Two worms, same brains – but one eats the other

IF TWO animals have identical brain cells, how different can they really be? Extremely. Two worm species have exactly the same set of neurons, but extensive rewiring allows them to lead completely different lives.

Ralf Sommer of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, and colleagues compared Caenorhabditis elegans, which eats bacteria, with Pristionchus pacificus, which hunts other worms. Both have a cluster of 20 neurons to control their foregut.

Sommer found that the clusters were identical. "These species are separated by 200 to 300 million years, but have the same cells," he says. P. pacificus, however, has denser connections than C. elegans, with neural signals passing through many more cells before reaching the muscles (Cell, This suggests that P. pacificus is performing more complex motor functions, says Detlev Arendt of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany.

Arendt thinks predators were the first animals to evolve complex brains, to find and catch moving prey. He suggests their brains had flexible wiring, enabling them to swap from plant-eating to hunting.

This article appeared in print under the headline "Identical brains, but one eats the other"

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Football: Ronaldo's own goal condemns Real Madrid to defeat

MADRID: Real Madrid's dismal season went from bad to worse when Cristiano Ronaldo scored an own goal to hand relegation-threatened Granada a shock 1-0 win on Saturday.

Real coach Jose Mourinho announced he had already given up winning the league before Christmas and this latest blow means that Barcelona can increase their lead over them to 18 points if they win away to Valencia on Sunday.

There were doubts over whether or not Ronaldo would play as he is struggling with an ankle injury and his mood didn't improve when he headed a Granada corner into his own goal after 22 minutes.

Real had scored nine goals in their last two league games but they lacked the necessary drive perhaps as a result of a draining El Clasico in midweek where they scraped a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their King's Cup tie with Barcelona.

With Iker Casillas injured, Mourinho once again put his confidence in Diego Lopez in goal rather than youth product Antonio Adan while Raphael Varane also kept his place after an inspirational performance against Barca.

It was a baptism of fire for Granada coach Lucas Alcaraz who only had a few training sessions with the team after being appointed this week with the side only a place above the relegation zone.

He decided against making sweeping changes but did play new signing Nolito from Benfica on the left wing, with Dani Benitez injured, while Diego Buonanotte, who moved from Malaga, waited his chance on the bench.

Madrid started with plenty of the ball but they were sluggish in their passing and with Granada defending in numbers they were able to close them down without any alarms.

The home side set out their stall to allow Madrid to keep possession in the middle of the pitch while Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria struggled to make any inroads down the wings and they lacked the in-form Mesut Ozil through suspension.

Inigo Lopez headed over for Granada from a corner after 13 minutes and they looked dangerous on several breaks but they lacked a quality final ball.

Eventually Carlos Aranda sent over a telling cross with the Madrid defence stretched after 20 minutes and Alvaro Arbeloa arrived just before Nolito at the far post to knock it behind.

From the resulting corner Granada took the lead as Nolito's cross was flicked into his own net by Ronaldo jumping at the near post.

Madrid offered little in response with shots from distance from Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso.

After the break a 25-yard strike from Ronaldo forced a good save from Tono Rodriguez and they gradually raised the pace of their game in the final half hour.

Substitute Karim Benzema had a glaring miss from a few yards out in the final minutes.

Earlier bottom side Deportivo La Coruna's plight got worse as they lost 3-1 away to Getafe despite going ahead through a Luis Pizzi penalty after eleven minutes and having a man extra with the dismissal of keeper Miguel Moya.

Getafe responded with a penalty of their own through Diego Costa and scored further goals from Alvaro Vazquez and Adrian Colunga while Depor's Abel Aguilar was also sent off in the second half.

Osasuna moved out of the relegation zone with a 1-0 win over Celta Vigo and Espanyol continued their improvement under coach Javier Aguirre with a 3-2 victory over Levante.

- AFP/de

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Report: FAA lags on fulfilling airline safety law

WASHINGTON (AP) — Faced with substantial industry opposition, federal regulators are struggling to implement a sweeping aviation safety law enacted after the last fatal U.S. airline crash nearly four years ago, according to a report by a government watchdog.

The Federal Aviation Administration is experiencing lengthy delays in putting in place rules required by the law to increase the amount of experience necessary to be an airline pilot, provide more realistic pilot training and create a program where experienced captains mentor less experienced first officers, according to the report by the Department of Transportation's Inspector General. The report was obtained by The Associated Press.

The FAA is also running into problems creating a new, centralized electronic database that airlines can check prior to hiring pilots, the report said. The database is supposed to include pilots' performance on past tests of flying skills.

In each case, the agency has run into significant opposition from the airline industry, the report said.

"To effectively implement these initiatives in a timely manner, (the) FAA must balance industry concerns with a sustained commitment to oversight," the report said.

Congress passed the law a year and a half after the Feb. 12, 2009, crash of a regional airliner near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed all 49 people aboard and a man on the ground. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the accident highlighted weaknesses in pilot training, tiring work schedules, lengthy commutes and relatively low experience levels for pilots at some regional carriers.

The accident was due to an incorrect response by the flight's captain to two key safety systems, causing an aerodynamic stall that sent the plane plummeting into a house below, the NTSB investigation concluded.

"The law is only as strong as the regulations that come from it so this (implementation) process is the true measuring stick of how this law will ultimately be viewed," said Kevin Kuwik, spokesman for a group of family members of victims killed in the crash. The family members lobbied relentlessly for passage of the safety law. Kuwik lost his girlfriend, 30-year-old Lorin Maurer, in the accident.

Driven by the accident and the new safety law, the FAA substantially revised its rules governing pilot work schedules to better ensure pilots are rested when they fly. It was the first modification of the rules since 1985 and "a significant achievement" for the FAA, the report said.

Kuwik said he gives the FAA "a lot of credit" for revising the work schedule rules and for staying in touch with victims' family members. However, he said it's critical that the agency meet deadlines later this year for issuing new regulations on pilot training and qualifications.

"If the foot-dragging continues and missing deadlines..., the potentially significant effects of the safety bill will be lost," Kuwik said.

Responding to the report, the FAA said in a statement that more than 90 percent of air carriers now use voluntary programs in which pilots and others report safety problems with the understanding that there will be no reprisals for their conduct or computer-assisted programs that identify and report safety trends. "This has led to significant training, operational and maintenance program improvements," the statement said.

The agency also noted that it has "delivered seven reports to Congress, initiated five rulemaking projects and continued rulemaking efforts for another four final rules as a result of the" new safety law.

The inspector general's report, however, details how FAA has missed deadlines and run into complications trying to issue regulations necessary to implement key portions of the law.

For example, the FAA is behind schedule on rules to substantially increase the experience required to become an airline pilot from the current 250 flight hours to 1,500 flight hours. The agency currently estimates it will issue the rules in August, a year after the deadline set in the law. Airlines, worried they won't be able to find enough qualified new pilots, oppose the increase, arguing that a pilot's quality and type of flying should be weighed more heavily than the number of flight hours.

The FAA has proposed a compromise that would allow military pilots with 750 hours of flight experience or pilots with 1,000 hours and a four-year aviation degree to qualify to be hired as an airline pilot, but airlines remain opposed. If the FAA doesn't act by the August deadline, the increase to 1,500 hours will take effect without the exceptions offered in FAA's compromise proposals.

Yet the FAA and its inspectors haven't taken steps to ensure regional airlines, which will most affected, will be able to meet the new requirements, the report said. At two regional carriers visited by the inspector general's office, 75 percent of the first officers didn't have an air transport certificate — the highest level pilot's license issued by the FAA —which will be required for all airline pilots by the August deadline.



The Federal Aviation Administration:

Department of Transportation Inspector General:


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Pictures We Love: Best of January

Photograph by Dieu Nalio Chery, AP

The magnitude 7 earthquake that struck near Port au Prince, Haiti, in January 2010 so devastated the country that recovery efforts are still ongoing.

Professional dancer Georges Exantus, one of the many casualties of that day, was trapped in his flattened apartment for three days, according to news reports. After friends dug him out, doctors amputated his right leg below the knee. With the help of a prosthetic leg, Exantus is able to dance again. (Read about his comeback.)

Why We Love It

"This is an intimate photo, taken in the subject's most personal space as he lies asleep and vulnerable, perhaps unaware of the photographer. The dancer's prosthetic leg lies in the foreground as an unavoidable reminder of the hardships he faced in the 2010 earthquake. This image makes me want to hear more of Georges' story."—Ben Fitch, associate photo editor

"This image uses aesthetics and the beauty of suggestion to tell a story. We are not given all the details in the image, but it is enough to make us question and wonder."—Janna Dotschkal, associate photo editor

Published February 1, 2013

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Body of Missing Mom Reportedly Found in Turkey

The body of an American woman who went missing while on a solo trip to Turkey has been pulled from a bay in Istanbul, and nine people have been held for questioning, according to local media.

Sarai Sierra, 33, was last heard from on Jan. 21, the day she was due to board a flight home to New York City.

The state-run Andolu Agency reported that residents found a woman's body today near the ruins of some ancient city walls in a low-income district, and police identified the body as Sierra.

Rep. Michael Grimm, R-NY, who with his staff had been assisting the Sierra family in the search, said he was "deeply saddened" to hear the news of her death.

"I urge Turkish officials to move quickly to identify whomever is responsible for her tragic death and ensure that any guilty parties are punished to the fullest extent of the law," he said in a statement.

Courtesy Sarai Sierra's family

Footage Shows Missing New York Mom in Turkish Mall Watch Video

NYC Woman Goes Missing While Traveling In Turkey Watch Video

New York Mother Goes Missing on Turkish Vacation Watch Video

The New York City mother, who has two young boys, traveled to Turkey alone on Jan. 7 after a friend had to cancel. Sierra, who is an avid photographer with a popular Instagram stream, planned to document her dream vacation with her camera.

"It was her first time outside of the United States, and every day while she was there she pretty much kept in contact with us, letting us know what she was up to, where she was going, whether it be through texting or whether it be through video chat, she was touching base with us," Steven Sierra told ABC News before he departed for Istanbul last Sunday to aid in the search.

Steven Sierra has been in the country, meeting with U.S. officials and local authorities, as they searched for his wife.

On Friday, Turkish authorities detained a man who had spoken with Sierra online before her disappearance. The identity of the man and the details of his arrest were not disclosed, The Associated Press reported.

The family said it is completely out of character for the happily married mother, who met her husband in church youth group, to disappear.

She took two side trips, to Amsterdam and Munich, before returning to Turkey, but kept in contact with her family the entire time, a family friend told ABC News.

Further investigation revealed she had left her passport, clothes, phone chargers and medical cards in her room at a hostel in Beyoglu, Turkey.

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Astrophile: A scorched world with snow black and smoky

Astrophile is our weekly column on curious cosmic objects, from the solar system to the far reaches of the multiverse

Object: Titanium oxide snow
Location: The hot-Jupiter planet HD 209458b

There is something magical about waking up to discover it has snowed during the night. But there's no powdery white blanket when it snows on exoplanet HD 209458b. Snow there is black, smoky and hot as hell – resembling a forest fire more than a winter wonderland. Put it this way: you won't be needing mittens.

HD 209458b belongs to a family called hot Jupiters, gas-giant planets that are constantly being roasted due to their closeness to their sun. By contrast, the gas giants in our immediate neighbourhood, including Jupiter, are frigid, lying at the solar system's far reaches.

HD 209458b is also noteworthy because it is tidally locked, so one side is permanently facing towards its star while the other is in perpetual night. On the face of it, these conditions wouldn't seem to invite snow: temperatures on the day side come close to 2000° C, while the night side is comparatively chilly at around 500° C.

Snow made of water is, of course, impossible on this scorched world, but the drastic temperature differential sets up atmospheric currents that swirl material from the day side to night and vice versa. That means that any substances with the right combination of properties might be gaseous on the day side and then condense into a solid on the night side, and fall as precipitation. Say hello to titanium oxide snow.

Stuck on the surface

Although oxides of titanium make up only a small component of a hot Jupiter's atmosphere, these compounds have the right properties to fall as snow. But there was a snag that could have put a stop to any blizzards. Older computer models of hot Jupiters suggested that titanium oxides condensing in the air on the night side would snow – and remain on the relatively cool surface forever. "Imagine on Earth if you had no mechanism to evaporate water, it would never rain," says Vivien Parmentier of the Côte d'Azur Observatory in Nice, France.

Now he and colleagues have created a more detailed 3D computer model that shows that the snow can become a gas again as it falls and the temperature and pressure increase. Strong updraughts can then blow the titanium oxides back to the upper atmosphere. "The gas can come back on the top layers and snow again and again," says Parmentier.

Snowfall on HD 209458b would be like none you've ever seen. Though titanium dioxide is white and shiny, for example, the snowflakes would also contain silica oxides from the atmosphere, making them black. Since the atmosphere is also dark, snowstorms on the planet would be a smoky affair, the opposite of the white-outs we get on Earth. "It would be like being in the middle of a forest fire," says Parmentier.

Although the team studied a particular hot Jupiter, their model should apply equally to other planets of this type, suggesting hot snow is a common occurrence. Parmentier says we may have already spotted snow clouds on another hot Jupiter, HD 189733b, as spectral analysis of the planet suggests the presence of microscopic particles in its atmosphereMovie Camera.

David Sing of the University of Exeter, UK, who helped identify such particles on HD 189733b, says the team's new model goes a long way to explaining how titanium oxides behave on hot Jupiters. "We're pretty used to water condensing on Earth; there it is titanium because the temperatures are so much hotter."

Hot, black snow – now that would be something to wake up to.


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Israeli raid hit Syrian missiles, buildings: US official

WASHINGTON: An Israeli air raid in Syria this week struck surface-to-air missiles and a nearby military complex on the outskirts of Damascus, as Israel feared the weapons would be transferred to Hezbollah, a US official said Friday.

Earlier reports had suggested Israeli warplanes may have targeted two separate locations in Wednesday's raid in Syria: a military site outside of the capital and a weapons convoy near the Lebanese border.

But the US official said the strike was confined to one location.

"It was in the suburbs of Damascus," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

"There were surface-to-air missiles on vehicles" that were targeted by the Israel aircraft, he said, adding that they were believed to be Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles.

The planes also bombed an adjacent military complex of buildings suspected of housing chemical agents, the official said.

The Israelis suspected the weapons would be transferred to Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah group, he said.

The Syrian regime has accused Israel of launching a dawn strike Wednesday on a military research centre in Jamraya, near Damascus, and threatened to retaliate.

But the Israeli government has maintained a public silence on the strike.

Israel has repeatedly expressed concern that Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah group, which is an ally of the Damascus regime, or other militant organisations.

- AFP/jc

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White House: Hagel will win Senate confirmation

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House on Friday dismissed criticism of Chuck Hagel's hesitant congressional testimony and insisted that it expects the Senate to confirm him as defense secretary.

One day after Hagel was roughed up in a grueling confirmation hearing, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Hagel did a "fine job" and the Obama administration would be stunned if Republicans tried to block the nomination of a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and former two-term GOP senator.

"The president believes Sen. Hagel will make an excellent secretary of defense and that he will be confirmed and he looks forward to working with Sen. Hagel in that position as we continue to advance our national security priorities," Carney told reporters.

If confirmed, Hagel, 66, would be the lone Republican in President Barack Obama's Cabinet, the first Vietnam veteran to be defense secretary and the first enlisted man to take the post.

Hagel seemed ill-prepared under withering cross-examination from Senate Armed Services Committee Republicans in nearly eight hours of testimony. He was repeatedly pressed about past statements and votes on Israel, Iran and nuclear weapons.

Senate Democrats, who hold the majority, continue to stand behind the nomination, and no Democrat has said he or she would vote against the president's pick for his second-term national security team.

But Republican opposition grew on Friday as Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of the committee; Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr announced that they would vote against Hagel. About a dozen Republicans have said they will oppose their former colleague and several others have indicated that they are likely to vote no.

So far, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, is the only Republican to announce his support for Hagel.

Burr said the hearing "confirmed for me many of the concerns I had about the nomination." Kirk said his existing concerns combined with Hagel's testimony were the reason for his opposition.

Blunt said "Hagel's answers before the committee were simply too inconsistent, particularly as they related to Iran and Israel. The idea that we can contain a nuclear Iran and his view that we should not have unilateral sanctions are just wrong and are too dangerous for us to try."

In fact, Hagel corrected his statement about containment of Iran and said all options, including military action, should be on the table to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

While Blunt announced his opposition, he signaled he would not support any effort to block the nomination. Blunt is a member of the GOP leadership team, and his reluctance to wage a filibuster fight is a positive sign for Hagel amid the threat of efforts to block the nomination.

Democrats hold a 14-12 edge on the committee, which could vote as early as Thursday, and a 55-45 advantage in the full Senate. Democrats would need five Republican votes to stop a filibuster, and GOP lawmakers often have spoken about the right of a president to get an up-or-down vote on his nominee.

Carney did not mention Republican Sen. John McCain by name, but he clearly was referring to him when he questioned the "badgering ... over issues like, 'why did you disagree with me over Iraq?' "

"Now somewhat bizarrely, given that we have 66,000 Americans in uniform in Afghanistan, senators yesterday in the hearing for the nomination of a secretary of defense asked very few questions about that active war," Carney said. "Instead they wanted to re-litigate the past. That argument will continue, no doubt."

The nominee's fiercest exchange came with McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran and onetime close friend over Iraq.

The Arizona Republican pressed Hagel on whether he was right or wrong about his opposition to President George W. Bush's decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq in 2007 at a point when the war seemed in danger of being lost. Hagel, who voted to authorize military force in Iraq, later opposed the conflict, comparing it to Vietnam and arguing that it shifted the focus from Afghanistan.

"Were you right? Were you correct in your assessment?" McCain asked.

"I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out," Hagel said as the two men talked over each other.

"The committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the surge," McCain insisted.

Unable to elicit a simple response, McCain said the record should show that Hagel refused to answer. And he made it clear that he would have the final word — with his vote, which he said would be influenced by Hagel's refusal to answer yes or no.

"I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you're on the wrong side of it," McCain told Hagel.

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Best Science Pictures of 2012 Announced

Image courtesy Pupa U.P.A. Gilbert and Christopher E. Killian, U.W. Madison via Science/AAAS

A micrograph, or microphotograph, of a sea urchin's crystalline tooth won first place and people's choice for photography in the 2012 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.

Colors applied with Photoshop reveal the interlocking crystals that form the choppers of Arbacia punctulata. The biomineral crystals, captured by biophysicists from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, grow and intertwine to reinforce and sharpen a sea urchin's teeth. Made of calcite, which is also found in limestone and seashells, the crystals are tough enough to grind holes in rocks to create shelters.

"These winners continue to amaze me every year," said Monica M. Bradford, executive editor of the journal Science, in a statement. "The visuals are not only novel and captivating, but they also draw you into the complex field of science in a simple and understandable way."

Sponsored by Science and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the international competition honors recipients who use visual media to promote understanding of scientific research. Judging criteria included visual impact, effective communication, freshness, and originality. (See some of the 2011 winners.)

Lacey Gray and Katia Andreassi

Published February 1, 2013

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Arias Trial Puts Mormon Sex Rules in Spotlight

The murder trial of Jodi Arias has been filled with salacious details of phone sex, graphic text messages, and an erotic sexual relationship between her and her devout Mormon ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander.

Arias, 32, converted to Mormonism when she began to date Alexander, then 29, in 2006. Though they were both outwardly devout, they immediately developed a sexual relationship.

The trial has cast a spotlight on the tight-knit Mormon community in Mesa, Ariz., and its strict social mores, including a ban on premarital sex. According to Patrick Mason, a professor of religion who specializes in Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, the trial shows the difficulty Mormons face in coping wiith the church's demand for chastity.

"The LDS church puts a really high priority on complete chastity," Mason said. "They define that as no sexual relations of any kind outside of marriage between a man and a woman, no premarital sex and no extramarital sex either, and there's actually a lot of time and attention paid to this."

Arias is on trial for murdering Alexander, whom she dated for a year and then continued to have sex with for a year after that. Prosecutors allege she killed him in a fit of jealousy in June 2008, after taking graphic sexual photos with him and having sex earlier in the day.

Jodi Arias Murder Trial: Former Boyfriend Takes Stand Watch Video

Jodi Arias Murder Trial: Defense's First Day of Witnesses Watch Video

Arias claims she shot and stabbed Alexander in self defense, and her attorneys have focused on Alexander's secret sex life as proof that he was a "sexual deviant" who was abusive and controlling toward Arias.They claim Alexander, who was considered a church elder, kept Arias his "dirty little secret" because sex outside of marriage was against church rules.

See Full Coverage of Jodi Arias Trial

See Jodi Arias Trial Videos
More than anything, Mason said, this case shows the shockwaves sent through Arizona's Mormon community when those values were breached so flagrantly with a violent killing and the web of lies surrounding it. "Mesa is one of those concentrated areas of historic Mormon settlement."

"Were you shocked to learn (Alexander) was not a virgin?" defense attorney Jennifer Willmott asked Lisa Daidone, who dated Alexander after he broke up with Arias. Alexander and Arias continued to sleep together while he dated Daidone.

"Yes," Daidone said on the stand Wednesday. "I believed he was a virgin."

"Was Mr. Alexander living in accordance with his Mormon principles?" defense attorney Kirk Nurmi asked another witness, Daniel Freeman, a Mormon friend of Alexander's in Arizona.

"Yes," Freeman said on the stand Thursday.

"Was there any reason to believe Mr. Alexander was not living up to his Mormon principles as a church elder?"

"No," Freeman said.

Freeman said that Alexander never told him or other church members that he had a sexual relationship with Arias. In fact, Freeman's sister, Desiree Freeman, testified that Alexander made it known he was a virgin when in social settings, and "he joked about it."

The stakes are high for Mormons who choose to have sex, Mason said. They can face excommunication or a tarnished reputation among their closest friends and family members.

"In Mormonism, if you're not married, your social capital is largely defined by preserving your virginity. If it is known that you've had sex before marriage, even if people try to be compassionate and not judgmental, there is no doubt that in Mormon communities and the eyes of other Mormons... it lessens your social standing."

The conflict between Alexander's outer appearances and his secret sexual trysts with Arias is key to the defense's strategy of painting him as an abusive lover. But the testimony has also shown, conversely, how sexually conservative and pure many young Mormons in America are.

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Swarm-mongering: Brainless blobs flock together

Birds of a feather flock together and now so do brainless, inanimate blobs. Made of microscopic particles, the artificial swarms could shed light on the mysterious mechanisms behind the natural swarming seen in fish and birds. They might also lead to materials with novel properties like self-healing.

Animals such as birds, fish and even humans that move together in swarms have individual intelligence, but Jérémie Palacci of New York University and colleagues wondered whether inanimate objects could also swarm. "From a physicist's point of view, if many different systems behave in the same way there must be an underlying physical rule," he says.

To explore this idea, the team created microscopic plastic spheres, each one with a cubic patch of haematite, an iron oxide, on its surface. When submerged in hydrogen peroxide, the spheres spread out in a disordered fashion. The team then shone blue light on the particles, causing the haematite cubes to catalyse the breakdown of any nearby hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen. As hydrogen peroxide concentration dropped temporarily in these regions due to the reaction, osmotic forces cause more hydrogen peroxide to flow into them, and that in turn buffets the spheres. The whole process then repeats.

Self-healing swarm

When two spheres come close enough to each other, the balance of chemical forces shifts so that the two spheres are attracted. If there are enough spheres in the same place they will cluster together to form shapes of symmetrically arranged particles, which the team call crystals (see video, above). These crystals continue to be buffeted by the movement caused by the breakdown of hydrogen peroxide – but now they move together as one object, replicating a life-like swarm. Switch off the light, however, and the reaction stops, causing the crystal to lose the forces that hold it together, and the particle distribution becomes disordered once again.

"This system shows that even though the particles have no social interaction or intelligence, you can exhibit collective behaviour with no biology involved," says Palacci. Since the haematite is magnetic, it is even possible to steer the crystals in one direction by applying a magnetic field. Such control might be useful if the artificial swarms are to be harnessed for applications.

As the particles automatically fill any gaps that form in the crystal, again thanks to the chemical dynamics of the system, they could be used to create a self-assembling, self-healing material. The work is published in the journal Science today.

Schooled by fish

Iain Couzin of Princeton University says these kinds of systems are very useful for studying biological collective behaviour because researchers have complete control over their interactions – unlike natural systems.

His team has its own swarming experiment published in the same issue of Science, based on schools of fish that prefer to stay in shade. Their paper shows that shining a light on some of the fish in the school causes them to speed up, to get away from the light. But as a result, non-illuminated fish also speed up, even though, if acting purely as individuals, they would have had no reason to do so. "We show just by using simple interactions that schools can have a sense of responsiveness to the environment that individuals do not have," he says.

Couzin sees no reason why such behaviour should be limited to natural systems. "In future it may be possible to create systems of particles that can make collective decisions – something we often think of as only possible in biological systems," he says.

Journal references: Living crystals: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1230020; Fish: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1225883

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Candidates to head WTO clear hurdle

GENEVA: The last of a record nine candidates to lead the World Trade Organization finished defending their candidacies on Thursday, but the real campaign is only just getting started.

"This is a procedure that is all but unique in the world -- a selection rather than an election that takes several months to complete," a source close to the process told AFP.

The candidates -- six men and three women mainly from developing nations -- are all considered confirmed global trade specialists and are vying to replace Frenchman Pascal Lamy, who finishes his second four-year term in August.

This past week, they have all gone before the WTO's general council for gruelling questioning about their merits and visions for the organisation, which oversees global trade practices and is trying to reduce tariffs that hobble exchanges.

The interviews took place behind closed doors, but in subsequent news conferences all the candidates stressed the urgency in addressing the WTO's main challenge: jump starting the stalled Doha Round of trade talks that was launched in 2001.

"The reality is that the round at this point in time is paralysing the system, and we have to solve it," insisted Brazil's envoy to the WTO Roberto Azevedo, who was one of three candidates from Latin America -- a heavily-tipped region to land the organisation's top job -- and the last of the nine to face the fire.

South Korean Trade Minister Taeho Bark, the only other candidate who spoke Thursday, agreed, insisting that "there's a need to rebuild trust."

On Wednesday, New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser, the only candidate from an advanced economy and therefore considered a longshot since the UN's trade body appears set on picking someone from a developing nation, stressed that the WTO was facing a "problem of relevance."

Mexican economist and former minister Herminio Blanco Mendoza also cautioned Wednesday that the WTO risked "losing relevance" if the next Doha-round talks in Bali at the end of the year failed.

Former Jordanian trade minister Ahmad Thougan Hindawi, the only Middle Eastern candidate, also spoke Wednesday of a need of "a fresh outside look" to get the process moving.

"After 12 years of stalled negotiations, to think of modernising," agreed high-level United Nations executive Amina Mohamed of Kenya, one of two candidates from Africa -- a region also thought likely to provide the organisation's next leader.

While insisting that her candidacy was purely based on merit, Mohamed said that "it would send a very, very powerful signal ... if this organisation decided that a woman, preferably an African woman, should take over at the helm of the WTO."

Indonesia's current tourism minister and former trade minister Mari Elka Pangestu, who might have less of a chance given that Lamy's predecessor Supachai Panitchpakdi comes from neighbouring Thailand, also told media on the first day of interviews Tuesday that the WTO would be well-served by having a woman at the top.

The third woman who has thrown her hat in the ring, Costa Rica's Foreign Trade Minister Anabel Gonzalez, meanwhile said she was a "cautious optimist" that the WTO would get the Doha round on track.

Ghana's former trade minister Alan John Kwadwo Kyerematen, who was the first to make his case on Tuesday, also spoke of the need to "revitalise an extremely important organisation."

As the interview process wrapped up Thursday, the candidates were preparing three months of world travel to convince the 158 WTO member states of their merits.

The final selection will be made by a "troika" composed of the yet-to-be-picked presidents of the WTO's general council, its Dispute Settlement Body and its Trade Policy Review Board.

Once the three leaders have been chosen, something that must happen by the end of February, the troika will ask each member state to provide their two favourite candidates, as well as the one they are most opposed to.

Based on the responses they receive, the three WTO leaders will gradually begin dropping candidates, with the ones who stand little chance of being selected expected to withdraw of their own volition.

The decision must be made no later than May 31, and the nominee is to take over at the WTO on September 1.

- AFP/jc

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Congress sends bill to Obama averting govt default

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress sent President Barack Obama drama-free legislation on Thursday raising the debt ceiling, averting a government default and putting off the next tax-and-spending clash between the White House and Republicans until later in the year.

The measure cleared the Senate on a vote of 64-34 after winning House approval late last week. It permits the Treasury to borrow above the current $16.4 trillion debt limit through May 18. The White House has said Obama will sign it.

"Failure to pass this bill will set off an unpredictable financial panic that would plunge not only the United States but much of the world back into recession," Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said before the vote. "Every single American would feel the economic impact."

But Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in remarks on the Senate floor that "government spending is completely out of control - and it's projected to get much worse in years to come." His office issued a statement shortly after the vote saying he had opposed the legislation after Democrats torpedoed several GOP attempts to rein in spending before final passage.

The legislation reflects a switch in strategy by Republicans, whose insistence on deep spending cuts as a trade-off for a higher debt limit more than a year ago pushed the government to the brink of an unprecedented default. With polls showing their public support lagging, they now look ahead to a new season of potential showdowns, with a reshuffled batting order that moves the threat of a default to the back of a line that includes March 1 across-the-board spending cuts and the March 27 expiration of funding for most federal agencies.

The debt limit measure came with only one string attached by House Republicans, a provision that would temporarily withhold the pay of lawmakers in either house that failed to produce a budget this year.

That was designed as a prod to the Senate, where majority Democrats have failed to bring a budget to a vote in any of the past three years. This year, they say they will. Republicans say they are eager for a comparison of plans, rather than a long year spent defending one of their own.

Already, the next conflict over budget priorities is taking shape, in an environment includes a fresh report that the economy unexpectedly declined in the last quarter, and the emergence of a warning from the Pentagon's top uniformed officers that pending defense cuts could lead to a "hollow force."

Without changes, "we will have to ground aircraft, return ships to port, and stop driving combat vehicles in training," members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote congressional leaders in a letter dated Jan. 14.

Obama and Democrats say they are prepared for further deficit reduction compromise, although they stress they want increased tax revenue as part of any deal.

Republicans want spending cuts only, after reluctantly swallowing $600 billion in higher taxes as part of a "fiscal cliff" compromise late last year.

To further their goals, House Republicans intend to produce a budget that balances in a decade, and are expected to vote as early as next week to demand Obama do the same.

Obama's budget is due to be made public later this month, although there is no expectation it will eliminate red ink in the next 10 years. Nor are majority Democrats in the Senate expected to do so either.

In the meantime, though, they are likely to propose legislation in the next few weeks to replace the looming across-the-board cuts with a series of targeted reductions and higher taxes.

In all, 50 Democrats, 12 Republicans and two independents voted in favor of the debt limit bill, while 33 Republicans and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia opposed it.

In the run-up to the final vote, a proposal by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio to require dollar-for-dollar spending cuts on any future debt limit increases was cast aside, 54-44.

"America must pay its bills — no one is arguing against that point," Portman said in a statement issued after the bill's passage. "What we are debating is how to shrink those bills moving forward so the federal government doesn't continue maxing out its credit card and selling out future generations."

Also blocked was an attempt by the Ohio Republican, who served as budget director under President George W. Bush, to guarantee that the government stay open — at reduced spending levels — even if funding expires in the future. The vote was 52-46.

Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania authored a proposal to give priority to payment of principal and interest on the debt, Social Security benefits and military pay in the event the debt limit is reached in the future. It failed on a wider, bipartisan vote of 79-19.

Treasury Department officials said that as soon as Obama signs the debt limit legislation, Treasury will begin taking steps to reverse the measures it has been taking over the past month to avoid exceeding the current debt limit, which was reached on Dec. 31.

Treasury has the ability to create about $200 billion in headroom primarily by tapping funds from government employee pension funds. Treasury said it will restore the money that was diverted with interest once the debt legislation is signed. That will allow the same measures to be used once again if needed when the current debt authority runs out on May 18.


AP Economics Writer Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.

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14 Pygmy Elephants Die Mysteriously in Borneo

Fourteen endangered Borneo pygmy elephants have recently been found dead in a Malaysian forest, presenting a mystery for wildlife officials and conservationists.

The recent deaths highlight the vulnerable status of the species, which now numbers about 1,500 animals. Scientists don't know how many pygmy elephants previously existed on the island, although it's likely the population wasn't much higher than it is today, said Barney Long, head of Asian species conservation at WWF-US.

This week Malaysian authorities discovered a group of elephant carcasses close together in the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve, located in the northeastern corner of Borneo (map), a Southeast Asian island shared by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.

"We don't know officially yet how they died, but what we do know is this is an area of forest that is being cleared for plantations, and it's very common that when the forest is cleared, conflict between humans and elephants spikes," said Long.

For instance, in agricultural areas in neighboring Sumatra, people have put out poisoned fruit for elephants to eat, causing a whole herd to drop dead in one area. The poison is usually whatever is locally available, such as rodenticide, he said.

"The presumption here is that [the recent deaths are] similar to that. Obviously that is complete guesswork until we have results of the autopsies," Long said.

The Malaysian government is performing autopsies on the dead elephants, although it's unknown when they will release the results, he added.

Cute Elephant Dwindling in Number

Pygmy elephants were isolated about 300,000 years ago from their relatives on mainland Asia and Sumatra and evolved their small size to adapt to forest living.

With their baby faces, oversize ears, and plump bellies, "Walt Disney himself couldn't have crafted a cuter elephant," according to WWF's website. (Visit National Geographic's elephant hub.)

But the population of this charismatic mini-elephant is dwindling in number as large tracts of Borneo's forests are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, restricting the animals to increasingly smaller areas and forcing them into closer contact with people. (Get more elephant news on the National Geographic blog A Voice For Elephants.)

For example, the mammals need about 115 square miles (300 square kilometers) in which to find enough food, water, and minerals, according to WWF's studies of elephants fitted with radio collars.

"When you chop down part of their habitat, they're still going back there looking for resources that used to be there," Long said.

And if that happens to be a plantation, that's when run-ins with people occur.

Pygmy Elephants Need Protection

Whatever caused the recent deaths, the incident has prompted WWF to call on the Malaysian government to better protect pygmy elephants. (Also see "'Extinct' Pygmy Elephants Found Living on Borneo.")

For one, the species needs to be listed as "totally protected" by law in Malaysia, which has been recommended by scientists but not yet enacted by the government, WWF-Malaysia executive director Dionysius S.K. Sharma said in a statement.

Though the animals are already protected from hunting, the huge swaths of habitat they rely on also need to be set aside from logging.

What's more, the local wildlife department needs to invest more resources in patrolling the area for illegal activities, Sharma said.

"Frequent and large-scale patrolling is critical to avoid such conflict from happening again," he said.

Though the killings won't be disastrous for the population overall, noted WWF-US's Long, what it is showing "is a huge pressure on elephants."

"If this is a case of poisoning, [it shows] how easy it is for one individual to wipe out a significant number [of elephants]."

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Arias' Ex-Boyfriend Kept Affair Secret

Accused murderer Jodi Arias was kept away from the Mormon friends of her lover Travis Alexander and their torrid sex affair was kept secret by Alexander, even as he sent lewd photos of himself to her online, according to court testimony today.

The testimony in Arias' trial for killing Alexander in 2008 was intended to bolster the defense's argument that she killed him in self defense, that Alexander was a sexual deviant who treated Arias as his "dirty little secret."

Arias' attorneys introduced as evidence photos that Alexadner took of his penis and sent to Arias, part of a string of graphic messages and sexual phone calls the two engaged in while Alexander, an elder in the Mormon church, was supposed to be chaste.

Today's witness was the latest in a string called by the defense, including Alexander's former girlfriend Lisa Daidone, who told the court that Alexander had professed to be a virgin.

Daniel Freeman continued his testimony today, describing how he was a friend of both Arias and Alexander but that Alexander kept Arias distanced from his Mormon pals.

"Travis had made more friends at (the Mormon) ward, and had (Ultimate Fighting Championship) fight nights at his house many times, and Jodi was in town, but she wasn't there," Freeman said.

"There was that group of friends, them and Jodi, two different groups, and so Lisa [Daidone] and friends from church were there, but Jodi wasn't there," Freeman said.

Jodi Arias Murder Trial: Former Boyfriend Takes Stand Watch Video

Jodi Arias Murder Trial: Defense's First Day of Witnesses Watch Video

Alexander's behavior, the defense hopes to prove, shows that he mistreated Arias.

Arias, 32, is on trial for murdering Alexander, whom she dated for a year and continued to have a sexual relationship for a year after that. Her attorneys claim that Alexander was abusive and controlling toward Arias, and that she was forced to kill him.

Freeman described how he took a trip with his sister, Alexander, and Arias, and how Alexander had asked him to come along so that he and Arias "would not get physical."

"I don't know that I can say he didn't want to be alone with her, but he liked that when I was there, and my sister was there. They weren't as physical," Freeman said.

Freeman admitted that he had no idea Alexander and Arias had been having a sexual relationship the entire time they were together. He said Alexander never mentioned that to his friends.

In fact, Freeman noted that Alexander was considered to be a church elder when he baptized Arias into the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Both a church elder and a convert were expected to abide by the church's strict law of chastity, which banned any sexual relations outside of marriage.

"One thing people give up in this baptism process was sex," prosecutor Juan Martinez said. "Did you know she was having oral sex with Mr. Alexander at the time of her baptism? Would that be an insincere baptism?"

"She would not be ready to be baptized in that case," Freeman said.

"You were asked about Miss Arias, whether she was worthy of baptism if she was performing oral sex, but what about the elder receiving oral sex?" defense attorney Kirk Nurmi said.

"They would not be worthy of performing that ordinance at that time until they had gone through repentance," Freeman said. "They would go to a discipline council and could face excommunication or a probation period or have their priesthood removed."

Freeman said that Alexander never confessed to having a sexual relationship with Arias.

Freeman's testimony came on the third day of the defense's attempt to paint Alexander as a controlling, sex-obsessed liar who was cruel to Arias. Other witnesses have said that Alexander cheated on other women he dated with Arias, and lied to his friends and family about their relationship.

The defense also had Freeman point out that Alexander was strong and fit. They are expected to conclude that Alexander was physically threatening Arias when she killed him.

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Today on New Scientist: 30 January 2013

Timbuktu's precious scientific texts must be saved

Islamist militants in Mali have burned documents that attest to science in Africa before European colonisation - what remains must be protected

Think that massage feels good? Try adding drugs

Nerve bundles that respond to stroking have been identified and chemically activated in mice

How Obama will deliver his climate promise

The US is set to meet - and maybe exceed - Obama's pledge to cut US emissions by 17 per cent, which could give a boost to international climate talks

Minimum booze price will rein in alcohol abuse

Evidence suggests the UK government's proposal to set a minimum price for alcohol could save thousands of lives, and billions of pounds of public money

First real time-travel movies are loopers

Hollywood has played with time travel for decades, but now physicists have the first movies of what travelling to the past actually looks like

Surfer rides highest wave ever caught

Garret McNamara of Hawaii claims to have ridden the highest wave ever caught by a surfer, a 30-metre monster off the coast of Nazaré, Portugal

Infrared laptop trackpad ignores accidental touches

Longpad is a touchpad that extends the full width of your laptop and uses infrared sensors to ignore any unwanted touches

Close call coming: Averting the asteroid threat

With an errant space rock heading this way, just how good are our asteroid defences - and how do we avert the cataclysm?

The right to fight: women at war

The US military has accepted women into combat. What can science tell us about how women deal with being in the line of fire? And are they any different to men?

Earth and others lose status as Goldilocks worlds

Several planets are taking a hit thanks to a redefinition of the habitable zone - the area around a star in which liquid water can theoretically exist

The 10,000-year bender: Why humans love a tipple

Our taste for alcohol results from an evolutionary tussle between humans and yeast - one in which the microbes have often had the upper hand

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Departing Kerry warns senators of crippling gridlock

WASHINGTON: US Senator John Kerry offered some tough love Wednesday to the colleagues he leaves behind to become secretary of state: end the fierce partisanship or risk the nation's reputation as a beacon of democracy.

Kerry, whose confirmation as President Barack Obama's choice to replace Hillary Clinton as chief US diplomat sailed through the Senate a day earlier, said lawmakers needed to end the chamber's "reputation as a sanctuary of gridlock" and get down to legislating through compromise and consensus.

"If democracy deadlocks here, we raise doubts about democracy everywhere," Kerry, who at times turned emotional in his farewell speech on the Senate floor, told Democrats and a smattering of Republicans.

"If we use the time to posture politically in Washington, we weaken our position across the world."

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have engaged in bruising partisan debate and voting in recent months, notably concluding the 112th Congress a month ago by waiting until the final hour to reach only a partial deal to avoid a series of fiscal crises including tax hikes and spending cuts.

Kerry, a 28-year veteran of the chamber, appeared to be offering his words of advice in part as a plea for cooperation as he takes on the task of leading US foreign policy.

"As I prepare to represent our nation in capitals around the world, I am more than conscious that my credibility as a diplomat and ours as a country is determined to a great degree by what happens right here in our capital city," Kerry said.

"The antidote to the current narrative of American decline" being put forward in rival nations like China and Iran, he said, "is to demonstrate that we can get our economic house in order -- because we can be no stronger abroad than we are here at home. It's that simple."

Despite the harsh assessment, Kerry spoke warmly of his colleagues across the aisle, particularly Republican John McCain, who, like Kerry, fought in the Vietnam War but found "common ground" with him on several issues.

And the future secretary of state could not help but make light of how he, like McCain, came up short in his presidential ambitions.

"Eight years ago I admit that I had a very different plan... to leave the Senate, but 61 million Americans voted that they wanted me to stay here with you," he said to laughter in the chamber.

Kerry choked up several times during his 45-minute speech, including when he spoke of President John F. Kennedy and brother Ted Kennedy, from whom Kerry inherited his mahogany desk in the Senate when the younger Kennedy died in 2009.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on Wednesday appointed his former chief of staff, William "Mo" Cowan, to temporarily fill Kerry's Senate seat until a special election is held on June 25.

In picking a relative political unknown, Patrick passed over other potential appointees including long-serving congressman Barney Frank, who retired early this month, and Vicki Kennedy, the widow of former US senator Ted Kennedy.

The departure of Kerry, whose confirmation breezed through the Senate on Tuesday, sets off a scramble for a seat in a liberal state where Democrat Elizabeth Warren defeated incumbent Senate Republican Scott Brown in November.

- AFP/jc

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House members negotiate a proposal on immigration

WASHINGTON (AP) — A group of a half-dozen House members, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, is nearing completion of wide-ranging immigration legislation similar to proposals by Senate negotiators and President Barack Obama, including a pathway to legal immigration status for 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S.

The group intends to unveil the legislation soon, perhaps around the time of Obama's State of the Union address Feb. 12, according to lawmakers and aides involved. It is likely to face strong resistance from many of the conservative Republicans who dominate the House.

Yet its mere existence is a sign of more interest in immigration legislation in the House than has been evident for some time. Group members and others say that, despite the discomfort of many House Republicans with any effort to adjust illegal immigrants' status, they see glimmers of hope for passage of some kind of immigration package during this session of Congress.

"I've felt a huge sea change, believe it or not, from both parties," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a member of the group. "There are some who will criticize anything no matter what it is as amnesty. There are even some who will label anything as amnesty without even reading a bill or seeing a bill. It's their right to do so. But I think the majority of Republicans and the majority of Democrats want to get something done, want to fix it."

The group has been meeting in secret off and on for years in various permutations, beginning around the time of the last serious effort on immigration in Congress in 2007, which failed in the Senate. They've drafted legislative language in the past but without ever introducing a bill. They've largely kept their efforts quiet in part to shield members from the likely political blowback from conservatives were their efforts to become public, an aide said.

Indeed, the loudest voices from House Republicans decry any efforts aimed at the legal status issue.

"We've been down this road before with politicians promising to enforce the law in return for amnesty. ... The American people should not be fooled," Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said this week after Obama and a bipartisan Senate group released proposals promising stronger border controls, a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, smoother legal immigration and tougher enforcement against employers hiring illegal immigrants.

For many House Republicans, supporting immigration legislation that gives a pathway to citizenship carries substantial political risks, since it's a position that would have to be defended to conservative voters come election time. But polls show Americans increasingly supportive of the approach at the same time many GOP leaders believe that the party should confront the immigration issue or risk continued losses in national elections. Obama won an overwhelming majority of Latino and Asian voters in November, which helped seal his victory.

"The immigration issue, it's time to deal with it. I said it the day after the election, I meant it. We're going to have to deal with it," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week while answering audience questions after a speech at the Ripon Society, a Republican public policy organization in Washington.

Boehner went on to mention the bipartisan working group, which until then was little known, adding he hadn't seen details. "My theory was if these folks could work this out, it would be a big step in the right direction, so I would think you're likely to hear a lot more on immigration reform on the House side soon," he said.

Democratic group members are Reps. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Zoe Lofgren and Xavier Becerra of California. The Republicans are Diaz-Balart and Sam Johnson and John Carter of Texas.

"I am optimistic that there are new voices in the Republican Party that want to get this done in the House of Representatives," Gutierrez said.

Other lawmakers have also been in touch with group members, including Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who has embraced proposals put forth by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to offer a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants contingent on enacting strict border controls first.

"I personally believe we should have done this a long time ago. I really do believe it's doable this year," Ryan said in an interview this week with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board.

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said he was working to find a way to deal with illegal immigrants already in the country that would be acceptable to a majority of Republicans, such as allowing them a legal worker status without a special pathway to citizenship. "In the House you're going to have a hard time finding Republicans who can support a pathway to citizenship," Labrador said.

Ahead of the release of their bill, the group members are still trying to keep their efforts quiet and several declined to discuss their efforts or membership in detail. Aides said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has been supportive, but regardless of what the group proposes, Boehner is not expected take any steps on immigration until legislation passes the Senate.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the Senate negotiating group on immigration who was a House member until his election in November, said he's been in touch with former colleagues in the House on the issue.

"There are some who aren't wild about doing any of this, but even those that aren't wild about it are ready to see this in the rearview mirror," he said.

The House Judiciary Committee is to begin hearings next week, and Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said much work lies ahead before it will become clear what kind of immigration law changes the House might be able to support.

"I feel confident the House will pass immigration reform legislation, but whether it's individual pieces or something that fits together in a more comprehensive whole" remains to be seen, Goodlatte said Wednesday.

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6 Bizarre Animal Smuggling Busts

Officers in Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport recently discovered 11 live otters in a piece of unclaimed luggage left at the oversized baggage area.

The six smooth-coated otters (Lutrogale perspicillata)—Southeast Asia's largest otter—and five oriental small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea), the world's smallest otters at less than 11 pounds (five kilograms), are under threat in Southeast Asia.

Demand for their pelts and organs for clothing, food, and medicine—in addition to habitat destruction and environmental pollution—have diminished both populations. (Read an exposé of the world's most notorious wildlife dealer, from National Geographic magazine.)

But otters aren't the only victims of the illicit wildlife trade. Stuffed into carry-ons, packed into suitcases, and bundled into crates, traffickers have tried to smuggle all kinds of wild animals through airports.

"The U.S. seizes over $10 million worth of illegal wildlife each year, but this only scratches the surface," said Edward Grace, deputy chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement. "[On] any given day, someone, somewhere in the world, is poaching or smuggling wildlife."

Here are six other kinds of wild animals that people have tried to sneak past customs.

Birds: To smuggle more than a dozen hummingbirds (family Trochilidae) past customs, a Dutchman at an airport in French Guiana (map) wrapped each bird in cloth and hid them in a pouch sewn into the waist of his pants in 2011. He even taped the tiny bundles to keep the birds from escaping. His fidgeting led French customs officers to discover the birds.

Monkeys: In 2002, a Los Angeles man returning from Bangkok (map) owned up to hiding two endangered pygmy monkeys, called slow lorises (Nycticebus spp.), in his underwear. His confession came after officials opened up his luggage and a bird of paradise (Paradisaeidae spp.) flew out. He was also traveling with 50 rare orchids.

Crocodiles: A crocodile smuggled on board a domestic flight in 2010 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (map) was blamed for a plane crash that killed 20 of 21 passengers. The reptile escaped from a duffel bag in the cabin and panicked the passengers and crew, according to news reports from the sole human survivor. The animal survived the crash but was later killed with a machete.

Snakes and Other Reptiles: An exotic animal salesman attempting to transport 247 reptiles and spiders to Spain was caught by x-ray technicians in Argentina in 2011. The exotic and endangered species included boa constrictors, poisonous pit vipers, and spiders. They were packed inside plastic containers, bags, and socks.

Tropical Fish: In 2005, customs officials in Melbourne, Australia (map) stopped a woman who had arrived from Singapore after hearing mysterious "flipping" noises coming from around her waist. They found an apron under her skirt designed with pockets holding 15 plastic bags filled with water and 51 tropical fish.

Big Cats: In 2011, a United Arab Emirates man at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport packed two leopards and two panthers into his luggage—as well as an Asiatic black bear and two macaque monkeys. Every animal was under two months old, and had been drugged for the journey. Some of them were stored in flat cages, while others were placed in canisters with air holes. (See pictures of other animals smuggled through Bangkok International Airport.)

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Arias Trial Shocked by Slashed Throat Photo

The courtroom at the Jodi Arias murder trial was shocked -- and Arias began sobbing -- when the prosecutor stunned them by suddenly flashing a photograph of Arias' ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander with his throat slashed open.

Alexander's sisters and friends burst into tears and one ran out of the courtroom when prosecutor Juan Martinez held up the grisly picture of Alexander with his throat slashed and bloodied.

Arias, who is on trial for allegedly murdering Alexander, sobbed uncontrollably at the sight of the photo. She is accused of stabbing Alexander 27 times, slashing his throat, and shooting him twice in the head in a bout of jealousy. She could face the death penalty if convicted.

In the moments before the incident, Martinez was questioning Lisa Daidone, who dated Alexander in 2007 after Alexander's break up with Arias but while he and Arias continued to sleep together. The defense had gone painstakingly through an angry email Daidone had sent Alexander to break up with him, after she found out he was cheating on her with Arias.

"Do you think that even with everything they claimed he put you through, do you think it is appropriate to take a knife and slash somebody's throat?" Martinez yelled.

"Is this what a normal relationship looks like to you?" Martinez shouted as he held up the picture amid shouts of "objection" from the defense and gasps from onlookers.

Judge Sherry Stephens called for a recess, and when the court returned the judge warned the audience to keep their reactions to testimony silent.

Jodi Arias Murder Trial: Defense's First Day of Witnesses Watch Video

Jodi Arias Murder Trial: Defense Begins Case Watch Video

Jodi Arias Murder Trial: Reported Plea Deal Attempt Watch Video

The outburst came at the end of an intense line of questioning from Martinez as he asked Daidone to explain that Alexander treated her well during their relationship, attempting to disprove the defense's accusations that Alexander was a sex-obsessed, aggressive cheater.

Daidone had testified under questioning by Arias' lawyers that she broke off her relationship with Alexander several times partly out of her suspicions that he was cheating on her, although he had asked her to marry him.

As Mormons they refrained from sex before marriage and she was surprised to find out after Alexander's death that he was not a virgin. Another witness, Desiree Freeman, told the court that Alexander claimed to be a virgin. "He made jokes about it" and seemed proud of the fact, Freeman testified.

The defense cited Daidone's breakup email listing her complaints about Alexander in their effort to portray Alexander as an aggressive philanderer.

"Did you tell him that you felt he wanted you just for your body, that kissing didn't mean anything to him and was just a way for him to let out sexual tension? And that it made you feel used and dirty?" defense attorney Jennifer Willmott asked Daidone.

Daidone said yes, and that she "had felt that way then."

But the prosecutor grilled Daidone about that email, drawing a picture of a more reserved and sexually restrained Alexander.

"You were asked about that email," Martinez said, "and one of the things you talked about, isn't it true that Mr. Alexander wouldn't kiss you at the start of the relationship? You were the person who initiated contact? He was the person holding it up, right? He was holding up your religious beliefs?" Martinez asked.

Daidone agreed.

"He was doing everything he could to conform to what you wanted, wasn't he? Not other way around," Martinez said.

Daidone said that when she sent the angry email to Alexander, criticizing him for thinking about sex and talking about sex, that she was "inexperienced" and "immature," and she later came to regret saying those things to him.

Daidone said that Alexander always kept in close contact with Arias, texting and calling her often. She was suspicious that he was cheating on her, but did not know they were involved sexually.

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Today on New Scientist: 29 January 2013

Creatures of the air caught in the mist

Photographer Todd Forsgren uses mist nets to briefly ensnare a variety of tropical South American birds before releasing them, unharmed

Drug reduces enlarged prostate with few side effects

Shrinking enlarged prostates by blocking a potent growth factor could avoid problems - such as erectile dysfunction - that accompany current treatments

Climate change blamed for Australia's extreme weather

Floods have hit the east coast of Australia before recent bush fires have been put out, giving people a taste of climate change's possible consequences

Midnight sun: How to get 24-hour solar power

Rust may be the scourge of electronics but it could help solar power run all night

The most beautiful explanations

The 2012 Edge questions asked for great thinkers' favourite explanations. This Explains Everything collects them all into a fascinating read

Netted Costa Rican birds pay small price for art

Only mildly traumatic, mist nets offer an easy and safe way to catch birds for artistic, and ecological, study

Iran launches monkey into space

The Iranian Space Agency claims to have launched a rhesus monkey into space on a sub-orbital flight, and returned it safely to Earth

Read More..

Erectile dysfunction signals heart troubles: study

WASHINGTON: Erectile dysfunction might signal more than a need for the little purple pill, researchers said Tuesday in a study showing a link with heart disease and early death.

The Australian study -- the world's largest investigating links between erection problems and heart disease -- suggested erection problems could act as a warning sign of more serious health issues.

"The risks of future heart disease and premature death increased steadily with severity of erectile dysfunction," whether or not there was a history of cardiovascular disease, study director Emily Banks said.

Previous studies had found ties between severe erection problems and heart attacks and strokes, but this study was the first to also include mild and moderately severe erection problems.

"These results tell us that every man who is suffering from any degree of erectile dysfunction should be seeking medical assistance as early as possible and also insisting on a heart health check by their GP at the same time," said Rob Grenfell, Cardiovascular Health director at Australia's Heart Foundation.

The study, published this week in the "PLOS Medicine" journal, followed 95,000 men aged 45 and older for two to three years.

The men responded to a survey on their health and lifestyle, and the authors also studied any records of hospital stays or deaths in the group.

Over the study period, there were 7,855 hospitalisations for cardiovascular disease and 2,304 deaths.

Banks said that the study indicated that erection problems seemed to a symptom of heart problems.

"Rather than causing heart disease, erectile dysfunction is more likely to be a symptom or signal of underlying 'silent' heart disease and could in future become a useful marker to help doctors predict the risk of a cardiovascular problem.

"This is a sensitive topic but men shouldn't suffer in silence; there are many effective treatments, both for erectile dysfunction and for cardiovascular disease," she emphasized.

Erection problems are very common. About one in five men over 40 report moderate or severe erectile dysfunction.

- AFP/jc

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Obama on immigration overhaul: 'Now is the time'

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Declaring "now is the time" to fix the nation's broken immigration system, President Barack Obama on Tuesday outlined broad proposals for putting millions of illegal immigrants on a clear path to citizenship while cracking down on businesses that employ people illegally and tightening security at the borders. He hailed a bipartisan Senate group on a similar track but left unresolved key details that could derail the complex and emotional effort.

Potential Senate roadblocks center on how to structure the avenue to citizenship and on whether legislation would cover same-sex couples — and that's all before a Senate measure could be debated, approved and sent to the Republican-controlled House where opposition is sure to be stronger.

Obama, who carried Nevada in the November election with heavy Hispanic support, praised the Senate push, saying Congress is showing "a genuine desire to get this done soon." But mindful of previous immigrations efforts that have failed, he warned that the debate would be difficult and vowed to send his own legislation to Capitol Hill if lawmakers don't act quickly.

"The question now is simple," Obama said during a campaign-style event in Las Vegas, one week after being sworn in for a second term in the White House. "Do we have the resolve as a people, as a country, as a government to finally put this issue behind us? I believe that we do."

Shortly after Obama finished speaking, cracks emerged between the White House and the group of eight senators, which put out their proposals one day ahead of the president. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, faulted Obama for not making a citizenship pathway contingent on tighter border security, a central tenet of the lawmakers' proposals.

"The president's speech left the impression that he believes reforming immigration quickly is more important than reforming immigration right," Rubio said in a statement.

House Speaker John Boehner also responded coolly, with spokesman Brendan Buck saying the Ohio Republican hoped the president would be "careful not to drag the debate to the left and ultimately disrupt the difficult work that is ahead in the House and Senate."

Despite possible obstacles to come, the broad agreement between the White House and bipartisan lawmakers in the Senate represents a drastic shift in Washington's willingness to tackle immigration, an issue that has languished for years. Much of that shift is politically motivated, due to the growing influence of Hispanics in presidential and other elections and their overwhelming support for Obama in November.

The separate White House and Senate proposals focus on the same principles: providing a way for most of the estimated 11 million people already in the U.S. illegally to become citizens, strengthening border security, cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants and streamlining the legal immigration system.

A consensus around the question of citizenship could help lawmakers clear one major hurdle that has blocked previous immigration efforts. Many Republicans have opposed allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens, saying that would be an unfair reward for people who have broken the law.

Details on how to achieve a pathway to citizenship still could prove to be a major sticking point between the White House and the Senate group.

Obama and the Senate lawmakers all want to require people here illegally to register with the government, pass criminal and national security background checks, pay fees and penalties as well as back taxes and wait until existing immigration backlogs are cleared before getting in line for green cards. Neither proposal backs up those requirements with specifics.

After achieving legal status, U.S. law says people can become citizens after five years.

The Senate proposal says that entire process couldn't start until the borders were fully secure and tracking of people in the U.S. on visas had improved. Those vague requirements would almost certainly make the timeline for achieving citizenship longer than what the White House is proposing.

The president urged lawmakers to avoid making the citizenship pathway so difficult that it would appear out of reach for many illegal immigrants.

"We all agree that these men and women have to earn their way to citizenship," he said. "But for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must make clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship."

"It won't be a quick process, but it will be a fair process," Obama added.

Another key difference between the White House and Senate proposals is the administration's plan to allow same-sex partners to seek visas under the same rules that govern other family immigration. The Senate principles do not recognize same-sex partners, though Democratic lawmakers have told gay rights groups that they could seek to include that in a final bill.

John McCain of Arizona, who is part of the Senate immigration group, called the issue a "red flag" in an interview Tuesday on "CBS This Morning."

Washington last took up immigration changes in a serious way in 2007, when then-President George W. Bush pressed for an overhaul. The initial efforts had bipartisan support but eventually collapsed in the Senate because of a lack of GOP support.

Cognizant of that failed effort, the White House has readied its own immigration legislation. But officials said Obama will send it to the Hill only if the Senate process stalls.

Most of the recommendations Obama made Tuesday were not new. They were included in the immigration blueprint he released in 2011, but he exerted little political capital to get it passed by Congress, to the disappointment of many Hispanics.

Some of the recommendations in the Senate plan are also pulled from past immigration efforts. The senators involved in formulating the latest proposals, in addition to McCain and Rubio, are Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Also Tuesday, in another sign of Congress' increased attention to immigration issues, a group of four senators introduced legislation aimed at allowing more high-tech workers into the country, a longtime priority of technology businesses. The bill by Republicans Rubio and Orrin Hatch and Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Chris Coons would increase the number of visas available for high-tech workers, make it easier for them to change jobs once here and for their spouses to work and aim to make it easier for foreigners at U.S. universities to remain here upon graduation.


Julie Pace reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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