Herbal Viagra actually contains the real thing

IF IT looks too good to be true, it probably is. Several "herbal remedies" for erectile dysfunction sold online actually contain the active ingredient from Viagra.

Michael Lamb at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and colleagues purchased 10 popular "natural" uplifting remedies on the internet and tested them for the presence of sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. They found the compound, or a similar synthetic drug, in seven of the 10 products – cause for concern because it can be dangerous for people with some medical conditions.

Lamb's work was presented last week at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Washington DC.

This article appeared in print under the headline "Herbal Viagra gets a synthetic boost"

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Chad claims killed mastermind of Algerian gas plant bloodbath

N'DJAMENA: Chad said its troops in northern Mali on Saturday killed the one-eyed Islamist leader who masterminded an assault on an Algerian gas plant that left 37 foreign hostages dead in January.

The Chadian army, whose troops have been at the forefront of the hunt for Al Qaeda-linked fighters hiding in northern Mali, said Mokhtar Belmokhtar was killed during an operation in the Ifogha mountains.

The Algerian national, a ruthless Afghanistan veteran whose smuggling activities earned him the nickname of "Mr Marlboro", had broken away from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) weeks ago to form a group called Signatories in Blood.

The report of his death came after Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno announced on Friday that his forces had killed Abou Zeid, the top AQIM commander in Mali, a few days earlier. A Mauritanian news agency said he was killed by a French airstrike.

If the deaths are confirmed, the French-led military coalition fighting in northern Mali will have eliminated the Sahel region's two historical Al-Qaeda leaders and decapitated the jihadist insurgency in Mali.

"The Chadian forces in Mali completely destroyed the main jihadist base in Adrar of the Ifoghas mountains" at 1200 GMT, an army statement said, adding that several militants were killed "including leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar".

Belmokhtar, 40, was seen several times in the main northern Malian cities of Timbuktu and Gao after AQIM and its allies took over northern Mali in April 2012.

He quit AQIM last year and in December the creation of his new group was announced.

In January, days after France's surprise decision to send in fighter jets and troops to help the Malian government reconquer the north, Belmokhtar claimed the attack on the In Amenas gas plant in southern Algeria.

The spectacular attack on the isolated facility, which was jointly operated by British, US and Norwegian oil companies, ended in a bloodbath, with 38 hostages killed by the time an Algerian raid ended the crisis.

Among the victims were 37 foreigners, from Britain, Norway, Japan and other nations.

No other source has yet confirmed Belmokhtar's death, and foreign governments were still trying to confirm that Belmokhtar's ex-boss in the AQIM hierarchy, Abou Zeid, was indeed dead.

Chad's Deby said his troops killed Abou Zeid during a major battle on February 22 that also left 26 Chadian soldiers dead. But the private Mauritanian news agency Sahara Medias had a different story.

It said Abou Zeid, 46, one of the most wanted men in Africa, was killed "four days ago" in a French air strike during a clash between a unit he was leading and the Chadian platoon that had suffered the 26 losses days earlier.

Sahara Medias said the strike occurred in the mountainous region of Tigharghar near the border with Algeria and added that "extremely well-informed sources" had confirmed Abou Zeid's killing.

Analysts have suggested Abou Zeid's death could spell AQIM's doom, with breakaway jihadist groups and other radical Islamist movements now thriving in the region. But while Washington described the report as "very credible", France has so far treated it with caution.

Algeria's El Khabar newspaper said Saturday that Algerian security services, who were the first to report Abou Zeid's death, had found his personal weapon and examined a body believed to be his.

"Confirmation of Abou Zeid's death remains linked to the results of DNA tests done on Thursday by Algeria on two members of his family," it said.

Mauritanian expert Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Aboulmaali pointed out that Algeria had announced his death several times in the past and that Chad needed morale-boosting news after suffering such heavy losses.

Matthieu Guidere, a French university professor and Al-Qaeda specialist, also voiced caution in the absence of any confirmation on jihadist Internet forums.

"Experience shows that jihadists never try to hide their dead and immediately broadcast their martyrdom," he said.

Abou Zeid was believed to be holding a number of Western hostages, including four French citizens kidnapped in Niger in 2010.

He and Belmokhtar were directly involved in most of the kidnappings of foreigners that have plagued the region in recent years.

Guidere said Abou Zeid had adopted such a hard line since reaching the top of AQIM's operational command that many of his lieutenants had left the group to join other organisations or launch their own.

One of the main splinters is the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which first emerged last year and was battling African forces near the main northern city of Gao as recently as Friday.

"We waged a tough battle against Malian troops and their French accomplices around 60 kilometres east of Gao on Friday," MUJAO spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui told AFP.

"We'll see later about the death toll," he said.

A Malian soldier who claimed he took part in the fighting said the operation had left a MUJAO base destroyed and "many dead" among the Islamists.

- AFP/jc

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Trutanich struggling in bid to keep his city attorney post

With large numbers of Los Angeles voters yet to make up their minds, a new poll shows that first-term City Atty. Carmen Trutanich is struggling to stay afloat as Tuesday's primary election approaches.

Trutanich is in a statistical dead heat for second place with private attorney Greg Smith. Former lawmaker Mike Feuer enjoys a slight edge over both as the three candidates battle to advance to an expected May runoff.

Feuer, who served on the City Council and then in the state Assembly representing the city's Westside, was the choice of 23.8% of those surveyed for the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy/L.A. Times Los Angeles City Primary Poll, while 16.4% favored Trutanich, who won the office in a 2009 upset. Smith, a first-time candidate who has pumped more than $800,000 of his personal wealth into the race, was preferred by 15.2%.

But the poll has a margin of sampling error of 4.4 percentage points in either direction. Furthermore, 40% of those surveyed said they hadn't decided on a candidate.

"Feuer maintains a small advantage," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. But, he added, Smith's television and radio advertising and incumbent Trutanich's name ID "could change that," particularly with so many undecided voters.

Just 4.7% of respondents favor a fourth candidate on the ballot, private attorney Noel Weiss. Weiss, who also ran for the post in 2009, has not had the money to mount a viable campaign.

The bipartisan telephone survey canvassed 500 likely voters in the city from Feb. 24 through 27. It was conducted jointly by the Benenson Strategy Group, a Democratic firm, and M4 Strategies, a Republican company.

Earlier independent surveys by other organizations showed that Trutanich had started the race with a lead. But he got into the contest late — after failing to make the runoff in his bid for county district attorney last year — and has not been able to match the campaign treasuries of Feuer and Smith, both earlier entrants in the contest. The blunt-spoken Trutanich, who has tangled publicly with the mayor and City Council, has also alienated some of his past supporters with his style and his decision to run for D.A. despite his 2009 campaign promise to serve two full terms at City Hall before seeking another post.

"To the extent that voters know about the candidates, this race is a referendum on Carmen Trutanich," Schnur said.

In the survey, Trutanich did somewhat better than Feuer and Smith among Latinos: 22.8% of voters in that group said they would vote for the incumbent, compared with 17.8% for Feuer and 12.7% for Smith. Feuer fared best among whites — 26.1% favored him, while Trutanich and Smith were backed by 16.7% and 16.4%, respectively.

Feuer also fared better with female voters (25%) than either Trutanich (13%) or Smith (14%). A Democrat, Feuer also did best among voters who identified with that party — 32% preferred him to Smith, another Democrat, who was chosen by 11%; while 15% favored Trutanich, a former Republican who is currently unaffiliated with a party. Among Republicans, who make up about one-fifth of the city's voters, Trutanich and Smith tied with 23% apiece, while 8% preferred Feuer.


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We Didn’t Domesticate Dogs. They Domesticated Us.

In the story of how the dog came in from the cold and onto our sofas, we tend to give ourselves a little too much credit. The most common assumption is that some hunter-gatherer with a soft spot for cuteness found some wolf puppies and adopted them. Over time, these tamed wolves would have shown their prowess at hunting, so humans kept them around the campfire until they evolved into dogs. (See "How to Build a Dog.")

But when we look back at our relationship with wolves throughout history, this doesn't really make sense. For one thing, the wolf was domesticated at a time when modern humans were not very tolerant of carnivorous competitors. In fact, after modern humans arrived in Europe around 43,000 years ago, they pretty much wiped out every large carnivore that existed, including saber-toothed cats and giant hyenas. The fossil record doesn't reveal whether these large carnivores starved to death because modern humans took most of the meat or whether humans picked them off on purpose. Either way, most of the Ice Age bestiary went extinct.

The hunting hypothesis, that humans used wolves to hunt, doesn't hold up either. Humans were already successful hunters without wolves, more successful than every other large carnivore. Wolves eat a lot of meat, as much as one deer per ten wolves every day-a lot for humans to feed or compete against. And anyone who has seen wolves in a feeding frenzy knows that wolves don't like to share.

Humans have a long history of eradicating wolves, rather than trying to adopt them. Over the last few centuries, almost every culture has hunted wolves to extinction. The first written record of the wolf's persecution was in the sixth century B.C. when Solon of Athens offered a bounty for every wolf killed. The last wolf was killed in England in the 16th century under the order of Henry VII. In Scotland, the forested landscape made wolves more difficult to kill. In response, the Scots burned the forests. North American wolves were not much better off. By 1930, there was not a wolf left in the 48 contiguous states of America.  (See "Wolf Wars.")

If this is a snapshot of our behavior toward wolves over the centuries, it presents one of the most perplexing problems: How was this misunderstood creature tolerated by humans long enough to evolve into the domestic dog?

The short version is that we often think of evolution as being the survival of the fittest, where the strong and the dominant survive and the soft and weak perish. But essentially, far from the survival of the leanest and meanest, the success of dogs comes down to survival of the friendliest.

Most likely, it was wolves that approached us, not the other way around, probably while they were scavenging around garbage dumps on the edge of human settlements. The wolves that were bold but aggressive would have been killed by humans, and so only the ones that were bold and friendly would have been tolerated.

Friendliness caused strange things to happen in the wolves. They started to look different. Domestication gave them splotchy coats, floppy ears, wagging tails. In only several generations, these friendly wolves would have become very distinctive from their more aggressive relatives. But the changes did not just affect their looks. Changes also happened to their psychology. These protodogs evolved the ability to read human gestures.

As dog owners, we take for granted that we can point to a ball or toy and our dog will bound off to get it. But the ability of dogs to read human gestures is remarkable. Even our closest relatives-chimpanzees and bonobos-can't read our gestures as readily as dogs can. Dogs are remarkably similar to human infants in the way they pay attention to us. This ability accounts for the extraordinary communication we have with our dogs. Some dogs are so attuned to their owners that they can read a gesture as subtle as a change in eye direction.

With this new ability, these protodogs were worth knowing. People who had dogs during a hunt would likely have had an advantage over those who didn't. Even today, tribes in Nicaragua depend on dogs to detect prey. Moose hunters in alpine regions bring home 56 percent more prey when they are accompanied by dogs. In the Congo, hunters believe they would starve without their dogs.

Dogs would also have served as a warning system, barking at hostile strangers from neighboring tribes. They could have defended their humans from predators.

And finally, though this is not a pleasant thought, when times were tough, dogs could have served as an emergency food supply. Thousands of years before refrigeration and with no crops to store, hunter-gatherers had no food reserves until the domestication of dogs. In tough times, dogs that were the least efficient hunters might have been sacrificed to save the group or the best hunting dogs. Once humans realized the usefulness of keeping dogs as an emergency food supply, it was not a huge jump to realize plants could be used in a similar way.

So, far from a benign human adopting a wolf puppy, it is more likely that a population of wolves adopted us. As the advantages of dog ownership became clear, we were as strongly affected by our relationship with them as they have been by their relationship with us. Dogs may even have been the catalyst for our civilization.

Dr. Brian Hare is the director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center and Vanessa Woods is a research scientist at Duke University. This essay is adapted from their new book, The Genius of Dogs, published by Dutton. To play science-based games to find the genius in your dog, visit www.dognition.com.

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Herbal Viagra actually contains the real thing

IF IT looks too good to be true, it probably is. Several "herbal remedies" for erectile dysfunction sold online actually contain the active ingredient from Viagra.

Michael Lamb at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and colleagues purchased 10 popular "natural" uplifting remedies on the internet and tested them for the presence of sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. They found the compound, or a similar synthetic drug, in seven of the 10 products – cause for concern because it can be dangerous for people with some medical conditions.

Lamb's work was presented last week at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Washington DC.

This article appeared in print under the headline "Herbal Viagra gets a synthetic boost"

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

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

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

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Oil prices drop as US spending cuts kick in

NEW YORK: World oil prices fell on Friday, with New York crude striking a two-month low point, as traders eyed huge US spending cuts due to take effect and weaker Chinese manufacturing data.

New York's main contract, West Texas Intermediate crude for delivery in April, sank as low as $90.04 a barrel -- the lowest level since late December, before recovering to close at $90.68, down $1.37 on Thursday's finish.

Brent North Sea crude for April fell 98 cents to settle at $110.40 a barrel in London trade.

Analysts blamed the steadily gaining dollar -- the euro dropped to below the $1.30 level momentarily Friday -- and the expected slowing of the US economy due to the steep sequester spending reductions set to kick in.

If not modified, the sequester -- $85 billion in spending cuts over the next seven months, and $110 billion from the fiscal 2014 budget -- could trim at least 0.5 percentage points from potential economic growth, economists say.

Also weighing on the market were more dismal data from Europe: the Markit Eurozone Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index was 47.9 points in February, still in the contraction zone, and unemployment in the 17-nation bloc rose to a record 11.9 percent in January, with nearly 19 million people out of work.

Martin van Vliet at ING Bank said the data had marked a "sharp acceleration from December" and meant that "an end to the labor market downturn is not yet in sight.

"Even if the eurozone economy exits from recession in due course, the labor market is likely to remain in recession for most if not all of this year," van Vliet said.

Earlier in the day, China's manufacturing PMI fell in February to 50.1 points, barely in expansion territory and still a reason for concern over the pace of growth.


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Population growth is threat to other species, poll respondents say

Nearly two-thirds of American voters believe that human population growth is driving other animal species to extinction and that if the situation gets worse, society has a "moral responsibility to address the problem," according to new national public opinion poll.

A slightly lower percentage of those polled — 59% — believes that population growth is an important environmental issue and 54% believe that stabilizing the population will help protect the environment.

The survey was conducted on behalf of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which unlike other environmental groups has targeted population growth as part of its campaign to save wildlife species from extinction.

The center has handed out more than half a million condoms at music concerts, farmers markets, churches and college campuses with labels featuring drawings of endangered species and playful, even humorous, messages such as, "Wrap with care, save the polar bear."

The organization hired a polling firm to show other environmental groups that their fears about alienating the public by bringing up population matters are overblown, said Kieran Suckling, the center's executive director. When the center broke the near-silence on population growth with its condom campaign, other environmental leaders "reacted with a mix of worry and horror that we were going to experience a huge backlash and drag them into it," he said.

Instead, Suckling said the campaign has swelled its membership — now about 500,000 — and donations and energized 5,000 volunteers who pass out prophylactics. He said a common response is, "Thank God, someone is talking about this critical issue."

The poll results, he said, show such views are mainstream.

In the survey, the pollsters explained that the world population hit 7 billion last year and is projected to reach 10 billion by the end of the century. Given those facts, 50% of people reached by telephone said they think the world population is growing too fast, while 38% said population growth was on the right pace and 4% thought it was growing too slowly. About 8% were not sure.

Sixty-one percent of respondents expressed concerned about disappearing wildlife. Depending how the question was phrased, 57% to 64% of respondents said population growth was having an adverse effect. If widespread wildlife extinctions were unavoidable without slowing human population growth, 60% agreed that society has a moral responsibility to address the problem.

Respondents didn't make as clear a connection between population and climate change, reflecting the decades-old debate over population growth versus consumption. Although 57% of respondents agreed that population growth is making climate change worse, only 46% said they think having more people will make it harder to solve, and 34% said the number of people will make no difference.

Asked about natural resources, 48% said they think the average American consumes too much. The view split sharply along party lines, with 62% of Democrats saying the average American consumes too much, compared with 29% of Republicans. Independents fell in the middle at 49%.

The survey of 657 registered voters was conducted Feb. 22-24 by Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh, N.C., firm that takes the pulse of voters for Democratic candidates and Democratic-leaning clients. It has a margin of error of 3.9%.


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Stinkbug Threat Has Farmers Worried

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

Maryland farmer Nathan Milburn recalls his first encounter.

It was before dawn one morning in summer 2010, and he was at a gas station near his farm, fueling up for the day. Glancing at the light above the pump, something caught his eye.

"Thousands of something," Milburn remembers.

Though he'd never actually seen a brown marmorated stinkbug, Milburn knew exactly what he was looking at. He'd heard the stories.

This was a swarm of them—the invasive bugs from Asia that had been devouring local crops.

"My heart sank to my stomach," Milburn says.

Nearly three years later, the Asian stinkbug, commonly called the brown marmorated stinkbug, has become a serious threat to many mid-Atlantic farmers' livelihoods.

The bugs have also become a nuisance to many Americans who simply have warm homes—favored retreats of the bugs during cold months, when they go into a dormant state known as overwintering.

The worst summer for the bugs so far in the U.S. was 2010, but 2013 could be shaping up to be another bad year. Scientists estimate that 60 percent more stinkbugs are hunkered down indoors and in the natural landscape now than they were at this time last year in the mid-Atlantic region.

Once temperatures begin to rise, they'll head outside in search of mates and food. This is what farmers are dreading, as the Asian stinkbug is notorious for gorging on more than a half dozen North American crops, from peaches to peppers.

Intruder Alert

The first stinkbugs probably arrived in the U.S. by hitching a ride with a shipment of imported products from Asia in the late 1990s. Not long after that, they were spotted in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Since then, they've been identified in 39 other states. Effective monitoring tools are being developed to help researchers detect regional patterns.

There are two main reasons to fear this invader, whose popular name comes from the pungent odor it releases when squashed. It can be distinguished from the native stinkbug by white stripes on its antennae and a mottled appearance on its abdomen. (The native stinkbug can also cause damage but its population number is too low for it to have a significant impact.)

For one thing, Asian stinkbugs have an insatiable appetite for fruits and vegetables, latching onto them with a needlelike probe before breaking down their flesh and sucking out juice until all that's left is a mangled mess.

Peaches, apples, peppers, soybeans, tomatoes, and grapes are among their favorite crops, said Tracy Leskey, a research entomologist leading a USDA-funded team dedicated to stinkbug management. She adds that in 2010, the insects caused $37 million in damage just to apple crops in the mid-Atlantic region.

Another fear factor: Although the stinkbug has some natural predators in the U.S., those predators can't keep up with the size of the stinkbug population, giving it the almost completely unchecked freedom to eat, reproduce, and flourish.

Almost completely unchecked. Leskey and her team have found that stinkbugs are attracted to blue, black, and white light, and to certain pheromones. Pheromone lures have been used with some success in stinkbug traps, but the method hasn't yet been evaluated for catching the bugs in large numbers.

So Milburn—who is on the stakeholders' advisory panel of Leskey's USDA-funded team—and other farmers have had to resort to using some chemical agents to protect against stinkbug sabotage.

It's a solution that Milburn isn't happy about. "We have to be careful—this is people's food. My family eats our apples, too," he says. "We have to engage and defeat with an environmentally safe and economically feasible solution."

Damage Control

Research Entomologist Kim Hoelmer agrees but knows that foregoing pesticides in the face of the stinkbug threat is easier said than done.

Hoelmer works on the USDA stinkbug management team's biological control program. For the past eight years, he's been monitoring the spread of the brown marmorated stinkbug with an eye toward containing it.

"We first looked to see if native natural enemies were going to provide sufficient levels of control," he says. "Once we decided that wasn't going to happen, we began to evaluate Asian natural enemies to help out."

Enter Trissolcus, a tiny, parasitic wasp from Asia that thrives on destroying brown marmorated stinkbugs and in its natural habitat has kept them from becoming the extreme pests they are in the U.S.

When a female wasp happens upon a cluster of stinkbug eggs, she will lay her own eggs inside them. As the larval wasp develops, it feeds on its host—the stinkbug egg—until there's nothing left. Most insects have natural enemies that prey upon or parasitize them in this way, said Hoelmer, calling it "part of the balance of nature."

In a quarantine lab in Newark, Delaware, Hoelmer has been evaluating the pros and cons of allowing Trissolcus out into the open in the U.S. It's certainly a cost-effective approach.

"Once introduced, the wasps will spread and reproduce all by themselves without the need to continually reintroduce them," he says.

And these wasps will not hurt humans. "Entomologists already know from extensive research worldwide that Trissolcus wasps only attack and develop in stinkbug eggs," Hoelmer says. "There is no possibility of them biting or stinging animals or humans or feeding on plants or otherwise becoming a pest themselves."

But there is a potential downside: the chance the wasp could go after one or more of North America's native stinkbugs and other insects.

"We do not want to cause harm to nontarget species," Hoelmer says. "That's why the host range of the Asian Trissolcus is being studied in the Newark laboratory before a request is made to release it."

Ultimately, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will decide whether or not to introduce the wasp. If it does, the new natural enemy could be let loose as early as next year.

Do you have stinkbugs in your area? Have they invaded your home this winter? Or your garden last summer? How do you combat them? Share your sightings and stories in the comments.

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Mystery ring of radiation briefly encircled Earth

What were you doing last September? The charged particles that dance around Earth were busy. Unbeknown to most earthlings, a previously unseen ring of radiation encircled our planet for nearly the whole month – before being destroyed by a powerful interplanetary shock wave.

We already knew that two, persistent belts of charged particles, called the Van Allen radiation belts, encircle Earth. The discovery of a third, middle ring by NASA's twin Van Allen probes, launched in August 2012, suggests that these belts, which have puzzled scientists for over 50 years, are even stranger than we thought. Working out what caused the third ring to develop could help protect spacecraft from damaging doses of radiation.

Charged particles get trapped by Earth's magnetic field into two distinct regions, forming the belts. The inner belt, which extends from an altitude of 1600 to 12,900 kilometres, is fairly stable. But the outer belt, spanning altitudes ranging from 19,000 to 40,000 kilometres, can vary wildly. Over the course of minutes or hours, its electrons can be accelerated to close to the speed of light, and it can grow to 100 times its usual size.

Mystery acceleration

No one is sure what causes these "acceleration events", although it seems to have something to do with solar activity interacting with the Earths' magnetic field.

"That's one of the key things the probes are in place to understand," says Dan Baker of the University of Colorado, Boulder. "How does this cosmic accelerator, operating just a few thousand miles above our head, accelerate electrons to such extraordinarily high energies?"

When the Van Allen probes started taking data on 1 September 2012, one of these mysterious events was already under way. "We came in the middle of the movie there," Baker says. But otherwise, he says, "What we expected was what we saw when we first turned on: two distinct belts, separated."

That changed a day later when, to the team's surprise, an extra ring developed between the inner and outer ones. "We watched it develop right before our eyes," Baker says. The new, middle ring was relatively narrow, and its electrons had energies between 4 and 7.5 megaelectronvolts - about the same as in the outer Van Allen belt during an acceleration event.

Although the outer ring displayed its characteristic inconstancy, the new middle ring barely budged for nearly four weeks. Then a shock wave, probably linked to a burst of solar activity, wiped it out in less than an hour on 1 October.

Spacecraft malfunctions

It's not clear where the middle ring came from, Baker says, although it was probably related to the acceleration event. The electrons could have been stripped from the outer Van Allen belt, funnelled back towards the Earth and got trapped in the middle on the way, or they could have been energised from closer to Earth and shot up to higher altitudes.

Figuring out what happened could be important to protecting spacecraft from radiation damage, says Yuri Shprits of the University of California in Los Angeles, who was not involved in the observations but is crafting a theoretical explanation that he hopes to publish soon. "It truly presents us with a very important question, and very important puzzles," he says.

There were no specific spacecraft malfunctions during September that can be directly linked to the new belt, says Shprits. However satellite operators will want to know if such belts are common and if they pose more of a risk.

With no other examples of a transient belt caught so far, it's too soon to answer all those questions, Baker says. "We only have one in captivity," he says. "We're still trying to figure out exactly how it works."

Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1233518

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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Oil prices fall as US sequester cuts loom

NEW YORK: Oil prices fell late in the session Thursday after trading slightly higher much of the day, with traders blaming portfolio adjustment on the final day of the month.

But prices were also soft as the United States appeared headed for slower economic growth due to mandated spending cuts that kick in beginning Friday.

New York's main contract, West Texas Intermediate crude for April delivery, lost 71 cents from late Wednesday, closing at $92.05 a barrel.

Brent North Sea crude for April fell 49 cents to $111.38 a barrel in London trade.

Prices were fairly stable much of the day, showing little impact from an improved but still disappointing revision to the US growth rate for the 2012 fourth quarter, to a positive 0.1 percent from the original estimate of a 0.1 percent contraction.

But late in the session support for WTI and Brent dropped out.

"That has a lot to do with the technical selling pressure that finally gave up towards the end of the day. Today is the last day of the month and you'll see some month-end rebalancing," said David Bouckhout of TD Securities.

The market also appeared well-supplied given the pace of the global economy, analysts said.

"Fundamentally, oil prices are unlikely to rise much in the short-term as demand remains weak and supply abundant," said Fawad Razaqzada of traders GFT Markets.

The US appeared headed for a growth slowdown as the US government's "sequester" budget cuts appeared likely to take effect Friday.

Economists warn the $85 billion in spending reductions for the next seven months will take off a 0.5 percentage point from potential growth, if politicians cannot find a last-minute compromise in White House talks Friday.


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Eric Garcetti showed political savvy during busy student years

Fourth in a series of articles focusing on key periods in the lives of the mayoral hopefuls.

Ben Jealous still recalls walking into a Columbia University meeting of a new group called Black Men for Anita Hill and seeing a half-Jewish, half-Mexican kid from Los Angeles leading the discussion.

"What's he doing here?" he asked the professor who organized the meeting.

"Honestly brother," the teacher replied, "he's the only one here I'm certain will really work hard."

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It was Jealous' first exposure to Eric Garcetti, a committed young progressive known on campus for gliding between different worlds and liberal causes. As a political science major at Columbia, Garcetti patched plaster and painted walls in low-income apartments in Harlem while also serving as the president of an exclusive literary society known for its wealthy membership. He led a men's discussion group on gender and sexuality, ran successfully for student government, and wrote and performed in musicals.

His busy student years offered hints of the future political persona that would later help him win a Los Angeles City Council seat and emerge as a leading candidate for mayor. As he pursued countless progressive causes — improved race relations in New York City, democracy in Burma and human rights in Ethiopia — Garcetti also exhibited a careful stewardship of his image and a desire to get along with everyone.

Some of his critics complain that he is confrontation averse, and say his chameleon-like abilities are political. Others complain that he has lost touch with his activist roots, citing his recent advocacy for a plan to allow taller and bigger buildings in Hollywood despite strong opposition from some community members.

FULL COVERAGE: L.A.'s race for mayor

But Jealous, who went on to study with Garcetti at Oxford, where they were both Rhodes scholars, remembers his classmate as "authentically committed" to social justice and naturally at ease in different settings. That was a valuable trait in early 1990s New York City, when tensions between whites and blacks were high, said Jealous, who is now the president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. Against a backdrop of racial violence, including the stabbing of the Rev. Al Sharpton in Brooklyn in 1991, "there was an urgent need to build bridges," he said.

On Columbia's campus, Garcetti pushed to involve more men in Take Back the Night protests against sexual violence and tracked hate crimes as president of the National Student Coalition Against Harassment. He also worked against homelessness and founded the Columbia Urban Experience, a program that exposes incoming freshmen to city life through volunteerism.

Judith Russell, a Columbia professor who taught Garcetti in a yearlong urban politics course, remembers him as a skilled organizer. "Eric was one of the best people I've ever met at getting people to agree," she said.

He was also ambitious. Russell says she wrote countless recommendation letters for Garcetti, who was always applying for some new opportunity. "For most people I have a file or two. For Eric I have a folder," she said.

Even as a student, Garcetti went to great lengths to guard his image and public reputation. In a 1991 letter to a campus newspaper, a 20-year-old Garcetti sought a retraction of a quote that he acknowledged was accurate. A reporter wrote that Garcetti called owners of a store that declined to participate in a Columbia-sponsored can recycling program "assholes." Garcetti said the comment was off the record.

"I would ask, then, if you would retract the quote, not because of the morality of my position, rather the ethics of the quoting," he wrote.

That self-awareness came partly from being raised in a politically active family. Back in Los Angeles, his father was mounting a successful campaign for county district attorney. His mother, the daughter of a wealthy clothier, ran a community foundation. Her father, who had been President Lyndon B. Johnson's tailor, made headlines in the 1960s when he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling on Johnson to exit the Vietnam War.

Garcetti's family wealth allowed him to carry on the legacy of political activism. While attending L.A.'s exclusive Harvard School for Boys, he traveled to Ethiopia to deliver medical supplies. In college, while other students worked at summer jobs, he traveled twice to Burma to teach democracy to leaders of the resistance movement.

In 1993, after receiving a master's degree from Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, Garcetti departed for Oxford. There he met Cory Booker, a fellow Rhodes scholar who is now the mayor of Newark, N.J., and a likely candidate for the U.S. Senate. Garcetti, Booker said, "was one of those guys who would be in the pub at midnight talking passionately about making a better world."

In England, Garcetti worked with Amnesty International and also met his future wife, Amy Wakeland, another Rhodes scholar with activist leanings. Garcetti remembers being impressed when Wakeland missed President Clinton's visit to the Rhodes House at Oxford because she was on the streets protesting tuition hikes. Her worldview aligned with his, he told friends.

In his second year at Oxford, Garcetti persuaded student leaders to join him in a hunger strike after the passage of Proposition 187, the 1994 California ballot measure that denied immigrants access to state healthcare and schools.

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How Green Was the 'Green Pope'?

As the world's one billion Catholics wait for white smoke to rise above the Vatican, signaling the election of a new pontiff, it's how clear the air is elsewhere that will go a long way toward shaping the legacy of retiring Pope Benedict XVI. Among the many titles Benedict has been given over his eight-year reign, the "Green Pope" is certainly one of the most unexpected. But to Vatican observers, Green Pope is entirely appropriate, as the pontiff has made environmental awareness a key tenant of his tenure.

Benedict wasn't the first environmentally conscious pope. In 1990, Pope John Paul II went on record during a speech on the World Day of Peace urging Catholics to regard the natural world as one of God's creations worth protecting. By the time Benedict first put on his papal robes in 2005, caring for the environment had become an important part of the church's doctrine. Benedict gave the issue an even higher profile. He delivered homilies and speeches asking world leaders to take seriously the harm being inflicted on the planet. "If we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us," Benedict said on the 2010 World Day of Peace. Not long after, the influential Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a scientific arm of the Vatican, released a report on climate change recommending that world leaders cut carbon dioxide emissions, reduce existing pollution, and prepare for the inevitable impacts of a changing climate.

Benedict also made moves on his home turf. He approved a plan to cover the Vatican's Paul VI hall with solar panels, enough to power the lighting, heating, and cooling of a portion of the entire country (which covers, of course, a mere one-fifth of a square mile). He authorized the Vatican's bank to purchase carbon credits by funding a Hungarian forest that would make the Catholic city-state the only country fully carbon neutral. And several years later, he unveiled a new hybrid Popemobile that would be partially electric.

At a time when the church was dealing with more pressing structural issues within its ranks, some of Benedict's moves could be seen as simply good PR-inexpensive changes to build good will. Yet certain Vatican watchers see Benedict's efforts as genuine. "I think it's remarkable how much attention he gave to the environment; this for him was a big theme," said Walter Grazer, an adviser to the National Religious Partnership for the Environment and former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). In this regard, Benedict's advocacy, says Grazer, is likely to set the tone for a successor tasked with making the church's pastoral teachings more aligned with issues of modern life.

As world leaders gathered in half a dozen cities during Benedict's papacy to discuss global emissions treaties, Benedict did not participate, lacking an element of diplomatic gravitas as a head of state of a physically small country. Where Benedict did exert influence, however, was injecting morality into the environmental debate. Changing light bulbs or saving a wild animal by protecting habitat wasn't about saving money, Benedict implied, but was a religious obligation. "It's clear the church is now on the side of protecting the environment, seeing it as God's creation and something that should be respected," said Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. "I think that the leaders of the environmental movement are now realizing the church is an ally."

The impetus for the church's environmental advocacy isn't all spiritual. There is obvious concern for how climate change will affect material quality of life, especially for the disadvantaged. Last year, the USCC, the Vatican's U.S. arm, issued a statement saying that the human response to environmental challenges "will affect poor and vulnerable people at home and around the world."

Benedict has echoed the same sentiment, at times stating publicly that the countries emitting the most greenhouse gas emissions aren't the ones feeling the most damaging impacts of rising oceans, extreme storms, and scarcity of water. "He has a great concern for what was going to happen to the poorest people as a result of environmental destruction," said Grazer.

As Benedict begins his retirement today, the better way to judge Benedict's influence might not be in how many solar panels he had installed at the Vatican or how many gallons of gasoline he saved with the Popemobile, but in how he harnessed the influence of his global church to act on the sort of change he advocated. Many national dioceses around the world now include "environmental stewardship" on their list of advocacy topics. In the U.S., bishops have created curricula for discussing sustainability in school and pushed local officials on issues like clean air. "I think many people have found inspirational Benedict's constant reference to the need to be responsible for the environment," said William Skylstad, bishop emeritus of the diocese of Spokane, Washington. Skylstad hopes the next pontiff will also be willing to carry the same green torch.

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Quantum skyfall puts Einstein's gravity to the test

DIVIDING a falling cloud of frozen atoms sounds like an exotic weather experiment. In fact, it's the latest way to probe whether tiny objects obey Einstein's theory of general relativity, our leading explanation for gravity.

General relativity is based on the equivalence principle, which says that in free fall, all objects fall at the same rate, whatever their mass, provided the only force at work is gravity. That has been proven for large objects: legend has it that Galileo did it first by dropping various balls from the Tower of Pisa. Whether equivalence holds at quantum scales, where gravity's effects are not well understood, isn't clear. Figuring it out could help create a quantum theory of gravity, one of the biggest goals of modern physics.

Creating a quantum equivalent of Galileo's test isn't easy. In 2010 a team led by Ernst Rasel of the University of Hannover in Germany monitored a quantum object in free fallMovie Camera, by tossing a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) – a cloud of chilled atoms that behaves as a single quantum object and so is both particle and wave – down a 110-metre tall tower. Now they have split and recombined the wave – all before the BEC, made of rubidium atoms, reached the bottom. This produces an interference pattern that records the path of the falling atoms and can be used to calculate their acceleration (Physical Review Letters, doi.org/km6). The next step is to do the same experiment on a different kind of atom, with a different mass, to see if the equivalence principle holds.

The BEC can only be split for 100 milliseconds in the tower before hitting the bottom, so to allow tiny differences between the atom types to emerge, the work must be repeated in space, where the waves can be split for longer. By showing that a matter-wave can be split and recombined while falling, Rasel's result is a "major step" towards the space version, says Charles Wang of the University of Aberdeen, UK.

This article appeared in print under the headline "Quantum skyfall tests Einstein's gravity"

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Football: Robben strikes as Bayern dump Dortmund out of cup

MUNICH, Germany: Bayern Munich ended their three-year wait for a competitive win over Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday as Arjen Robben's first-half strike sealed a 1-0 German Cup quarter-final victory.

February 2010 had been the occasion of Bayern's last league or cup win over Dortmund -- a six-game stretch -- but Robben's thunderbolt two minutes before the break at the Allianz Arena was enough to put Munich in the last four.

A pre-season Supercup final win in Munich last August had been Bayern's only source of comfort against Borussia recently.

Despite having spent much of this season on Bayern' bench, Robben took over on the left-wing from France's Franck Ribery, who was suspended, to show coach Jupp Heynckes what he has been missing.

The 29-year-old ex-Chelsea and Real Madrid star sank to his knees and beat the turf at the final whistle in delight.

He has now scored in three of Bayern's last four games after netting in recent Bundesliga wins over Wolfsburg and the 6-1 drubbing of Werder Bremen last Saturday.

This was the clash of Germany's titans -- Bayern Munich, 17 points clear in the Bundesliga against defending league champions and cup holders Dortmund, who have dominated the top-tier of German football for the last two years.

Germany defender Mats Hummels dropped out the day of the game with flu and in his place Brazilian Felipe Santana partnered Neven Subotic at centre-back for Dortmund.

Robben's inclusion for the suspended Ribery was the only change from the team which won 3-1 at Arsenal in the Champions League just over a week ago.

Dortmund hammered Bayern 5-2 in last May's German Cup final, when Poland striker Robert Lewandowski netted a hat-trick.

If Wednesday's game needed extra spice, Lewandowski has been strongly linked to a move to Bayern with his contract to expire in 2014.

In a tight, nervy cup game, both teams had their opportunities.

The brightest chance of the first-half fell to Javi Martinez when his shot straight at Roman Weidenfeller was parried and the Dortmund goalkeeper scrambled back to grab the loose ball on 36 minutes.

Bayern kept up the pressure and when Dortmund's Marcel Schmelzer hit a weak clearance, Robben's shot from 18 metres clocked 115km/h (70mph) as it hit the top-right corner on 43 minutes for what proved to be the winner.

With Dortmund out, Bayern are now clear cup favourites and are on course to be the first team to win the treble of German league, cup and Champions League titles in their quest to end their three-year wait for silverware.

VfB Stuttgart, who beat third-division VfL Bochum 2-0, Wolfsburg and Freiburg are the other teams to go into the pot for Sunday's draw with the semi-finals to be held on April 16/17, with the final on June 1 in Berlin.

- AFP/ac

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Imperial County betting its future on renewable energy

Situated in the southeastern corner of California, bordering Arizona and Mexico, Imperial County has long depended on agriculture and cash crops that grew from the good earth.

But lately the region — which carries the dubious distinction of having the state's highest unemployment rate at 25.5% — is betting its future on a different kind of farm: green energy.

Spurred by a state mandate that requires utilities to get a third of their electricity from green sources by 2020, renewable energy companies are leasing or buying thousands of acres in Imperial County to convert to energy farms providing power for coastal cities — bringing an estimated 6,000 building jobs and billions in construction activity to the county.

Although renewable energy projects are sprouting up across the Golden State, no county needs them as much as Imperial, which has consistently ranked as the worst-performing region of California even in boom times.

The prospect of a construction boom has excited residents hungry for work. But some farmers and Native American tribes are crying foul, angry that the new projects are encroaching on land that they claim has cultural value or should be devoted to crops.

Solar, wind and geothermal projects are popping up on farms that once grew wheat, alfalfa and sugar beets. County officials say the normally hardscrabble region is benefiting from vast tracts of affordable land and lots of sunshine, the one resource the region can almost always count on.

"It's sunny 365 days of the year, damn near," boasted Mike Kelley, chairman of the county's Board of Supervisors. "Renewable energy is going to give Imperial County a shot in the arm."

Local advocates are betting that a "green rush" will lift a county that has struggled with economic upheaval. The Bureau of Labor Statistics just ranked El Centro as the second-worst metro area for job hunters, after Yuma, Ariz. Its unemployment rate fluctuated between 25% and 33% from 2010 and 2012.

Two of the county's top five employers are the Calipatria and Centinela state prisons. The agriculture sector shed jobs as farmers moved to automation and switched to less labor-intensive crops. Construction work vanished when El Centro, the county's biggest city, was hit hard by the housing crisis. Long-standing businesses such as a food processing plant moved elsewhere, taking away hundreds of jobs.

But with green energy companies scrambling to build solar installations and wind farms throughout the county, some residents are convinced that Imperial's fortunes will soon be looking up.

Tenaska Solar Ventures plans to break ground this year on its second project in the county after nearing completion on its first site, known as the Imperial Solar Energy Center South, on nearly 1,000 acres near El Centro.

The company came to the region both for its "abundant sunshine" and also proximity to the Sunrise Powerlink, a power transmission line completed last year that connects Imperial and San Diego counties, said Bob Ramaekers, Tenaska's vice president of development.

More than 500 construction workers have been hired to work on Tenaska Imperial South, with 70% coming from the local community, he said. A job fair held last year drew about 1,200 applicants. The second project will generate as many as 300 construction jobs, with priority given to local hires.

"One of the advantages of solar projects is they are not really high-tech. Anyone who has worked at all in the construction business can work in a solar facility," said Andy Horne, deputy executive officer of the county's natural resources department. "It's like a big erector set — you bolt these things together and ba-da-bing, you have a solar project."

The lure of a steady, well-paid job is what persuaded Victor Santana, 27, to start training as a journeyman electrician two years ago. He had studied film in college and hoped to make movies, but ended up working a series of odd jobs after the economic downturn — driving tractors, operating hay presses, selling vacuum cleaners. Even a video-editing gig he eventually found paid minimum wage,

"Things had dried up. There was only field work, or fast food, or working at the local mall," the El Centro resident said.

Santana finally decided to switch careers after hearing the pitch from green energy companies trickling into town. Now he earns about $21 an hour with regular raises every six months, and the prospect of steady work for another seven to 10 years just from the stream of solar and wind projects. "I feel a lot more secure than I did," he said.

Green energy may help Imperial hold onto its young people, who often try to land a government job or leave the county altogether in search of better-paying jobs elsewhere. Calipatria Unified School District is launching a vocational program this fall to prepare high school graduates for jobs in renewable energy. San Diego State is building a power plant simulator at its Brawley campus.

"With the advent of renewable energy, we are seeing a different kind of industrial base," said Mike Sabath, associate dean of academic affairs at San Diego State's Imperial Valley campus. "Hopefully that will provide opportunities to develop more job stability in the region than what we have enjoyed."

But construction has raised the hackles of some locals. There are farmers wringing their hands over fertile land snapped up by energy companies; they worry that a way of life is being edged out by corporations eager to cash in on the modern gold rush.

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Megadam Project Galvanizes Native Opposition in Malaysia

Most villages along the Baram River in Malaysia cannot count on round-the-clock electricity. Diesel generators hum at night near longhouses in the northwestern corner of the island of Borneo. Mobile and Internet coverage are almost nonexistent.

A plan to dam the Baram River would generate power far in excess of current demand in the rainforest state: At 1,000 megawatts, the hydropower project would be large enough to power 750,000 homes in the United States.

Yet the promise of power rings hollow for many who live here.

Natives from the tribes of Penan, Kenyah, and Kayan have taken to their traditional longboats, traveling downstream to the town of Long Lama to voice opposition to the plan. (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Water and Energy.")

Baram is one of seven big hydropower projects that Malaysia's largest state, Sarawak, is building in a bid to lure aluminum smelters, steelmakers, and other energy-intensive heavy industry with the promise of cheap power. Together, the dams mapped out in the state government's sprawling $105 billion Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) plan would harness nearly as much river power as the largest generating station in the world, the massive Three Gorges Dam in China. (See related photos: "A River People Awaits an Amazon Dam.")

The Sarawak project is changing landscape and lives. The dam across the sinuous Baram River will submerge 159 square miles (412 square kilometers) of rain forest, displacing some 20,000 indigenous people.

Open acts of defiance are rare in Sarawak after three decades of authoritarian rule under the state's Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, who has long battled charges that he has amassed personal wealth by selling off swaths of the rain forest in corrupt deals with timber industry. But protests have become increasingly bold among indigenous people opposed to the megahydro plan. Last September, native tribes set up a blockade to protest the Murum River dam project in western Sarawak. And in January, the longboat protest came to Long Lama, with shouts of "Stop Baram Dam" in indigenous languages reverberating through the normally quiet town.

"I don't care if I'm not reappointed" as the village chief by the government, said Panai Erang, 55, an ethnic Penan, one of several chiefs openly against the state-backed project. "I have to speak out for my people."

Power Transformation

Baram Dam is part of a grand eonomic-development vision for Sarawak, which along with Sabah is one of two Malaysian states on the northern coast of Borneo (map), along the South China Sea. Borneo, shared with Indonesia and Brunei, is one of the largest islands in the world, and home to one of its oldest rain forests. (See related story: "Borneo's Moment of Truth")

Endangered species such as Hose's civet, the Borneo gibbon, and six different species of hornbills rely on the habitat. The Bornean bay cat, one of the most elusive cats in the world, was sighted near the upper Baram River last November. Sarawak boasts more than 8,000 unique types of flora and 20,000 species of fauna, including one of the world's largest butterflies, the Rajah Brooke Birdwing, and one of the most extensive cave systems on Earth.

Despite its natural resources, Sarawak's economy has lagged behind the rest of Malaysia. An ever-widening economic gap, as well as a sea, separates Sarawak from the fast-growing states and bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur on the Malay peninsula. But Sarawak's SCORE plan aims to "transform Sarawak into a developed state by year 2020."

A government spokesperson close to Mahmud said Sarawak has to tap the hydro potential of its numerous rivers to power the state's industrial development.

"The people affected [by the dams] will be those who are living in small settlements scattered over remote areas," said the spokesperson, who asked not to be named, in an email. "They are still living in poverty.

"To build a dam, not just to generate reasonably priced energy, is also to involve the affected people in meaningful development," he said. "Otherwise, they will be left out."

The spokesperson added that Sarawak will also be exploiting its one to two billion tons of coal reserve for power. One of the coal plants is already operating in the developing township of Mukah. Malaysia's first aluminum smelter was opened here in 2009.

Sarawak's plan is to grow its economy by a factor of five, increase jobs, and double the population to 4.6 million by 2030.

But during the January protest at Long Lama, village chief Panai Erang said he and his people have little confidence that they will benefit from the new industrial development. Erang has visited the town of Sungai Asap, in central Sarawak, where 10,000 indigenous people already displaced by the first megadam project, Bakun Dam, were relocated. The forced exodus began in the late 1990s, and construction continued for more than a decade. With a capacity of 2,400 megawatts, Bakun, which opened in 2011, is currently Asia's largest hydroelectric dam outside China.

Erang said the settlers were given substandard houses and infertile farmland. Some have returned to Bakun and are living on floating houses at the dam site.

The community leader is fearful for the future of his villagers. Many do not possess a MyKad—the Malaysian national identification card—because of government policies making it difficult for them to prove citizenship. As a result, they cannot vote and would be unlikely to find employment if they were forced out of their ancestral homes into towns and cities.

"This is not the development that we want," said Salomon Gau, 48, an ethnic Kenyah from the village of Long Ikang, located downstream off the Baram River. "We don't need big dams. We want micro-hydro dams, [which are] more affordable and environmentally friendly."

Energy and Development

The concerns of the indigenous tribes are echoed by academics and activists from Malaysia and around the world. They worry about SCORE's potential social and environmental impact.

Benjamin Sovacool, founding manager of Vermont Law School's Energy Security and Justice Program, studied the SCORE project extensively. He and development consultant L.C. Bulan traveled the corridor and interviewed dozens of Sarawak planners and stakeholders to catalog the drivers and risks of the project. Their research, conducted at the National University of Singapore, was published last year in the journal Renewable Energy.

Government officials told the researchers that SCORE would improve prospects for those now living in villages, especially the young people: "They want gadgets, cars, nice clothes, and need to learn to survive in the modern economy," one project planner told Sovacool and Bulan. "They are not interested in picking some fruit in the forest, collecting bananas, hunting pigs."

And yet when the researchers visited the Sungai Asap resettlement community, they found people scraping for both water and food, oppressed by heat and rampant disease, with limited transportation options. "We had trouble sleeping at night due to coughing from a tuberculosis epidemic, malaria-carrying mosquitoes buzzing around our beds, and the smell of urine, since the longhouse lacked basic sanitation," they wrote.  Many community members had fled.

The squalor stands in marked contrast to the portrait of Sarawak that the SCORE project seeks to paint in its bid to attract new industry, a region of "world-class infrastructure, multimodal interconnectivity and competitive incentives," strategically located near potential fast-growing markets of India, China, and Indonesia.

Sovacool and Bulan noted that SCORE had encountered difficulties in finding investors and financiers, and flawed environmental impact assessments and questionable procurement practices would further hamper those efforts. (At least one major aluminum smelter plan was scrapped last year over a dispute over finances.) The authors concluded that SCORE might undermine Sarawak's greatest assets: "[I]t is taking what is special to Sarawak, its biodiversity and cultural heritage and destroying and converting it into electricity, a commodity available in almost every country on the planet."

And yet, Sovacool and Bulan wrote that such projects may become increasingly common globally, as governments seek to build energy systems and spur development at the same time.

Daniel Kammen, founder of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, who has worked extensively on alternative energy solutions in Malaysia, thinks Sarawak should explore other renewable energy options before implementing SCORE's power projects.

"The political and infrastructure challenges are immense, and the ecological and cultural impacts have barely been evaluated," he told National Geographic News via email.

He said careful evaluation and planning in cooperation with communities could yield better solutions; Kammen's team's work was pivotal in the 2011 decision by neighboring state Sabah to scrap plans for a 300-megawatt coal plant in an ecologically sensitive habitat, and provide energy instead with natural gas.

"What is vital to the long-term social and economic development of [Sarawak], and of Borneo, is to explore the full range of options that are available to this resource-rich state, recognizing that community, cultural, and environmental resources have tremendous value that could be lost if the SCORE project goes ahead without a full analysis of the options that exist in the region," he said.

Mounting Resistance

The natives of Sarawak, including those from Baram, have already lost thousands of hectares of customary land to logging companies and oil palm plantation companies over the past few decades. The state government often cuts land lease deals with companies without consulting natives. Consequently, there are now more than 200 land-dispute court cases pending in Sarawak.

The Penans, a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe, have suffered more than the Kenyah and Kayan agricultural tribes as they are entirely dependent on the forest for their livelihoods, and are well-known for their blockades against loggers.

But the dam development has united different tribes traditionally divided by their disparate interests. Unlike previous upheavals due to logging, the hydro projects will force tribes out of their ancestral land completely. Adding to anger is the appearance of nepotism in several of the deals; for example, Hamed Abdul Sepawi, chairperson of the state utility company Sarawak Energy Bhd, which is building the Murum Dam, is the cousin of chief minister Mahmud.

The tribes struggle to have their concerns heard. The opposition party that organized the longboat protest in January at Baram, The People's Justice Party, collected more than 7,000 signatures but the government-appointed regional chief refused to see the protestors.

In some cases, the opponents have received a better reception abroad. Peter Kallang, an ethnic Kenyah and chairperson of the Save Sarawak Rivers Network, and other local indigenous activists traveled to Australia late last year to draw attention to their plight. "Development isn't just about economic growth," said Kallang. "Will these mega projects really raise the standard of living among our indigenous communities?" With support of Australian green groups, the activists pressured dam operator and consultant Hydro Tasmania to withdraw from Sarawak's hydropower projects.  Reports say Hydro Tasmania told the campaigners it plans to leave Sarawak after it fulfills its current contractual obligations, but the company has maintained it has been a small player in the SCORE program.

In any event, the indigenous activists plan to step up their campaign against the dam in the coming weeks in anticipation of upcoming national elections. Sarawak and Sabah traditionally have been viewed as a stronghold for the Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled Malaysia for half a century.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim now views the rural states on Borneo as key to his bid to unseat the long-standing regime, due to the support he has garnered among increasingly organized indigenous tribes.

In uniting Sarawak's native peoples, the project to alter its rivers may, in the end, change the course of Malaysia.

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

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Iran upbeat on nuclear talks, West still wary

ALMATY (Reuters) - Iran was upbeat on Wednesday after talks with world powers about its nuclear work ended with an agreement to meet again, but Western officials said it had yet to take concrete steps to ease their fears about its atomic ambitions.

Rapid progress was unlikely with Iran's presidential election, due in June, raising domestic political tensions, diplomats and analysts had said ahead of the February 26-27 meeting in the Kazakh city of Almaty, the first in eight months.

The United States, China, France, Russia, Britain and Germany offered modest sanctions relief in return for Iran curbing its most sensitive nuclear work but made clear that they expected no immediate breakthrough.

In an attempt to make their proposals more palatable to Iran, the six powers appeared to have softened previous demands somewhat, for example regarding their requirement that the Islamic state ship out its stockpile of higher-grade uranium.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said the powers had tried to "get closer to our viewpoint", which he said was positive.

In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commented that the talks had been "useful" and that a serious engagement by Iran could lead to a comprehensive deal in a decade-old dispute that has threatened to trigger a new Middle East war.

Iran's foreign minister said in Vienna he was "very confident" an agreement could be reached and Jalili, the chief negotiator, said he believed the Almaty meeting could be a "turning point".

However, one diplomat said Iranian officials at the negotiations appeared to be suggesting that they were opening new avenues, but it was not clear if this was really the case.

Iran expert Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said: "Everyone is saying Iran was more positive and portrayed the talks as a win."

"I reckon the reason for that is that they are saving face internally while buying time with the West until after the elections," she said.

The two sides agreed to hold expert-level talks in Istanbul on March 18 to discuss the powers' proposals, and return to Almaty for political discussions on April 5-6, when Western diplomats made clear they wanted to see a substantive response from Iran.

"Iran knows what it needs to do, the president has made clear his determination to implement his policy that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon," Kerry said.

A senior U.S. official in Almaty said, "What we care about at the end is concrete results."


Israel, assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, was watching the talks closely. It has strongly hinted it might attack Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail to ensure that it cannot build a nuclear weapon. Iran denies any such aim.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said economic sanctions were failing and urged the international community to threaten Iran with military action.

Western officials said the offer presented by the six powers included an easing of a ban on trade in gold and other precious metals, and a relaxation of an import embargo on Iranian petrochemical products. They gave no further details.

In exchange, a senior U.S. official said, Iran would among other things have to suspend uranium enrichment to a fissile concentration of 20 percent at its Fordow underground facility and "constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there".

The official did not describe what was being asked of Iran as a "shutdown" of the plant as Western diplomats had said in previous meetings with Iran last year.

Iran says it has a sovereign right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and wants to fuel nuclear power plants so that it can export more oil.

But 20-percent purity is far higher than that needed for nuclear power, and rings alarm bells abroad because it is only a short technical step away from weapons-grade uranium. Iran says it produces higher-grade uranium to fuel a research reactor.

Iran's growing stockpile of 20-percent-enriched uranium is already more than half-way to a "red line" that Israel has made clear it would consider sufficient for a bomb.

In Vienna on Wednesday, a senior U.N. nuclear agency official told diplomats in a closed-door briefing that Iran was technically ready to sharply increase this higher-grade enrichment, two Western diplomats said.

"Iran can triple 20 percent production in the blink of an eye," one of the diplomats said.

The U.S. official in Almaty said the powers' latest proposal would "significantly restrict the accumulation of near-20-percent enriched uranium in Iran, while enabling the Iranians to produce sufficient fuel" for their Tehran medical reactor.

This appeared to be a softening of a previous demand that Iran ship out its stockpile of higher-grade enriched uranium, which it says it needs to produce medical isotopes.

Iran has often indicated that 20-percent enrichment could be up for negotiation if it received the fuel from abroad instead.

Jalili suggested Iran could discuss the issue, although he appeared to rule out shutting down Fordow. He said the powers had not made that specific demand.

The Iranian rial, which has lost more than half its foreign exchange value in the last year as sanctions bite, rose some 2 percent on Wednesday, currency tracking websites reported.

(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl and Yeganeh Torbati in Almaty, Georgina Prodhan in Vienna, Zahra Hosseinian in Zurich, Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Marcus George in Dubai; Writing by Timothy Heritage and Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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Today on New Scientist: 26 February 2013

Giant laser creates an artificial star to clear the sky

The Very Large Telescope's new laser looks like something off the Death Star, but its powerful beam is used for the peaceful exploration of the galaxy

Russian meteor traced to Apollo asteroid family

The bounty of footage from dashboard-mounted cameras helped astronomers quickly calculate the orbit of the meteor and trace it to its home turf

Curiosity's spills add thrills to the Mars life hunts

An accidental chemical leak on board NASA's newest Martian rover has added another twist in the decades-long search for life on the Red Planet

Multilingual dictionary keeps humans in the loop

A new online dictionary launched this week uses concepts instead of words to avoid the typical garble of machine translation

Vulcan and Cerberus win popular Pluto moon-naming vote

A public vote to help name Pluto's two newest moons received a boost from William Shatner - but the International Astronomical Union has the final say

China takes steps to clean up 'cancer villages'

Having acknowledged the issue of cancer clusters around polluted water, the Chinese government is taking its first steps to control dangerous chemicals

Happy, snappy tweets gain the most Twitter followers

An analysis of half a million posts on Twitter has come up with some simple rules to boost your popularity on the site

Android smartphone to control satellite in orbit

A bold attempt to show that consumer electronics can cope with space radiation has lifted off - a satellite-controlling Google smartphone is now in orbit

The man who's crashing the techno-hype party

Evgeny Morozov does a good job of dispelling "big data" hype in To Save Everything, Click Here, but fails to explore the way we shape the tech we use

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Vatican says Benedict XVI will have title 'pope emeritus'

VATICAN CITY: Pope Benedict XVI will be known as "pope emeritus" and can continue to wear the white papal cassock after he steps down this week, the Vatican said Tuesday, revealing details about the final moments surrounding the historic resignation.

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics can still be referred to as "His Holiness Benedict XVI" and will have the additional title of "Roman pontiff emeritus", Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.

Benedict chose the titles himself, Lombardi said.

He will continue wearing the white cassock normally reserved for pontiffs after he resigns on Thursday -- the first leader of the Catholic Church to do so since the Middle Ages -- but without the doubled shoulder cape, Lombardi said.

The 85-year-old German pontiff stunned the world when he announced on February 11 that he would step down at the end of the month, citing his age and failing strength, following a troubled eight-year papacy dominated by scandals and Vatican intrigue.

The scourge of paedophile priests and cover-ups by their superiors has cast a dark shadow over his papacy, continuing into his final days, with activists calling Tuesday for cardinals Sean Brady of Ireland and Roger Mahony of the United States to be barred from the conclave over their roles in the scandals.

The Vatican meanwhile gave more details on the delicate transition for the former Joseph Ratzinger's delicate transition into retirement.

Lombardi said Benedict has chosen to swap his trademark red shoes for a brown pair given to him by artisans in Mexico during a trip last year, adding that he would also stop wearing the gold Fisherman's Ring used to seal papal documents.

Tradition dictates that the ring be destroyed and a new one cast for each pope, but when that occurs will be up to Vatican number two Tarcisio Bertone, the camerlingo or chamberlain who will be "interim pope" until a successor to Benedict is found.

The Vatican spokesman also said that a series of meetings of cardinals to settle on a date for the start of the papal election conclave could start on Monday.

Benedict holds a final general audience in St Peter's Square on Wednesday, the eve of his formal resignation.

At least 50,000 pilgrims are expected to attend his final public appearance on Wednesday, enough to fill the famous square to overflowing, and the pope will ride the trademark white "popemobile" through the throngs.

But there will be no traditional kissing of the pontiff's hand -- not for security reasons, but because of the sheer size of the expected crowd, Lombardi said.

"He doesn't want to favour one or the other" of the pilgrims, he added.

On his last day Thursday the pope will greet cardinals gathering for the conclave and a few dignitaries including from Slovakia, San Marino, Andorra and Benedict's native Bavaria.

At around 5:00 pm (1600 GMT), the pope will board a helicopter for the 15-minute ride to Castel Gandolfo, the traditional summer residence of popes.

Benedict's "last public act" will occur about a half-hour later when he waves to the crowd from a balcony of the palace, Lombardi said.

He said no fanfare will mark the official end of Benedict's papacy at 8:00 pm.

Instead the moment will be marked with quiet poignancy, when liveried Swiss Guardsmen will formally end their mandate to protect the pope.

"The symbolic moment will come when the gates (of the Castel Gondolfo residence) close at 8:00 pm and the Swiss Guard leave," Lombardi said.

At a later date, Benedict will return to the Vatican, where a disused convent is being fitted as his retirement home.

The decision to retire behind Vatican walls within a stone's throw of the new pope has raised eyebrows.

But Vatican expert John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter told AFP: "I frankly think that left to his own devices he would prefer to be in Regensburg," the German university town where Ratzinger taught theology.

"Several cardinals have told me it will be a lot harder for people to get to him" at the famously cloistered Vatican than in his native Germany.

Commenting on SNAP's demands, Allen told AFP they were "another confirmation of how enormously damning this scandal has been for the Church. Even at the most awesome moment in the life of the Church (the papal election), this scandal rears its ugly head."

Asked whether Benedict will be the first former pontiff to be called "pope emeritus", Lombardi said: "We don't know what Celestine V was called when he stepped down. We'll have to ask the historians."

The 13th-century monk was the only other pope in the 2,000-year-old Church's long line of rulers to step down voluntarily -- saying he could not tolerate the intrigues of the Church hierarchy.


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Does Eric Garcetti keep his word? Accounts vary

Santiago Perez and his neighbors went straight to Councilman Eric Garcetti when they heard that a developer planned to build a 62-unit housing and retail development on their quiet street in Echo Park.

Worried that the four-story complex would tower over homes and bring excess traffic, the group emerged from their meeting at Los Angeles City Hall feeling relieved. "He told us that, yes, he's with us and he will do everything possible to reject the plan," Perez said.

But months later in front of the citywide Planning Commission, a Garcetti representative offered the lawmaker's tacit support for the project, saying it was "designed well" and would bring needed jobs and housing to the area.

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Perez and his neighbors felt blindsided. "He said one thing and then he did another," Perez said. One of his neighbors fired off an angry message via Twitter: "Eric Garcetti went back on his word."

If Garcetti succeeds in his bid to become L.A.'s next mayor, he will face new pressure to take decisive action on hotly contested issues. A number of colleagues and constituents say he has not always been a steadfast ally and decision maker.

Another mayoral front runner, Wendy Greuel, alluded to that allegation in a recent appearance before city workers, saying they need someone who will "be true to their word."

FULL COVERAGE: L.A.'s race for mayor

Garcetti insists he never wavers from a promise. In nearly 12 years in office, he has made decisions that have upset some people, he acknowledged. But the vast majority of people he has worked with have had positive experiences, he said.

He said that he never committed to fighting the Echo Park development and that he "reserves the right" to take his time forming a position on an issue. "I listen to a lot of people to make sure I'm as well-informed as possible up until the last hour," he said.

Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who has served alongside Garcetti for more than a decade, said Garcetti too often tests the political winds before taking a stand. Parks, who is backing Councilwoman Jan Perry's bid for mayor, alleges that Garcetti misled him last year by voting for a controversial redistricting plan after indicating he opposed it. Garcetti also undermined the city's efforts to hold down costs of employee union contracts, Parks said.

INTERACTIVE MAP: How Los Angeles voted

"I think he doesn't want to make an enemy of anyone," Parks said.

Garcetti said that he never told Parks he would oppose the redistricting plan and that the tough stance he took with the unions is "the reason I don't have [them] lining up behind me."

Questions of Garcetti's reliability arose for Marc Galucci, who went to the councilman for support in turning his Echo Park cafe into a restaurant serving beer and wine.

Galucci assembled neighbors to back his application for a liquor license for Fix Coffee, but parents of some children at a nearby school opposed it.

Galucci said Garcetti told him that he would remain neutral but offered suggestions on how to gain community support. Then, at 10 p.m. the night before the liquor license hearing, a Garcetti representative phoned. "Tomorrow at the hearing we're going to oppose this," she said.

"I was just flabbergasted," said Galucci. He later learned that Monica Garcia, president of the Board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, had asked Garcetti to oppose the request.

In the end, Galucci got the license, but he said the situation left him with a bad taste.

Garcetti acknowledged that the issue had been "a contentious one," but he said he had not pledged to remain neutral. He said that he initially liked the idea of a liquor permit for Fix but that community opposition "continued to grow and grow."

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