged parents to they could use Internet

Two teenage girls were arrested in Northern California this week after they used sleeping pill-laced milkshakes to drug one girl's parents because they wouldn't let her use the Internet past 10 p.m., police said.

The incident unfolded in Rocklin -- about 20 miles northwest of Sacramento -- the night of Dec. 28, when the parents fell asleep about an hour after drinking  milkshakes their 16-year-old daughter and her 15-year-old friend brought them from a fast food restaurant, Rocklin police Lt. Lon Milka said Thursday. The parents woke up in the middle of the night feeling "really groggy" with "hangover symptoms," Milka said, but had not been drinking.

When they woke up again the next morning, they still felt "really odd," Milka said, and "figured that something was wrong."

The couple went to the Rocklin police station and picked up $5 drug kits typically used by parents to drug test their children, Milka said. After the tests picked up traces of drugs, the parents contacted authorities and brought their daughter to the police station.

Investigators later learned the girls crushed prescription sleeping pills and put them in the milkshakes so the parents would fall asleep and they could use the Internet past the 10 p.m. curfew.

"Mom and Dad had the Internet cut off nightly at 10 p.m.," Milka said. "The daughter wanted to use it past 10 because I guess they're like most teenagers and the Internet is their life."

The parents didn't end up drinking all of the milkshakes because it was "kind of gritty" and "really funny tasting," Milka said.

The girls, whose names were not released because of their ages, were booked on Dec. 31 in Placer County Juvenile Hall on suspicion of conspiracy and willfully mingling a pharmaceutical into food. Milka said it would be up to prosecutors to decide whether charges would be filed.

Milka said it was unclear what websites the girls accessed while the parents were asleep.

"It's the first I've ever heard of it," he said. "Kids are crazy these days."


LAPD car hit by semi-truck downtown; no injuries reported

Justin Bieber photographer killed tracking Ferrari is identified

Scott Sterling case: Investigators await autopsy, toxicology results

— Kate Mather

Follow Kate Mather on Twitter or Google+.

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Scientists Seek Foolproof Signal to Predict Earthquakes

Twenty-three hundred years ago, hordes of mice, snakes, and insects fled the Greek city of Helike on the Gulf of Corinth (map). "After these creatures departed, an earthquake occurred in the night," wrote the ancient Roman writer Claudius Aelianus. "The city subsided; an immense wave flooded and Helike disappeared."

Since then, generations of scientists and folklorists have used a dizzying array of methods to attempt to predict earthquakes. Animal behavior, changes in the weather, and seismograms have all fallen short. (Watch: home video footage and the science of earthquakes.)

The dream is to be able to forecast earthquakes like we now predict the weather. Even a few minutes' warning would be enough for people to move away from walls or ceilings that might collapse or for nuclear plants and other critical facilities to be shut down safely in advance of the temblor. And if accurate predictions could be made a few days in advance, any necessary evacuations could be planned, much as is done today for hurricanes.

Scientists first turned to seismology as a predictive tool, hoping to find patterns of foreshocks that might indicate that a fault is about to slip. But nobody has been able to reliably distinguish between the waves of energy that herald a great earthquake and harmless rumblings.

Seismologists just can't give a simple yes or no answer to the question of whether we're about to have a large earthquake, said Thomas Jordan, director of the University of Southern California's Southern California Earthquake Center at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco in December.

So some scientist have turned their attention to other signals, including electricity, that might be related to activity occurring below ground as a fault prepares to slip. (How to build earthquake-ready homes—cheaply.)

Like Underground Lightning

One theory is that when an earthquake looms, the rock "goes through a strange change," producing intense electrical currents, says Tom Bleier, a satellite engineer with QuakeFinder, a project funded by his parent company, Stellar Solutions, of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"These currents are huge," Bleier said at the AGU meeting. "They're on the order of 100,000 amperes for a magnitude 6 earthquake and a million amperes for a magnitude 7. It's almost like lightning, underground."

To measure those currents, Bleier's team has spent millions of dollars putting out magnetometers along fault lines in California, Peru, Taiwan, and Greece. The instruments are sensitive enough to detect magnetic pulses from electrical discharges up to 10 miles (16 kilometers) away.

"In a typical day along the San Andreas fault [in California], you might see ten pulses per day," he told National Geographic News. "The fault is always moving, grinding, snapping, and crackling."

Before a large earthquake, that background level of static-electricity discharges should rise sharply, Bleier said.

And that is indeed what he claims he's seen prior to the half dozen magnitude 5 and 6 earthquakes whose precursors he's been able to monitor.

"It goes up to maybe 150 or 200 pulses a day," he said.

The number of pulses, he added, seems to surge about two weeks before the earthquake then drop back to background level until shortly before the fault slips. "That's the pattern we're looking for," he said.

False Alarms

But magnetic pulses could be caused by a lot of other things, ranging from random events within the Earth to lightning, solar flares, and electrical interference from highway equipment, lawn mowers, or even a nearby farmers' tractor engine. And that's not the only thing that can interfere with sensitive electrical equipment. "Spiders got inside of our instruments once, so we had to put screens in front of it," Bleier remembers.

Bleier also saw that charged particles called ions produced from currents deep within the Earth eventually migrate to the surface. "So we added a negative ion sensor and a positive ion sensor," he said.

And because rainy weather can also produce spikes in ion concentrations, his team also added humidity sensors to help rule out this possible cause of false alarms.

Finally, he noticed that when the ions reach the air, the positive and negative charges neutralize. This produces a burst of infrared radiation that can fool weather satellites into thinking the ground near the fault is warming up, even when ground-based weather stations say it isn't. This is easily visible by GOES weather satellites, he says.

"If all of these things happen, then we think there's going to be an earthquake greater than magnitude 5 about two days after," he said.

His team hasn't yet monitored enough large earthquakes for him to be sure that what he's found is valid for all quakes. "But the patterns look really interesting," he said.

But he does feel they have enough good clues to move ahead. Starting in January, his team will try to start making forecasts. "Instead of looking backwards in time, we're going to start looking forwards," he said.

Other scientists are contributing laboratory analysis to support the magnetic field theory. Robert Dahlgren, an electrical engineer at the SETI Institute, has spent 16 months working with other scientists to squeeze rocks under high pressures to see if they produce electrical currents.

He confirmed that dry rocks indeed produce pressure-dependent current and voltage signals. But he found no discharges from rocks soaked in the type of brine found at earthquake epicenter depths, presumably because the salty brine short circuits the current.

What does this say for earthquake prediction? He has no idea. "I'm the instrument guy," he says. But he notes that the signals he measured in the laboratory could indeed generate magnetic fields under the right conditions.

It's a very painstaking type of research. "It takes a year to prepare the brine-saturated rock samples," he said. "It's like breeding elephants. It takes a long time to get results."

Nor is earthquake prediction a field rife with successes.

Sorting the Wheat From the Chaff

A few years ago, some scientists thought earthquakes might be predictable by changes in the Earth's ionosphere, a layer of the upper atmosphere a couple hundred miles (300 kilometers) above the Earth's surface. The theory was that ions produced by the soon-to-slip fault could disturb the ionosphere.

But an analysis of five ionosphere disturbances recorded before earthquakes found that each could have been caused by something else—usually the sun. That's "a space-physics signal, not an earthquake signal," says Jeremy Thomas, a space plasma physicist at Northwest Research Associates and the Digipen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Washington. Thomas also presented his findings at the AGU meeting.

It's particularly telling, Thomas says, that the same disturbances in the ionosphere could be found far away from the earthquake epicenter. "If it's related to the earthquake, you wouldn't have the signal thousands of kilometers away," he said.

This lack of success doesn't mean that earthquake prediction is quackery.

"It is a field that is very much alive," says Michael Blanpied, executive director of the National Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council, whose scientists assess the believability of proposed earthquake prediction methods and report findings to the U.S. Geological Survey.

"There are a lot of people attacking the problem from a lot of angles and trying to sort out the wheat from the chaff—to find out if there is some wheat in there, which is still not clear," he said.

"The heart of the issue is that the field contains people who are working at a very highly professional level, people who come from other professional fields, and people who don't have a scientific background but think they have something to contribute."

And sorting that out, he added, is what earthquake prediction science is all about.

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Abbas sees Palestinian unity as Fatah rallies in Gaza

GAZA (Reuters) - President Mahmoud Abbas predicted the end of a five-year split between the two big Palestinian factions as his Fatah movement staged its first mass rally in Gaza with the blessing of Hamas Islamists who rule the enclave.

"Soon we will regain our unity," Abbas, whose authority has been limited to the Israeli-occupied West Bank since the 2007 civil war between the two factions, said in a televised address to hundreds of thousands of followers marching in Gaza on Friday, with yellow Fatah flags instead of the green of Hamas.

The hardline Hamas movement, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, expelled secular Fatah from Gaza during the war. It gave permission for the rally after the deadlock in peace talks between Abbas's administration and Israel narrowed the two factions' ideological differences.

The Palestinian rivals have drawn closer since Israel's assault on Gaza assault in November, in which Hamas, though battered, claimed victory.

Egypt has long tried to broker Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, but past efforts have foundered over questions of power-sharing, control of weaponry, and to what extent Israel and other powers would accept a Palestinian administration including Hamas.

An Egyptian official told Reuters Cairo was preparing to invite the factions for new negotiations within two weeks.

Israel fears grassroots support for Hamas could eventually topple Abbas's Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank.

"Hamas could seize control of the PA any day," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday.

The demonstration marked 48 years since Fatah's founding as the spearhead of the Palestinians' fight against Israel. Its longtime leader Yasser Arafat signed an interim 1993 peace accord that won Palestinians a measure of self rule.

Hamas, which rejected the 1993 deal, fought and won a Palestinian parliamentary election in 2006. It formed an uneasy coalition with Fatah until their violent split a year later.

Though shunned by the West, Hamas feels bolstered by electoral gains for Islamist movements in neighboring Egypt and elsewhere in the region - a confidence reflected in the fact Friday's Fatah demonstration was allowed to take place.

"The success of the rally is a success for Fatah, and for Hamas too," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "The positive atmosphere is a step on the way to regain national unity."

Fatah, meanwhile, has been riven by dissent about the credibility of Abbas's statesmanship, especially given Israel's continued settlement-building on West Bank land. The Israelis quit Gaza unilaterally in 2005 after 38 years of occupation.

"The message today is that Fatah cannot be wiped out," said Amal Hamad, a member of the group's ruling body, referring to the demonstration attended by several Abbas advisers. "Fatah lives, no one can exclude it and it seeks to end the division."

In his speech, Abbas promised to return to Gaza soon and said Palestinian unification would be "a step on the way to ending the (Israeli) occupation".

(Editing by Dan Williams, Alistair Lyon and Jason Webb)

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Unique meteorite hints Mars stayed moist for longer

A scorched rock bought in Morocco turned out to be a diamond in the rough. The unusual meteorite may be the first sample of the Red Planet's crust ever to hit Earth, and it suggests that Mars held on to its water for longer than we thought.

The meteorite, dubbed Northwest Africa (NWA) 7034, is strikingly different from the 111 previously discovered Martian meteorites. "You could look at meteorites for the rest of your life and not find another one like this," says Carl Agee of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, who was part of a team that has recently analysed NWA 7034. "This is in its own new group."

The most distinctive difference is its mineral content. Previously found meteorites had unearthly oxygen isotopes that marked them as being from another planet, and their volcanic origin made Mars the most likely culprit. But compared to these meteorites, surface rocks studied by Martian rovers and orbiters are much richer in light metals such as potassium and sodium. This suggests the known meteorites came from deeper inside the Red Planet.

"We're watching data coming back from Mars, and everything that comes back doesn't look like the Martian meteorites we have in our collections," says Munir Humayun of Florida State University in Tallahassee, who was not involved in the new study. "That's kind of a bummer."

By contrast, NWA 7034's chemistry closely resembles the rock and soil studied by NASA's Spirit rover. Preliminary measurements from the Curiosity rover, which landed in August 2012, suggest its landing site also has a similar composition.

Drying era

"Finally, it looks as if we have a sample that is very similar to the rocks that the rovers are seeing," Agee says. What's more, the Moroccan meteorite may come from a period in Mars' history when the planet was drying out.

Mars is thought to have once been much warmer, wetter and more hospitable to life. Then it morphed into the dry, cold desert we see today. The oldest known Mars meteorite, called the Allan Hills meteorite, is 4.5 billion years old. The other 110 meteorites are much younger – 1.5 billion years old at most – and formed after Mars is thought to have lost its water.

NWA 7034 is 2.1 billion years old, making it the first meteorite that may hail from the transitional era. Intriguingly, it has as much as 30 times more water than previous meteorites locked up in its minerals. "It opens our mind to the possibility that climate change on Mars was more gradual," Agee says. "Maybe it didn't lose its water early on."

Hot deal

The 319.8-gram rock found its way to Agee's lab via an amateur collector named Jay Piatek. He bought it for what turned out to be a knock-down price from a Moroccan meteorite dealer, who recognised its scorched exterior as a sign that it fell from space. "It didn't look like a Martian meteorite, so it didn't have the Martian meteorite value at the time," Agee says, adding that Mars rock can go for $500 to $1000 per gram.

Piatek brought the rock to Agee's lab to find out what it was. "Honestly, I had never seen anything like it. I was baffled, initially," Agee says. "Now, about a year and a half after the first time I set eyes on this thing, we are convinced that it is Martian, a new type, and has important implications for understanding the history of Mars."

Humayun says the results so far are exciting, and that the rock's carbon content could also yield valuable insights once other researchers get their hands on it.

"What's the most exciting thing you would want to do with a rock that comes from the near surface of Mars, especially one that seems to be loaded with water?" he asks. "I would say, what about life?" Agee and colleagues found organic matter in the meteorite, he says, but it will take more work to determine whether it was of Martian or terrestrial origin.

If it's Martian, "that would spark a lot of excitement", he says.

Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1228858

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Pakistani warlord's death a 'major development': US

WASHINGTON: The Pentagon welcomed reports Thursday that a prominent Pakistani warlord was killed in a drone strike, saying his death would represent a "major development."

Local officials in Pakistan said Mullah Nazir, the main militant commander in South Waziristan, was taken out when an unmanned US aircraft fired two missiles at his vehicle.

But a Pentagon spokesman could not confirm the account.

"If the reports are true, then this would be a significant blow, and would be very helpful not just to the United States but also to our Pakistani partners," spokesman George Little told reporters.

Nazir sent insurgents to Afghanistan to wage war on NATO-led troops and operated out of the tribal zone where militants linked to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have bases on the Afghan border.

Pakistani officials said the drone strike on Wednesday killed Nazir and five of his loyalists, including two senior deputies.

Nazir, one of the highest-profile drone victims in recent years, had a complicated relationship with the Pakistani government, having agreed to a peace deal with Islamabad in 2007. Pakistani officials had hoped he could counter Pakistani Taliban insurgents.

He was understood to be close to the Al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, a faction of the Afghan Taliban blamed for some of the most high-profile attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan in recent years.

"This is someone who has a great deal of blood on his hands," Little said. "This would be a major development."

Washington has long urged Islamabad to crack down on the Haqqani network without success.

Drone bombing raids in Pakistan are run by the CIA and not by the Pentagon. Although an open secret, the CIA does not publicly discuss the drone air war, which officials believe has severely weakened Al-Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan.

According to figures compiled by a Washington think tank, US drone strikes against Islamist militants decreased in Pakistan's tribal regions for the second year in a row but intensified in Yemen.

In Pakistan, 46 strikes were carried out in 2012, compared to 72 in 2011 and 122 in 2010, the New America Foundation said, based on its compilation of reports in international media.

But Yemen saw an equally dramatic spike in the covert bombing runs, with strikes against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants rising from 18 in 2011 to 53 in 2012.

- AFP/jc

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Greuel faults DWP for bypassing bids on lobbying contracts

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power repeatedly bypassed its competitive bidding process when it awarded $480,000 in contracts to lobby Sacramento decision-makers, according to a report issued by City Controller Wendy Greuel.

DWP executives issued four no-bid contracts for state lobbying over the last two years, two of them to Mercury Public Affairs, a firm that includes former state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez as one of its partners. No public debate or vote by the utility's five-member Board of Commissioners was required under DWP contracting rules because each agreement was $150,000 or less.

Greuel, who is running for mayor in the March 5 election, said the city utility had "lax controls" over the lobbying contracts and failed to require that two of the firms prepare reports showing what they had accomplished. Mercury also was paid $50,000 for a month of work to help secure passage of legislation on power plant upgrades that had been withdrawn on the first day of the firm's contract, the report found.

DWP lobbyist: An article in the Jan. 3 LATExtra section about DWP lobbying practices said the agency had been paying $15,000 to its in-house lobbyist Cindy Montañez in 2009. The article should have specified that Montañez was being paid $15,000 per month.

"DWP should have terminated" the contract, Greuel wrote.

The inquiry, which was conducted with help from the city Ethics Commission, was launched last year after Greuel's office received a tip alleging that the lobbying work was awarded in exchange for favors. But no evidence of "a 'pay to play' arrangement" was found, her report said.

Mercury received DWP lobbying contracts worth $50,000 in 2010 and $150,000 in 2011, both focused on state government. The firm also received a no-bid, nine-month contract worth $141,000 in 2010 for lobbying at the federal level, which was not examined in the controller's report.

The DWP said the no-bid contracts were reviewed and approved by the city's lawyers. The three lobbying firms helped shape costly state regulations dealing with greenhouse gas emissions and pollution of ocean plant life caused by coastal power plants, utility officials said.

"Their effective advocacy contributed to favorable outcomes that will save LADWP's customers in excess of a billion dollars," the DWP said in a statement.

Mercury Managing Director Roger Salazar said his firm provided strategy for dealing with water quality regulators, as well as state lawmakers. "The legislative process doesn't always end with the pulling of a bill," he added.

The DWP's hiring practices for outside lobbyists attracted scrutiny in 2009 after high-level officials proposed a contract worth up to $2.4 million with Conservation Strategy Group — a Sacramento-based firm that planned to use Mercury and a second company as subcontractors.

The deal would have included the involvement of Nuñez, author of the state's landmark 2006 climate change law. But it was scuttled after DWP commissioners raised questions about the cost. The agency already was paying $15,000 to its in-house lobbyist Cindy Montañez, a former Assembly member who is now a City Council candidate.

DWP officials subsequently began using simple purchase orders instead of competitive bidding procedures to hire lobbying firms. The utility awarded a one-year, $130,000 agreement to Weideman Group in 2010 and a one-year, $150,000 agreement with Conservation Strategy Group in 2011.

Mercury received its $150,000 contract in April 2011, during the same week that Nuñez contributed $3,000 to three of the mayor's legal defense funds and $1,000 to a separate officeholder account belonging to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The defense funds were set up to pay nearly $42,000 in ethics fines levied against Villaraigosa for accepting free tickets to sports and cultural events.

Salazar said there was no link between the contracts and the donations from Nuñez. "Any insinuation that they are connected is absurd and irresponsible," he said.

Last month, the DWP's five-member board awarded a Sacramento lobbying contract worth $1 million annually to KP Public Affairs. That vote was taken after a competitive search process.

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Pictures We Love: Best of December

Photograph by Paula Bronstein, Getty Images

Elephants are likely one of the last things jittery coffee junkies think about while waiting for their latest shot of caffeine.

But these ponderous pachyderms are essential in the production of the latest brew from Black Ivory Coffee, a Thai company. The elephants, pictured above going for an early morning bath in northern Thailand on December 10, ingest Thai arabica coffee beans, digest them, and then expel them.

Workers pluck the processed beans from the elephant dung, wash them, and then roast them. Each serving costs about $50.

Asian elephants aren't the only animals involved in this type of 'refining' process. Asian palm civets are perhaps the most famous example of an animal whose digestive tract mellows the bitterness found in coffee beans.

Why We Love It

"The repetition of the elephants make this idyllic scene fascinating."—Amina El Banayosy, photo intern

"This picture is like a daydream, temporarily transplanting me somewhere far from the chaos and noise of city life. The pop of color in the first rider's red shirt, the sun pouring through dark clouds, and the ripples of water forming from the wading elephant are all nice details in this serene frame."—Ben Fitch, associate photo editor

Published January 3, 2013

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Syria rebels in push to capture air base

AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) - Rebels battled on Thursday to seize an air base in northern Syria, part of a campaign to fight back against the air power that has given President Bashar al-Assad's forces free rein to bomb rebel-held towns.

More than 60,000 people have been killed in the 21-month-old uprising and civil war, the United Nations said this week, sharply raising the death toll estimate in a conflict that shows no sign of ending.

After dramatic advances over the second half of 2012, the rebels now hold wide swathes of territory in the north and east, but are limited in exerting control because they cannot protect towns and villages from Assad's helicopters and jets.

Hundreds of fighters from rebel groups were attempting to storm the Taftanaz air base, near the northern highway that links Syria's two main cities, Aleppo and the capital Damascus.

Rebels have been besieging air bases across the north in recent weeks, in the hope this will reduce the government's power to carry out air strikes and resupply loyalist-held areas.

A rebel fighter speaking from near the Taftanaz base overnight said the base's main sections were still in loyalist hands but insurgents had managed to infiltrate and destroy a helicopter and a fighter jet on the ground.

The northern rebel Idlib Coordination Committee said the rebels had detonated a car bomb inside the base.

The government's SANA news agency said the base had not fallen and that the military had "strongly confronted an attempt by the terrorists to attack the airport from several axes, inflicting heavy losses among them and destroying their weapons and munitions".

Rami Abdulrahman, head of the opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which monitors the conflict from Britain, said as many as 800 fighters were involved in the assault, including Islamists from Jabhat al-Nusra, a powerful group that Washington considers terrorists.

Taftanaz is mainly a helicopter base, used for missions to resupply army positions in the north, many of which are cut off by road because of rebel gains, as well as for dropping crude "barrel bombs" of explosives on rebel-controlled areas.


Near Minakh, another northern air base that rebels have surrounded, government forces have retaliated by regularly shelling and bombing nearby towns.

In the town of Azaz, where the bombardment has become a near nightly occurrence, shells hit a family house overnight. Zeinab Hammadi said her two wounded daughters, aged 10 and 12, had been rushed across the border to Turkey, one with her brain exposed.

"We were sleeping and it just landed on us in the blink of an eye," she said, weeping as she surveyed the damage.

Family members tried to salvage possessions from the wreckage, men lifting out furniture and children carrying out their belongings in tubs.

"He (Assad) wants revenge against the people," said Abu Hassan, 33, working at a garage near the destroyed house. "What is the fault of the children? Are they the ones fighting?"

Opposition activists said warplanes struck a residential building in another rebel-held northern town, Hayyan, killing at least eight civilians.

Video footage showed men carrying dismembered bodies of children and dozens of people searching for victims in the rubble of the destroyed building, shouting "God is greatest". The provenance of the video could not be independently confirmed.

In addition to their tenuous grip on the north, the rebels also hold a crescent of suburbs on the edge of Damascus, which have come under bombardment by government forces that control the center of the capital.

On Wednesday, according to opposition activists, dozens of people were incinerated in an inferno caused by an air strike on a petrol station in a Damascus suburb where residents were lining up for precious fuel.

The civil war in Syria has become the longest and bloodiest of the conflicts that rose out of uprisings across the Arab world in the past two years.

Assad's family has ruled for 42 years since his father seized power in a coup. The war pits rebels, mainly from the Sunni Muslim majority, against a government supported by members of Assad's Shi'ite-derived Alawite minority sect and some members of other minorities who fear revenge if he falls.

The West, most Sunni-ruled Arab states and Turkey have called for Assad to leave power. He is supported by Russia and Shi'ite Iran.

(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

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Humble coin toss thrust to heart of multiverse debate

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Hillary Clinton seen leaving hospital building

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was seen leaving a hospital building Wednesday three days after being admitted for a blood clot discovered close to her brain.

CNN showed images of the 65-year-old top US diplomat wearing dark glasses and walking unaided to a black van, accompanied by her smiling husband, former president Bill Clinton, her daughter Chelsea and top aides.

State Department officials refused AFP requests to confirm she had been discharged, and it was not known whether she planned to go home or would be returning to hospital for more treatment.

Earlier, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Clinton, who is being treated with blood thinners to break up the potentially dangerous clot, had been busy keeping in touch by telephone.

"She has been talking to her staff, including today. She's been quite active on the phone with all of us," Nuland told journalists.

Clinton was admitted to the New York Presbyterian Hospital on Sunday after a routine scan revealed the clot in a vein in the space between her skull and her brain, and had been due to remain there for at least 48 hours.

Her doctors Lisa Bardack, from the Mount Kisco Medical Group, and Gigi El-Bayoumi, of George Washington University, said in a statement on Monday that Clinton had not suffered a stroke or any neurological damage.

"In all other aspects of her recovery, the secretary is making excellent progress and we are confident she will make a full recovery. She is in good spirits, engaging with her doctors, her family, and her staff," they said.

The globe-trotting diplomat had not been seen in public for almost four weeks, since succumbing to a stomach virus on returning from a trip to Europe on December 7, which forced her to cancel a planned visit to North Africa.

The effects of the stomach bug caused her to become dehydrated. She then fainted and suffered a concussion, which is thought to have brought on the blood clot.

After her fall, Clinton, who has travelled almost a million miles in her four years in office, was ordered to rest by doctors.

But Nuland said that on Saturday, before the MRI at the hospital revealed the clot, Clinton had spoken for about 30 minutes with the UN-Arab League peace envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.

She also spoke by phone with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani to discuss the situation in Syria, as well as about the "need to support the Palestinian Authority" and Afghanistan.

- AFP/jc

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Photographer following Justin Bieber Ferrari killed

Los Angeles police said the driver who hit a photographer after the paparazzo took photos of Justin Bieber's Ferrari is not likely to face charges.

The photographer died at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. A friend of the photographer told KCAL-TV Channel 9 that he was not a professional.

The incident took place on Sepulveda Boulevard near Getty Center Drive shortly before 6 p.m. Tuesday. A friend of Bieber was driving the sports
car when it was pulled over on the 405 Freeway by the California Highway Patrol for a traffic stop, according to LAPD Sgt. Rudy Lopez.

A CHP officer directed the driver of Bieber's car off the freeway and onto Sepulveda.

The photographer arrived at the scene, got out of his car and crossed
Sepulveda to take photos. He was hit by a car as he went back across
the street to his own car, the sources said.

The sources said the photographer was not crossing in a crosswalk and the driver was fully cooperating with authorities.

The paparazzi have tracked the driving habits of Bieber, 18, and the
Los Angeles city attorney's office has been unsuccessful in its attempt
to use a novel state law to limit their pursuits.

Judge Thomas Rubinson ruled in November the state law did not
pass constitutional muster in a case against Paul Raef, a photographer
who sped on the 101 Freeway last year to capture Bieber receiving a
traffic citation.

Passed in 2010, the law punishes paparazzi driving dangerously to
obtain images they intend to sell. But Rubinson said the law violated
1st Amendment protections, potentially affecting wedding photographers
or those speeding to events where celebrities are present.


Son of Clippers owner Donald Sterling found dead in Malibu

'Feud' behind man's body found encased in concrete, police say

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First Meteor Shower of 2013 Peaks Tonight

Kick off the New Year with the annual Quadrantid meteor shower, which will peak tonight into tomorrow morning.

During the peak period between 3 a.m. and dawn local time, as many as a hundred shooting stars per hour will be visible from dark locations in the Northern Hemisphere. (Read about the 2011 Quadrantids.)

While the glare of the waning moon will mute the display somewhat, "don't let that stop you from stepping outside, as intense activity is limited to only six hours," said Jim Todd, planetarium manager at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

There's also no need for binoculars or telescopes to catch this sky show, according to Geza Gyuk, astronomer with the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

Early Thursday morning, "find a site with a clear northern horizon where the shower appears to radiate out from—just off the handle of the Big Dipper—and bundle up and bring a friend," said Gyuk.

"A meteor shared is a meteor squared. One gets so much more pleasure when one can compare notes, gripes, and wonder!" he added.

Quadrantids Named for "Missing" Constellation

During a meteor shower Earth passes through a cloud of sand-grain-size particles left behind by a passing comet. The particles get ionized in the upper atmosphere in a bright flash of light—some of which are brighter than others.

Tiny fragments from the comet slam into the Earth's atmosphere at 90,000 miles per hour (1.4 million kilometers per hour) and burn up 50 miles (80 kilometers) above Earth, "creating the spectacular display we know as a meteor shower," Todd explained.

Like other meteor showers, the Quadrantids (pronounced Kwa-drun-tids) get their name from the constellation from which the meteors appear to radiate.

Dubbed Quadrans Muralis in the 19th century, this shower's namesake pattern of stars isn't found in any map of the heavens today.

Overcrowded star charts forced the removal of the constellation in 1922.

Astronomers decided to have Quadrans Muralis absorbed by the neighboring constellation Boötes, the Herdsman.

As for the Quadrantids keeping their name, it's likely that astronomers at the time decided to maintain it to avoid any confusion with the already established Bootid meteor shower.

Quadrantids Overlooked But Impressive

Historically the Quadrantid meteor shower is overlooked simply because of its brevity and timing—right in the middle of the most frigid winter nights in the Northern Hemisphere, where they are best seen.

But the Quadrantids are worth a look.

For one, they're prolific: "Nearly as many Quadrantid meteors will fly as can be seen during the larger August Perseid and December Geminid meteor showers," said the Oregon museum's Todd.

(Related pictures: "'Beautiful' Geminid Meteor Showers Grace Skies.")

The Quadrantids are also "well known for producing fireballs—exceptionally bright meteors which can also at times generate persistent trails," Todd said.

What's more, the meteor shower's parent object holds some mystery—it appears to be a recently discovered asteroid dubbed 2003 EH1.

And observational evidence is mounting that this object is most likely an extinct comet nucleus, said Todd, which appears to be the remnant of a larger object that broke apart about 500 years ago.

This unusual cosmic heritage makes sense, as the Quadrantids don't appear in older records.

"Other meteor showers, such as the Perseids and perhaps Leonids, seem to be fairly old, with historical documentation suggesting that they have been observed for thousands of years," said Gyuk.

"For the Quadrantids, there is good evidence to suggest that the shower didn't really start until about 500 years ago—making this also consistent with its very narrow peak in activity."

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Central African Republic rebels halt advance, agree to peace talks

DAMARA, Central African Republic (Reuters) - Rebels in Central African Republic said they had halted their advance on the capital on Wednesday and agreed to start peace talks, averting a clash with regionally backed troops.

The Seleka rebels had pushed to within striking distance of Bangui after a three-week onslaught and threatened to oust President Francois Bozize, accusing him of reneging on a previous peace deal and cracking down on dissidents.

Their announcement on Wednesday gave the leader only a limited reprieve as the fighters told Reuters they might insist on his removal in the negotiations.

"I have asked our forces not to move their positions starting today because we want to enter talks in (Gabon's capital) Libreville for a political solution," said Seleka spokesman Eric Massi, speaking by telephone from Paris.

"I am in discussion with our partners to come up with proposals to end the crisis, but one solution could be a political transition that excludes Bozize," he said.

Bozize on Wednesday sacked his Army Chief of Staff and took over the defense minister's role from his son, Jean Francis Bozize, according to a decree read on national radio, a day after publicly criticizing the military for failing to repel the rebels.

The advance by Seleka, an alliance of mostly northeastern rebel groups, was the latest in a series of revolts in a country at the heart of one of Africa's most turbulent regions - and the most serious since the Chad-backed insurgency that swept Bozize to power in 2003.

Diplomatic sources have said talks organized by central African regional bloc ECCAS could start on January 10. The United States, the European Union and France have called on both sides to negotiate and spare civilians.

Central African Republic is one of the least developed countries in the world despite its deposits of gold, diamonds and other minerals. French nuclear energy group Areva mines the country's Bakouma uranium deposit - France's biggest commercial interest in its former colony.


News of the rebel halt eased tension in Bangui, where residents had been stockpiling food and water and staying indoors after dark.

"They say they are no longer going to attack Bangui, and that's great news for us," said Jaqueline Loza in the crumbling riverside city.

ECCAS members Chad, Congo Republic, Gabon and Cameroon have sent hundreds of soldiers to reinforce CAR's army after a string of rebel victories since early December.

Gabonese General Jean Felix Akaga, commander of the regional force, said his troops were defending the town of Damara, 75 km (45 miles) north of Bangui and close to the rebel front.

"Damara is a red line not to be crossed ... Damara is in our control and Bangui is secure," he told Reuters. "If the rebellion decides to approach Damara, they know they will encounter a force that will react."

Soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs, rocket propelled grenade launchers and truck-mounted machineguns had taken up positions across the town, which was otherwise nearly-abandoned.

Some of the fighters wore turbans that covered their faces and had charms strung around their necks and arms meant to protect them against enemy bullets.

Chad's President Idriss Deby, one of Bozize's closest allies, had warned the rebels the regional force would confront them if they approached the town.

Chad provided training and equipment to the rebellion that brought Bozize to power by ousting then-president Ange Felix Patasse, who Chad accused of supporting Chadian dissidents.

Chad is also keen to keep a lid on instability in the territory close to its main oil export pipeline and has stepped in to defend Bozize against insurgents in the past.

A CAR government minister told Reuters the foreign troop presence strengthened Bozize's bargaining position ahead of the Libreville peace talks.

"The rebels are now in a position of weakness," the minister said, asking not to be named. "They should therefore stop imposing conditions like the departure of the president."

Central African Republic is one of a number of countries in the region where U.S. Special Forces are helping local soldiers track down the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group which has killed thousands of civilians across four nations.

France has a 600-strong force in CAR to defend about 1,200 of its citizens who live there.

Paris used air strikes to defend Bozize against a rebellion in 2006. But French President Francois Hollande turned down a request for more help, saying the days of intervening in other countries' affairs were over.

(Additional reporting by Paul-Marin Ngoupana in Bangui and Jon Herskovitz in Johannesburg; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Janet Lawrence)

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In-depth 2012: The best long reads of the year

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

Dig deeper, look closer and think harder – these are the goals of New Scientist's in-depth articles. Each one is perfect for saving in your favourite read-it-later app and curling up in front of a glowing tablet for a good long read.

These are our editors' picks of our best features of the year, and all are prime examples of the amazing breadth of big ideas that were ripe for the tackling in 2012. When you have finished digesting these readable meals, visit our in-depth articles archive if you're hungry for more.

Richard Webb: "You might not have heard of the algorithm that runs the world." I certainly hadn't, or that its mathematical foundations are starting to look a little wobbly. An eye-opening examination of how seemingly abstruse mathematics is in fact deeply embedded in modern life: "The algorithm that runs the world"

Sally Adee: Gastric bypass surgery is the best surgery you're not getting, said Dr Oz on his popular medical advice show in the US. Because of enthusiasm from people like him, this operation has become massively popular – but by whimsically hacking at our stomach, might we might be messing with a system far more complicated than anyone really understands? Samantha Murphy had the surgery and began to realise that losing 45 kilograms could come with some profound neurological trade-offs: "Change your stomach, change your brain"

Michael Le Page: Nowadays most people either haven't heard of the 1970 book The Limits to Growth, or believe – wrongly – that the research it was based on has been discredited. But the main message of Limits is perhaps more relevant than ever – that a delayed response to mounting environmental problems leads to catastrophe further down the line: "Boom and doom: Revisiting prophecies of collapse"

Richard Fisher: This is a simple story about a scientific mystery. Strange rumbles, whistles and blasts have been reported all over the world for centuries. In New York state, they are called "Seneca guns"; in the Italian Apennines they are described as brontidi, which means thunder-like; in Japan they are yan; and along the coast of Belgium they are called mistpouffers – or fog belches. Yet the cause is often unexplained – what on Earth could be behind them? "Mystery booms: The source of a worldwide sonic enigmaSpeaker"

Valerie Jamieson: It's been a sensational year for particle physics, but the Higgs boson isn't the only fascinating particle in town. Meet 11 more particles that change our understanding of the subatomic world: "11 particles for 11 physics puzzlesMovie Camera"

David Robson: What is the secret of the legendary "flow state" that seems to mark out genius in everyone from piano virtuosos to tennis champions? With the latest brain stimulation techniques, it may soon be within everyone's reach, and Sally Adee writes with panache as she describes her own use of the technology during a terrifying marksmanship training session. This has everything I want to read in a story – drama, a revolutionary idea and some practical advice for anyone to try at home: "Zap your brain into the zone: Fast track to pure focus"

Graham Lawton: The writer of this article, Christopher Kemp, is a self-confessed lover of marginalia – nooks and crannies of science that are often overlooked. But as this beautifully written story reveals, those nooks and crannies often contain rich and fascinating material. Material, in fact, like ambergris: "Heaven scent: The grey gold from a sperm whale's gut"

Ben Crystall: Many people may remember the wonder material Starlite from an episode of BBC TV's Tomorrow's World – it seemed to have a miraculous ability to withstand fire and heat. So what happened to it? In this feature Richard Fisher uncovers the strange tale of Starlite and its eccentric inventor Maurice Ward, and on the way reveals fascinating details about Ward and his creation. And though Ward is dead, the story may not be over – it now looks like Starlite could get a second chance… "The power of cool: Whatever became of Starlite?"

Clare Wilson: I enjoyed working on this feature the most this year because to me it truly represents the future of medicine. New Scientist often predicts that some new medicine or technology will be available in five years' time. When it comes to using gene therapies or stem cell therapies on babies in the womb – the subject of this feature – the timeline is probably more uncertain, yet I don't see how anyone can doubt that some day it will happen: "Fetal healing: Curing congenital diseases in the womb"

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

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

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

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Motorcycle bomb kills four in Pakistan's Karachi

KARACHI: A motorcycle bomb exploded Tuesday near the venue of a major political rally in Pakistan's largest city Karachi, killing four people and injuring 42 others, officials said.

The bombing appeared to be targeted at buses carrying supporters of the city's dominant political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which organised the rally attended by thousands of people.

"The latest report we have collected from hospitals said that four people have been killed and 42 are injured," provincial health minister Saghir Ahmad told AFP, updating the earlier toll of two dead and 25 injured.

Another health official at Karachi's Abbasi Shaheed hospital confirmed the new toll.

"The bomb was planted in a motorcycle," said Asif Ijaz, a senior police official.

Imran Shokat, a police spokesman in the southern Sindh province of which Karachi is the capital, said the motorcycle was parked in a congested neighbourhood near the venue of the rally.

"Bomb disposal experts are investigating but preliminary reports said it was a remote-controlled bomb," Shokat told AFP.

Karachi, the commercial capital of Pakistan with an estimated population of 18 million, is in the grip of a long-running wave of political and sectarian violence.

Its Arabian Sea port is used by the United States and NATO to ship supplies to the war in neighbouring, landlocked Afghanistan.

- AFP/jc

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Ruling over bumper-car injury supports amusement park

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court, protecting providers of risky recreational activities from lawsuits, decided Monday that bumper car riders may not sue amusement parks over injuries stemming from the inherent nature of the attraction.

The 6-1 decision may be cited to curb liability for a wide variety of activities — such as jet skiing, ice skating and even participating in a fitness class, lawyers in the case said.

"This is a victory for anyone who likes fun and risk activities," said Jeffrey M. Lenkov, an attorney for Great America, which won the case.

But Mark D. Rosenberg, who represented a woman injured in a bumper car at the Bay Area amusement park, said the decision was bad for consumers.

"Patrons are less safe today than they were yesterday," Rosenberg said.

The ruling came in a lawsuit by Smriti Nalwa, who fractured her wrist in 2005 while riding in a bumper car with her 9-year-old son and being involved in a head-on collision. Rosenberg said Great America had told ride operators not to allow head-on collisions, but failed to ask patrons to avoid them.

The court said Nalwa's injury was caused by a collision with another bumper car, a normal part of the ride. To reduce all risk of injury, the ride would have to be scrapped or completely reconfigured, the court said.

"A small degree of risk inevitably accompanies the thrill of speeding through curves and loops, defying gravity or, in bumper cars, engaging in the mock violence of low-speed collisions," Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for the majority. "Those who voluntarily join in these activities also voluntarily take on their minor inherent risks."

Monday's decision extended a legal doctrine that has limited liability for risky sports, such as football, to now include recreational activities.

"Where the doctrine applies to a recreational activity," Werdegar wrote, "operators, instructors and participants …owe other participants only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity."

Amusement parks will continue to be required to use the utmost care on thrill rides such as roller coasters, where riders surrender control to the operator. But on attractions where riders have some control, the parks can be held liable only if their conduct unreasonably raised the dangers.

"Low-speed collisions between the padded, independently operated cars are inherent in — are the whole point of — a bumper car ride," Werdegar wrote.

Parks that fail to provide routine safety measures such as seat belts, adequate bumpers and speed controls might be held liable for an injury, but operators should not be expected to restrict where a bumper car is bumped, the court said.

The justices noted that the state inspected the Great America rides annually, and the maintenance and safety staff checked on the bumper cars the day Nalwa broke her wrist. The ride was functioning normally.

Reports showed that bumper car riders at the park suffered 55 injuries — including bruises, cuts, scrapes and strains — in 2004 and 2005, but Nalwa's injury was the only fracture. Nalwa said her wrist snapped when she tried to brace herself by putting her hand on the dashboard.

Rosenberg said the injury stemmed from the head-on collision. He said the company had configured bumper rides in other parks to avoid such collisions and made the Santa Clara ride uni-directional after the lawsuit was filed.

Justice Joyce L. Kennard dissented, complaining that the decision would saddle trial judges "with the unenviable task of determining the risks of harm that are inherent in a particular recreational activity."

"Whether the plaintiff knowingly assumed the risk of injury no longer matters," Kennard said.

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Space Pictures This Week: Ice “Broccoli,” Solar Storm


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