Video games take off as a spectator sport

Editorial: "Give video games a sporting chance"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chavez not in coma, responding well to treatment: brother

CARACAS Ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is not in a coma and is responding well to cancer treatment in Cuba, making daily progress, his brother said Saturday.

"Reports that the president is in a coma and that the family is discussing ending life support, are totally false," Adan Chavez, governor of the state of Barinas, said in a statement.

He "continues to respond well to his medical care and to make daily progress in his recovery."

Chavez has been out of public sight since undergoing surgery in Havana on December 11, the fourth such operation in the 18 months since his condition was made public.

Officials have said the fiery leftist leader is suffering from a severe pulmonary infection that has resulted in a "respiratory insufficiency," fueling speculation about his prospects for a full recovery -- and his political future.

The uncertainty surrounding Chavez's condition has rattled Venezuela, the nation with the world's largest proven oil reserves.

The government was forced to postpone the president's scheduled inauguration Thursday, as it became clear that he could not attend. Authorities insist the country's constitution allows Chavez to take the oath of office later on.

But the opposition has cried foul, calling for a medical board to review the absent leader's health -- a demand rejected by the Supreme Court, which said the delayed swearing-in was constitutional.

In Cuba on Saturday, President Raul Castro voiced his support for the Venezuelan leadership, his government's closest and most critical economic and political ally.

Castro made the comments during a meeting with Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who arrived in the Cuban capital late Friday to check on his ailing boss, who had a difficult fourth round of cancer surgery last month.

Raul Castro "expressed his confidence in the ability of the Venezuelan people and their institutions to address and overcome any challenge," a government statement said.

"Raul and Maduro shared their mutual satisfaction with the emotional demonstration of support for Venezuela and President Chavez on January 10 in Caracas," it added.

Two Chavez allies, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, also arrived in Havana on Friday.

"We all hope for a quick recovery," Humala said.

Kirchner refused to comment on Chavez's health when asked by reporters, saying it should be left to his family. She did, however, thank retired revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, 86, for hosting a luncheon for her in his home Friday.

Like Chavez, Castro has been sidelined by health problems and rarely appears in public since stepping aside as president of the communist country in 2006.

Throughout his illness, first detected in June 2011, Chavez -- in power for 14 years -- has refused to relinquish the powers of the presidency, even when leaving for Cuba for his latest surgery.

The Venezuelan constitution says new elections must be held within 30 days if the president-elect or president dies or is permanently incapacitated, either before he takes office or in the first four years of his six-year term.


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Sandy relief package swells aid for past disasters

WASHINGTON (AP) — Conservatives and watchdog groups are mounting a "not-so-fast" campaign against a $50.7 billion Superstorm Sandy aid package that Northeastern governors and lawmakers hope to push through the House this coming week.

Their complaint is that lots of the money that lawmakers are considering will actually go toward recovery efforts for past disasters and other projects unrelated to the late-October storm.

A Senate-passed version from the end of the last Congress included $150 million for what the Commerce Department described as fisheries disasters in Alaska, Mississippi and the Northeast, and $50 million in subsidies for replanting trees on private land damaged by wildfires.

The objections have led senior House Republicans to assemble their own $17 billion proposal, that when combined with already approved money for flood insurance claims, is less than half what President Barack Obama sought and the Senate passed in December

That $17 billion package will be brought to the floor by the House Appropriations Committee, and Northeast lawmakers will have a chance to add $33.7 billion more.

House Speaker John Boehner intends to let the House vote on both measures. He's responding both to conservatives who are opposed to more deficit spending, and to Govs. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., and Chris Christie, R-N.J., who are irate that the House hasn't acted sooner.

Critics are taking the sharpest aim at $12.1 billion in the amendment for Department of Housing and Urban Development emergency block grants. Any state struck by a federally declared major disaster in 2011, 2012 or this year would qualify for the grants, and that's just about all the states, said Stephen Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group. Only South Carolina, Arizona and Michigan would not qualify, he said.

"That's not a bad chunk of change, particularly if you are trying to get other lawmakers to vote for the bill," Ellis said.

State and local governments like block grants because they provide more flexibility in how the money is spent. The money can go toward a variety of needs, including hospitals, utilities, roads, small businesses and rent subsidies.

The Northeast lawmakers' $33.7 billion amendment also includes more than $135 million to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration improve weather forecasting.

"A lot of the money goes to government agencies to rebuild rather than helping people actually afflicted by Sandy," Ellis said.

Before getting to the aid measures, the House on Monday planned to consider legislation intended to streamline Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations that critics blame for slowing down recovery efforts. That bill would let FEMA make limited repairs instead of lease payments to provide housing that might be less expensive than traditional agency trailers.

A $60.4 billion storm aid package passed by the Senate in December included $188 million for an Amtrak expansion project with an indirect link to Sandy: Officials say that new, long-planned tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station in Manhattan would be better protected against future flooding.

The Club for Growth, a conservative group, complained the Senate bill was overpriced, full of pork and would swell the federal deficit because other government programs weren't being cut to cover the costs of the legislation. That bill expired with the old Congress on Jan. 3. So whatever additional aid package the House passes would have to go back to the Senate for its approval.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, two frequent critics of government spending, tried unsuccessfully to strip the Senate version of $125 million for an Agriculture Department program to restore watersheds damaged by wildfires and drought, $2 million for roof repairs at Smithsonian Institution museums in the Washington area and the $50 million in tree planting subsidies.

McCain also targeted $15 million to repair storm-damaged NASA facilities, saying the agency had called its Sandy damage "minimal."

"An emergency funding bill should focus on the emergency needs of the victims, not the needs of politicians," said Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, the senior Republican on Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security. "Loading up a massive $60.4 billion package with unrelated projects and earmarks for other states is not the way we should use taxpayer dollars."

Coats' scaled-back $23.8 billion Sandy aid bill was rejected by the Senate.

Republicans also criticized $13 billion in the Senate bill for projects to protect against future storms, including fortification of mass transit systems in the Northeast and building new jetties in vulnerable seaside areas. While maybe worthwhile, those projects don't represent emergencies and shouldn't be exempt from federal spending caps, GOP lawmakers said.

The basic $17 billion before the House on Tuesday is aimed at immediate Sandy recovery needs, including $5.4 billion for New York and New Jersey transit systems and $5.4 billion for FEMA's disaster aid fund. The $33.7 billion amendment would bring the total up to the more than $60 billion sought by Obama and passed by Senate Democrats.

It includes the block grants for previous disasters, weather forecasting improvements and measures to minimize damage from future storms, but not the $188 million for the Amtrak expansion project.

"We know it's going to be a heavy lift for the $33 billion, but we'll find the votes," said Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., whose Staten Island district was heavily damaged by Sandy.

But conservatives clearly prefer the smaller, $17 billion version. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., a frequent critic of Boehner after losing his seat on the House Budget Committee, said the Sandy aid legislation should be focused on storm-related recovery.

"Conservatives want to see a real plan that addresses real needs for Sandy," he said.

Obama has signed a $9.7 billion replenishment of the national flood insurance fund to help pay claims from 115,000 homeowners, businesses and renters.

FEMA has spent more than $2 billion in disaster relief money for shelter, restoring power and other immediate needs arising from Sandy. The Oct. 29 storm that pounded the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Maine with hurricane-force winds and coastal flooding. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were the hardest hit.

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Pictures: Civil War Shipwreck Revealed by Sonar

Photograph by Jesse Cancelmo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published January 11, 2013

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Poisoned Lottery Winner's Kin Were Suspicious

Urooj Khan had just brought home his $425,000 lottery check when he unexpectedly died the following day. Now, certain members of Khan's family are speaking publicly about the mystery -- and his nephew told ABC News they knew something was not right.

"He was a healthy guy, you know?" said the nephew, Minhaj Khan. "He worked so hard. He was always going about his business and, the thing is: After he won the lottery and the next day later he passes away -- it's awkward. It raises some eyebrows."

The medical examiner initially ruled Urooj Khan, 46, an immigrant from India who owned dry-cleaning businesses in Chicago, died July 20, 2012, of natural causes. But after a family member demanded more tests, authorities in November found a lethal amount of cyanide in his blood, turning the case into a homicide investigation.

"When we found out there was cyanide in his blood after the extensive toxicology reports, we had to believe that ... somebody had to kill him," Minhaj Khan said. "It had to happen, because where can you get cyanide?"

In Photos: Biggest Lotto Jackpot Winners

Authorities could be one step closer to learning what happened to Urooj Khan. A judge Friday approved an order to exhume his body at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago as early as Thursday to perform further tests.

Lottery Winner Murdered: Widow Questioned By Police Watch Video

Moments after the court hearing, Urooj Khan's sister, Meraj Khan, remembered her brother as the kind of person who would've shared his jackpot with anyone. Speaking at the Cook County Courthouse, she hoped the exhumation would help the investigation.

"It's very hard because I wanted my brother to rest in peace, but then we have to have justice served," she said, according to ABC News station WLS in Chicago. "So if that's what it takes for him to bring justice and peace, then that's what needs to be done."

Khan reportedly did not have a will. With the investigation moving forward, his family is waging a legal fight against his widow, Shabana Ansari, 32, over more than $1 million, including Urooj Khan's lottery winnings, as well as his business and real estate holdings.

Khan's brother filed a petition Wednesday to a judge asking Citibank to release information about Khan's assets to "ultimately ensure" that [Khan's] minor daughter from a prior marriage "receives her proper share."

Ansari may have tried to cash the jackpot check after Khan's death, according to court documents, which also showed Urooj Khan's family is questioning if the couple was ever even legally married.

Ansari, Urooj Khan's second wife, who still works at the couple's dry cleaning business, has insisted they were married legally.

She has told reporters the night before her husband died, she cooked a traditional Indian meal for him and their family, including Khan's daughter and Ansari's father. Not feeling well, Khan retired early, Ansari told the Chicago Sun-Times, falling asleep in a chair, waking up in agony, then collapsing in the middle of the night. She said she called 911.

"It has been an incredibly hard time," she told ABC News earlier this week. "We went from being the happiest the day we got the check. It was the best sleep I've had. And then the next day, everything was gone.

"I am cooperating with the investigation," Ansari told ABC News. "I want the truth to come out."

Ansari has not been named a suspect, but her attorney, Steven Kozicki, said investigators did question her for more than four hours.

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Today on New Scientist: 11 January 2013

Largest structure challenges Einstein's smooth cosmos

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

Straitjacket drug halts herpes virus's escape stunt

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

Zoologger: Mouse eats scorpions and howls at the moon

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

Sand tsunami pictured striking Australian coast

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

Astrophile: Zombie stars feed on Earth-like exoplanets

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

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

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

Physics not biology may be key to beating cancer

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

Feedback: Return of nominative determinism

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

A comeback for virtual reality? Inside the Oculus Rift

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

Is the US facing Flu-maggedon?

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

Your body's insights into life and cosmos

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

Hands on with Leap Motion's gestural interface

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

Personal assistant for your emails streamlines your life

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

DNA 'identichip' gives a detailed picture of a suspect

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

Most fundamental clock ever could redefine kilogram

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

Nanomachine mimics nature's protein factory

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

Muscle mimic pulls electricity from wet surface

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

Read More..

Euro adds more gains on dollar

NEW YORK: The euro surged for a second day Friday, adding 0.7 US cents to Thursday's two cent gain, pushed by what one analyst said was short covering and sustained by poor US trade data.

The European currency traded roughly around the break-even line of $1.3261 but then took a leap to the $1.3350 levels the morning opening -- just 15 minutes before US trade data for November showed a wider-than-expected deficit that implied slower growth.

"While a rise in the euro isn't out of the ordinary lately, particularly after yesterday's European Central Bank monetary policy decision and press conference, many euro crosses had settled in to a range in the 18 hours before the spike occurred," said Neal Gilbert of GFT.

He said a Goldman Sachs recommendation with a target for $1.37 could have been the force, but also a squeeze on short sellers.

"Since the market had turned sideways in the Asian and European sessions, many investors were likely assuming a profit taking drop was about to take place."

Now that trade has been flushed out, he added, "the profit taking is more likely to take place."

At 2200 GMT, the euro was at $1.3341, off the day's high of $1.3366.

The yen sagged to its lowest level in more than 30 months, hitting 89.18 yen to the dollar from 88.64 late Thursday.

Against the euro, it hit 119.00 yen, compared to 117.53 Thursday; it was the yens lowest level in 20 months against the euro.

The pound slipped to $1.6129 from $1.6158, and the dollar moved to 0.9135 Swiss francs from 0.9145 francs.

The Chinese currency continued its push higher, to 6.2180 yuan per dollar from 6.2256 a day earlier and 6.2316 a week ago.


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THE RESET: Obama has 'more flexibility' now to act

Mitt Romney was going to "Etch A Sketch" his way to the White House. We saw how that worked out.

But President Obama had some sound bites to regret, too, during the campaign year. One of them was: "This is my last election. After my election, I'll have more flexibility."

The president didn't particularly want those remarks — caught on a live microphone as he chatted in South Korea last March with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev — to be overheard. Unsurprisingly, Romney and other Republicans took him to task.

However, Obama had a point. His re-election did increase his flexibility.

His conversation with Medvedev centered on foreign policy and missile defense. But without the pressures of having to run again, Obama clearly has more leeway now to act on many fronts that would have been difficult politically for him last year.

Gun control for instance.

He moved carefully during the campaign. But now, seeking to harness public outrage over last month's school killings in Newtown, Conn., he's planning a broad package of legislation and executive orders to stem gun violence.

Vice President Joe Biden has been meeting all week with interested parties, including the video game industry on Friday, and earlier with gun-control advocates and the National Rifle Association. Biden says his task force will have recommendations ready by Tuesday.

They're likely to include a proposed new ban on military-style assault weapons even though that would face formidable congressional opposition.

Obama also is able to act more forcefully now on cutting defense spending and reducing the U.S. military footprint abroad.

He met Friday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to talk about trimming the American presence in Afghanistan after 2014 and about future U.S. military aid.

The Etch A Sketch reference came from a senior Romney campaign aide to suggest the candidate would rework his message after winning the GOP nomination to make himself more palatable to general election voters.

But Obama is the one now able to fine-tune his agenda.


Follow Tom Raum on Twitter:

Read More..

Pictures: Civil War Shipwreck Revealed by Sonar

Photograph by Jesse Cancelmo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published January 11, 2013

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Obama Promises Faster Transition in Afghanistan

President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai said today that most U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan would end this spring, signaling a quickening troop drawdown that will bring the decade-long war to a close at the end of 2014.

"Our troops will continue to fight alongside Afghans when needed, but let me say it as plainly as I can: Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission -- training, advising, assisting Afghan forces," Obama announced at an East Room news conference in Washington.

"It will be a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty, something I know that President Karzai cares deeply about, as do the Afghan people," he said.

Administration officials said Afghan forces were "exceeding initial expectations" in their capabilities. Afghan security forces are expected to lead 90 percent of security operations across the country in February.

"By the end of next year -- 2014 -- the transition will be complete," Obama said. "Afghans will have full responsibility for their security, and this war will come to a responsible end."

The rosy assessments belied the serious political, economic and security challenges that remain.

Left unanswered by Obama and Karzai: How many U.S. troops might stay after 2014; what their mission would be and whether they could be effective; and whether the forces would have immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts.

Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

New York Governor Calls for Assault Weapons Ban Watch Video

White House Won't Kill 'Trillion Dollar Coin' Speculation Watch Video

Obama said he was still reviewing recommendations from the Pentagon and will make an announcement in the coming weeks after penning an anticipated bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan. Karzai said the exact number would be up to the United States to decide.

Both leaders confirmed in a statement that the United States "does not seek permanent bases in Afghanistan."

They also agreed today to turn over battlefield combatants held by the U.S. military in Afghanistan to Afghan government control, which has been long-sought by Karzai.

Roughly 66,000 U.S. troops are serving in Afghanistan. The military has proposed keeping several thousand troops in the country after 2014 as advisers, trainers and logistical support for Afghan forces; the White House has said it remains open to pulling out all troops entirely.

Obama's visit with Karzai was the first face-to-face encounter since the November election and since last year's dramatic increase in so-called green-on-blue attacks, when U.S. and NATO soldiers have been killed by the Afghans they are training or working alongside.

There were 45 insider attacks in 2012 that resulted in 62 deaths among coalition forces, including 35 Americans. There has been one attack already in the first 11 days of 2013.

The White House summit included a private Oval Office meeting between Obama, Karzai and Vice President Joe Biden. The trio also attended a private lunch in the Old Family Dining Room.

Karzai Thursday attended meetings with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and top military brass at the Pentagon, where he was afforded all the pomp and circumstance accorded a head of state: a 21-gun salute, and marching bands and honor guards from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.

Karzai's relationship with the United States has at times been a rocky one as he has sometimes made critical statements about the allied troop presence in his country. U.S. officials believe he has made those comments out of political expediency to improve his standing with Afghans and show his independence.

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Muscle mimic pulls electricity from wet surface

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

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

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

Flipping film

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

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

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

Electricity from sweat

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

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

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

Journal reference: Science, DOI 10.1126/science.1230262

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

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American Express cuts 5,400 jobs

American Express said Thursday it would lay off 8.5 per cent of its workforce in 2013, in an effort to contain operating expenses and adapt to customers moving to online and mobile platforms.

The bank said it would eliminate 5,400 jobs, though some of those will be offset by new positions, for a net cut of 4-6 per cent of the 63,500-strong workforce.

The layoffs will span different staff groups and businesses, both in the United States and its international operations, the company said.

The largest reductions will be in AmEx's travel businesses "which operate in an industry that is being fundamentally reinvented as a result of the digital revolution."

It said it took a US$400 million restructuring charge in its fourth quarter to December 31 to cover some of the severance costs of the layoffs.

The restructuring is "designed to contain future operating expenses, adapt parts of the business as more customers transact online or through mobile channels, and provide the resources for additional growth initiatives in the US and internationally," AmEx said.

Excluding the restructuring costs and other special items, the bank said its fourth-quarter net earnings came in at US$1.2 billion, the same as the year-earlier figure.

After the extra costs, net income was at US$637 million, or 56 cents a share, compared with US$1.01 a share for the fourth quarter of 2011.

"Maintaining our momentum in this environment will require us to evolve our business, embrace new technologies, become more efficient and generate resources to invest in the many growth opportunities we've identified," said chief executive Kenneth Chenault.

"For the next two years, our aim is to hold annual operating expense increases to less than three per cent.

"The overall restructuring program will put us in a better position as we seek to deliver strong results for shareholders and to maintain marketing and promotion investments at about nine per cent of revenues."

- AFP/jc

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Biden, NRA clash over new gun control proposals

WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite fresh opposition from the National Rifle Association, the Obama administration is assembling proposals to curb gun violence that would include a ban on sales of assault weapons, limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines and universal background checks for gun buyers.

Sketching out details of the plan Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden said he would give President Barack Obama a set of recommendations by next Tuesday. The NRA, one of the pro-gun groups that met with Biden during the day, rejected the effort to limit ammunition and dug in on its opposition to an assault weapons ban, which Obama has previously said he will propose to Congress.

"The vice president made it clear, made it explicitly clear, that the president had already made up his mind on those issues," NRA president David Keene said following the meeting. "We made it clear that we disagree with them."

Opposition from the well-funded and politically powerful NRA underscores the challenges that await the White House if it seeks congressional approval for limiting guns and ammunition. Obama can use his executive powers to act alone on some gun measures, but his options on the proposals opposed by the NRA are limited without Congress' cooperation.

Obama has pushed reducing gun violence to the top of his domestic agenda following last month's massacre of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school. The president put Biden in charge of an administration-wide task force and set a late January deadline for proposals.

"I committed to him I'd have these recommendations to him by Tuesday," Biden said Thursday, during a separate White House meeting with sportsmen and wildlife groups. "It doesn't mean it's the end of the discussion, but the public wants us to act."

The vice president later huddled privately with the NRA and other gun owner groups for more than 90 minutes. Participants in the meeting described it as an open and frank discussion, but one that yielded little movement from either side on long-held positions.

Richard Feldman, the president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, said all were in agreement on a need to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and people with mental health issues. But when the conversation turned to broad restrictions on high capacity magazines and assault weapons, Feldman said Biden suggested the president had already made up his mind to seek a ban.

"Is there wiggle room and give?" Feldman said. "I don't know."

White House officials said the vice president didn't expect to win over the NRA and other gun groups on those key issues. But the administration was hoping to soften their opposition in order to rally support from pro-gun lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Biden's proposals are also expected to include recommendations to address mental health care and violence on television and in movies and video games. Those issues have wide support from gun rights groups and pro-gun lawmakers.

The vice president also met Thursday with representatives from the entertainment industry, including Comcast Corp. and the Motion Picture Association of America. He'll hold talks Friday with the video game industry.

During his meeting with sporting and wildlife groups, Biden said that while no recommendations would eliminate all future shootings, "there has got to be some common ground, to not solve every problem but diminish the probability that our children are at risk in their schools and diminish the probability that firearms will be used in violent behavior in our society."

As the meetings took place in Washington, a student was shot and wounded at a rural California high school and another student was taken into custody.

Biden also talked about holes in NICS — the National Instant Criminal Background Check System — when states don't relay information to the database used by dealers to check purchasers. Advocates blame Congress for not fully funding a law that provides money to help states send records to the database.

Gun control backers see plenty of room for executive action when it comes to improving background checks and other areas.

For example, advocates say Obama could order the Justice Department to prosecute more people flagged by background checks as prohibited purchasers when they try to buy guns; expand a rule that requires dealers to notify the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives when someone tries to buy multiple semiautomatic rifles, a program now confined to Mexico border states, and increase enforcement actions at gun shows.

The group Mayors Against Illegal Guns has sent the White House 40 steps it says would save lives and dramatically improve enforcement of existing laws without any action by Congress.

Several Cabinet members have also taken on an active role in Biden's gun violence task force, including Attorney General Eric Holder. He met Thursday with Wal-Mart, the nation's largest firearms seller, along with other retailers such as Bass Pro Shops and Dick's Sporting Goods.

The president hopes to announce his administration's next steps to tackle gun violence shortly after he is sworn in for a second term. He has pledged to push for new measures in his State of the Union address.


Follow Julie Pace at

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How "Cheating" Slime Mold Escapes Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheating Cells Surprisingly Healthy

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

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

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

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

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

"Slime mold is an amazing organism."

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Jodi Arias: 'No Jury Will Convict Me' for Murder

The jury in the Jodi Arias murder trial watched a television interview today in which Arias said "no jury will convict me" for killing her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander.

Arias added that she could never imagine committing such a violent act as killing Alexander.

"I understand all the evidence is really compelling," she said in the interview. "In a nutshell, two people came in and killed Travis. I've never even shot a gun. That's heinous. I can't imagine slitting anyone's throat."

She went on to tell the interviewer, "No jury will convict me and you can mark my words on that. ... I am innocent."

Arias made the statements to the television show "Inside Edition" after she was indicted for murdering Alexander. Months later, she would confess to killing him in his Mesa, Ariz., home and say it was in self-defense.

Jodi Arias Trial: Watch Live

Jodi Arias Murder Trial: Full Coverage

Photos of Key Players and Evidence in the Jodi Arias Murder Trial

The tape was played on the fifth day of testimony in Arias' trial, in which police allege that she carried out the murder with such brutal force that she stabbed Alexander 27 times, slashed his throat from ear to ear, and shot him in the head.

Arias, now 32, has claimed Alexander was a controlling and abusive "sexual deviant" who she was forced to kill in self-defense.

She could face the death penalty if convicted of Alexander's murder.

Jodi Arias Trial: Jurors See Photos of Bloody Handprint Watch Video

Jodi Arias Murder Trial: Who Is the Alleged Killer? Watch Video

Jodi Arias Trial: Defense Claims Victim Was Sex Deviant Watch Video

The defense petitioned the court to declare a mistrial at the end of testimony today, but the request was denied by Judge Sherry Stephens. Arias' attorneys claimed that testimony presented by Det. Esteban Flores about whether Arias shot Alexander first or at the end of the attack was different from his earlier testimony and, therefore, affected whether Arias was "especially cruel" during the killing -- but Stephens denied that it had any effect.

The jury also watched as dozens of photos of blood-spattered walls, flooring, stained carpets and blood smeared sink were explained in detail by a forensic analyst from the Mesa Police Department, who noted that on many of the stains water had been mixed with the blood and diluted it.

The prosecution has alleged that Arias tried to wash away the evidence of the killing with water.

Prosecutors spent much of today and Wednesday using Arias' recorded statements and other testimony to prove that she lied about her relationship with Alexander, where she was when Alexander was killed, and even where she worked as a bartender.

The testimony today suggested that Arias lied to her new boyfriend Ryan Burns about working at a bar called Margaritaville in her hometown of Yreka, Calif.

"Is there any restaurant in Yreka called Margaritaville? Has there ever been?" prosecutor Juan Martinez asked Nathaniel Mendes, a former detective with the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office in California.

"No, sir," Mendes replied.

Mendes testified that Arias worked at a restaurant called Casa Ramos in Yreka, not a bar called Margaritaville, as she told Burns.

Mendes also went over receipts showing that Arias rented a car the day before she killed Alexander, and noted that she went to a rental outfit 90 miles from her hometown despite two businesses that rented cars in Yreka.

Arias told friends and investigators that she rented a car to go on a road trip to visit Burns, in West Jordan, Utah, on June 3, 2008. She showed up at Burns' house a day late with cuts on her hands, but told Burns that she got lost driving and that the cuts were from broken glass at her Margaritaville bartending job, according to Burns' testimony Wednesday.

The trail of receipts showed that Arias drove from California to Alexander's hometown of Mesa, Ariz., on Tuesday, June 4, 2008.

There, the pair had sex and took sexually graphic photos of one another, according to photographs and the opening statement of Arias' lawyer. Shortly after the tryst, Arias killed Alexander, both sides agree.

Burns testified that Arias never mentioned going to Alexander's house when she arrived at his home in Utah. He said he did not know that Arias and Alexander were still sexually involved, and that she told him they had broken up.

When she arrived at his home 24 hours after killing Alexander, she seemed "normal," he said. The pair kissed and cuddled, and went out with Burns' friends, where she laughed and made conversation.

Prosecutors have played recorded phone conversations between detectives and Arias in the weeks after Alexander's body was found. She could be heard apparently lying multiple times to investigators as they asked about the last time she spoke with Alexander and her trip to Utah.

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Flower Power sensor gives everyone green fingers

Niall Firth, technology editor

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

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

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

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

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US plays tough with Karzai on Afghan troops

WASHINGTON: US officials plan a mix of hardball negotiating and flattery during a visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai as President Barack Obama decides how deeply to cut forces in America's longest war.

Karzai will be Obama's first foreign visitor of 2013, with a White House meeting on Friday and State Department dinner on Thursday. The Afghan leader met Wednesday with senators including Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

The talks come as the freshly re-elected Obama charts out plans to pull most of the 68,000 US troops out of Afghanistan. The United States and its allies have already agreed to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014 but questions remain on a US training and security role after that.

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters Tuesday that Obama sought to prevent Al-Qaeda's return to Afghanistan but would not rule out any ideas including the so-called zero option -- leaving no US troops at all.

Afghanistan watchers in Washington largely saw the hints as a strategy aimed at Karzai, who has had a tumultuous relationship with the Obama administration and is seen as wanting US troops to stay as long as possible.

James Dobbins, a former US diplomat involved in the establishment of Karzai's government in 2001, called the airing of the zero option "a tactical move designed to indicate to Karzai that he has less leverage in this negotiation than he might otherwise."

Dobbins, who considered a Taliban return to power in post-2014 Afghanistan to be possible but unlikely, said troop levels would be determined by how much the United States was willing to spend after more than 11 years of war.

"My view is it's a straight cost/risk ratio. The more you're prepared to pay, the lower your risk; the higher your risk tolerance, the less you can get away with," Dobbins, now an expert at the Rand Corp., said at the Atlantic Council think tank.

News reports have said that some administration officials favour as few as several thousand troops in Afghanistan. Obama's nominees as his next secretary of state and defence secretary, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, are both seen as supportive of a wide-scale military drawdown.

Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute said he expected Karzai to press hardest during the White House meetings over what equipment, including air power, the United States would leave or provide Afghan forces.

"He doesn't want the US to pull out completely and he doesn't think the US wants to pull out completely. So that's the meeting point, but he wants to use that as leverage to extract as much as possible," Weinbaum said of Karzai.

Weinbaum said the visit was also aimed at preserving a friendly atmosphere with Karzai, who "is so thin-skinned, if you look at him the wrong way, he thinks you're plotting his demise."

"A lot of these meetings are just to try to keep the chemistry from getting too ugly," said Weinbaum, who believed the plentiful events for Karzai "improve the chances that maybe you can convince him that he's loved."

Tensions rose between the United States and Afghanistan after Karzai won presidential elections in 2009 despite widespread charges of irregularities.

The Obama administration has also pressed Karzai to curb corruption, considered by some US officials to be a major impediment to increasing the government's legitimacy in Afghan eyes.

Opinion polls for several years have shown that the US public is tired of the human and financial cost of the Afghanistan war, initially launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. US forces killed Osama bin Laden, the attack's mastermind, in Pakistan in 2011.

But neoconservative analysts Fred and Kimberly Kagan, writing in The Wall Street Journal, said that leaving only a tiny US military presence would impede operations against Al-Qaeda and risk a renewal of ethnic civil war.

"Those who say that Afghanistan can't get any worse than it is today lack both imagination and any knowledge of the country's recent history," they wrote.

- AFP/jc

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Obama Cabinet shuffle taking shape

WASHINGTON (AP) — The composition of President Barack Obama's second term Cabinet became clearer Wednesday, with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis resigning and three other members of the president's team deciding to stay on amid concerns about diversity in Obama's inner circle.

Solis, a former California congresswoman and one of the highest-ranking Hispanics in the Cabinet, said she was departing after leading the department during the economic storms of the first term. She was the nation's first Hispanic labor secretary.

A White House official said three Cabinet membersAttorney General Eric Holder, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki — would stay on as the second term begins. It would ensure diversity among the president's leadership team — Holder is black, Sebelius is a woman and Shinseki is of Japanese-American descent.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel changes, said the three remaining officials were not an exhaustive list of which Cabinet members intended to stay.

Some Democratic women have raised concerns that the "big three" jobs in the Cabinet — State, Defense and Treasury — will be taken by white men. Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has been tapped as the next secretary of state; former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, was picked to run the Pentagon and White House chief of staff Jack Lew is expected to be named treasury secretary later this week.

The White House is expected to announce more members of Obama's Cabinet in the coming weeks, giving the president a chance to present a team that reflects the diverse coalition of women, Hispanics and minorities that helped give him a second term.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a close friend of the president, removed her name from consideration for the State Department last month following criticism from Republicans over her initial comments about the attacks on Americans in Libya. Several female House Democrats said the criticism of Rice, who is black, was indicative of sexism and racism.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said last month she is stepping down after nearly four years as the administration's chief environmental watchdog. No replacement has been named, although several names are reportedly under consideration, including Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Jackson's deputy, Bob Perciasepe.

Gregoire is a longtime Obama ally who is leaving office next week after two terms, while Perciasepe is slated to take over as acting EPA administrator after Jackson leaves, expected in the next few weeks.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, meanwhile, is expected to leave sometime after the inauguration, while Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's plans are unknown. Contenders to replace Chu include former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Gregoire.

The only current Republican in the Cabinet, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, has not indicated whether he will leave the administration.

Obama said Solis was a "tireless champion for working families" and had been a key member of his economic team during a first term marked by efforts to rebound from the recession. She won praise from labor unions for an aggressive enforcement of wage and hour laws and job safety regulations but business groups criticized her as not taking a more cooperative approach.

Solis is expected to return home to California to run for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Sebelius, a former Kansas governor and insurance commissioner, had been widely expected to stay on to shepherd Obama's health care overhaul to its fulfillment. The big push to cover some 30 million uninsured Americans starts next year.

Holder, who served in the Justice Department during the Clinton administration, has faced a rocky tenure as attorney general, dealing with civil rights and terrorism cases along with a botched gun smuggling probe along the Southwest border.

He ordered a review of CIA interrogations during the Bush era amid disclosures that agency interrogators once threatened to kill a Sept. 11 suspect's children and suggested another would be forced to watch his mother be sexually assaulted. The outcome of the exhaustive inquiry — it lasted three years and resulted in no criminal charges — prompted more criticism, this time from human rights groups.

Shinseki has sought to manage a large agency closely watched by returning troops as the war in Iraq ends and another one winds down in Afghanistan. He has dealt with problems ranging from homeless veterans, rising troop suicides and veteran unemployment and growing mental health care needs.


Associated Press writers Matthew Daly, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Pete Yost contributed to this report.

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Embryonic Sharks Freeze to Avoid Detection

Jane J. Lee

Although shark pups are born with all the equipment they'll ever need to defend themselves and hunt down food, developing embryos still stuck in their egg cases are vulnerable to predators. But a new study finds that even these baby sharks can detect a potential predator, and play possum to avoid being eaten.

Every living thing gives off a weak electrical field. Sharks can sense this with a series of pores—called the ampullae of Lorenzini—on their heads and around their eyes, and some species rely on this electrosensory ability to find food buried in the seafloor. (See pictures of electroreceptive fish.)

Two previous studies on the spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula) and the clearnose skate (Raja eglanteria)—a relative of sharks—found similar freezing behavior in their young. But new research by shark biologist and doctoral student Ryan Kempster at the University of Western Australia has given scientists a more thorough understanding of this behavior.

It all started because Kempster wanted to build a better shark repellent. Since he needed to know how sharks respond to electrical fields, Kempster decided to use embryos. "It's very hard to test this in the field because you need to get repeated responses," he said. And you can't always get the same shark to cooperate multiple times. "But we could use embryos because they're contained within an egg case."

Cloaking Themselves

So Kempster got his hands on 11 brownbanded bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium punctatum) embryos and tested their reactions to the simulated weak electrical field of a predator. (Popular pictures: Bamboo shark swallowed whole—by another shark.)

In a study published today in the journal PLoS One, Kempster and his colleagues report that all of the embryonic bamboo sharks, once they reached later stages of development, reacted to the electrical field by ceasing gill movements (essentially, holding their breath), curling their tails around their bodies, and freezing.

A bamboo shark embryo normally beats its tail to move fresh seawater in and out of its egg case. But that generates odor cues and small water currents that can give away its position. The beating of its gills as it breathes also generates an electrical field that predators can use to find it.

"So it cloaks itself," said neuroecologist Joseph Sisneros, at the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved in the study. "[The embryo] shuts down any odor cues, water movement, and its own electrical signal."

Sisneros, who conducted the previous clearnose skate work, is delighted to see that this shark species also reacts to external electrical fields and said it would be great to see whether this is something all shark, skate, and ray embryos do.

Marine biologist Stephen Kajiura, at Florida Atlantic University, is curious to know how well the simulated electrical fields compare to the bamboo shark's natural predators—the experimental field was on the higher end of the range normally given off.

"[But] they did a good job with [the study]," Kajiura said. "They certainly did a more thorough study than anyone else has done."

Electrifying Protection?

In addition to the freezing behavior he recorded in the bamboo shark embryos, Kempster found that the shark pups remembered the electrical field signal when it was presented again within 40 minutes and that they wouldn't respond as strongly to subsequent exposures as they did initially.

This is important for developing shark repellents, he said, since some of them use electrical fields to ward off the animals. "So if you were using a shark repellent, you would need to change the current over a 20- to 30-minute period so the shark doesn't get used to that field."

Kempster envisions using electrical fields to not only keep humans safe but to protect sharks as well. Shark populations have been on the decline for decades, due partly to ending up as bycatch, or accidental catches, in the nets and on the longlines of fishers targeting other animals.

A 2006 study estimated that as much as 70 percent of landings, by weight, in the Spanish surface longline fleet were sharks, while a 2007 report found that eight million sharks are hooked each year off the coast of southern Africa. (Read about the global fisheries crisis in National Geographic magazine.)

"If we can produce something effective, it could be used in the fishing industry to reduce shark bycatch," Kempster said. "In [America] at the moment, they're doing quite a lot of work trying to produce electromagnetic fish hooks." The eventual hope is that if these hooks repel the sharks, they won't accidentally end up on longlines.

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White House Won't Rule Out $1 Trillion Coin

ht gold coin tk 120905 wblog White House Wont Rule Out $1 Trillion Coin Option

(United States Mint/Wikimedia Commons)

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney today flatly ruled out any negotiations with Congress over raising the debt ceiling, but there’s one odd-ball solution he would not rule out:  minting trillion dollars coins to pay off the debt.

“There is no Plan B. There is no backup plan. There is Congress’s responsibility to pay the bills of the United States,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters at the daily White House briefing.

READ: $1-Trillion Coins: The Ultimate Debt Ceiling End-Around?

Asked if the administration would rule out minting trillion dollars coins if Congress fails to act, Carney deflected saying “you could speculate about a lot of things.”

“Nothing needs to come to these kinds of… speculative notions about how to deal with a problem that is easily resolved by Congress doing its job, very simply,” he added.

Pressed further on why they won’t offer a clear yes-or-no answer to the question, Carney referred questions to the Treasury Department.

“I answered it thoroughly,” he later joked. “And I have no coins in my pocket.”

Some have suggested the President could invoke the 14th Amendment to the Constitution – which states, “the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned” – and ignore the debt ceiling altogether.  On that question, Carney has offered a straight answer:  the 14 Amendment does not apply to the debt ceiling.

“We just don’t believe that it provides the authority that some believe it does,” Carney said.

The trillion-dollar-coin idea has been floated by, among others, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute.

Here’s our full Q and A:

KARL: I heard you unequivocally rule out using the 14th Amendment on the debt ceiling. I heard you unequivocally rule out negotiating with Congress. But you did not rule out this trillion-dollar coin idea. So can I ask you just a yes-or-no question? Does the White House rule out the idea of minting trillion-dollar coins as a way of dealing with the debt ceiling?

CARNEY: I would refer you to Treasury for the specifics of this question. I can tell you that the president does not believe that there is a backup plan or a plan B or an off-ramp. The only viable option here is Congress to fulfill its — that Congress fulfills its responsibility and ensures that the United States of America pays its bills, as it has always paid its bills throughout its history.

KARL: But why have we ruled out the 14th Amendment and not ruled out the trillion-dollar coin idea?

CARNEY: Again, I can tell you that there are no back-up plans. There are no plan B’s. I’d refer you to the Treasury.

KARL: Jay, the speaker of the House has made it perfectly clear that he is willing to increase the debt ceiling, but the principle is for every dollar the debt ceiling is increased, a dollar of spending must be cut. Given that you’re saying that the White House will not negotiate on raising the debt ceiling, are you willing to accept that principle from the speaker, a dollar in cuts for every dollar increase?

MR. CARNEY: I think the president’s been very clear that his absolute principle is that we need to reduce our deficit in a balanced way that does not shift all the burden, through cuts exclusively, on senior citizens, on families who have disabled children, on families who are trying to send their kids to school. That’s just unacceptable.

You know, one of the things we learned in the process that we just went through late in — late last year is that when it comes to specificity, we never saw any specificity from Republicans in terms of how exactly they would achieve the kind of sweeping cuts that they say they want and out of whose — you know, from whom would they demand that payment.

And what the president has been very clear about is he will not negotiate on Congress’ responsibility to pay its bills. He will negotiate and is willing to compromise, as he has demonstrated repeatedly, when it comes to moving forward in a balanced way to reduce our deficit. We have to deal with the sequester. We have to deal with a variety of budgetary and economic and fiscal challenges.

But he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling. And the threat itself is a problem, as we saw in the summer of 2011. The binary choice that Republicans seem to want to present to the American public is either we gut Medicare and Social Security or we tank the global economy. I’m not a communications director for the speaker of the House or the Senate minority leader, but I would think selling that would be very hard.

KARL: But help me understand how this works. You say you will not negotiate on this issue. They’ve put out a principle, so they produce something — and they say they will — that cuts a dollar for every dollar increase. And you’re saying you won’t negotiate on that?

MR. CARNEY: Have you seen that?

KARL: Well, this is what they say they are going to go forward.

MR. CARNEY: Well, I mean, you know –

KARL: So either –

MR. CARNEY: — words are not actions, and there has been, at — to this date, very little specificity, you know, since we — since the Ryan plan, which itself was lacking in specifics. And if their — if their position is we’re going to voucherize Medicare or tank the global economy, they should say so. That is unacceptable to the American people. It’s certainly unacceptable to the president.

Look, here’s the thing. Congress has the authority to authorize money, right, not the president. Congress racked up these bills. Congress has to pay these bills. We are very interested in a discussion and negotiation about getting our fiscal house in order. This president has already signed into law over $2 trillion in deficit reduction. He is eager to do more in a balanced way.

But it is not appropriate to — in this president’s view — to say that if I don’t get what I want, I’m not going to raise the debt limit. That is basically saying, I will abandon the history of the United States maintaining the full faith and credit of its currency and its — and its treasury by refusing to pay bills because I didn’t get what I want politically.

And that’s just not acceptable to the president.

KARL:  I’m not sure I understand how that works — you’re not going to negotiate at all? –

MR. CARNEY: We’re not going to negotiate. Congress has a — if Congress wants to give the president the responsibility to raise the debt ceiling, he would take it, as we saw when — in 2010 or — I forget, there have been so many of these confrontations — in — when — in 2011 when the so-called McConnell plan was adopted, you know. But they assigned themselves this responsibility. They need to be — the fact that they, you know, assigned it to them is something that they have to deal with. They assigned it to themselves, they need to act, and they need to, without drama or delay, raise the debt ceiling. We still have — there is plenty of opportunity outside of threatening the full faith and credit of the United States to debate fundamental differences over our economic and fiscal policy proposals, but it is not wise to do that around raising the debt ceiling, not wise to do it around the simple principle that we, the United States of America, pay our debts.

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Today on New Scientist: 8 January 2013

Mock Mars mission reveals salty surprise

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

'Exocomets' abound in alien solar systems

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

Australia faces another week of 'catastrophic' heat

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

Black holes star in first images of high-energy cosmos

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

Another day at the office for NASA's robot astronaut

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

Into thin air: Storage salvation for green energy

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

Tony Fadell: From iPhones to sexing up thermostats

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

World's oldest pills treated sore eyes

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

Only the toughest would survive on Tatooine worlds

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

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Depardieu skips drink-drive court for Strauss-Kahn film

PODGORICA: Gerard Depardieu skipped a drink-driving court appearance in Paris on Tuesday to work on a film in Montenegro in which he will play Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but claimed he had told French officials he would be absent and the matter had been settled.

The "Cyrano de Bergerac", "Green Card" and "Asterix & Obelix" star, who has already pleaded guilty to driving his scooter while intoxicated, could not attend court because he was on a planned trip to Montenegro, Depardieu told reporters in Podgorica.

"I fled neither from the court, nor from justice," Depardieu said after meeting with Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.

"I informed the court, I never fled.... I am ready to appear when they want, on the condition that I am there and that I can defend myself," the French star said.

But the no-show meant the hulking actor, embroiled in a bitter tax row that saw him take Russian nationality and angrily vow to quit France, risks being tried by a criminal court where he could face up to two years in jail.

The 64-year-old was in the Balkan nation to meet producers of the film in which he will play the disgraced ex-IMF boss Strauss-Kahn. A police official there told AFP that rumours he was seeking Montenegrin citizenship were false.

Depardieu has said he wants the role because he did not like Strauss-Kahn, who was tipped to be the next French president until a sordid US sex scandal ended his career, because he was "like all French people, a little arrogant".

The actor, whose highly-publicised flight into tax exile has embarrassed President Francois Hollande, was arrested in Paris in November after falling off a scooter he was riding while three times over the legal alcohol limit.

If he had turned up Tuesday in court he would have escaped with a small fine and penalty points on his licence. Now the rotund actor, whose many previous exploits include urinating in a bottle on a plane, could face criminal proceedings.

But Depardieu insisted the case has already been settled.

"The justice (system) in France and my lawyers have informed me that all is fine," he said.

He said he was not a "criminal, I've slipped with my scooter, I fell asleep, that's it.

"I had a low level of alcohol in (my) blood as I had a salad with a drop more of vinegar and it was over the limit," he said jokingly.

"This issue is settled, all is fine and I can return to France and there will be no problems."

Depardieu hit the headlines in December when he bought a house just over the border in Belgium after accusing the French Socialist government of punishing "success, creativity and talent" with allegedly excessive taxes.

That prompted Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to brand his move as "shabby and unpatriotic" -- which in turn prompted the actor to threaten to give up his French citizenship.

The saga became ever more farcical when Russian President Vladimir Putin, eyeing a potential propaganda coup, offered the star Russian nationality.

Depardieu leapt at the chance, travelling last weekend to get his new passport and for some hugs and a meal with the Russian strongman in his sumptuous dacha in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

He was later given a hero's welcome -- and an offer of a free apartment and the job of culture minister -- in Mordovia, a Russian region best known for its Soviet-era gulags.

In the unlikely event that he spends at least six months of the year in Russia, he would benefit from a tax rate of just 13 per cent. His anger at the French government was focused on its planned 75 per cent tax on millionaires.

France's top constitutional authority, the Constitutional Council, struck down the proposed new tax rate on December 29, but the government has vowed to push ahead with it.

- AFP/jc

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$1 million donations wanted for Obama inauguration

WASHINGTON (AP) — Planners of President Barack Obama's second inauguration are soliciting high-dollar contributions up to an unprecedented $1 million to help pay for the celebration in exchange for special access.

The changes are part of a continuing erosion of Obama's pledge to keep donors and special interests at arm's length of his presidency. He has abandoned the policy from his first inauguration to accept donations up to only $50,000 from individuals, announcing last month that he would take unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations.

A fundraising appeal obtained by The Associated Press shows the Presidential Inaugural Committee is going far beyond Obama's previous self-imposed limits and is looking to blow away modern American presidential inauguration fundraising records by offering donors four VIP packages named after the country's founding fathers.

Event organizers are hoping the packages will pay for expensive events surrounding Obama's inaugural on Jan. 21. Obama raised $53 million in private money for his first inauguration, when a record 1.8 million people packed the National Mall to see the nation's first black president take the oath of office. The celebration has been scaled down this year, with less than half the crowd expected and a cut from 10 inauguration-night balls to two.

But the pressure is high to pay for the festivities after donors already contributed to the most expensive political race in U.S. history, a campaign that exceeded $2 billion. So far, health care executives and major Democratic Party donors — including those who've taken private meetings with Obama or his senior staff — are among those paying for the party.

The shifts underscore Obama's evolving stance on changing how business is conducted in Washington. He criticized pay-for-access privileges during his first campaign, and after coming into office he pledged to have the most transparent administration in history. The president once shunned lobbyists but later gave some waivers to work for his administration. Once a vocal opponent of super political action committees — which can spend as much money as they can raise to help candidates — Obama later embraced them when faced with the mountain of cash spent by allies of his Republican campaign challengers.

The inaugural donation pitch for top contributors promotes a standard inaugural fundraising practice of offering packages that include tickets to balls and other events, albeit at much higher prices this time.

Donors at the "Washington" level are offered "premium partner access" for a minimum donation of $250,000 from individuals and $1 million from corporations. The package includes four tickets to the inaugural ball, an in-demand perk with just two being held this year on inauguration night. Inaugural planners also offered $60 tickets for members of the general public, but they sold out quickly Sunday night. Tickets to the Commander In Chiefs Ball are free for invited members of the military and other guests.

Other perks of the Washington package include two bleacher seats to the parade, a VIP reception at a Candle Light Celebration on inauguration eve, tickets to a children's concert, co-chairs reception and a "Road Ahead" meeting featuring members of the president's finance team Saturday and tickets to a benefactors' reception to kick off the weekend.

The "Adams" package also promises premium partner access for $150,000 from individuals and $500,000 from corporations. It offers two tickets to the ball but not the parade bleacher seats and some other reception access.

Donors are offered "special partner access" that still includes ball tickets and the Candle Light Celebration at the National Building Museum for donations of $75,000 for individuals and $250,000 for corporations at the "Jefferson" level and $10,000 and $100,000 at the "Madison" level.

Presidential Inaugural Committee officials point out that many civic organizations also accept corporate donations and that they do not allow sponsorship deals. The committee also says it vets donations and rejects those from companies that haven't paid back loans from the 2008 federal bailout of Wall Street. And it does not accept donations from any foreign entity in compliance with federal law.

"Our guidelines aren't just consistent with the law — they are consistent with the president's commitment to transparency and to reducing the influence of PACs and lobbyists in Washington," the committee said in a statement. "In fact, President Obama is the only president who has refused to accept donations from PACs and lobbyists for his inaugural committee and put in place the most robust disclosures for his inaugural committees, which include regularly posting donors to a website."

More than 400 individuals and a handful of corporations have so far contributed $200 or more to the committee, according to the online list. The rolling disclosure goes beyond the law that requires that donations be disclosed within 90 days of the inauguration.

But the list of donors being posted online is limited. It contains only names of people and companies who contributed, and offers no information on how much each donor gave. There is also no hint at the donors' occupations or where they're from.

An AP review of those names, combined with government records and White House visitor logs, found more than 30 inauguration benefactors who apparently have had private meetings with Obama's advisers, dined at state dinners or attended holiday parties with the president in attendance.

Donors to the 2013 inaugural party include Bertram Scott and Challis Lowe, two health care executives who've been to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., records show. Scott, a former president with Cigna, and Lowe, Ascension Health's senior vice president for organizational development and human resources, attended White House receptions.

Beyond health care circles, inaugural supporters include David DesJardins, a former Google top staffer and political activist who met with deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough in March 2010. DesJardins contributed more than $100,000 in the recent election campaign to American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC supporting Obama's a second term.

Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of tech giant Qualcomm and one of the biggest donors to Obama's re-election effort, also is among the inauguration donors. The La Jolla, Calif., billionaire has given more than $2 million to pro-Obama super PACs and thousands more directly to Obama's campaign and the Democrats.

None of the donors responded to the AP seeking requests for comment Tuesday.

Not all the donors have gotten what they wanted from Obama in his first term. For instance, AT&T has faced regulatory hurdles, including its decision to scuttle a merger with T-Mobile USA at a cost of $4 billion following opposition from the Obama administration. Microsoft donated even though Obama opposed an immigration bill that the company supported to expand visas for its workers.

The $1 million donations sought by Obama's inaugural committee far surpass the record $250,000-range in contributions made by corporations and affluent financiers during the inaugurations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and appear to the be the highest in the history of American presidential inaugurations, several inauguration analysts say.

The Federal Election Commission allows limitless contributions to presidential inaugurations, but recent presidents set self-imposed bars. Bush set a limit of $250,000 on inaugural contributions for his 2005 event and $100,000 for his 2001 event. Those caps did little to damp the flow from corporate contributors, as Bush reaped $42.5 million in inaugural donations in 2005 and $30 million in 2001. Despite the limits, several firms gave as much as $750,000 apiece by donating from corporate subsidiaries.

Clinton's inaugural committee raised $23 million for his 1997 event, adding to a $9 million surplus left over from nearly $30 million in fundraising for his 1993 inauguration. In 1993, Clinton's inaugural committee tried to sell $1 million corporate sponsorships to fund a televised gala, but didn't get any takers, with the highest cash donations at $250,000 and a contribution of $1.5 million worth of communications equipment from Motorola. Clinton set a much tighter cap for his second inaugural, limiting contributions to $100 and selling ball tickets for a maximum of $3,000 each.


List of donors is available at .


Follow Jack Gillum on Twitter at and Nedra Pickler at

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