Amazon to open market in second-hand MP3s and e-books

A new market for second-hand digital downloads could let us hold virtual yard sales of our ever-growing piles of intangible possessions

WHY buy second-hand? For physical goods, the appeal is in the price – you don't mind the creases in a book or rust spots on a car if it's a bargain. Although digital objects never lose their good-as-new lustre, their very nature means there is still uncertainty about whether we actually own them in the first place, making it tricky to set up a second-hand market. Now an Amazon patent for a system to support reselling digital purchases could change that.

Amazon's move comes after last year's European Union ruling that software vendors cannot stop customers from reselling their products. But without technical support, the ruling has had no impact. In Amazon's system, customers will keep their digital purchases – such as e-books or music – in a personal data store in the cloud that only they can access, allowing them to stream or download the content.

This part is like any cloud-based digital locker except that the customer can resell previous purchases by passing the access rights to another person. Once the transaction is complete, the seller will lose access to the content. Any system for reselling an e-book, for example, would have to ensure that it is not duplicated in the transaction. That means deleting any copies the seller may have lying around on hard drives, e-book readers, and other cloud services, since that would violate copyright.

Amazon may be the biggest company to consider a second-hand market, but it is not the first. ReDigi, based in Boston, has been running a resale market for digital goods since 2011. After downloading an app, users can buy a song on ReDigi for as little as 49 cents that would costs 99 cents new on iTunes.

When users want to sell an item, they upload it to ReDigi's servers via a mechanism that ensures no copy is made during the transfer. Software checks that the seller does not retain a copy. Once transferred, the item can be bought and downloaded by another customer. ReDigi is set to launch in Europe in a few months.

Digital items on ReDigi are cheaper because they are one-offs. If your hard drive crashes and you lose your iTunes collection you can download it again. But you can only download an item from ReDigi once – there is no other copy. That is the trade-off that makes a second-hand digital market work: the risk justifies the price. The idea has ruffled a few feathers – last year EMI sued ReDigi for infringement of copyright. A judge denied the claim, but the case continues.

Used digital goods can also come with added charm. ReDigi tracks the history of the items traded so when you buy something, you can see who has owned it and when. ReDigi's second-hand marketplace has grown into a social network. According to ReDigi founder John Ossenmacher, customers like seeing who has previously listened to a song. "It's got soul like an old guitar," he says. "We've introduced this whole feeling of connectedness."

It could be good for business too if the original vendors, such as iTunes, were to support resale and take a cut of the resell price. Nevertheless, Amazon's move bucks the industry trend. Microsoft's new Xbox, for example, is expected not to work with second-hand games.

But the market could change rapidly now that Amazon's weight is behind this, says Ossenmacher. "The industry is waking up."

This article appeared in print under the headline "Old MP3, one careful owner"

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'Citizen tide' of protests swamps Spain

MADRID: Fuming Spaniards massed in cities across the country on Saturday in a "citizens' tide" of protests.

Tens of thousands converged in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities to the din of drums and whistles and yells of "Resign!" directed at Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his government.

"We have come because of it all -- unemployment, corrupt politicians, the young people who have no future -- it's a combination of everything," said Luis Mora, 55, a construction worker in Madrid.

He joined a multitude of nurses, doctors, teachers, firemen, miners with lamps on their helmets and numerous other groups.

The grouping of civil associations that called the protests chose February 23 for the anniversary of an attempted coup in 1981 by officers who tried to restore military rule six years after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco.

The protestors' manifesto said the demonstrations targeted the "coup of the financial markets" which they largely blame for the crisis brought on by the collapse of the housing market.

Thousands of people also rallied in cities such as Valencia, Seville and A Coruna and the movement called demonstrations in scores of other towns.

Spain has been seeing weekly protests against the spending cuts and tax hikes imposed by Rajoy's conservative government to slash the public deficit.

The cuts are squeezing the public sector, while the current recession that started in late 2011 has shut down companies and thrown millions out of work, driving the unemployment rate above 26 per cent.

"Rajoy get out," and "No to bank dictatorship," read some of the signs in the sea of banners, plus placards reading "No" with scissors representing the cuts.

"We have been struggling all our lives and now with one snip they take away everything," said Mora, dressed in a white shirt with envelopes pinned on it marked "20,000 euros" -- a reference to political corruption.

Public anger has been fanned over recent weeks by a corruption scandal in Rajoy's conservative Popular Party.

Newspapers alleged that Rajoy and other party members received irregular payments, which he and the party have denied.

A separate corruption case being investigated on the island of Majorca has implicated the royal palace. King Juan Carlos's son-in-law Inaki Urdangarin and a palace official were questioned by an investigating judge in that affair on Saturday.

Many protestors in Saturday's demonstrations waved or wrapped themselves in the red, yellow and purple Spanish Republican flag -- a symbol of a pre-Franco, non-monarchical Spain.

Rajoy defended his government's record during a state of the nation address in parliament on Wednesday, saying that his austere measures had saved Spain from financial disaster.

"We have left behind us the constant threat of imminent disaster and we are starting to see the path for the future," he said.

In Madrid on Saturday, demonstrators converged on Plaza de Neptuno near the lower house of the Spanish parliament -- scene of a huge protest in September that led to clashes with riot police.

A crowd stood angrily shouting in front of a police barrier blocking access to the parliament before most of them dispersed.

"We're fed up," said Luis Miguel Herranz, 38, a hospital doctor in the Madrid demonstration.

"In any other country this would be of some use, but here it is not," he added. "The government is not listening to us."

- AFP/jc

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New toll lanes open on 10 Freeway

Los Angeles County's venture into toll roads advanced early Saturday with the opening of 14 miles of express lanes on the San Bernardino Freeway — the second project of its type to begin operation in the region since November.

At 12:01 a.m., the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority allowed drivers to travel the 10 Freeway's new high occupancy toll lanes — so-called HOT lanes — between Interstate 605 in El Monte and Alameda Street in downtown Los Angeles.

"This shows we are willing to address traffic, gridlock and congestion in the region," said Los Angeles Mayor and MTA board member Antonio Villaraigosa at a dedication ceremony in El Monte on Friday. "Other cities are going to do this across the county. We are going to see smarter use of highways."

The two westbound and two eastbound "Metro ExpressLanes" will be open to solo motorists who pay a toll, but they will be free for cars carrying at least two passengers.

During peak travel times, however, only carpools of three or more people will be able to use the lanes without paying. Van pools and motorcyclists also can enter the lanes toll free.

Using congestion pricing, motorists will pay anywhere from $0.25 a mile during off-peak periods to $1.40 a mile during the height of rush hour. MTA officials estimate that the average one-way cost should range between $4 and $7.

Setting tolls based on the volume of traffic is designed to maintain speeds of no less than 45 mph in the lanes. If the speed falls below that level, solo motorists will be prohibited from entering the lanes until the minimum speed resumes.

Motorists interested in the express lanes must open a FasTrak account with the MTA and make a $40 deposit to obtain a transponder, an electronic device that automatically bills their accounts whenever the lanes are used. Drivers can adjust the transponder to show how many people are in the vehicle, so the charges can be adjusted. Information is available online at

The county marked its entry into the use of tollways on Nov. 10, when the MTA opened its first express lanes along 11 miles of the Harbor Freeway between Adams Boulevard in Los Angeles and the Harbor Gateway Transit Center in the South Bay.

The lanes on both freeways are part of a $210-million demonstration project funded largely by the federal government. It includes upgrading transit and rail stations, 59 new clean-fuel buses, the $60-million El Monte Bus Station, highway ramp improvements and 100 new vanpools.

MTA officials said the express lanes on the 10 and 110 will cost $7 million to $10 million a year to operate, but should generate $18 million to $20 million in revenue, money that can be reinvested in both freeway corridors. So far, more than 100,000 people have obtained transponders for the lanes, officials said.

During the next year, the express-lane projects will be evaluated to determine whether the program should be continued and expanded to other freeways in the county.

"We expect it will be totally successful," said Victor Mendez, head of the Federal Highway Administration. "The project offers commuters a variety of choices, not just the highway."

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Elderly Abandoned at World's Largest Religious Festival

Every 12 years, the northern Indian city of Allahabad plays host to a vast gathering of Hindu pilgrims called the Maha Kumbh Mela. This year, Allahabad is expected to host an estimated 80 million pilgrims between January and March. (See Kumbh Mela: Pictures From the Hindu Holy Festival)

People come to Allahabad to wash away their sins in the sacred River Ganges. For many it's the realization of their life's goal, and they emerge feeling joyful and rejuvenated. But there is also a darker side to the world's largest religious gathering, as some take advantage of the swirling crowds to abandon elderly relatives.

"They wait for this Maha Kumbh because many people are there so nobody will know," said one human rights activist who has helped people in this predicament and who wished to remain anonymous. "Old people have become useless, they don't want to look after them, so they leave them and go."

Anshu Malviya, an Allahabad-based social worker, confirmed that both men and women have been abandoned during the religious event, though it has happened more often to elderly widows. Numbers are hard to come by, since many people genuinely become separated from their groups in the crowd, and those who have been abandoned may not admit it. But Malviya estimates that dozens of people are deliberately abandoned during a Maha Kumbh Mela, at a very rough guess.

To a foreigner, it seems puzzling that these people are not capable of finding their own way home. Malviya smiles. "If you were Indian," he said, "you wouldn't be puzzled. Often they have never left their homes. They are not educated, they don't work. A lot of the time they don't even know which district their village is in."

Once the crowd disperses and the volunteer-run lost-and-found camps that provide temporary respite have packed away their tents, the abandoned elderly may have the option of entering a government-run shelter. Conditions are notoriously bad in these homes, however, and many prefer to remain on the streets, begging. Some gravitate to other holy cities such as Varanasi or Vrindavan where, if they're lucky, they are taken in by temples or charity-funded shelters.

In these cities, they join a much larger population, predominantly women, whose families no longer wish to support them, and who have been brought there because, in the Hindu religion, to die in these holy cities is to achieve moksha or Nirvana. Mohini Giri, a Delhi-based campaigner for women's rights and former chair of India's National Commission for Women, estimates that there are 10,000 such women in Varanasi and 16,000 in Vrindavan.

But even these women are just the tip of the iceberg, says economist Jean Drèze of the University of Allahabad, who has campaigned on social issues in India since 1979. "For one woman who has been explicitly parked in Vrindavan or Varanasi, there are a thousand or ten thousand who are living next door to their sons and are as good as abandoned, literally kept on a starvation diet," he said.

According to the Hindu ideal, a woman should be looked after until the end of her life by her male relatives—with responsibility for her shifting from her father to her husband to her son. But Martha Chen, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University who published a study of widows in India in 2001, found that the reality was often very different.

Chen's survey of 562 widows of different ages revealed that about half of them were supporting themselves in households that did not include an adult male—either living alone, or with young children or other single women. Many of those who did live with their families reported harassment or even violence.

According to Drèze, the situation hasn't changed since Chen's study, despite the economic growth that has taken place in India, because widows remain vulnerable due to their lack of education and employment. In 2010, the World Bank reported that only 29 percent of the Indian workforce was female. Moreover, despite changes in the law designed to protect women's rights to property, in practice sons predominantly inherit from their parents—leaving women eternally dependent on men. In a country where 37 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line, elderly dependent relatives fall low on many people's lists of priorities.

This bleak picture is all too familiar to Devshran Singh, who oversees the Durga Kund old people's home in Varanasi. People don't pay toward the upkeep of their relatives, he said, and they rarely visit. In one case, a doctor brought an old woman to Durga Kund claiming she had been abandoned. After he had gone, the woman revealed that the doctor was her son. "In modern life," said Singh, "people don't have time for their elderly."

Drèze is currently campaigning for pensions for the elderly, including widows. Giri is working to make more women aware of their rights. And most experts agree that education, which is increasingly accessible to girls in India, will help improve women's plight. "Education is a big force of social change," said Drèze. "There's no doubt about that."

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Tens of thousands in Spain protest economic policy, corruption

MADRID (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Spaniards marched through cities across the country on Saturday to protest deep austerity, the privatization of public services and political corruption.

Gathering under the banner of the "Citizen Tide", students, doctors, unionists, young families and pensioners staged rowdy but non-violent demonstrations as a near five-year economic slump shows no sign of recovery and mass unemployment rises.

"I'm here to add my voice. They're cutting where they shouldn't cut; health, education ... basic services. And the latest corruption scandal is just the tiniest tip of a very large iceberg," said Alberto, 51, an account administrator for a German multinational in Madrid, who preferred not to give his surname.

Protests in Spain have become commonplace as the conservative government passes measures aimed at shrinking one of the euro zone's highest budget deficits and reinventing an economy hobbled by a burst housing bubble.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has introduced some of the deepest budget cuts in Spain's democratic history in an attempt to convince investors the country can weather the economic crisis without falling back on international aid.

But, with more than half of the country's young people out of work and growth not expected until sometime next year, the measures have only scratched the surface of the budget shortfall which is expected to be more than double the target in 2014.

Meanwhile, corruption scandals which have hit the ruling party as well as the once-popular royal family has left many Spaniards disenchanted with their leaders on all sides of the political spectrum.

In Madrid, under a clear, cold winter sky, Saturday's marches convened from four different points by early evening in Neptune Square, between the heavily policed and barricaded parliament, the Ritz Hotel and the stock exchange.

Carrying placards which condemned everything from cuts in the health sector to massive bailouts granted to Spain's banking system, crowds banged drums and chanted, while dozens of riot police stood on the sidelines.

The march coincided with the anniversary of a failed coup attempt in 1981 by Civil Guard officers who stormed Parliament and held deputies hostage until the next day.

(Reporting By Paul Day; Editing by Jason Webb)

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Rusty rocks reveal ancient origin of photosynthesis

SUN-WORSHIP began even earlier than we thought. The world's oldest sedimentary rocks suggest an early form of photosynthesis may have evolved almost 3.8 billion years ago, not long after life appeared on Earth.

A hallmark of photosynthesis in plants is that the process splits water and produces oxygen gas. But some groups of bacteria oxidise substances like iron instead – a form of photosynthesis that doesn't generate oxygen. Evolutionary biologists think these non-oxygen-generating forms of photosynthesis evolved first, giving rise to oxygen-generating photosynthesis sometime before the Earth's atmosphere gained oxygen 2.4 billion years ago (New Scientist, 8 December 2012, p 12).

But when did non-oxygen-generating photosynthesis evolve? Fossilised microbial mats that formed in shallow water 3.4 billion years ago in what is now South Africa show the chemical fingerprints of the process. However, geologists have long wondered whether even earlier evidence exists.

The world's oldest sedimentary rocks – a class of rock that can preserve evidence of life – are a logical place to look, says Andrew Czaja of the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. These rocks, which are found in Greenland and date back almost 3.8 billion years, contain vast deposits of iron oxide that are a puzzle. "What could have formed these giant masses of oxidised iron?" asks Czaja.

To investigate, he analysed the isotopic composition of samples taken from the oxidised iron. He found that some isotopes of iron were more common than they would be if oxygen gas was indiscriminately oxidising the metal. Moreover, the exact isotopic balance varied subtly from point to point in the rock.

Both findings make sense if photosynthetic bacteria were responsible for the iron oxide, says Czaja. That's because these microbes preferentially oxidise only a small fraction of the dissolved iron, and the iron isotopes they prefer vary slightly as environmental conditions change (Earth and Planetary Science Letters, His findings suggest that this form of photosynthesis appeared about 370 million years earlier than we thought.

It is "the best current working hypothesis for the origin of these deposits", says Mike Tice of Texas A&M University in College Station – one of the team who analysed the 3.4-billion-year-old microbial mats from South Africa.

William Martin at the University of Düsseldorf, Germany, agrees. "Anoxygenic photosynthesis is a good candidate for the isotope evidence they see," he says. "Had these fascinating results been collected on Mars, the verdict of the jury would surely remain open," says Martin Brasier at the University of Oxford. "But [on Earth] opinion seems to be swinging in the direction of non-oxygen-generating photosynthesis during the interval from 3.8 to 2.9 billion years ago."

This article appeared in print under the headline "Photosynthesis has truly ancient origins"

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Tennis: Kvitova beats another champion to reach Dubai final

DUBAI: Former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, showing her best form for more than a year, beat her second champion in a row to reach the Dubai Open final here on Friday.

Kvitova, who ended the title defence of Agnieszka Radwanska on Thursday, beat the 2011 titleholder Caroline Wozniacki, breaking serve in the opening game and rarely looking back in a 6-3, 6-4 win.

In her first final in six months, she now meets fifth seed Sara Errani of Italy, the French Open finalist, who beat her best friend and doubles partner Roberta Vihnci 6-3, 6-3.

The Czech's win over the Dane was full of characteristically fierce ground strokes, struck flat and hard to read, as well as a rising buoyancy which has not been evident over the past year.

Kvitova was delighted to have beaten three top 12 opponents in a row and, beaming at her success, said she was hopeful about her strengthened physical condition despite claiming that her "body was confused".

Asked for an explanation, she said: "I'm trying to be stronger in my legs and to have like stronger muscles, so I can be quicker and stay quite low for the fast shots.

"That's something I didn't like doing in the past. But I'm still thinking about the bad position I had before, and I'm trying to have the good position - that's why I'm, like, quite confused."

Nevertheless there was definite improvement in her movement, which helped her to break Wozniacki's serve in the opening game, to keep up a fierce attack, and to hold right through to the penultimate game of the first set when she broke Wozniacki again.

Wozniacki often moved superbly, but in the second set she also tried to serve harder, play faster, and generate more pressure of her own.

This helped her break for 3-2, and save break points in the eighth game. In between these two moments of resistance however Kvitova's attack was still too forceful, and she broke back for 3-3, and then broke again to win the match.

There was a frustrating end for Wozniacki, whose final shot, a backhand drive, was questionably called out - but she could do nothing about it because she had used up all her challenges.

"I don't know (if it was out) but it would have been nice to be able to challenge it," she admitted. "It was close, but, you know, I just have to believe it was out."

If Errani and Vinci thought that by taking a break from doubles to play singles only, they would spend time apart it was not entirely successful.

Instead Errani and Vinci found themselves battling against each other for an hour and 23 minutes of old-style rallies in which slice and accurate placement played a bigger part than power and flailing topspin.

Errani prevailed because she imposed her busy approach on the rallies. However it was noticeable that she toned down her some of her grunts, suggesting that comradeship may occasionally have vied with competitiveness for priority.

"It's tough to play against one person who knows what you're going to do with every shot," she admitted of the partner with whom she says she spends 300 days a year, while Vinci described it as like "playing against a sister."

The match finished with a symbolic moment as Errani's drive landed near the baseline, with Vinci surprisingly stopping the rally and calling for a computer review. On seeing that the shot was shown to be in, Vinci discovered that she had inadvertently ended the contest without striking the ball back against her friend.

- AFP/jc

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Eric Garcetti's role in L.A. budget fixes is in dispute

Pressed in the race for mayor of Los Angeles to say how he would fix a persistent budget gap that has led to the gutting of many city services, Eric Garcetti urges voters to look at what he has done in the past.

The onetime City Council president claims credit for reforms that he said cut the City Hall shortfall to just over $200 million from more than $1 billion. He sees "tremendous progress," principally in reducing pension and healthcare costs, and asserts: "I delivered that."

But the truth is in dispute. Although there is not a singular view about any aspect of the city's troubled finances, most of those in the thick of recent budget fights depict Garcetti not as a fiscal hard-liner but as a conciliator who used his leadership position to chart a middle ground on the most significant changes.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, city administrative officer Miguel Santana and one of Garcetti's rivals in the mayoral race, Councilwoman Jan Perry, were among those who pushed for bigger workforce reductions and larger employee contributions toward pensions and healthcare. Labor leaders and their champions on the City Council, including Paul Koretz and Richard Alarcon, sought to cushion the blow for workers.

Garcetti and his supporters say he moderated between those extremes. His critics said he worried too much about process and airing every viewpoint rather than focusing relentlessly on shoring up the city's bottom line.

"It was through the mayor's persistence and steadfast position that we got ongoing concessions," said Santana, the chief budget official for Los Angeles. "It was in collaboration with the council leadership that we finally reached agreements with labor."

The $1-billion-plus deficit Garcetti speaks of shrinking refers not to a single year but to the total of budget gaps that confronted Los Angeles over four years if no corrective action had been taken. The city's fiscal crisis worsened during that time because Garcetti and his fellow council members — including Perry and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel — approved a city employee pay raise of 25% over five years just before the country stumbled into the recession. (Greuel left the council in 2009 when she was elected city controller.)

Although Garcetti focuses on his role, a portion of the financial improvements were outside his control. The state's elimination of redevelopment agencies in 2012 returned millions to L.A.'s general fund. Tax revenue also ticked upward with the economic recovery.

Garcetti's position as council president from 2006 through 2011 did put him at the center of debate about annual shortfalls that ranged to more than $400 million.

In 2009, he supported an early retirement plan that knocked 2,400 workers off the payroll. "I really pushed that through," the councilman said in an interview. Two participants in confidential contract talks at the heart of the deal had diametrically opposed views. "He made it happen, period," one said; the other offered: "I wouldn't say he was a major mover."

The plan saves the city a maximum of $230 million a year in salary and pension reductions in the short run. But Los Angeles borrowed to spread the costs of the program over 15 years, with current employees and retirees expected to shoulder the cost of the early exits.

The early retirements are expected to do nothing to resolve the long-term "structural deficit" — the $200 million to $400 million a year that Los Angeles spends above what it takes in. And early retirements could even be a net negative in the long run if, as city revenue recovers, new employees are put in those 2,400 empty positions too quickly.

In 2010 the city completed a budget fix that did attack the structural imbalance.

Garcetti's initial proposal called for upping the retirement age for new city employees to 60 from 55 and requiring workers to contribute a minimum of 2% of salary toward their retiree health care.

Budget chief Santana offered a markedly tougher plan. It required a 4% retiree health contribution, halved the health subsidy for retirees and capped pension benefits at 75% of salary instead of 100%. Santana's plan, also for new employees, became the basis of the reform.

Some who served with Garcetti on the council committee that leads employee negotiations pushed for even greater sacrifices. But Garcetti fought against ratcheting up demands on workers, saying it would be useless to approve a plan that would not survive subsequent union votes.

The councilman's greatest contribution may have come after city leaders set their position on pensions. Garcetti took the unusual step of visiting groups of workers. Some employees booed. Some asked him why city lawmakers, among the highest paid in the nation at $178,000 a year, didn't cut their own salaries.

"There was a lot of anger," said a labor leader who spoke on condition of anonymity because that union has not endorsed in the race. "But Eric talked to people as if they were adults and stayed until he answered all their questions. People appreciated him ... taking that kind of heat."

Matt Szabo, a former deputy mayor who helped negotiate with labor, said Garcetti deserved "every bit of credit" he has claimed for deficit reduction. "He knew he was running for mayor, and he was doing the right thing, but it was something that was going to cost him later" in terms of union support, said Szabo, who is running to replace Garcetti on the council.

Most of the employee groups that have endorsed thus far in the mayor's race have come out for Greuel. One political advantage for the controller: She left the council in 2009, before the city began making its toughest demands on workers.

Garcetti found himself stuck the middle again with another 2010 vote, this one over the elimination of 232 jobs — most of them in libraries and day care operations at city parks. Garcetti voted for the layoffs. Later he voted to reconsider, though he said recently that he intended only to re-air the issue, not to keep the workers on the job.

Labor leaders faulted Garcetti for giving the appearance he might be ready to save the jobs when he really wasn't. The reductions remain a sore point, because a "poison pill" in the contract required that any layoffs be accompanied by immediate pay raises for remaining city employees. Fierce disagreement remains over whether the layoffs saved the city any money.

"That became part of the negative picture" of Garcetti, said one labor leader, who asked not to be named out of concern about alienating a possible future mayor. The candidate said in an interview that he frequently found himself hewing a middle ground between some colleagues "who simply hope more revenue would come in" and others who wanted to use an "ax," making indiscriminate cuts. He added: "To me, both views were equally unacceptable."

Critics find Garcetti too malleable, ready to shift to the last argument he has heard. But others appreciate his quest for the middle, saying the fact he sometimes irritated both budget hard-liners and unions showed he had taken a reasoned approach.

"The criticism of Eric is also sort of the good news," said one of the union reps. "He has this very process-y, kumbaya, can't-we-all-get-along style. It drove us all crazy. But now I really miss it because it seems to be all politics over policy."

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Pictures: Best News Photos from 2013 World Photo Press Contest

Photograph courtesy Maika Elan, Most, via WPP

In Da Nang, Vietnam, Phan Thi Thuy and her partner, Dang Thi Bich Bay, relax after studying at school.

The couple, who has been together for a year, lives in a country that has historically been hostile to same-sex relations, but could also become the first Asian country to recognize gay marriage, despite past human rights issue and a long-standing stigma.

"We were all enchanted by this series," Tucker said. "They're tender portraits, but some are complicated. Some make you wonder if all is well with the couples."

The photo series, titled "The Pink Choice," took first prize in the "Contemporary Issues Stories" category for photographer Maika Elan's ability to both stir the viewers' imagination and engage with her subjects.

"A good picture stimulates imagination and you go with it. You're delighted to be stimulated and encouraged to think," Tucker said.

"You feel like you've been given access to people, and even a world, that you normally wouldn't have access to, but in a respectful way," she added.

Published February 22, 2013

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Abe: Japan acting calmly in island dispute with China

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday said he told President Barack Obama in a meeting that Japan would act calmly in its row with China over tiny islands in the East China Sea claimed by both Asian countries.

"I explained that we have always been dealing with this issue ... in a calm manner," he said through a translator, while sitting next to Obama in the White House Oval Office.

"We will continue to do so and we have always done so," he said.

Tension has raised fears of an unintended military incident near the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. Washington says the islets fall under a U.S.-Japan security pact, but it is eager to avoid a clash in the region.

Abe said the existence of the Japan-U.S. alliance was a stabilizing factor in the area.

"We agreed that we would stay in close coordination with each other in dealing with such issues and other issues," he said.

Obama, in his remarks to reporters, said Japan was one of the United States' closest allies. He said the two men would discuss trade and other economic issues and agreed that their top priority was economic growth.

Obama declined to answer a reporter's question on whether they would discuss the Japanese yen.

Expectations for Abe's economic programs, especially monetary easing, have cut some 10 percent off the yen's value against the U.S. dollar since Abe took office, raising concern that Japan is weakening its currency to export its way out of recession.

Obama and Abe also discussed North Korea and agreed to cooperate at the United Nations over the issue. Abe said the two men also talked about additional sanctions against North Korea, which tested a nuclear bomb last week in defiance of U.N. resolutions.

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

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Mood-sensing smartphone tells your shrink how you feel

PEOPLE with anxiety, depression or stress are often asked to record their mood changes throughout the day, helping psychologists fine-tune their treatment. But they often forget, recording only sparse information at best. Now an emotion-sensing smartphone app that automatically generates someone's "mood diary" could give psychologists all the data they need.

It's the brainchild of Matt Dobson and Duncan Barclay, founders of speech recognition firm EI Technologies, based in Saffron Walden, UK. Instead of relying on people writing diaries, the app, called Xpression, listens for telltale changes in a person's voice that indicate whether they are in one of five emotional states: calm, happy, sad, angry or anxious/frightened. It then lists a person's moods against the times they change, and automatically emails the list to their psychologist at the end of the day.

To work, the app has to be always on, listening out for the user's voice once every second, whether they are talking to family, friends, colleagues or even pets. It also listens in on phone calls. If the user is silent, the app does nothing. Crucially for the users' privacy, it doesn't record their words, instead seeking out telltale acoustic features – like pitch – that are indicative of emotional state.

This kind of emotion recognition via voice pattern already works well and is a "hot area" of research, says Stephen Cox, head of the speech processing lab at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, who is scientific adviser for the firm.

Initially, Xpression will send 200-millisecond-long acoustic snapshots to a remote server where a machine-learning system will work out a person's emotional state before sending it back to the app for storage. Factors like voice loudness, intensity, changes in pitch and speaking pace allow the system to accurately estimate somebody's emotional state. "We extract acoustic features and let the machine-learning system work it out," says Cox. This ability will be built into the app itself eventually, says Dobson.

There's a strong need for this kind of technology, says Adrian Skinner, a clinical psychologist with the UK's National Health Service in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. "With conditions like depression, people tend to stop doing things like filling in mood diaries. If this app gives us more complete diaries it could help us better find the day-to-day triggers that raise or lower a patient's mood," he says.

The firm is a finalist in a UK government competition to identify the nation's top mobile tech company, to be judged on 26 February. An insurance company has already expressed an interest in using the app to ensure the workplace stress therapy it pays for is effective. Clinical trials are due to take place later this year.

This article appeared in print under the headline "We know how you really feel"

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Tennis: Anger drives Wozniacki into Dubai semi-finals

DUBAI: Former world number one Caroline Wozniacki reached the Dubai Open semi-finals on Thursday with a 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 win over Marion Bartoli, shrugging off a code violation in the process.

Wozniacki was warned for illegal coaching as the match boiled up to a thrilling finish, apparently because she was talking to her father Piotr.

"I'm not sure if it's coaching if I talk to the coach, but apparently that's new rules, so I guess that I can't say anything nowadays," commented Wozniacki.

"I was telling him things, and all of a sudden I hear I get a code violation. I'm like, okay."

Then she turned the aggravation into laughter.

"I was telling him what I was doing wrong. There's not much he can say because he knows that if he says yes, then he's in trouble, and if he says no, he's in trouble too."

Wozniacki will tackle Petra Kvitova for a place in the final after the 2011 Wimbledon champion underlined her new status as the unofficial tournament favourite by ending the title defence of Agnieszka Radwanska.

The Czech Republic player again showed that she is in her best form since winning her only Grand Slam title 19 months ago, out-hitting and out-serving the third-seeded Pole, 6-2, 6-4.

It followed her victory over former French Open champion Ana Ivanovic on Wednesday -- and her near-success against Serena Williams last week in Qatar -- and was her best win in 15 months.

"I've played three great matches so far," said Kvitova, who believes that more fitness work with a new trainer has made an important difference to her least impressive area, her movement.

"And that's something I really need -- to play more matches this season. I hope this will help me for the rest of the year."

Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani, the world's top doubles pair, will put their lifelong friendship to one side on Friday when they clash in the other semi-final.

Vinci, who had accounted for one former Grand Slam winner and one seeded player already, beat the seventh-seeded former US Open champion, Samantha Stosur 6-2, 6-4 to reach the last four.

Errani, who had played one long three-set match already, had another, beating Nadia Petrova, the former world number three from Russia, 6-4, 0-6, 6-3.

Vinci said it would be like "playing my sister," and Errani pointed out how strange it might feel as they spend about 300 days together during the year.

"I'm number one in the world in doubles, so it's incredible for me," said Vinci who is ranked 17 in singles.

"I'm probably playing singles in a more relaxed way, and so I'm playing better."

She added: "It was a great match for me, great performance. I played a good game today like yesterday," she said, referring to her straight sets win over Angelique Kerber, the fourth seed from Germany.

- AFP/fa

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Doctor sexually assaulted unconscious patients, police say

Yashwant Balgiri GiriAn Orange County anesthesiologist convicted of sexually assaulting three unconscious female patients  has been sentenced to six months in jail and five years probation, despite the objections of prosecutors who wanted state prison time.

Yashwant Balgiri Giri, 60, pleaded guilty to a court offer to multiple felony counts related to the sexual battery of patients, including a 16-year-old, according to a statement from the Orange County district attorney's office.

Giri will have to register as a lifetime sex offender and will have his medical license revoked, in addition to the jail time and probation.

Prosecutors sought a state prison sentence, citing a violation of his "position of power and trust" with the women at a particularly vulnerable time.

Giri, who lives in Cypress, was working at Placentia-Linda Hospital at the time of the crimes, prosecutors said. He previously worked at several hospitals in Anaheim and Lakewood.

Through a spokeswoman, Placentia-Linda Hospital declined to comment.

Prosecutors said that in February 2009,  while a 16-year-old was unconscious from medication, Giri assaulted the girl when a scrub nurse preparing surgery tools had her back turned. The nurse witnessed the assault, prosecutors said, and reported it immediately to a hospital official.

Prosecutors allege that the hospital did not report the incident to police at the time.

In March 2011, prosecutors said, a hospital employee witnessed Giri fondling the breasts of a 36-year-old woman while she was under anesthesia for an outpatient surgery procedure.

An employee allegedly witnessed the incident  Prosecutors said the fondling continued for an extended period of time, as his actions were concealed from the surgeon and nurse.

The alleged assault was reported to a hospital official and then to Placentia police, prosecutors said.

Soon after an investigation began, Giri resigned from his duties at the hospital.

After he was arrested in May 2011, a third alleged victim stepped forward, saying she had been assaulted by Giri.

In April 2010, prosecutors said, Giri assaulted a 27-year-old woman while she was being put under anesthesia but before she was unconscious. Prosecutors said he touched the woman under the pretense of performing an examination, although it had no legitimate medical purpose.

During a sentencing hearing, a statement from the then-36-year-old woman, who was fondled, was read by prosecutors.

"His actions make me question every single doctor, nurse, medical decision and procedure I encounter within my everyday life," she said. "I not only fear for myself, I fear for my child, my friends, my family. This is a burden caused by the perverted actions of this predator."


 O.C. shootings: Listen to frantic 911 call

Hollywood Park Casino might lay off all 600 workers

San Diego sheriff confident 2 wounded deputies will fully recover

-- Rick Rojas

Photo: Yashwant Balgiri Giri. Credit: Orange County district attorney's office.

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Pictures: Artifacts Provide Clues to Life in Early Christchurch

Photograph courtesy Jaden Harris, Underground Overground Archaeology

A tiny container for Holloway's ointment, less than two inches (five centimeters) wide, came from what was probably a brick-lined basement on Madras Street under a multistory modern commercial building.

British patent medicine entrepreneur Thomas Holloway began to advertise his ointment in 1837, claiming it would cure an impressive list of ailments—"Bad Legs, Bad Breasts, Burns, Bunions, Bite of Mosquitoes and Sandflies, Coco-bay, Chiego-foot, Chilblains, Chapped Hands, Corns (Soft), Cancers, Contracted and Stiff Joints, Elephantiasis, Fistulas, Gout, Glandular Swellings, Lumbago, Piles, Rheumatism, Scalds, Sore Nipples, Sore Throats, Skin Diseases, Scurvy, Sore Heads, Tumours, Ulcers, Wound(s), Yaws."

("Coco-bay" is a Jamaican word for a form of leprosy. "Chiego-foot" is a Trinidadian term that describes a foot covered in chigger bites.)

Holloway moved his company several times in London. "The changing address and the subtle differences in the wording and images that appear on these pots are what enable them to be dated," said Watson. The address on this particular pot—533 Oxford Street, London—indicates that it was made between 1867 and 1881.

Published February 21, 2013

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French, Malian forces fight Islamist rebels in Gao

GAO, Mali (Reuters) - French and Malian troops fought Islamists on the streets of Gao and a car bomb exploded in Kidal on Thursday, as fighting showed little sign of abating weeks before France plans to start withdrawing some forces.

Reuters reporters in Gao in the country's desert north said French and Malian forces fired at the mayor's office with heavy machineguns after Islamists were reported to have infiltrated the Niger River town during a night of explosions and gunfire.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a news conference in Brussels that Gao was back under control after clashes earlier in the day.

"Malian troops supported by French soldiers killed five jihadists and the situation is back to normal," he said.

In Kidal, a remote far north town where the French are hunting Islamists, residents said a car bomb killed two. A French defense ministry source reported no French casualties.

French troops dispatched to root out rebels with links to al Qaeda swiftly retook northern towns last month. But they now risk being bogged down in a guerrilla conflict as they try to help Mali's weak army counter bombings and raids.

"There was an infiltration by Islamists overnight and there is shooting all over the place," Sadou Harouna Diallo, Gao's mayor, told Reuters by telephone earlier in the day, saying he was not in his office at the time.

Gao is a French hub for operations in the Kidal region, about 300 km (190 miles) northeast, where many Islamist leaders are thought to have retreated and foreign hostages may be held.

"They are black and two were disguised as women," a Malian soldier in Gao who gave his name only as Sergeant Assak told Reuters during a pause in heavy gunfire around Independence Square.

Six Malian military pickups were deployed in the square and opened fire on the mayor's office with the heavy machineguns. Two injured soldiers were taken away in an ambulance.

French troops in armored vehicles later joined the battle as it spilled out into the warren of sandy streets, where, two weeks ago, they also fought for hours against Islamists who had infiltrated the town via the nearby river.

Helicopters clattered over the mayor's office, while a nearby local government office and petrol station was on fire.

A Gao resident said he heard an explosion and then saw a Malian military vehicle on fire in a nearby street.

Paris has said it plans to start withdrawing some of its 4,000 troops from Mali next month. But rebels have fought back against Mali's weak and divided army, and African forces due to take over the French role are not yet in place.

Islamists abandoned the main towns they held but French and Malian forces have said there are pockets of Islamist resistance across the north, which is about the size of France.


Residents reported a bomb in the east of Kidal on Thursday.

"It was a car bomb that exploded in a garage," said one resident who went to the scene but asked not to be named.

"The driver and another man were killed. Two other people were injured," he added.

A French defense ministry official confirmed there had been a car bomb but said it did not appear that French troops, based at the town's airport, had been targeted.

Earlier this week, a French soldier was killed in heavy fighting north of Kidal, where French and Chadian troops are hunting Islamists in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, which border Algeria.

Operations there are further complicated by the presence of separatist Tuareg rebels, whose rebellion triggered the fighting in northern Mali last year but were sidelined by the better-armed Islamists.

Having dispatched its forces to prevent an Islamist advance south in January, Paris is eager not to become bogged down in a long-term conflict in Mali. But their Malian and African allies have urged French troops not to pull out too soon.

(Additional reporting by Emanuel Braun in Gao, Adama Diarra in Bamako, David Lewis and John Irish in Dakar and Adrian Croft in Brussels; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Jason Webb and Roger Atwood)

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Higgs may spell doom, unless supersymmetry saves us

Lisa Grossman, physical sciences reporter


(Image: CERN)

Is the Higgs boson a herald of the apocalypse? That's the suggestion behind a theory, developed more than 30 years ago, that is back in the headlines this week. According to physicists, the mass of the Higgs-like particle announced last summer supports the notion that our universe is teetering on the edge of stability, like a pencil balanced on its point.

"It may be that the universe we live in is inherently unstable," Joseph Lykken, of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, said on Monday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "At some point, billions of years from now, it's all going to be wiped out."

Physicists have been wringing their hands about this scenario since 1982, when theorists Michael Turner and Frank Wilczek published a paper about it in Nature, NBC News points out. The pair showed that the vacuum of space can be in different energy states, and it will be most stable at its lowest energy. Trouble arises if we're not there yet, and we're inhabiting a temporarily stable state that should ultimately collapse.

"The universe wants to be in a different state, so eventually to realize that, a little bubble of what you might think of as an alternate universe will appear somewhere, and it will spread out and destroy us," Lykken said at AAAS.

Enter the Higgs boson, the particle form of the field that gives mass to several fundamental particles. The Higgs field permeates the vacuum of space, which means the mass of the boson and the stability of the vacuum are closely intertwined. Theory predicted that if the Higgs boson is heavier than about 129 gigaelectronvolts (GeV), the universe should be on safe footing.

But in July 2012 physicists at CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland announced that a particle closely matching the Higgs had been found by experiments in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The much celebrated particle has a mass of about 126 GeV - light enough to raise fears of instability.

There is still hope for the universe as we know it. Some theorists pointed out that the relationship between the Higgs mass and the vacuum of space depends on the mass of a particle called the top quark. If the top quark's mass is different than we think it is, stability might reign.

There are also anomalies with the Higgs measurement, like the fact that it decays into photons more often than predicted. That hints we may yet find particles from the theory of supersymmetry, which says each ordinary particle has heavier "superpartners". If the Higgs has such a relative, it might save us from destruction. But some of these predicted particles, particularly the superpartners of the top quark, can push the universe back into instability.

The worries may remain unconfirmed for a while. The LHC is shutting down for a two-year break so engineers can prepare the machine to shoot higher-energy particle beams, which are needed to probe for superpartners.

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Football: Jones strike earns Schalke draw at Galatasaray

ISTANBUL: Schalke 04 brushed off poor recent form to earn a 1-1 draw at Galatasaray in the Champions League last 16, first-leg clash on Wednesday despite the hosts fielding Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder.

After Turkey striker Burak Yilmaz gave Galatasaray an early lead at the Turk Telekom Arena, US midfielder Jermaine Jones equalised on the stroke of half-time to give Schalke a slim advantage ahead of the March 12 second leg.

Schalke have now lost just one of their last ten European away fixtures, including victories at Olympiakos and Arsenal, in sharp contrast to their recent Bundesliga form.

After just one victory in their last 12 games, this was a huge improvement by the Royal Blues.

Despite Drogba and Sneijder making their Champions League debuts for the ambitious Turkish club since joining last month from Shanghai Shenhua and Inter Milan respectively, both had quiet games as the hosts failed to dominate.

The game started at a frantic pace with both teams focusing on attack while leaving plenty of space at the back.

The hosts took the lead when Yilmaz, with a superb first touch, flicked the ball with his heel over marker Benedikt Hoewedes and slammed his shot past Schalke goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand after just 12 minutes.

The Germans had their chances as Hoewedes' header found Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, back in the side after a two-week break with a burst blood vessel in his left eye, but he could not stab the ball over the line.

Ex-Schalke midfielder Hamit Altintop hammered the underside of the cross-bar for Galatasaray in a busy opening period while Schalke's Jefferson Farfan was only denied when defender Semih Kaya turned his shot around the post.

Jones is suspended for the return leg on March 12 after his appeals for a booking against Selcuk Inan saw him earn a yellow card of his own on 35 minutes.

But the US international redeemed himself when he converted a brilliant pass from Farfan to hit the back of the net after a fast break for the equaliser on 45 minutes which will be invaluable in the return leg.

Schalke had a let off with 25 minutes left when Drogba put Yilmaz in a great position, but Hildebrand blocked the shot just as the offside flag went up.

Huntelaar smashed a shot over the bar with 75 minutes before making way for Finland's Teemu Pukki, while both Yilmaz and Sabri Sarioglu both tested Hildebrand at the other end.

With Borussia Dortmund having earned a 2-2 draw at Donetsk and after Bayern Munich's impressive 3-1 win at Arsenal on Tuesday, all three Bundesliga clubs now have a strong chance of making the quarter-finals.


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Tourist's body found stuffed in hotel water tank; guest horrified

There were few details Wednesday on how the body of a missing Canadian tourist ended up at the bottom of a water tank on the roof of a downtown hotel.

For days, residents of the Cecil Hotel thought something was amiss. At least one said there was flooding in one of the fourth-floor rooms, while others complained about weak water pressure.
One of those complaints led a hotel maintenance worker to check Tuesday on one of the large metal water cisterns on the roof, where he discovered the body of an unidentified woman in her 20s at the bottom of the tank.

Authorities said late Tuesday the body was that of Elisa Lam, 21, a Vancouver, Canada, woman last seen at the hotel Jan. 31.

"We're not ruling out foul play," said LAPD Sgt. Rudy Lopez, noting that the location of the remains "makes it suspicious."

Los Angeles police investigators searched the roof of the Cecil with the aid of dogs when Lam was reported missing about three weeks ago. Lopez said he didn't know if the tanks were examined.

"We did a very thorough search of the hotel," he said. "But we didn't search every room; we could only do that if we had probable cause" that a crime had been committed.

Once a destination for the rich and famous in the 1930s and '40s, the Cecil has gradually deteriorated, mirroring the decay of downtown Los Angeles, particularly in the skid row area. With rock-bottom rents and flexible stays, the historic 1927 building attracted those who were a step away from homelessness.

The Cecil also became a magnet for criminal activity. Most notably it was the occasional home to infamous serial killers Jack Unterweger and Richard "Night Stalker" Ramirez. Even after a multimillion-dollar makeover in 2008, police said they frequently respond to the Cecil for calls relating to domestic abuse and narcotics.

In 2010, the hotel was the scene of a bizarre incident in which a Los Angeles city firefighter who had been honored as paramedic of the year said he was stabbed while responding to a distress call. But police found inconsistencies in the story and no assailant was ever located.

On Tuesday, the Cecil grappled with a deeper mystery.
According to detectives with the LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division, Lam came to Los Angeles from Vancouver on Jan. 26. While they did not discuss her exact movements or whether she visited anyone here, they believe her ultimate destination was Santa Cruz. Lam's reasons for visiting California were unclear, detectives said.

She was last seen Jan. 31 inside the elevator of the hotel. In surveillance footage, Lam is seen pushing buttons for multiple floors and at one point stepping out of the elevator, waving her arms.
A cause of death is still to be determined by county coroner’s officials, Lopez said.

A locked door that only employees have access to and a fire escape are the only ways to get to the roof. The door is equipped with an alarm system that notifies  hotel personnel if someone is up there, Lopez said.


O.C. shootings: Killings occurred during morning routines

Body found in hotel water tank identified as Canadian tourist

Woman who ran surrogate parenting firm pleads guilty in fraud case

— Andrew Blankstein and Adolfo Flores

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Florida Python Hunt Captures 68 Invasive Snakes

It's a wrap—the 2013 Python Challenge has nabbed 68 invasive Burmese pythons in Florida, organizers say. And experts are surprised so many of the elusive giants were caught.

Nearly 1,600 people from 38 states—most of them inexperienced hunters—registered for the chance to track down one of the animals, many of which descend from snakes that either escaped or were dumped into the wild.

Since being introduced, these Asian behemoths have flourished in Florida's swamps while also squeezing out local populations of the state's native mammals, especially in the Everglades. (See Everglades pictures.)

To highlight the python problem, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and its partners launched the 2013 Python Challenge, which encouraged registered participants to catch as many pythons as they could between January 12 and February 10 in state wildlife-management areas within the Everglades.

The commission gave cash prizes to those who harvested the most and longest pythons.

Frank Mazzotti, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Florida and scientific leader for the challenge, said before the hunt that he would consider a harvest of 70 animals a success—and 68 is close enough to say the event met its goals.

It's unknown just how many Burmese pythons live in Florida, but catching 68 snakes is an "exceptional" number, added Kenneth Krysko, senior herpetologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

Snakes in the Grass

Finding 68 snakes is impressive, experts say, since it's so hard to find pythons. For one, it's been unusually warm lately in Florida, which means the reptiles—which normally sun themselves to regulate their body temperature—are staying in the brush, making them harder to detect, Krysko said.

On top of that, Burmese pythons are notoriously hard to locate, experts say.

The animals are so well camouflaged that people can stand right next to one and not notice it. "It's rare that you get to see them stretched out—most of the time they're blending in," said Cheryl Millett, a biologist at the Nature Conservancy, a Python Challenge partner.

What's more, the reptiles are ambush hunters, which means they spend much of their time lying in wait in dense vegetation, not moving, she said.

That's why Millett gave the hunters some tips, such as looking along the water's edge, where the snakes like to hang out, and also simply listening for "something big moving through the vegetation."

Even so, catching 68 snakes is "actually is a little more than I expected," said Millett.

No Walk in the Park

Ruben Ramirez, founder of the company Florida Python Hunters, won two prizes in the competition: First place for the most snakes captured—18—and second place for the largest python, which he said was close to 11 feet (3.4 meters) long. The biggest Burmese python caught in Florida, nabbed in 2012, measured 17.7 feet (5.4 meters).

"They're there, but they're not as easy to find as people think," said Ramirez. "You're not going to be stumbling over pythons in Miami." (Related blog post: "What It's Like to Be a Florida Python Hunter.")

All participants, some of whom had never hunted a python before, were trained to identify the difference between a Burmese python and Florida's native snakes, said Millett. No native snakes were accidentally killed, she said.

Hunters were also told to kill the snakes by either putting a bolt or a bullet through their heads, or decapitating them—all humane methods that result "in immediate loss of consciousness and destruction of the brain," according to the Python Challenge website.

Ramirez added that some of the first-time or amateur hunters had different expectations. "I think they were expecting to walk down a canal and see a 10-foot [3-meter], 15-foot [4.5-meter] Burmese python. They thought it'd be a walk in the park."

Stopping the Spread

Completely removing these snakes from the wild isn't easy, and some scientists see the Python Challenge as helping to achieve part of that goal. (Read an opposing view on the Python Challenge: "Opinion: Florida's Great Snake Hunt Is a Cheap Stunt.")

"You're talking about 68 more animals removed from the population that shouldn't be there—that's 68 more mouths that aren't being fed," said the Florida museum's Krysko. (Read about giant Burmese python meals that went bust.)

"I support any kind of event or program that not only informs the general public about introduced species, but also gets the public involved in removing these nonnative animals that don't belong there."

The Nature Conservancy's Millett said the challenge had two positive outcomes: boosting knowledge for both science and the public.

People who didn't want to hunt or touch the snakes could still help, she said, by reporting sightings of exotic species to 888-IVE-GOT-1, through free IveGot1 apps, or

Millett runs a public-private Nature Conservancy partnership called Python Patrol that the Florida wildlife commission will take on in the fall. The program focuses not only on eradicating invasive pythons but on preventing the snake from moving to ecologically sensitive areas, such as Key West.

Necropsies on the captured snakes will reveal what pythons are eating, and location data from the hunters will help scientists figure out where the snakes are living—valuable data for researchers working to stop their spread.

"This is the most [number of] pythons that have been caught in this short of a period of time in such an extensive area," said the University of Florida's Mazzotti.

"It's an unprecedented sample, and we're going to get a lot of information out of that."

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Bulgarian government resigns amid growing protests

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria's government resigned on Wednesday after mass protests against high power prices and falling living standards, joining a long list of European administrations felled by austerity during four years of debt crisis.

Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, an ex-bodyguard who took power in 2009 on pledges to root out graft and raise incomes in the European Union's poorest member, faces a tough task of propping up eroding support ahead of an expected early election.

Wage and pension freezes and tax hikes have bitten deep in a country where earnings are less than half the EU average and tens of thousands of Bulgarians have rallied in protests that have turned violent, chanting "Mafia" and "Resign".

Moves by Borisov on Tuesday to blame foreign utility companies for the rise in the cost of heating homes was to no avail and an eleventh day of marches saw 15 people hospitalized and 25 arrested in clashes with police.

"My decision to resign will not be changed under any circumstances. I do not build roads so that blood is shed on them," said Borisov, who began his career guarding the Black Sea state's communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.

A karate black belt, Borisov has cultivated a Putin-like "can-do" image since he entered politics as Sofia mayor in 2005 and would connect with voters by showing up on the capital's rutted streets to oversee the repair of pot-holes.

But critics say he has often skirted due process, sometimes to the benefit of those close to him, and his swift policy U-turns have wounded the public's trust.

The spark for the protests was high electricity bills, after the government raised prices by 13 percent last July. But it quickly spilled over into wider frustration with Borisov and political elites with perceived links to shadowy businesses.

"He made my day," said student Borislav Hadzhiev in central Sofia, commenting on Borisov's resignation. "The truth is that we're living in an extremely poor country."


The prime minister's final desperate moves on Tuesday included cutting power prices and risking a diplomatic row with the Czech Republic by punishing companies including CEZ, moves which conflicted with EU norms on protection of investors and due process.

CEZ officials were hopeful on Wednesday that it would be able to avoid losing its distribution license after all and officials from the Bulgarian regulator said the company would not be punished if it dealt with breaches of procedure.

But shares in what is central Europe's largest publicly-listed company fell another 1 percent on Wednesday.

If pushed through, the fines for CEZ and two other foreign-owned firms will not encourage other investors in Bulgaria, who already have to navigate complicated bureaucracy and widespread corruption and organized crime to take advantage of Bulgaria's 10-percent flat tax rate.

Financial markets reacted negatively to the turbulence on Wednesday. The cost of insuring Bulgaria's debt rose to a three-month high and debt yields rose some 15 basis points, though the country's low deficit of 0.5 percent of gross domestic product means there is little risk to the lev currency's peg against the euro.

Borisov's interior minister indicated that elections originally planned for July would probably be pulled forward by saying that his rightist GERB party would not take part in talks to form a new government.


GERB's woes have echoes in another ex-communist EU member, Slovenia, where demonstrators have taken to the streets and added pressure to a crumbling conservative government.

A small crowd gathered in support of Borisov outside Sofia's parliament, which is expected to approve his resignation on Thursday, while bigger demonstrations against the premier were expected in the evening.

Unemployment in the country of 7.3 million is far from the highs hit in the decade after the end of communism but remains at 11.9 percent. Average salaries are stuck at around 800 levs ($550) a month and millions have emigrated, leaving swathes of the country depopulated and little hope for those who remain.

GERB's popularity has held up well and it still led in the latest polls before protests grew in size last weekend, but analysts say the opposition Socialists should draw strength from the demonstrations.

The leftists, successors to Bulgaria's communist party, have proposed tax cuts and wage hikes and are likely to raise questions about public finances if elected.

(Additional reporting by Angel Krasimirov; editing by Patrick Graham)

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Today on New Scientist: 19 February 2013

Doctors would tax sugary drinks to combat obesity

Hiking the price of fizzy drinks would cut consumption and so help fight obesity, urges the British Academy of Medical Royal Colleges

Space station's dark matter hunter coy about findings

Researchers on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which sits above the International Space Station, have collected their first results - but won't reveal them for two weeks

Huge telescopes could spy alien oxygen

Hunting for oxygen in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets is a tough job, but a new wave of giant telescopes should be up to the task

Evolution's detectives: Closing in on missing links

Technology is taking the guesswork out of finding evolution's turning points, from the first fish with legs to our own recent forebears, says Jeff Hecht

Moody Mercury shows its hidden colours

False-colour pictures let us see the chemical and physical landscape of the normally beige planet closest to the sun

LHC shuts down to prepare for peak energy in 2015

Over the next two years, engineers will be giving the Large Hadron Collider the makeover it needs to reach its maximum design energy

Insert real news events into your mobile game

From meteor airbursts to footballing fracas, mobile games could soon be brimming with news events that lend them more currency

3D-printing pen turns doodles into sculptures

The 3Doodle, which launched on Kickstarter today, lets users draw 3D structures in the air which solidify almost instantly

We need to rethink how we name exoplanets

Fed up with dull names for exoplanets, Alan Stern and his company Uwingu have asked the public for help. Will it be so long 2M 0746+20b, hello Obama?

A shocking cure: Plug in for the ultimate recharge

An electrical cure for ageing attracted the ire of the medical establishment. But could the jazz-age inventor have stumbled upon a genuine therapy?

Biofuel rush is wiping out unique American grasslands

Planting more crops to meet the biofuel demand is destroying grasslands and pastures in the central US, threatening wildlife

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US oil rallies on upbeat Seaway pipeline reports

NEW YORK: US oil prices gained Tuesday as traders digested news of an easing chokepoint on the key Seaway pipeline serving Gulf Coast refineries.

A barrel of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) settled at $96.66 on the New York Mercantile Exchange, up 80 cents.

In London, a barrel of European benchmark Brent crude settled at $117.52 on the Intercontinental Exchange, 14 cents higher.

The New York session was lackluster after traders came back to work following a long weekend. US markets were closed Monday for a public holiday.

Some analysts said trading volume remained thin because of a major gathering this week of oil traders in London.

WTI spent much of the morning near the break-even line, but picked up support later in the session as the S&P 500-stock index held onto gains.

"We were pretty much trading flat," said Carl Larry, a broker with Atlas Commodities, who cited the jump in equity markets as a factor in the oil rally.

Also lifting oil prices were media reports that the Seaway pipeline, which has been troubled by distribution problems of late, plans to pump 295,000 barrels a day between late February and the end of May.

The news on Seaway is "bullish" because Seaway's flow has at times fallen below 200,000 barrels a day, said Dominick Chirichella, an analyst of the Energy Management Institute.

Seaway has been seen as a critical component in addressing a glut of oil at the bottlenecked US hub in Cushing, Oklahoma. The pipeline's capacity was recently expanded to 400,000 barrels a day from 150,000 barrels, but the operator has encountered technical problems that have limited the volume.

"I don't think there's been one silver bullet" driving Tuesday's rally in oil prices, Chirichella said. "Just a lot of little things."


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Rapes may be tied to Christian dating website, officials say

Sean Banks is already charged with one rape involving a woman he met on a Christian dating website.Police in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa are investigating whether a 37-year-old man charged with raping a woman he met on the ChristianMingle website may have victimized other women he met on the dating website.

Sean Banks of Del Mar is charged with rape, burglary and penetration by force involving a woman in La Mesa, according to court records. He was arrested Feb. 11 and has pleaded not guilty.

Banks, a computer technician, worked in various locations across the United States. Police said they are investigating whether he may have lured other victims through ChristianMingle and other websites, possibly using pseudonyms, including Rylan Butterwood and Rylan Harbough.

In the La Mesa case, he used the name Rarity, police said. The alleged attack occurred in the woman's home the first time the two met in person after carrying on conversations over the Internet, police said.

Beverly Hills-based ChristianMingle is cooperating with the investigation, police said.

Anyone with information about Banks or other possible victims should call the La Mesa Police Department at (619) 667-7538.


Dorner stalked LAPD officials before killings, Chief Beck says

O.C. shootings: Ladera Ranch neighbor heard a 'bunch of ruckus'

Suspect in O.C. killings shot at drivers on 55 Freeway, police say

-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Sean Banks. Credit: La Mesa Police Department

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New Study Analyzes Heavy Metal Dancing

Parents may never understand their rock 'n' roll loving children, but scientists might. A study published online in arXiv this week seeks to explain the "mosh pit"—using physics.

To most scientists, heavy metal refers to elements on the lower end of the periodic table. But to Jesse Silverberg and Matt Bierbaum, doctoral students at Cornell University's department of Condensed Matter Physics, the aggressive music—and the violent dancing that accompanies it—could be a key to understanding extreme situations such as riots and panicked responses to disasters.

For the past two years, Silverberg and Bierbaum have studied "moshing," at heavy metal concerts, using theories of collective motion and the physical properties of gasses to better understand the chaos of metal fans' dancing.

Moshing, for those who have never attended a heavy metal show, is a form of dancing in which participants bump, jostle, and slam into one another. It's a form of social ritual that anthropologists have likened to spirit possession in its uncontrolled, dynamic, and often violent nature.

Silverberg and Bierbaum say it can also be understood by applying models of gaseous particles. As these particles float in groups, they too run, bash, and slam into each other, sending the elements flying in chaotic patterns.

"We are interested in how humans behave in similar excited states," said Silverberg, "but it's not exactly ethical to start a riot for research."

Extreme Physics

Mosh pits provided the scientists with a way to observe excited collective movement without causing undue injury or death. Analyzing hours of recorded footage from concerts and making multiple field trips to music clubs, Silverberg and Bierbaum recognized the particulate physical patterns in the mosh pit.

Further, they differentiated two distinct forms of heavy metal dancing: the "mosh pit" itself, which follows the gaseous pattern, and the "circle pit" (where dancers run, smash, and dance in a circular rotation) within it, which adheres to a vortex pattern of particulate behavior.

Based on these observations, they created an interactive computer model depicting the behavior.

Animal Instincts

"Herd animals behave in very similar spirit—what physicists call 'flocking' behavior," said Bierbaum. (See "The Genius of Swarms," from the July 2007 issue of National Geographic magazine.)

As with groups of flying birds or schooling fish, simple rules can be applied to individuals in large groups—like moshers—to understand what seems to be very complex behavior. This makes modeling possible, allowing computers to re-create immense numbers of actions in a matter of seconds. These models can then be used to design spaces that would minimize trampling or injury, or to tailor responses to disasters like fires.

"The lessons we've learned in mosh pits [could be used] to build better stadiums, or movie theaters," Silverberg said.

James Sethna, one of the researchers' advising professors, hastened to add that his students' forays into heavy metal science "didn't start out for reasons of creating safer stadiums. We did it because it was cool and we wanted to know if we could explain human behavior—albeit slightly intoxicated behavior—without having to use complex [models]."

A longtime heavy metal fan himself, Silverberg shared which band produced the best results: "Killswitch Engage ... always gets the crowd nuts. Although of course everyone has their own favorites."

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Syria "Scud-type" missile said to kill 20 in Aleppo

AMMAN (Reuters) - A Syrian missile killed at least 20 people in a rebel-held district of Aleppo on Tuesday, opposition activists said, as the army turns to longer-range weapons after losing bases in the country's second-largest city.

The use of what opposition activists said was a large missile of the same type as Russian-made Scuds against an Aleppo residential district came after rebels overran army bases over the past two months from which troops had fired artillery.

As the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, now a civil war, nears its two-year mark, rebels also landed three mortar bombs in the rarely-used presidential palace compound in the capital Damascus, opposition activists said on Tuesday.

The United Nations estimates 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict between largely Sunni Muslim rebels and Assad's supporters among his minority Alawite sect. An international diplomatic deadlock has prevented intervention, as the war worsens sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East.

A Russian official said on Tuesday that Moscow, which is a long-time ally of Damascus, would not immediately back U.N. investigators' calls for some Syrian leaders to face the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

Moscow has blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have increased pressure on Assad.

Casualties are not only being caused directly by fighting, but also by disruption to infrastructure and Syria's economy.

An estimated 2,500 people in a rebel-held area of northeastern Deir al-Zor province have been infected with typhoid, which causes diarrhea and can be fatal, due to drinking contaminated water from the Euphrates River, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.

"There is not enough fuel or electricity to run the pumps so people drink water from the Euphrates which is contaminated, probably with sewage," the WHO representative in Syria, Elisabeth Hoff, told Reuters by telephone.

The WHO had no confirmed reports of deaths so far.


In northern Aleppo, opposition activists said 25 people were missing under rubble of three buildings hit by a several-meter-long missile. They said remains of the weapon showed it to be a Scud-type missile of the type government forces increasingly use in Aleppo and in Deir a-Zor.

NATO said in December Assad's forces fired Scud-type missiles. It did not specify where they landed but said their deployment was an act of desperation.

Bodies were being gradually dug up, Mohammad Nour, an activist, said by phone from Aleppo.

"Some, including children, have died in hospitals," he said.

Video footage showed dozens of people scouring for victims and inspecting damage. A body was pulled from under collapsed concrete. At a nearby hospital, a baby said to have been dug out from wreckage was shown dying in the hands of doctors.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

Opposition activists also reported fighting near the town of Nabak on the Damascus-Homs highway, another route vital for supplying forces in the capital loyal to Assad, whose family has ruled Syria since the 1960s.

Rebels moved anti-aircraft guns into the eastern Damascus district of Jobar, adjacent to the city centre, as they seek to secure recent gains, an activist said.

"The rebels moved truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns to Jobar and are now firing at warplanes rocketing the district," said Damascus activist Moaz al-Shami.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told a news conference a U.N. war crimes report, which accuses military leaders and rebels of terrorizing civilians, was "not the path we should follow ... at this stage it would be untimely and unconstructive."

Syria is not party to the Rome Statute that established the ICC and the only way the court can investigate the situation is if it receives a referral from the Security Council, where Moscow is a permanent member.

(Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Jason Webb)

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