Video games take off as a spectator sport

Editorial: "Give video games a sporting chance"

EVERY sport has its idols and superstars. Now video gaming is getting them too. Professional gaming, or e-sports, exploded in popularity in the US and Europe last year.

The scene has been big in Asia - particularly South Korea - for about a decade, with top players such as Lim Yo-Hwan earning six-figure salaries and competing for rock-star glory in Starcraft tournaments that attract audiences in the hundreds of thousands.

The phenomenon is taking off in the West partly because of improved video-streaming technology and large financial rewards. Video games are becoming a spectator sport, with certain players and commentators drawing massive online audiences.

And where people go, money follows. The second world championship of League of Legends - a team-based game in which players defend respective corners of a fantasy-themed battle arena - was held in Los Angeles in October. The tournament had a prize pool of $5 million for the season, with $1 million going to winning team Taipei Assassins, the largest cash prize in the history of e-sports.

League of Legends has also set records for spectator numbers. More than 8 million people watched the championship finals either online or on TV - a figure that dwarfs audience numbers for broadcasts of many traditional sports fixtures.

But gamers don't need to compete at the international level to earn money. Video-streaming software like Twitch makes it easy for players to send live footage to a website, where the more popular ones can attract upwards of 10,000 viewers - enough for some to make a living by having adverts in their video streams. Gamers can go pro without leaving their homes.

Currently, e-sports productions are handled by gaming leagues - but that could soon change. Last November saw two moves that will make it even easier to reach a global online audience. First, Twitch announced it would be integrating with Electronic Arts's Origin service, a widely used gaming platform. This would let gamers stream their play at the click of a button, making it easy for people around the world to watch.

Also in November came the latest release from one of gaming's biggest franchises, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, which has the ability to live-stream via YouTube built into the game itself. Another feature allows the broadcast of in-game commentary for multiplayer matches.

"I think we will reach a point, maybe within five years, where spectator features are a necessity for all big game releases," says Corin Cole of e-sports publishing company Heaven Media in Huntingdon, UK.

David Ting founded the California-based IGN Pro League (IPL), which hosts professional tournaments. He puts the popularity of e-sports down to the demand for new forms of online entertainment. "After 18 months, IPL's viewer numbers are already comparable to college sports in the US when there's a live event," he says. "The traffic is doubling every six months."

Ting sees motion detection, virtual reality and mobile gaming coming together to make physical exertion a more common aspect of video games, blurring the line between traditional sport and e-sports. "Angry Birds could be this century's bowling," says Ting.

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French air power stops Mali Islamist advance

BAMAKO: Mali's army took back a key town from Islamist rebels Saturday aided by French air power, opening a dramatic new phase in the conflict that France's leader declared is a battle against terrorism.

International momentum to wrest northern Mali back from the control of Al-Qaeda-linked groups built after the French air raids helped reclaim the front-line town of Konna, with Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal each pledging 500 troops to an African force tasked with regaining the north.

France's President Francois Hollande declared "Operation Serval" a success, saying French air power -- deployed on Friday to stop the rebel onslaught -- had "served to halt our adversaries," and that the intervention had "only one goal which is the fight against terrorism."

"Our foes have suffered heavy losses," he said.

The battle left dozens of dead rebels strewn across the area, according to witnesses and the Malian military.

France's forces suffered one casualty, a pilot killed carrying out air raids, said French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Hollande, who has struggled on the domestic front and seen his popularity hit record lows, said French forces would remain involved as long as necessary.

He sent the UN Security Council a letter asking to speed up plans to send a 3,300-strong African force into Mali.

Hollande also said that following the intervention he had ordered tightened security at home, saying France "has to take all necessary precautions" in the face of a terrorist threat.

The collapse of a nation formerly seen as a democratic success story in the region has sparked fears that northern Mali could become a launchpad for global terrorist attacks.

The Malian army said it was in full control of Konna after spending much of Saturday flushing out the last pockets of resistance following the battle, one of the worst clashes since the start of the crisis and the most significant setback inflicted on the Islamists.

Insurgents seized the town -- which is some 700 kilometres (400 miles) northeast of Bamako -- on Thursday, threatening to advance on the capital.

US officials said Washington might support France's sudden military intervention.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he welcomed the "military assistance France has provided to the Malian Government, at their request", and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso praised the "courageous action by French troops".

But Russia's Africa envoy, Mikhail Margelov, lashed out at the French move.

"African residents aside, no one else can or should solve the continent's problems," Margelov said.

Around 60 Islamists including women in veils protested outside the French embassy in London against the intervention, holding placards that read "French army, you will pay" and "Sharia is the only solution for Mali".

Malian residents however thanked France for its support.

"The French really saved us," said thirty-something Moussa Toure in Bamako -- a remark echoed by others, including Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore.

France also said it had deployed troops in the capital to protect the former colonial ruler's 6,000-strong expatriate community.

The capital has remained under government control throughout the crisis, which erupted in the wake of a March 22 coup that ousted democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure, creating a power vacuum that allowed the Islamists to seize the vast desert north.

Since seizing the territory, about the size of France, the Islamists have destroyed centuries-old Muslim mausoleums they see as heretical and imposed an extreme form of Islamic law in the main towns, flogging, amputating and sometimes executing accused transgressors.

First regional troops could arrive Sunday

Mali's armed forces had been in disarray since the coup and seemed powerless against a rebellion of seasoned fighters, but France's shock intervention tipped the power balance.

"The helicopters struck the insurgents' vehicles, which dispersed," a Malian military source said.

In the wake of the battle, West African nations sped up preparations to send troops to join the fight against the Islamists.

Ivory Coast's African Integration Minister Ally Coulibaly said the mission was being rapidly pushed forward and that the first troops could arrive as early as Sunday.

An unclear number of West African military personnel were already on the ground in Mali.

The UN Security Council has approved a 3,300-strong African force to help Mali defeat the rebels, but it had not been expected to deploy before September.

Mali's interim administration however warned it could not afford to wait months for a game-changer.

With the situation evolving rapidly, the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) announced late Friday it had authorised the immediate deployment of troops.

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki meanwhile said his country was becoming a corridor to deliver arms once used to fight former Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi's regime to Islamists in Mali.

"The situation in Mali has always worried us because we have begun to understand that our 'jihadists', quote unquote, have ties with these terrorist forces," Marzouki said.

His comments came as the premiers of Algeria, Libya and Tunisia sealed a pact to secure their borders against arms trafficking.


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Robbers at Nordstrom raped hostage, made women take off clothes, police say

This post has been updated.

One female hostage held overnight at the Nordstrom Rack in Westchester was sexually assaulted and another was stabbed, Los Angeles police said Friday.

The two were among 14 hostages held by two robbers at the clothing store. About a half hour into the ordeal, which began at 11 p.m. Thursday, the hostages were led into a bathroom, said sources familiar with the investigation.

The woman who was stabbed was struck in the neck and her injuries were not life threatening, police said. [Updated at 7:16 a.m., Jan. 11: A third hostage was pistol-whipped, police said.]

Police did not say exactly how long the suspects were in the Nordstrom Rack before they fled with an undisclosed amount of money.

Police early Friday were trying to confirm that the getaway car was found at a nearby location.

When the Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT officers arrived Thursday night, they surrounded the store, according to police sources.
At one point, one of the suspects left the store, saw police and ran back inside.

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Pictures: Civil War Shipwreck Revealed by Sonar

Photograph by Jesse Cancelmo

A fishing net, likely only decades old, drapes over machinery that once connected the Hatteras' pistons to its paddle wheels, said Delgado.

From archived documents, the NOAA archaeologist learned that Blake, the ship's commander, surrendered as his ship was sinking. "It was listing to port, [or the left]," Delgado said. The Alabama took the wounded and the rest of the crew and put them in irons.

The officers were allowed to keep their swords and wander the deck as long as they promised not to lead an uprising against the Alabama's crew, he added.

From there, the Alabama dropped off their captives in Jamaica, leaving them to make their own way back to the U.S.

Delgado wants to dig even further into the crew of the Hatteras. He'd like see if members of the public recognize any of the names on his list of crew members and can give him background on the men.

"That's why I do archaeology," he said.

(Read about other Civil War battlefields in National Geographic magazine.)

Published January 11, 2013

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Russia rejects Assad exit as precondition for Syria deal

MOSCOW/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Russia voiced support on Saturday for international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi but insisted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's exit cannot be a precondition for a deal to end the country's conflict.

Some 60,000 Syrians have been killed during the 21-month-old revolt and world powers are divided over how to stop the escalating bloodshed. Government aircraft bombed outer districts of Damascus on Saturday after being grounded for a week by stormy weather, opposition activists in the capital said.

A Russian Foreign Ministry statement following talks on Friday in Geneva with the United States and Brahimi reiterated calls for an end to violence in Syria, but there was no sign of a breakthrough.

Brahimi said the issue of Assad, who the United States, European powers and Gulf-led Arab states insist must step down to end the civil war, appeared to be a sticking point.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said: "As before, we firmly uphold the thesis that questions about Syria's future must be decided by the Syrians themselves, without interference from outside or the imposition of prepared recipes for development."

Russia has been Assad's most powerful international backer, joining with China to block three Western- and Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed to pressure him or push him from power. Assad can also rely on regional powerhouse Iran.

Russia called for "a political transition process" based on an agreement by foreign powers last June.

Brahimi, who is trying to build on that agreement, has met three times with senior Russian and U.S. diplomats since early December and met Assad in Damascus.

Russia and the United States disagreed over what the June agreement meant for Assad, with Washington saying it sent a clear signal he must go and Russia contending it did not.

Qatar on Saturday made a fresh call for an Arab force to end bloodshed in Syria if Brahimi's efforts fail, according to the Doha-based al Jazeera television.

"It is not a question of intervention in Syria in favor of one party against the other, but rather a force to preserve security," Qatar's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, said in an al Jazeera broadcast.


Moscow has been reluctant to endorse the "Arab Spring" popular revolts of the last two years, saying they have increased instability in the Middle East and created a risk of radical Islamists seizing power.

Although Russia sells arms to Syria and rents one of its naval bases, the economic benefit of its support for Assad is minimal. Analysts say President Vladimir Putin wants to prevent the United States from using military force or support from the U.N. Security Council to bring down governments it opposes.

However, as rebels gain ground in the war, Russia has given indications it is preparing for Assad's possible exit, while continuing to insist he must not be forced out by foreign powers.

Opposition activists say a military escalation and the hardship of winter have accelerated the death toll.

Rebel forces have acquired more powerful anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons during attacks on Assad's military bases.

Assad's forces have employed increasing amounts of military hardware including Scud-type ballistic missiles in the past two months. New York-based Human Rights Watch said they had also used incendiary cluster bombs that are banned by most nations.


The weeklong respite from aerial strikes has been marred by snow and thunderstorms that affected millions displaced by the conflict, which has now reached every region of Syria.

On Saturday, the skies were clear and jets and helicopters fired missiles and dropped bombs on a line of towns to the east of Damascus, where rebels have pushed out Assad's ground forces, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The British-based group, which is linked to the opposition, said it had no immediate information on casualties from the strikes on districts including Maleiha and farmland areas.

Rebels control large swathes of rural land around Syria but are stuck in a stalemate with Assad's forces in cities, where the army has reinforced positions.

State TV said government forces had repelled an attack by terrorists - a term it uses for the armed opposition - on Aleppo's international airport, now used as a helicopter base.

Reuters cannot independently confirm reports due to severe reporting restrictions imposed by the Syrian authorities and security constraints.

On Friday, rebels seized control of one of Syria's largest helicopter bases, Taftanaz in Idlib province, their first capture of a military airfield.

Eight-six people were killed on Friday, including 30 civilians, the Syrian Observatory said.

(Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Doina Chiacu)

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Today on New Scientist: 11 January 2013

Largest structure challenges Einstein's smooth cosmos

One-twentieth the diameter of the observable universe, a group of galaxies dents the cherished idea that the cosmos is uniform at large scales

Straitjacket drug halts herpes virus's escape stunt

Herpes infections recur as the virus is adept at evading our defences, but a new drug that suppresses enzymes exploited by the virus seems effective

Zoologger: Mouse eats scorpions and howls at the moon

Super-aggressive grasshopper mice are not put off by the deadly venom of the scorpions they feast on - in fact, nothing much seems to scare them

Sand tsunami pictured striking Australian coast

The spectacular wall of sand and dust appears to block out the sun like a giant wave

Astrophile: Zombie stars feed on Earth-like exoplanets

We can now learn what planets around other stars are made of - by looking at the atmospheres of white dwarfs that have swallowed up their worlds

Life will find a way, even in the midst of a hurricane

Not for the faint-hearted: to sample the microbiome of a hurricane, fly a jetliner through it

Physics not biology may be key to beating cancer

Billions of dollars spent on cancer research have yielded no great breakthrough yet. There are other ways to attack the problem, says physicist Paul Davies

Feedback: Return of nominative determinism

The last nominative determinism stories, salads of gizzards and his chestnuts, Australian graduates in outer space, and more

A comeback for virtual reality? Inside the Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift promises an immersive gaming experience like no other. Niall Firth gets his head in the game and gives it a try

Is the US facing Flu-maggedon?

The US flu season has come early this winter, leaving many hospitals overwhelmed. But is the situation really any worse than usual?

Your body's insights into life and cosmos

The Universe Within by Neil Shubin tells stories from your body about our species, planet and universe. PLUS: a cautionary tale of inspirational scientists

Hands on with Leap Motion's gestural interface

The makers of the ultra-precise gestural interface talk big about killing off the mouse. But it looks like more than just bluster

Personal assistant for your emails streamlines your life

GmailValet aims to use crowdsourcing to give everyone a personal assistant to help deal with their emails - it could cost as little as $2 a day

DNA 'identichip' gives a detailed picture of a suspect

A new microchip-based DNA tester can identify multiple traits of an individual at a time, even where their DNA is scarce

Most fundamental clock ever could redefine kilogram

Physicists have created the first clock with a tick that depends on the hyper-regular frequency of matter itself

Nanomachine mimics nature's protein factory

An artificial ribosome that assembles proteins and peptides could make it much easier to manufacture antibiotics and exotic new materials

Muscle mimic pulls electricity from wet surface

A plastic film that repeatedly curls up and flips over when wet could power devices in remote areas or sensors embedded in sweaty clothing

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Oil prices slip on profit taking

NEW YORK: World oil prices fell Friday as investors booked profits from the previous day's rally amid sluggish global economic growth.

New York's main West Texas Intermediate (WTI) contract, light sweet crude for February, settled 26 cents lower at $93.56 a barrel.

In London, Brent North Sea crude for delivery in February closed at $110.64 a barrel, down $1.25 from Thursday's close.

"Today we simply could be seeing profit taking as the oil markets have rallied over the last three weeks," Andy Lipow of Lipow Oil Associates.

Traders were facing an overbought market with no significant news to take prices higher, Robert Yawger of Mizuho Securities said.

He noted that WTI had hit the highest level in several months on Thursday, at $94.70 a barrel. The surge was largely driven by upbeat trade data from China, the world's second-biggest oil consumer.

Tim Evans of Citi Futures said rising US petroleum product inventories were to blame for Friday's price weakness.

"The rally of the past few weeks largely ignored the rising stocks," he said.


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Woman murders girl, 2, feeding her chili power, police say

An Apple Valley woman accused of fatally poisoning her boyfriend’s 2-year-old toddler with chili powder pleaded not guilty Thursday to murder, a prosecutor said.

Amanda Sorensen, 21, pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and child abuse causing death. She appeared in court Thursday, said Kathleen DiDonato, a deputy district attorney. DiDonato declined to talk about the specifics of the case.

Sorensen was arrested early Monday morning. She is being held at the West Valley Detention Center.

Authorities were called to the 20000 block of Cayuga Road in Apple Valley on a report of a child suffering from a seizure after ingesting chili powder. The toddler died at a hospital, deputies said.

Relatives of the toddler told the Victor Valley Press they were in “shock,” after the incident.

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Space Pictures This Week: Australia Burns, Pulsars Wobble

Image courtesy P. Kalas, U. California, and ESA/NASA

This new Hubble Space Telescope image of a nearby star, Fomalhaut, and its surrounding disc of debris have made astronomers sit up and take notice. That's because the picture, released January 8, reveals that the debris field—made of ice, dust, and rocks—is wider than previously thought, spanning an area 14 to 20 billion miles from the star.

Scientists have also used the image to calculate the path of a planet, Fomalhaut b, as it makes its away around the star. It turns out that the planet's 2,000-year elliptical orbit takes it three times closer to Fomalhaut than previously thought, and that its eccentric path could send it plowing through the rock and ice contained in the debris field.

The resulting collision, if it happens, could occur around the year 2032 and result in a show similar to what happened when the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter, astronomer Paul Kalas, of the University of California at Berkeley, said in a statement.

Published January 11, 2013

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Obama, Karzai agree to speed up Afghan military transition

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed on Friday to speed up the handover of combat operations in Afghanistan to Afghan forces this year, underscoring Obama's determination to move decisively to wind down the long, unpopular war.

Signaling a narrowing of differences, Karzai appeared to give ground in White House talks on U.S. demands for immunity from prosecution for any U.S. troops who stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, a concession that could allow Obama to keep at least a small residual force there.

Both leaders also threw their support behind tentative Afghan reconciliation efforts with Taliban insurgents. They each voiced support for the establishment of a Taliban political office in the Gulf state of Qatar in hopes of bringing insurgents to inter-Afghan talks.

Karzai's visit, which follows a year of growing strains in U.S.-Afghan ties, comes amid stepped-up deliberations in Washington over the size and scope of the U.S. military role in Afghanistan once the NATO-led combat mission concludes at the end of next year.

The Obama administration has been considering a residual force of between 3,000 and 9,000 troops in Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorism operations while providing training and assistance for Afghan forces.

But a top Obama aide said this week that the administration does not rule out a complete withdrawal after 2014, a move that some experts say would be disastrous for the still-fragile Afghan government and its fledgling security apparatus.

Saying that Afghan forces were being trained and were "stepping up" faster than expected, Obama said Afghan troops would take over the lead in combat missions across the country this spring, rather than waiting until the summer, as was originally planned.

"Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission: training, advising, assisting Afghan forces," Obama said. "It will be a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty."

There are some 66,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan. NATO allies have also been steadily reducing their troop numbers there with the aim of ending the foreign combat role in 2014, despite doubts about the ability of Afghan forces to shoulder full responsibility for security.

Obama said final decisions on this year's troop reductions and the post-2014 U.S. military role were still months away, but his comments raised the prospects of an accelerated withdrawal timetable as the security transition proceeds.

Precisely how much of an acceleration was unclear.

For his part, Karzai voiced satisfaction over Obama's agreement to turn over control of detention centers to Afghan authorities, a source of dispute between their countries.

The two leaders, who have had a tense relationship in the past, stood side by side in the White House East Room, nodding occasionally as the other spoke.

Obama once called Afghanistan a "war of necessity," but he is heading into a second term looking for an orderly way out of the conflict, which was sparked by the September 11, 2001 attacks by al Qaeda on the United States.

(Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Warren Strobel and David Brunnstrom)

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Muscle mimic pulls electricity from wet surface

Electricity has been squeezed from a damp surface for the first time, thanks to a polymer film that curls up and moves – a bit like an artificial muscle – when exposed to moisture. The film could be used to run small, wearable devices on nothing but sweat, or in remote locations where conventional electricity sources aren't available.

When a dry polymer absorbs water, its molecular structure changes. This can, in principle, be converted into larger-scale movement, and in turn electricity. But previous attempts at creating a material powered by a moisture gradient – the difference in chemical potential energy between a wet region and a dry region - failed to produce a useful level of force.

These unsuccessful tries used a polymer called polypyrrole. Now Robert Langer and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have turned to the material again, embedding chains of it within another material, polyol-borate. This more complex arrangement mimics structures found in muscles as well as in plant tissues that bend in response to changes in humidity.

Flipping film

The result looks like an ordinary piece of thin black plastic, but when placed on a wet surface, something extraordinary happens. As the material absorbs water, its end curls away from the surface and the film becomes unstable, so it flips over. The ends have now dried out, so they are ready to absorb more water, and the whole process repeats itself. This continuous flipping motion lets the film travel across a suitably moist surface unaided.

Langer found that a 0.03-millimetre-thick strip, weighing roughly 25 milligrams, could curl up and lift a load 380 times its mass to a height of 2 millimetres. It was also able to move sideways when carrying a load about 10 times its mass.

To extract energy from this effect, Langer's team added a layer of piezoelectric material – one which produces electricity when squeezed. When this enhanced film, weighing about 100 milligrams, flipped over, it generated an output of 5.6 nanowatts – enough to power a microchip in sleep mode.

Electricity from sweat

Though the output is small, it is proof that electricity can be extracted from a water gradient. "To the extent of our knowledge, we are the first to utilise a water gradient, without a pressure gradient, to generate electricity," says Langer.

Large-scale energy harvesting is unlikely as the size of the device needed would be impractical, but it could be used to power small devices such as environmental monitoring systems in remote locations. "It will be interesting for applications where the amount of energy needed may be low but where access to energy may be difficult," says Peter Fratzl at the Max-Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany, who was not involved in the work.

Another application, Langer suggests, would be to place the film inside the clothing of joggers or athletes. The evaporation of sweat could generate enough electricity to power sensors monitoring blood pressure and heart rate.

Journal reference: Science, DOI 10.1126/science.1230262

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

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Bombs kill 92 in Pakistan's Quetta: police

QUETTA: Bomb attacks killed 92 people in Pakistan's city of Quetta on Thursday, as twin suicide bombers targeted a snooker hall frequented by Shiites in the deadliest single attack in the country for nearly two years.

At least 81 people were killed and 121 wounded when two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the crowded club in an area of the southwestern city dominated by members of the Shiite Muslim community, a senior police officer said.

It was one of the worst single attacks ever on the minority community, which account for around 20 per cent of Pakistan's 180-million strong population.

It was the deadliest attack in Pakistan since twin suicide bombers killed 98 people outside a police training centre in the northwestern town of Shabqadar on May 13, 2011 -- shortly after US troops killed Osama bin Laden.

The double suicide blasts came hours after a bomb ripped through a security forces' vehicle in a crowded part of the city, killing 11 people and wounding dozens more.

At the snooker club the first suicide bomber struck inside the building, then 10 minutes later an attacker in a car outside blew himself up as police, media workers and rescue teams rushed to the site, said officer Mir Zubair Mehmood.

"The death toll has risen to 81 so far," senior police official Mir Zubair Mehmood told a news conference, putting the number of wounded at 121.

"Both (attacks) were (carried out by) suicide bombers and the death toll could rise further," he added.

Mehmood said the dead also included nine police personnel and a local television camera man. Several rescue workers were also killed in the attacks, he said.

The snooker club is frequented mostly by Shiites, police said.

According to the US-based Human Rights Watch, 2012 was the deadliest year on record for Shiites in Pakistan.

The organisation late Thursday called the government's failure to protect the community, which accounts for around 20 per cent of the population, "reprehensible and amounts to complicity in the barbaric slaughter of Pakistani citizens".

People were seen wailing and crying beside the bodies lying on the ground, an AFP photographer said.

The bombings damaged several shops and nearby buildings. At least four vehicles of local ambulance service were destroyed. The blast site was also littered with the belongings of the victims.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Quetta has been a flashpoint for attacks against Shiites, in particular those from the ethnic Hazara minority, as well as suffering from attacks linked to a separatist insurgency and Islamist militancy.

Police said the attacks disrupted power supplies and plunged the area into darkness that hampered rescue work.

Quetta is the capital of the province of Baluchistan, one of the most deprived parts of Pakistan but rich in natural gas and mineral deposits on the Afghan and Iranian borders.

In the earlier attack bombers had targeted Frontier Corps personnel, planting their device underneath an FC vehicle, a senior police investigator said.

"At least one FC personnel was killed and 10 others wounded, two of them seriously," FC spokesman Murtaza Baig told AFP.

Bomb disposal official Abdul Razzaq said the bomb, packed with 20 to 25 kilograms of explosives, was detonated by remote control.

"I went out of my shop and saw a thick cloud of dust. I was very scared and saw people screaming in panic. There were dead bodies and injured people shouting for help," said Allah Dad, a local shopkeeper.

In the northwestern Swat valley on Thursday a gas cylinder blast at a religious gathering killed 22 people and wounded more than 80, officials said, prompting a probe into possible sabotage.

The explosion took place at a weekly meeting of the local Tableeghi Jamaat (preachers' party) at its centre on the outskirts of Mingora, the main town in the district, regional police chief Akhtar Hayat said.

It was the deadliest blast in Swat since the Pakistan army declared it back under government control in July 2009 following a two-year Taliban-led insurgency in the valley.

- AFP/jc

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Irvine City Council overhauls oversight, spending on Great Park

Capping a raucous eight-hour-plus meeting, the Irvine City Council early Wednesday voted to overhaul the oversight and spending on the beleaguered Orange County Great Park while authorizing an audit of the more than $220 million that so far has been spent on the ambitious project.

A newly elected City Council majority voted 3 to 2 to terminate contracts with two firms that had been paid a combined $1.1 million a year for consulting, lobbying, marketing and public relations. One of those firms — Forde & Mollrich public relations — has been paid $12.4 million since county voters approved the Great Park plan in 2002.

"We need to stop talking about building a Great Park and actually start building a Great Park," council member Jeff Lalloway said.

The council, by the same split vote, also changed the composition of the Great Park's board of directors, shedding four non-elected members and handing control to Irvine's five council members.

The actions mark a significant turning point in the decade-long effort to turn the former El Toro Marine base into a 1,447-acre municipal park with man-made canyons, rivers, forests and gardens that planners hoped would rival New York's Central Park.

The city hoped to finish and maintain the park for years to come with $1.4 billion in state redevelopment funds. But that money vanished last year as part of the cutbacks to deal with California's massive budget deficit.

"We've gone through $220 million, but where has it gone?" council member Christina Shea said of the project's initial funding from developers in exchange for the right to build around the site. "The fact of the matter is the money is almost gone. It can't be business as usual."

The council majority said the changes will bring accountability and efficiencies to a project that critics say has been larded with wasteful spending and no-bid contracts. For all that has been spent, only about 200 acres of the park has been developed and half of that is leased to farmers.

But council members Larry Agran and Beth Krom, who have steered the course of the project since its inception, voted against reconfiguring the Great Park's board of directors and canceling the contracts with the two firms.

Krom has called the move a "witch hunt" against her and Agran. Feuding between liberal and conservative factions on the council has long shaped Irvine politics.

"This is a power play," she said. "There's a new sheriff in town."

The council meeting stretched long into the night, with the final vote coming Wednesday at 1:34 a.m. Tensions were high in the packed chambers with cheering, clapping and heckling coming from the crowd.

At one point council member Lalloway lamented that he "couldn't hear himself think."

During public comments, newly elected Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer chastised the council for "fighting like schoolchildren." Earlier this week he said that if the Irvine's new council majority can't make progress on the Great Park, he would seek a ballot initiative to have the county take over.

And Spitzer angrily told Agran that his stewardship of the project had been a failure.

"You know what?" he said. "It's their vision now. You're in the minority."

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How "Cheating" Slime Mold Escapes Death

Cheaters do prosper—at least if you're a slime mold, a new study says.

The slime mold Dictyostelium discoideum, found in most warm parts of the world, has an unusual life cycle. Most of the time Dicytostelium cells are "happy" single cells that hang out and eat bacteria, according to study leader Lorenzo Santorelli of the University of Oxford, who conducted the research while at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine.

But sometimes, when food is scarce, different strains of Dictyostelium, including a mutated strain, form a mobile, multicellular organism called a "slug." This cluster then sprouts a stalk called a fruiting body, which produces spores that disperse into new slime molds. (Also see "Slime Has Memory but No Brain.")

For a slug to produce a stalk, however, nearly 20 percent of its cells must die—essentially sacrificing themselves to pass on their genes. (Get a genetics overview.) The remaining 80 percent live on and become spores.

Now, for the first time, Santorelli and colleagues have figured out the mechanism by which the mutated strain is able to survive in higher numbers than the others.

It suppresses normal cells from becoming spores, thereby forcing more of these cells to sacrifice themselves for the stalk and die. Meanwhile, more cells in the mutated strain become spores—and thus avoid dying as stalk cells. In other words, more than the "fair share" of cheater cells see another day.

Cheating Cells Surprisingly Healthy

To make the discovery, the team mixed the cheater strain with normal strains and observed that more cells in the cheater strain live on. (See "Smart Slime, Ovulating Strippers Among 2008 Ig Nobels.")

On one hand, this isn't all that surprising, Santorelli noted: "Cooperation is always under attack in any organism—trying to get something for [yourself], it's just nature."

But what is striking, he said, is that usually cheaters eventually cause the entire cooperative system to collapse. Not so in Dictyostelium—somehow it's evolved a way to keep everything running smoothly, said Santorelli, whose study was recently published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.

What's more, cheaters are usually weaker than cooperative individuals. But not in Dictyostelium cheaters, which appear to be quite healthy.

Santorelli wants to find out how the cheater strain is so successful. And, just maybe, the lowly slime mold could unravel the evolutionary and genetic basis for cooperation, he added.

"Slime mold is an amazing organism."

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String of bombings kill 101, injure 200 in Pakistan

QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - At least 101 people were killed in bombings in two Pakistani cities on Thursday in one of the country's bloodiest days in recent years, officials said, with most casualties caused by sectarian attacks in Quetta.

The bombings underscored the myriad threats Pakistani security forces face from homegrown Sunni extremist groups, the Taliban insurgency in the northwest and the less well-known Baloch insurgency in the southwest.

On Thursday evening, two coordinated explosions killed at least 69 people and injured more than 100 in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, said Deputy Inspector of Police Hamid Shakil.

The first attack, in a crowded snooker hall, was a suicide bombing, local residents said. About ten minutes later, a car bomb exploded, they said. Five policemen and a cameraman were among the dead from that blast.

The attacks happened in a predominately Shia neighborhood and banned sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility. The extremist Sunni group targets Shias, who make up about 20 percent of Pakistani's population.

Targeted killings and bombings of Shia communities are common in Pakistan, and rights groups say hundreds of Shia were killed last year. Militant groups in Balochistan frequently bomb or shoot Shia passengers on buses travelling to neighboring Iran.

The killers are rarely caught and some Shia activists say militants work alongside elements of Pakistan's security forces, who see them as a potential bulwark against neighboring India.

Many Pakistanis fear their nation could become the site of a regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia, source of funding for Sunni extremist groups, and Iran, which is largely Shia.

But sectarian tensions are not the only source of violence.

The United Baloch Army claimed responsibility for a blast in Quetta's market earlier in the day. It killed 11 people and injured more than 40, mostly vegetable sellers and secondhand clothes dealers, police officer Zubair Mehmood said. A child was also killed.

The group is one of several fighting for independence for Balochistan, an arid, impoverished region with substantial gas, copper and gold reserves, which constitutes just under half of Pakistan's territory and is home to about 8 million of the country's population of 180 million.


In another incident Thursday, 21 were killed and more than 60 injured in a bombing when people gathered to hear a religious leader speak in Mingora, the largest city in the northwestern province of Swat, police and officials at the Saidu Sharif hospital said.

"The death toll may rise as some of the injured are in critical condition and we are receiving more and more injured people," said Dr. Niaz Mohammad.

It has been more than two years since a militant attack has claimed that many lives in Swat.

The mountainous region, formerly a tourist destination, has been administered by the Pakistani army since their 2009 offensive drove out Taliban militants who had taken control.

But Talibans retain the ability to attack in Swat and shot schoolgirl campaigner Malala Yousufzai in Mingora last October.

A Taliban spokesman said they were not responsible for Thursday's bombing.

(Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Pakistan; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Jason Webb)

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Flower Power sensor gives everyone green fingers

Niall Firth, technology editor

Are you one of those people that, as soon as they are get a new plant, it is merely a matter of time before the poor thing is just a sad, dried mass of shrivelled leaves? Then a new gadget called Flower Power, unveiled at the International CES trade show in Las Vegas, Nevada yesterday, could be just the thing to help you pretend your fingers really are green.

Developed by Parrot, the French firm that brought us the quad-rotor AR drone, Flower Power is a Bluetooth-enabled stick that you simply shove in the soil with your plant, after having chosen from a list of around 6000 plants which one you are trying not to kill. Sensors in the stick monitor the moisture in the soil, sunlight and whether you need to add any more fertiliser and then send that info via a low-powered version of Bluetooth to the cloud. It's meant to keep on sending data for up to six months before needing a battery change.

The data is analysed and compared with set parameters for the particular type of plant. "We think of it as putting your garden on the internet," says Henri Seydoux, Parrot's CEO. The stick and accompanying Android app are due to be released later this year.

The app displays all the info you need about your plant and flags up areas of concern using colour-coded warning signs, telling you when your beloved bit of flora needs a top up. Graphs show you how they are all faring. In theory, it will leave little excuse for killing that plant that was given to you by your friendly neighbour. In practice, I probably still will. But at least I'll know why this time.

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US urges India, Pakistan to cool Kashmir tensions

WASHINGTON: The United States on Wednesday called on India and Pakistan to seek to cool tensions after Delhi accused the Pakistani army of beheading one of two Indian soldiers killed in Kashmir.

"Violence is not the answer for either country," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland insisted.

"We've been counselling both governments to de-escalate, to work through this issue, to continue the consultations between them at a high level that we understand are ongoing now."

Pakistan has insisted no such incident had taken place in the disputed Kashmir region and suggested a UN inquiry be held.

But India has denounced the "inhuman" treatment of the two soldiers killed two days after a Pakistani soldier was also slain in the area.

Tensions have blown up along the Line of Control, the de facto border in Kashmir, over the past week with the two incidents again highlighting the six-decade long dispute over the Himalayan region.

Washington has been working through its embassies in both countries to calm tensions, and urging both governments to talk to each other, Nuland said.

The UN observer force in Kashmir is investigating an incident in which Pakistan said one of its soldiers was killed, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters in New York. But he added no complaint has been made about the clash in which India alleged one of its soldiers was beheaded.

Nuland said that if both sides "can work it out themselves, that's obviously best. If both parties were interested in support from the UN... we'd obviously support that as well."

- AFP/jc

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Judge weeps at "Dating Game" serial killer's 'horrific acts'

Convicted serial killer Rodney Alcala appears in a New York courtroom on Monday, where he was sentenced for two murders in the 1970s.

California serial killer Rodney Alcala was sentenced to additional prison time in New York for the murders of two more women, a case that brought a veteran judge to tears during the hearing.

Alcala, who is already on death row in California for the murders of four women and a girl, pleaded guilty in December to the 1971 murder of Cornelia Crilley and the 1977 murder of Ellen Hover, both in New York. On Monday, New York Supreme Court Judge Bonnie Wittner handed down a sentence of 25 years to life in prison, the Wall Street Journal reported.

"This kind of case is something I've never experienced, hope to never again. I just want to say I hope these families find some peace and solace for these inexplicably brutal and horrific acts," Wittner said, according to the Journal.

PHOTOS: California serial killers

Wittner then dissolved into tears. "As I said, in 30 years I've never had a case like this," she said.

Alcala raped and strangled Crilley, a 23-year-old TWA flight attendant, inside her Upper East Side apartment in 1971. Six years later, he killed Hover, also 23 and living in Manhattan. Her body was found in Westchester County, not far from her family's estate. 

The Journal reported that many in attendance at Monday's sentencing wore stickers bearing the black-and-white photograph that initially appeared in stories about Crilley's death. "Cornelia Always in Our Hearts," the stickers read.

Crilley's sister, Katie Stigell, spoke to the court, using most of her time talking about her sister, who "was in her prime" and "wouldn't hurt anybody." But Stigell also had words for Alcala.

"Mr. Alcala, I want you to know you broke my parents' hearts," Stigell said. "They never really recovered."

Hover's stepsisters declined to appear in court. Instead, prosecutor Alex Spiro read a letter on their behalf, the Journal reported.

"Ellen was a sweet, kind, generous, compassionate, loving and beautiful young woman. She chose to see the good in everyone she met because she had a huge and open heart," the letter read. "Her senseless murder irreparably damaged our family."

Alcala, a self-styled playboy who once appeared on "The Dating Game" TV match-making show, spent much of the 1970s eluding police by changing identities and locales. He has been behind bars since 1979, when he was arrested in the death of 12-year-old Robin Samsoe of Huntington Beach.

Twice he was sent to death row for murder, but both convictions were overturned on appeal. In February 2010, he was convicted again for Samsoe's murder and for the murders of four women in Los Angeles County. He is now awaiting execution.

At a news conference after Monday's hearing, Manhattan Dist. Atty. Cyrus Vance said Alcala would be returned to California, where he is appealing his death-penalty conviction. Should that conviction be overturned, Vance said, Alcala would return to New York for his sentence.

The extent of Alcala's crimes were revealed as a task force formed by the Los Angeles Police Department and other agencies that was examining cold cases tied him to slayings across Southern California. New York police had long considered Alcala a suspect in the slayings of Crilley and Hover and had taken impressions of his teeth in 2003. Alcala had lived in New York periodically between 1968 and 1977. 

During that period, Crilley was found raped and strangled with her nylon stockings in her Manhattan apartment. Around that time, Alcala was working at a summer camp for girls in New Hampshire, authorities said.

Hover went missing in July 1977 and her body was discovered the following year. Before she disappeared, she had written the name "John Berger" in a planner, a name police believe Alcala used as an alias while in New York.

The Southern California killings began just a few months later.


— Alcala is convicted in the 1968 rape and beating of an 8-year-old girl.

Nov. 10, 1977 — The body of 18-year-old Jill Barcomb is found in the Hollywood Hills. She had been sexually assaulted, bludgeoned and strangled with a pair of blue pants.

Dec. 16, 1977 — Georgia Wixted, 27, is found beaten to death at her home in Malibu. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

1978  Alcala appears in an episode of “The Dating Game” as Bachelor No. 1.

June 24, 1978 — Charlotte Lamb, a 32-year-old legal secretary from Santa Monica, is found in the laundry room of an El Segundo apartment complex. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled with a shoelace. 

June 14, 1979 — Jill Parenteau, 21, of Burbank is found strangled on the floor of her Burbank apartment.

June 20, 1979 – Robin Samsoe, 12, disappears near the Huntington Beach Pier. Her body is found 12 days later in the Sierra Madre foothills.

AlcalaJuly 24, 1979 —
 Rodney James Alcala, an unemployed photographer, is arrested at his parents’ Monterey Park home.

September 1980 – Alcala is convicted of the 1978 rape of a 15-year-old Riverside girl and sentenced to nine years in state prison.

June 20, 1980 — Orange County Superior Court Judge Philip E. Schwab sentences Alcala to death after he is convicted of Samsoe's murder.

July 11, 1980 — The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office files murder, burglary and sexual assault charges against Alcala in the slaying of Parenteau.

April 15, 1981 — The L.A. district attorney’s office tells a judge that prosecution of Alcala in the Parenteau case could not proceed because a key witness admitted that he had committed perjury in another case.

Aug. 23, 1984 — The state Supreme Court reversed Alcala’s murder conviction in connection with Samsoe, ruling that the jury was improperly told about Alcala’s prior sex crimes.

June 20, 1986 — For the second time, Alcala is convicted for Samsoe’s murder and sentenced to death in Orange County Superior Court.

AlcalaDec. 31, 1992 —
 The California Supreme Court unanimously upholds Alcala’s death sentence.

April 2, 2001 — A federal appellate court overturns Alcala’s death sentence in the Samsoe case, ruling that the Superior Court judge precluded the defense from presenting evidence “material to significant issues.”

June 5, 2003 — The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office files murder charges against Alcala alleging that he killed Wixted during a burglary and rape.

Sept. 19, 2005 — Additional murder charges are filed against Alcala in connection to the deaths of Barcomb, Wixted and Lamb.

Jan. 11, 2010 — Alcala’s trial for the five murders begins. He represents himself.


Boy who shot neo-Nazi dad has 'tragic history,' expert says

FBI 'hopeful' more 'Speed Freak' victims remains will be found

Man accused of setting woman on fire in San Francisco is arrested

— Kate Mather and Richard Winton

Photo: Convicted serial killer Rodney Alcala appears in a New York courtroom on Monday, where he was sentenced for two murders in the 1970s. Credit: David Handschuh / Associated Press

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Albino-like Bald Eagle Spotted in Washington State

Talk about an odd bird—a bald eagle with white spots has been seen in Washington State.

Photographers Chris Teren and Traci Walter snapped the bird feeding on the Nooksack River, near Bellingham (map), on January 6. (Also see "'White,' Albino-like Penguin Found in Antarctica.")

"It was chaotic, with eagles flying and calling everywhere, then in came this eagle. It didn't take me long to figure out what we saw was something very special," Walter told National Geographic News by email.

"I was so excited, but I contained myself and focused on this eagle, and wound up with some great shots. I have seen a couple leucistic animals before, and figured that's what was going on."

Indeed, the animal likely has leucism, according to Andrew Griswold, an expert on bald eagles and director of ecotravel for the Connecticut Audubon Society.

Leucism is a mutation that prevents melanin, or pigment, from being produced in parts of an animal's body. In the case of birds, the pigment is absent from some feathers.

Another condition that creates white coloration in animals is albinism, which occurs when an animal produces no melanin at all throughout its entire body. (See pictures of albino animals.)

Bald eagles on the cusp of adulthood have similar mottled feathers, but in this case, the bird has the telltale golden eyes and beak of an adult, added Teresa McGill, a wildlife photographer with McGill's Nature in Motion. The pure-white head is also a sign of adulthood.

"This is an extremely mature eagle, [and it's] not just going through its change of plumage. Beautiful!" McGill said by email.

Odd Eagle May Have Romantic Woes

Leucism is seen in many bird species, although it's relatively rare, noted Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut. Comins has seen only a handful in his lifetime of bird-watching, mostly in red-tailed hawks.

Their rarity may be because leucistic birds are at a disadvantage. Unless they live in snowy regions, their striking white color may be more noticeable to predators or prey and may also turn off members of their own species.

The recently photographed bald eagle probably doesn't have trouble feeding or staying safe, since the large birds have few predators and scavenge their prey.

However, the fact that the bird looks like a teenager could be problematic, he said.

The plumage "might give a signal to another eagle that's a potential mate: This is not quite an adult bird, why would I want to mate with it?" Comins said.

Luckily, though, the bald eagle as a species is "a tremendous conservation success story," he noted. Once federally endangered, the well-known bird has rebounded from an estimated 16,000 birds in 1999 to at least 26,000 in 2011.

Added photographer Walter, who has watched wildlife her whole life, the rare eagle "was a sighting I will never forget."

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Venezuela court endorses Chavez inauguration delay

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's top court endorsed the postponement of Hugo Chavez's inauguration this week and ruled on Wednesday that the cancer-stricken president and his deputy would continue in their roles, despite a cacophony of opposition complaints.

Critics had argued the 58-year-old's absence from his own swearing-in ceremony on January 10 meant a caretaker president must be appointed. Chavez has not been seen in public nor heard from in almost a month following surgery in Cuba.

"Right now we cannot say when, how or where the president will be sworn in," Supreme Court Chief Judge Luisa Morales told a news conference.

"As president re-elect there is no interruption of performance of duties ... The inauguration can be carried out at a later date before the Supreme Court."

The decision opens the door in theory for Chavez to remain in office for weeks or months more from a Cuban hospital bed - though there is no evidence he is even conscious.

It leaves the South American country in the hands of Vice President Nicolas Maduro, as de facto leader of the government.

The opposition say that is a brazen violation of the constitution, and that Maduro should leave office on Thursday when the current presidential term had been due to expire.

They say National Assembly boss Diosdado Cabello, another powerful Chavez ally, should take over the running of the country while new elections would be organized within 30 days.

Maduro would be the ruling Socialist Party's candidate.

Government leaders insist Chavez, 58, is fulfilling his duties as head of state, even though official medical bulletins say he suffered complications after the surgery, including a severe lung infection, and has had trouble breathing.

His resignation or death would transform politics in the OPEC nation, where he is revered by poor supporters thankful for his social largesse, but denounced by opponents as a dictator.


Moody's Investors Service warned on Wednesday that Venezuela's sovereign credit rating, already at junk status, faces short-term risks over any political transition.

Prices of Venezuela's widely traded bonds have soared lately on Chavez's health woes, but dipped this week as investors' expectations of a quick government change apparently dimmed.

The president has undergone four operations, as well as weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, since being diagnosed with an undisclosed type of cancer in his pelvic area in June 2011.

He looked to have staged a remarkable recovery from the illness last year, winning a new six-year term at a hard-fought election in October. But within weeks of his victory he had to return to Havana for more treatment.

The government has called for a huge rally outside the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on Thursday, and allied leaders including Uruguay's Jose Mujica and Bolivia's Evo Morales have said they will visit - despite Chavez's absence.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, a close friend, has announced plans to visit Chavez in Cuba on Friday.

The unprecedented silence by Chavez, who is well known for his hours-long rambling speeches, has convinced many Venezuelans that his 14 years in power may be coming to an end.

Unlike after his previous operations in Cuba, no photographs have been published of him recuperating, and social media in Venezuela is buzzing with rumors he is on life support.

Cabello, the pugnacious head of the National Assembly, has repeatedly ruled out taking over as caretaker president to order a new presidential election, saying Chavez remains in charge.

"Tomorrow we will all go to the Miraflores palace," he told a televised Socialist Party meeting on Wednesday. "The people will be invested as president. We are all Chavez!"

(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga and Diego Ore; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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Today on New Scientist: 8 January 2013

Mock Mars mission reveals salty surprise

Unexpected findings from the "crew members" of the Mars 500 experiment may overturn a common assumption about how our body stores and excretes dietary salt

'Exocomets' abound in alien solar systems

Planets around billions of stars may be getting pummelled by the icy dirt-balls in the same way that the young Earth once was

Australia faces another week of 'catastrophic' heat

A record-smashing "dome of heat" is causing the worst fire threat on record and forcing Australian meteorologists to add two colours to their heat maps

Black holes star in first images of high-energy cosmos

NASA's recently launched NuSTAR space telescope peers through the dust that blinds other craft to spot a supernova and two black holes

Another day at the office for NASA's robot astronaut

This fine figure of a robot is Robonaut 2 hard at work aboard the International Space Station last week

Into thin air: Storage salvation for green energy

If renewable energy is to succeed, we need to find a better way to store it. Liquid air batteries could be the answer, says Jim Giles

Tony Fadell: From iPhones to sexing up thermostats

After quitting Apple, the tech guru behind the iPod wanted to revolutionise our homes - starting with the humble thermostat

World's oldest pills treated sore eyes

Tablets found in an ancient shipwreck contain zinc carbonates - just like many of today's eye medications

Only the toughest would survive on Tatooine worlds

A new look at twin-star systems hints that life might thrive in more places than we thought, as long as it can adapt to wild climates

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Yemen says US drone strikes to continue

SANAA: Yemen's national security chief said on Tuesday that US drone strikes against Al-Qaeda targets will continue as the two governments keep up their counter-terrorism cooperation.

"The Yemeni-American cooperation, including the use of friendly aircraft, will continue," Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi told reporters in Sanaa.

"Yemen is one of the countries that joined the international alliance to combat terrorism after the September 11," 2001 attacks on the United States, he said.

Washington has been stepping up its support for Yemen's battle against militants of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which it regards as the most active and deadliest franchise of the global jihadist network.

US drone strikes in Yemen nearly tripled in 2012 compared to 2011, with 53 recorded against 18, according to the Washington-based think tank New America Foundation.

At least 14 Al-Qaeda suspects have been killed in Yemen since December 24, when attacks by the unmanned aircraft on targets in Al-Bayda and the eastern Hadramawt province were stepped up.

AQAP took advantage of the weakness of Yemen's central government during an uprising in 2011 against now ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh, seizing large swathes of territory across the south.

But after a month-long offensive launched in May last year by Yemeni troops, most militants fled to the more lawless desert regions of the east.

According to Ahmadi, "terrorist elements of around 13 nationalities took part in killing Yemenis during the past period and have destroyed Abyan province, especially (its capital) Zinjibar which was completely destroyed."

Around 170,000 people fled Abyan after the militants seized much of the province, he added.

- AFP/jc

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Serial killer stalked, killed 3 young mothers at bars, LAPD says

Samuel Little

Authorities on Monday announced the arrest of a 72-year-old man who they allege is a serial killer responsible for the slayings of at least three women in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

Officials would not elaborate on the backgrounds of the
victims but said all three had children.

Los Angeles Police Department detectives allege that Samuel Little preyed on women in downtown and Central L.A., meeting some at bars before strangling them and dumping their bodies.

Police identified the victims as Carol Alford, 41, found dead on July
13, 1987; Audrey Nelson, 35, whose body was discovered Aug. 14, 1989;
and Guadalupe Apodaca, 46, found Sept. 2, 1989. Their bodies were
discovered in the Central Avenue-Alameda Street corridor, just south of

Police allege that Little met women while cruising in his car or in bars.

If the allegations are true, it would mark the discovery of yet another serial killer operating in L.A. during the 1980s. Two years ago, the LAPD arrested a man they said was the notorious “Grim Sleeper,” allegedly responsible for at least 10 slayings in South L.A.

Little has been extradited to California from Kentucky, where he was taken into custody by the U.S. Marshals Service in early September on an unrelated criminal warrant, LAPD officials said. He was charged Monday by the L.A. County district attorney's office with three murder counts and special circumstances for multiple murder.

LAPD detectives Mitzi Roberts and Rick Jackson, who investigated the case, said there is DNA evidence linking Little to the Los Angeles slayings but would not elaborate, citing the ongoing investigation. Roberts and Jackson spent months crisscrossing the country following Little’s path.

Sources said they interviewed four women who said they survived attacks by Little and that they might testify in court.

Little has a long criminal record, dating to the 1950s. Detectives said they believe he committed thefts during the day to make money to finance his bar-hopping.

“It was theft by day and murder by night,” Jackson said.

Little, who also went under the name Samuel McDowell, committed crimes in 24 states but served relatively little time in state prison or county jail, the detectives said. In the early 1980s, he was accused of a two murders and two attempted murders in the Gainesville, Fla., and Pascagoula, Miss., areas.

Little was acquitted by a Florida jury in the strangulation death of Patricia Ann Mount, 26, whose body was discovered Sept. 12, 1982.

He was never brought to trial in the Mississippi cases, which include the strangulation death of Melinda LaPree, 24, on Sept., 14 1982. That case has been reopened by the Pascagoula Police Department in light of new evidence, authorities said.

Little moved from the South to California in the mid-1980s, moving first to San Diego.

He served more than two years in state prison after being convicted of assault and false imprisonment of two San Diego women in separate cases, police said. Shortly after being paroled, he moved to Los Angeles.

Little was being held in Wasco State Prison after being extradited and could not be reached for comment.

The LAPD is now working with other jurisdictions to determine whether Little might be a suspect in additional killings.

“If any law enforcement agencies have similar killings that occurred between 1960 and the present, they should contact LAPD cold case detectives,” Roberts said.


Hertzberg changes course, backs Feuer for L.A. city attorney

Boater arrested after running aground, faces intoxication charge

FBI to excavate possible Speed Freak Killers site in Central Valley

-- Andrew Blankstein

Photo: Samuel Little. Credit: Los Angeles Police Department

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Pictures: Wildfires Scorch Australia Amid Record Heat

Photograph by Jo Giuliani, European Pressphoto Agency

Smoke from a wildfire mushrooms over a beach in Forcett, Tasmania, on January 4. (See more wildfire pictures.)

Wildfires have engulfed southeastern Australia, including the island state of Tasmania, in recent days, fueled by dry conditions and temperatures as high as 113ºF (45ºC), the Associated Press reported. (Read "Australia's Dry Run" inNational Geographic magazine.)

No deaths have been reported, though a hundred people are unaccounted for in the town of Dunalley, where the blazes destroyed 90 homes.

"You don't get conditions worse than this," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told the AP.

"We are at the catastrophic level, and clearly in those areas leaving early is your safest option."

Published January 8, 2013

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U.S. does not rule out complete pullout from Afghanistan after 2014

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration does not rule out a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after 2014, the White House said on Tuesday, just days before President Barack Obama is due to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The comments by U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes were the first signal that, despite initial recommendations by the top military commander in Afghanistan to keep as many as 15,000 troops in the country, the final decision may be to remove everyone, as happened in Iraq in 2011.

Asked about consideration of a so-called zero-option once the NATO combat mission ends at the end of 2014, Rhodes said: "That would be an option that we would consider."

"Because again, the president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan," he added, saying the objective was to ensure the training and equipping of Afghan forces and combating al Qaeda.

Rhodes, lowering expectations of any breakthrough in the talks with Karzai at the White House on Friday, said it would be months before a final decision is made on troop levels.

In Iraq, Obama decided to pull out all U.S. forces after failing in negotiations with the Iraqi government to secure immunity for any U.S. troops who would remain behind.

The Obama administration is also insisting on immunity for any U.S. troops that remain in Afghanistan, and that unsettled question will figure in this week's talks between Obama and Karzai and their aides.

Jeffrey Dressler, an Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War who favors keeping a larger presence in Afghanistan, questioned what battlefield conditions would allow for a complete U.S. pullout.

"I can't tell that they're doing that as a negotiating position ... or if it is a no-kidding option," Dressler said. "If you ask me, I don't see how zero troops is in the national security interest of the United States."

U.S. officials have said privately that the White House had asked for options to be developed for keeping between 3,000 and 9,000 troops in the country, a lower range than was put forward initially by General John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Allen suggested keeping between 6,000 and 15,000 troops in Afghanistan.

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick and Phil Stewart; Editing by Eric Beech)

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World's oldest pills treated sore eyes

In ancient Rome, physicians treated sore eyes with the same active ingredients as today. So suggests an analysis of pills found on the Relitto del Pozzino, a cargo ship wrecked off the Italian coast in around 140 BC.

"To our knowledge, these are the oldest medical tablets ever analysed," says Erika Ribechini of the University of Pisa in Italy, head of a team analysing the relics. She thinks the disc-shaped tablets, 4 centimetres across and a centimetre thick, were likely dipped in water and dabbed directly on the eyes.

The tablets were mainly made of the zinc carbonates hydrozincite and smithsonite, echoing the widespread use of zinc-based minerals in today's eye and skin medications. Ribechini says there is evidence that Pliny the Elder, the Roman physician, prescribed zinc compounds for these uses almost 250 years after the shipwreck in his seminal medical encyclopaedia, Naturalis Historia.

The tablets were also rich in plant and animal oils. Pollen grains from an olive tree suggest that olive oil was a key ingredient, just like it is today in many medical and beauty creams, says Ribechini.

The tablets were discovered in a sealed tin cylinder called a pyxis (see image above). The tin must have been airtight to protect its contents from oxygen corrosion.

"Findings of such ancient medicines are extremely rare, so preservation of the Pozzino tablets is a very lucky case," says Ribechini.

The cargo of the wreck, discovered in 1989, is rich in other medical equipment, including vials and special vessels for bloodletting. This suggests that one of the passengers may have been a physician.

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1216776110

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'Gun Appreciation Day' to be held in US

WASHINGTON: American gun enthusiasts can express their zeal on an upcoming "Gun Appreciation Day" right before Barack Obama is sworn in for a second term as president.

A new coalition of gun rights and conservative groups is urging Americans to show support for the right to carry firearms by turning out in large numbers on January 19 at gun stores and firing ranges. Obama's swearing in is to be take place two days later.

"The Obama administration has shown that it is more than willing to trample the Constitution to impose its dictates upon the American people," said Gun Appreciation Day chairman Larry Ward.

In the wake of the shooting last month in Connecticut which claimed the lives of 20 small children and six elementary school workers, Obama said he will support a new bill to restore a ban on military-style assault weapons.

Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation and chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said: "We need to ban politicians who assault our rights, not firearms that are used thousands of times a day to protect lives and property from criminal attack."

The second amendment to the US constitution guarantees the right to bear arms.

The pro-gun day is the initiative of a dozen or so associations which say they expect support from some 50 million Americans. The country's most powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, is not among the organisers.

- AFP/jc

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LAPD officers allegedly forced women to have sex with them

Two Los Angeles Police Department officers are under investigation for allegedly preying on women over a period of five years, luring them into an unmarked car and forcing them to perform sex acts, according to court records.

Detectives from the LAPD’s internal affairs unit suspect that Officers Luis Valenzuela and James Nichols targeted at least four women whom they had arrested previously or who worked for them as informants, according to a search warrant reviewed by The Times.

The pair repeatedly used the threat of jail to get women into their car and drove them to secluded areas where one of the officers demanded sex while the other kept watch, the warrant alleges.

Valenzuela and Nichols worked together until recently as narcotics officers in the Hollywood Division. Investigators have identified four women who encountered the pair and made similar independent accusations against them.

The warrant cites sexually explicit text messages that one alleged victim claims she exchanged with the officers after their encounters. Last month, investigators obtained the woman’s cellphone and computers in hopes of finding the messages the officers are alleged to have written. The department has yet to examine the electronic devices, a police official said.

Investigators had planned to confront the officers in a surprise operation early next week, but were forced to accelerate those plans Thursday, when one of the women unexpectedly filed a lawsuit against the officers. Fearing that Valenzuela and Nichols might destroy evidence, investigators rushed to sequester the officers and seize their computers and phones, police confirmed.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck emphasized Thursday that the investigation was ongoing, but added that he was “saddened by the allegations. If they are true, it would be horrific,” he said.

Valenzuela, a 15-year department veteran, and Nichols, a 12-year veteran, were expected to be assigned to their homes pending the outcome of the probe, the head of the internal affairs group said. The officers could not be reached for comment.

The first woman to accuse Valenzuela and Nichols came forward in January 2010, when she told a supervisor in their narcotics unit that the officers had stopped her more than a year earlier, according to the warrant. The woman, who worked as a confidential informant for the narcotics unit and knew the men, said they were dressed in plainclothes and driving a Volkswagen Jetta. Valenzuela threatened to take the woman to jail if she refused to get in the car, then got into the back seat with her and exposed himself, telling the woman to touch him, the warrant said.

An investigation into the woman’s claim went nowhere when the detective assigned to the case was unable to locate her, according to the warrant.

A year later, however, another woman demanded to speak to a supervisor after being arrested and taken to the LAPD’s Hollywood station. Sometime in late 2009, according to the warrant, two officers driving a Jetta pulled up alongside her as she was walking her dog in Hollywood. The officers, whom she recognized as the same cops who had arrested her in a previous encounter, ordered her into the car, the woman recounted. It is not known why she was arrested.

Believing that the officers were investigating a case, the woman said she felt compelled to comply. Valenzuela then got into the back seat with the woman and handed her dog to Nichols, who drove the car a short distance to a more secluded area. “Why don’t you cut out that tough girl crap,” the woman recounted Valenzuela saying as he “unzipped his pants and forced [her] head down toward his lap and physically held her head down” as he forced her to perform oral sex on him, according to police records contained in the warrant.

The woman said she didn’t report the incident immediately because she felt humiliated, thought no one would believe her and feared for her safety. Police noted that the woman displayed erratic behavior while recounting the events. Later, she made violent threats while in custody and was transported to a hospital.

Based on this allegation, the department reopened the investigation into the pair. The investigator assigned to the case interviewed this second accuser and managed, as well, to find the first woman who had come forward the year before. She, too, gave a statement, saying she had refused Valenzuela’s commands to fondle him.

For reasons not explained in the warrant, the department’s investigation made little progress for the next 18 months. During this time, police records show, the officers were transferred, with Valenzuela being reassigned to the Olympic Division and Nichols to the Northeast Division. (Nichols was involved in the high-profile arrest last year of Brian C. Mulligan, an executive at Deutsche Bank, who alleged he was the victim of excessive force. Police contend that Mulligan, while deranged on drugs, charged at Nichols and suffered injuries while Nichols and his partner took him into custody).

Cmdr. Rick Webb, who heads the LAPD’s internal affairs group, declined to comment on the specifics of the probe, but said such cases are often difficult to complete.

The case picked up steam again in July 2012, when a man left a phone message for the vice unit at the Northeast station, saying he was a member of the Echo Park neighborhood watch and had been told by a prostitute that patrol officers in the area were picking up prostitutes and letting them go in exchange for oral sex, the warrant said.

Two more months passed before a third internal affairs officer was assigned to look into the Echo Park claim. The investigator was aware of the earlier allegations against Valenzuela and Nichols and “thought the circumstances and location were very similar.”

It is not clear how, but the investigator identified another two women who reported encounters in which Nichols and Valenzuela had sought sexual favors in exchange for leniency.

One said Nichols had detained her in July 2011, handcuffed her and driven her to a quiet location. Removing the restraints, Nichols exposed himself and said, “You don’t want to go to jail today, do you?” the woman recalled. Fearing she would be arrested, the woman performed oral sex on Nichols, who then released her, she said. She said Nichols had done the same thing to her six years earlier.

The other woman discovered by the internal affairs investigator alleged that she became a confidential informant for Valenzuela and Nichols after she was arrested, according to the warrant. Valenzuela, she said, told her that having sex with him would help her avoid jail, according to the warrant. She alleged that she had sex with the officer twice, once when he was off duty at her apartment in Los Angeles, and the second time in the back seat of an undercover police car while he was on duty. She said she was afraid he would send her back to jail if she refused.

She said Nichols contacted her in January 2011 and told her he would cancel her obligation to inform for him if she would have sex with him.

The woman filed a lawsuit against the city Wednesday, alleging that the officers forced her to have sex with them several times in exchange for keeping her out of jail. The Times in general does not name the victims of alleged sex crimes.

That lawsuit was first reported by City News Service. Despite the officers’ promises, the woman was sentenced to jail in April 2011 and remains there, the lawsuit alleged. A district attorney’s spokeswoman said the woman is serving more than seven years in jail for possession of cocaine with intent to sell and identity theft.


Superman caught on video flying along Carlsbad beach

Teens drugged parents to use Internet past curfew, police say

Rare river otter a celebrity after settling near Golden Gate Bridge

-- Joel Rubin and Jack Leonard

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