Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Asteroid May ‘Bombard Earth in 2040’

Scientists have identified an asteroid, which has a one in 625 chance of hitting Earth on February 5, 2040. The width of the space rock, called 2011 AG5, is 460 feet.

The United Nations Action Team on near-Earth object has started their discussions on how to divert the asteroid, amid fears that the probability of a collision could increase over the next few years. While the object has the potential to wipe out millions of lives if it landed on a city, it is far smaller than the nine-mile wide asteroid, which is believed to have led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, the Telegraph reported.

Till now, scientists have only been able to observe half of 2011 AG5’s orbit, and are hoping to acquire more information about the asteroid’s path between 2013 and 2016, when it will be feasible to monitor it from the ground. This will enable them to decide if action needs to be taken to attempt to change the course of the object. NASA has asserted that the options comprise deflecting the asteroid by fastening a probe to it and using the extra gravity this would create to steer it away from Earth over the course of millions of light years.

Nuclear weapons could also be used to break up the asteroid, although this would most likely produce a potentially deadly shower of rocks.

Pentagon: 9/11 victims' Remains Went to Landfill

Smoke billows from Pentagon (11 Sept 2011)

Partial remains of some victims of the 11 September attacks ended up in landfill, a Pentagon report has found. Some small portions of unidentifiable remains from the Pentagon, and from the Pennsylvania field where a hijacked plane crashed in 2001, were given to a private contractor for disposal.

The fragments "could not be tested or identified," the review said. The disposal came to light as the US defence department probed practices at the military's Dover Port mortuary. The air base at Dover, in the state of Delaware, is the main point of entry to the US for the bodies of troops killed while serving overseas.

However, an investigation by the Washington Post newspaper uncovered evidence that unidentified body parts were being cremated and disposed of in a landfill. The practice of putting partial unidentified remains in landfill was stopped in 2008.

President Barack Obama was briefed on the probe and supports plans to ensure "these types of incidents never happen again," the White House said. The official report into the Dover mortuary found that this practice began shortly after the September 11 attacks, when "several portions of remains from the Pentagon attack and the Shanksville, Pennsylvania, crash site could not be tested or identified".

It confirmed that the base's mortuary cremated unidentified fragments, then gave them to a biomedical waste disposal contractor. This contractor incinerated the remains and then put any material left over in a landfill site.

Officials at the Dover mortuary assumed that "after final incineration nothing remained", the report says. There is no suggestion that remains of victims who died in New York were handled in this way.
Speaking at a news conference at the Pentagon, retired General John Abizaid said: "We don't think it should have happened."

A total of 184 people died when a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon on 11 September 2001. Forty people were killed when another plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, after passengers overpowered the hijackers. The Pentagon review of the Dover practices, chaired by retired US Army General John Abizaid, was hailed by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. It "highlights weaknesses in the overall command and oversight structure at the Dover Port Mortuary", Mr Panetta conceded.
In a statement, he promised "the families of our fallen heroes... that every step will be taken to protect the honour and respect that their loved ones richly deserve".

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Occupy London - Evicted

A bailiff is pulled from a makeshift barricade at the Occupy protest camp
 Some protesters erected a makeshift barricade, but most moved on peacefully

Police and bailiffs have evicted anti-capitalist protesters and removed tents from the Occupy London camp at St Paul's Cathedral. The operation, which began just after midnight, was mostly peaceful but there were 20 arrests.

Occupy London was refused permission to appeal against a High Court decision to allow their eviction to proceed. The City of London Corporation said it "regretted" that it had become necessary to evict the protesters.  Occupy London, which campaigns against corporate greed, set up the camp on 15 October.

Protesters in the square outside the cathedral stressed their action was far from over, but most did not resist police and bailiffs as they removed tents and other equipment from the site. A handful defied police by erecting a temporary structure from wooden pallets in the square outside St Paul's but the platform was eventually dismantled. The High Court decided last week that the City of London Corporation's move to evict the camp was "lawful and justified".

 Police have moved in to remove protesters from their camp outside St Paul's Cathedral. The City of London Corporation was granted orders of possession and injunctions by the court.  The Court of Appeal's decision not to allow an appeal  meant the corporation was free to clear the site.

George Barda, one of the five protesters who appealed against the High Court's decision, said he had "mixed emotions". But he said: "It's not the beginning of the end, it's the end of the beginning."
"My personal concern is that we don't allow the drama of this event to eclipse the huge and important issues that we in this country and billions across the world are increasingly facing. And I have no doubt that as the economic situation gets worse in the coming years, more and more people will be joining this movement."

Following the eviction, Occupy London protesters moved to Salvation Army offices by Millennium Bridge, but City of London Police officers moved them on. Some of the protesters moved to a disused building in Featherstone Street, Islington, which Occupy protesters had called the School of Ideas. However, the protesters were evicted and the building was being bulldozed on Tuesday morning.

Other protesters moved to Finsbury Square, Islington, where a separate Occupy camp has been set up for a number of months. The City of London Corporation said in a statement: "The City of London Corporation has begun to enforce the High Court orders for the removal of the tents and equipment outside St Paul's. "We regret that it has come to this but the High Court Judgment speaks for itself and the Court of Appeal has confirmed that judgment.

Occupy protester George Barda believes the group will continue to grow

"High Court enforcement officers employed by the City of London Corporation are undertaking the removal with the police present to ensure public safety and maintain order. "We would ask protesters to move on peaceably".

"The City of London Corporation is ensuring vulnerable people are being helped and supported to find appropriate accommodation in partnership with Broadway, a charity for the homeless." A statement from City of London Police said: "At 12.10 tonight, bailiffs employed by the City of London Corporation began enforcing a High Court order for the removal of tents and equipment outside St Paul's Cathedral. Officers from the City of London Police supported by Metropolitan Police are present to ensure public safety, maintain order and facilitate lawful protest."

Melting Arctic - Link to Cold, Snowy UK Winter

Boat trapped in ice on Greek lake 
The snow has come as far South as Greece
The progressive shrinking of Arctic sea ice is bringing colder, snowier winters to the UK and other areas of Europe, North America and China, a study shows. As global temperatures have risen, the area of Arctic Ocean covered by ice in summer and autumn has been falling. This affects the jet stream and brings cold, snowy weather. Whether conditions will get colder still as ice melts further is unclear.

There was a marked deterioration in ice cover between the summers of 2006 and 2007, which still holds the record for the lowest extent on record; and it has not recovered since. The current winter is roughly tracking the graph of 2007, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center.
The new study is not the first to propose a causal relationship between low Arctic ice in autumn and Europe's winter weather. But it has gone further than others in assessing the strength of the link.

Through observations and computer modelling, the team headed by Jiping Liu from Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and the Insitute of Atmospheric Physics in Beijing has also elucidated the mechanisms involved.
"For the past four winters, for much of the northern US, east Asia and Europe, we had this persistent above-normal snow cover," Dr Liu stated. "We don't see a predictive relationship with any of the other factors that have been proposed, such as El Nino; but for sea ice, we do see a predictive relationship."
If less of the ocean is ice-covered in autumn, it releases more heat, warming the atmosphere.
This reduces the air temperature difference between the Arctic and latitudes further south, over the Atlantic Ocean.

Walrus on ice
 The dwindling Arctic summer ice may have severe consequences for wildlife

In turn, this reduces the strength of the northern jet stream, which usually brings milder, wetter weather to Europe from the west. It is these "blocking" conditions that keep the UK and the other affected regions supplied with cold air. The researchers also found that the extra evaporation from the Arctic Ocean makes the air more humid, with some of the additional water content falling out as snow.

"I agree with the study - I have no beef with the case that declining Arctic sea ice can drive easterly winds and produce colder winters over Europe," commented Adam Scaife, head of monthly to decadal prediction at the UK Met Office. Research in other institutions, including the Met Office, confirmed the argument, he said. Dr Scaife was involved with another study published last year that showed how small, natural changes in the Sun's output can also affect winter weather. And he emphasized that the declining Arctic ice cover was just one of several factors that could increase blocking.

"You can hit a bell with anything, and you still produce the same note," he said. "This is no bigger than the solar effect or the El Nino effect. But they vary, whereas Arctic ice is on a pretty consistent downward trend."


Arctic sea ice is on a downward curve, according to data from NSIDC

The picture is further complicated by the involvement of the Arctic Oscillation, a natural variation of air pressure that also changes northern weather. The oscillation is not understood well enough to predict - and even if it were, any pattern it has may be changing due to escalating greenhouse gas concentrations.

Nevertheless, the research suggests that on average, winters in the UK and the rest of the affected region will be colder in years to come than they have been in recent decades. Various computer simulations have generated a range of dates by which the Arctic might be completely ice-free in summer and autumn, ranging from 2016 to about 2060.

A few years ago, one projection even showed 2013 was possible, though this now appears unlikely.
So a related question is whether UK winters will get colder and snowier still as the melting progresses,
"It's possible that future winters will be colder and snowier, but there are some uncertainties," cautioned Dr Liu.

His team's next research project is to feed Arctic ice projections and the mechanisms they have deciphered into various computer models of climate, and see whether they do forecast a growing winter chill.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

New Moth Species Invades Italy's Vineyards

New species of leafminer moth (c) Antispila oinophylla 

A moth with a taste for Chardonnay leaves, which has infested vineyards across northern Italy, is a new species of leafminer, scientists say.  The pest was first discovered by Italian scientists in 2006, but they were unable to identify it.

Now, by examining a snippet of the moth's genetic code, researchers have confirmed that it is a previously unnamed species.  The Italian team enlisted the help of insect expert Erik van Nieukerken from the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity in Leiden.

"We first turned to the [scientific] literature to find out what was already known, which was appallingly little for this group [of moths]," Dr van Nieukerken told BBC Nature.   He and his colleagues used a method known as DNA barcoding to examine a section of the insect's genetic code.

Damage to leaves caused by new species of leafminer moth (c) NCB Naturalis
  • Leafminers lay their eggs on the underside of leaves
  • When the larvae, or caterpillars, hatch, they tunnel through the leaves, eating the most easily digestible layers as they go
  • There is evidence to suggest that some plants have evolved leaf markings that mimic leafminer tracks, in order to "fool" the pests into thinking that the plant has already been attacked
"I figured out that this one, despite being quite common in North America, had no name," he recalled.
The new species, which now bears the name Antispila oinophylla, had previously been confused with a North American species (Antispila ampelopsifoliella), which feeds on Virginia creeper.

Only the genetic studies revealed it to be a different species with a taste for grapevines. Its native range is across eastern North America, where it feeds on several species of wild grapes. So far, the species has been found in vineyards in Italy's Trento and Veneto regions, spreading and increasing in population since it was first recorded.

Having observed the moths in the field, the scientists say that the insect seems to have a preference for the leaves of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Muscat grapes, but they added that the economic impact of this particular pest was not yet clear.  The researchers do not know exactly how the moth arrived in Italy, but Dr van Nieukerken said that it was very easy for the cocoons containing the larvae to be accidentally transported with plant material.  "They're very small and exactly the same colour as the leaves," he said "So if you were carrying plants, you would probably not notice them."

The scientist said that another species from this same group had been discovered in commercial walnut crops and that more needed to be known about the insects. "This group is very poorly studied,".
"If you know exactly what it is and where it belongs, if you know its evolutionary history.... you can understand better how to control it."

Afghanistan - Koran Burning Protests Break Out

Afghan protesters gesture towards police in Kabul on 24 February  
Hundreds of Afghans have again taken to the streets to protests against the burning of the Koran by US soldiers. Fresh demonstrations are taking place in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Laghman in what is now the fifth consecutive day of unrest. More than 20 people have been killed since the protests began on Tuesday, including two US soldiers.

On Friday Nato's Afghanistan commander Gen John Allen appealed for calm while the incident was investigated.  US personnel apparently inadvertently put the books into a rubbish incinerator at Bagram air base, near Kabul. The governor's house in Laghman province reportedly came under attack on Saturday."The protesters turned violent and were throwing stones at the governor's palace," a protester told the AFP news agency.

Police were trying to control the crowd but were not shooting into the air to avoid , Police Chief Abdul Rahman Sarjang told the Associated Press. Friday was the deadliest day of unrest so far. At least 12 people were killed across the country as mobs charged at US bases and diplomatic missions. Eight of the deaths reported on Friday were in western Herat province, which had seen little unrest previously.

Earlier on Friday, Gen Allen called on "everyone throughout the country - Isaf [International Security Assistance Force] members and Afghans - to exercise patience and restraint as we continue to gather the facts". "Working together with the Afghan leadership is the only way for us to correct this major error and ensure that it never happens again," he said in a statement.

US President Barack Obama has also apologized for the Koran-burning incident. In a letter to his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai, Mr Obama said the books had been "unintentionally mishandled".
Muslims consider the Koran the literal word of God and treat each book with deep reverence. On Thursday the Taliban had called on Afghans to attack "invading forces" in revenge for "insulting" the Koran.

Last year, at least 24 people died in protests across Afghanistan after a hardline US pastor burned a Koran in Florida.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Near Death Experience

Near-Death Experience GIF - Near-Death Experience

Lords of the Arctic - Plight of the Polar Bear

The Polar Bear is rapidly losing its battle against global warming. As its habitat continues to shrink, their chances of survival dwindle. These photographs were taken along one of the migratory routes that sees the highest concentration of bears anywhere on the planet. The numbers of bears have been dropping steadily each year (almost 25% between 2000 and 2004). Soon they will only be a distant memory.
They are magnificent, captivating, even magical. Churchill, Manitoba, Canada calls itself, “the polar bear capital of the world.” On a wind-blasted, icy tundra hundreds of polar bears come out of their summer-long drowsiness and head to the shores of Hudson Bay waiting for the water to freeze over so they can go out on the ice to hunt seals.

But, sometimes a polar bear will come right into Churchill. Wayward bears who wander into town get “arrested” captured and taken to “bear jail.” After several days of incarceration, they’re taken out, tranquilized and blindfolded, in case they wake up too soon Then they’re air-lifted away to the wilderness.

"What’s happening is we’ve had successive years where the sea ice in the bay has melted much earlier, so bears are coming ashore much earlier in poorer condition and coming into town more often,” said Geoff York, a polar bear expert and head of arctic species conservation for the World Wildlife Fund, which is leading research into the bear’s habits and habitats. It is backed by a $2 million grant from Coca-Cola.

York said earth’s warming climate means it takes longer for the ice on Hudson Bay to form and it is thawing earlier meaning a shorter period when polar bears are out on the ice, feeding. Without enough to eat, they may not last the summer. “Polar bears are definitely threatened, and they’re threatened by habitat that now is shrinking on both ends,” York said. They’re hungry because they haven’t had anything to eat since coming off the ice last July. And once again this year, the ice has been late forming. Their meal window is shrinking on both ends."

Evolved from brown bear ancestors, the polar bear is the top predator in the Arctic marine ecosystem and the world’s largest land carnivore. It is also superbly adapted for survival in the Far North where winter temperatures can plunge to -50 degrees Fahrenheit. The polar bear can be found across five Arctic nations: the United States (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Greenland, and Norway. In fact, there are 19 subpopulations of polar bears in the circumpolar Arctic ranging from as far south as Northern Ontario to the high Arctic regions of Canada and Greenland. Most of the polar bear population lives in Canada.

These snow-white bears make their homes on the annual sea ice where they hunt, live, breed, and in some cases create maternal dens. This challenging habitat is shared with indigenous peoples, and animals such as ringed seals, arctic foxes, narwhal, beluga whales and millions of migratory birds.
But the sea ice is much more than a simple platform—it is an entire ecosystem inhabited by plankton and microorganisms. These tiny creatures support a rich food chain that nourishes seals that become prey for polar bears and food for local people. In this way, the Arctic sea ice is the very foundation of the arctic marine ecosystem.

The polar bear feeds mainly on a diet of ringed and bearded ice seals, which are a particularly energy-rich food source. In fact, an average-sized ringed seal can provide up to eight days of energy for the polar bear. However, some bears also occasionally hunt beluga whales and walrus successfully and will happily scavenge on the carcasses of beluga whales, grey whales, walruses, narwhals and bowhead whales.

Often described as fat loving, the polar bear's physiology is specialized to acquire large amounts of fat from marine mammals, which contains the most calories and is easy to digest. As a consequence, the polar bear cannot derive sufficient caloric intake from available food on shore. However, when food is scarce, the polar bear may resort to feeding on land food including muskox, reindeer, small rodents, waterfowl, shellfish, fish, eggs, kelp, berries, and human garbage.

The polar bear is estimated to spend well over 50 percent of its time hunting and tries to obtain most of its annual fat reserves between late April to mid-July, hopefully consuming enough calories to survive the summer and winter seasons when prey is harder to catch. Surprisingly, given their strength and agility, less than 2 percent of their hunts prove to be successful. It is reported that even in good hunting areas, a bear may only catch 1 seal every 4 or 5 days

Thursday, February 23, 2012

New Planet...Waterworld

NASA’s Hubble detects new ‘waterworld’ planet type
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has released captivating images of a new class of ‘waterworld’ extrasolar planet 40 light years from Earth that astronomers are calling GJ1214b. Apparently the planet, known as the 'super-Earth', is smaller than Uranus but larger than Earth. The scientists said it represents a new type of planet, like nothing seen in our solar system or any other planetary system known.
Hubble Space Telescope observations have revealed that GJ1214b is a waterworld "enshrouded by a thick, steamy atmosphere". Zachory Berta of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and colleagues made the observations of planet GJ1214b. "GJ1214b is like no planet we know of," Berta said. "A huge fraction of its mass is made up of water."

However, GJ1214b itself was first discovered in 2009. The discovery of the planet was made at the time by the ground-based MEarth Project, led by CfA's David Charbonneau. So here's a little bit more about GJ1214b. NASA's Hubble said this "super-Earth" is about 2.7 times the Earth's diameter and weighs almost seven times as much. It orbits a red dwarf star every 38 hours at a distance of 1.3m miles, giving it an estimated temperature of 450 F.

It was back in 2010 that Jacob Bean, a CfA scientist, and his colleagues reported that they had measured the atmosphere of GJ1214b, finding it likely that it was composed mainly of water.  At the time, however, they said their observations could also be explained by the presence of a planet-enshrouding haze in GJ1214b's atmosphere.

Following the 2010 research, Berta and his colleagues at CfA starting using Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) to study GJ1214b when it crossed in front of its host star.  They said that during such a transit, the star's light is filtered through the planet's atmosphere, giving clues to the mix of gases."We're using Hubble to measure the infrared colour of sunset on this world," Berta said.

Apparently, hazes are more transparent to infrared light than to visible light, so the Hubble observations can help tell the difference between a steamy and a hazy atmosphere.  The scientists said they found the spectrum of GJ1214b to be "featureless" over a wide range of wavelengths, or colours. The atmospheric model most consistent with the Hubble data is a dense atmosphere of water vapour, they said. They said the internal structure of GJ1214b would be an "extraordinarily different" one to planet Earth's internal world.

"The high temperatures and high pressures would form exotic materials like 'hot ice' or 'superfluid water,' substances that are completely alien to our everyday experience," Berta said. The theory is that GJ1214b formed farther out from its star, where water ice was plentiful, and migrated inward early in the system's history.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lab-Grown Meat is First Step to Artificial Hamburger

Dutch scientists have used stem cells to create strips of muscle tissue with the aim of producing the first lab-grown hamburger later this year. The aim of the research is to develop a more efficient way of producing meat than rearing animals.

At a major science meeting in Canada, Prof Mark Post said synthetic meat could reduce the environmental footprint of meat by up to 60%. We would gain a tremendous amount in terms of resources," he said. Professor Post's group at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has grown small pieces of muscle about 2cm long, 1cm wide and about a mm thick.

They are off-white and resemble strips of calamari in appearance. These strips will be mixed with blood and artificially grown fat to produce a hamburger by the autumn. The cost of producing the hamburger will be £200,000 but Professor Post says that once the principle has been demonstrated, production techniques will be improved and costs will come down.

At a news conference, Prof Post said he was even planning to ask celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal to cook it. "The reason we are doing this is not to show a viable product but to show that in reality we can do this," he said. "From this point on, we need to spend a whole lot of work and money to make the process efficient and then cost effective."

So why use such high tech methods to produce meat when livestock production methods have done the job effectively for thousands of years? It is because most food scientists believe that current methods of food production are unsustainable. Some estimate that food production will have to double within the next 50 years to meet the requirements of a growing population. During this period, climate change, water shortages and greater urbanisation will make it more difficult to produce food.

Prof Sean Smukler from the University of British Columbia said keeping pace with demand for meat from Asia and Africa will be particularly hard as demand from these regions will shoot up as living standards rise. He thinks that lab grown meat could be a good solution. "It will help reduce land pressures," he said. "Anything that stops more wild land being converted to agricultural land is a good thing. We're already reaching a critical point in availability of arable land," he said.

Lab-grown meat could eventually become more efficient than producing meat the old fashioned way, according to Prof Post. Currently, 100g of vegetable protein has to be fed to pigs or cows to produce 15g of animal protein, an efficiency of 15%. He believes that synthetic meat could be produced with an equivalent energy efficiency of 50%.

So what is the synthetic burger likely to taste like? "In the beginning it will taste bland," says Prof Post. "I think we will need to work on the flavour separately by trying to figure out which components of the meat actually produce the taste. Prof Post also said that if the technology takes off, it will reduce the number of animals that were factory farmed and slaughtered.

Sound good? I wonder how it will taste on the barbee.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Rick Santorum Hits Obama on Energy and Climate

Rick Santorum speaks during a Tea Party Rally in Columbus, Ohio 18 February 2012 

US Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has renewed an attack on President Obama's environmental policy, calling it "political science'. "Mr Obama unwisely limits energy production," he said, "science supports backers of oil exploration." Mr Santorum spoke after drawing criticism at the weekend for saying Mr Obama supported a "phony theology".

The former Pennsylvania senator has seen his support rise since winning three state contests two weeks ago. He faces a key test in primary elections in Arizona and Michigan on 28 February. Long-time front-runner Mitt Romney hails from Michigan, where his father served as governor, but he currently trails Mr Santorum in polling there. Correspondents say defeat for Mr Romney in what is effectively his home state would sow panic in the Republican establishment and increase the chances of a messy, drawn-out end to the nomination process.

Speaking on Monday at a campaign stop in Ohio, Mr Santorum hit out at the concept of global warming, and said that as president he would support the coal industry. "I refer to global warming as not climate science, but political science," he said.  Two days earlier, Mr Santorum told voters that Mr Obama's agenda was based on "some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible". Pressed on the meaning of his comments, Mr Santorum told US Sunday talk shows that he was referring to Mr Obama's environmental policies - rather than his religious beliefs.
"This is not questioning the president's beliefs in Christianity," he told CBS News. "I'm talking about the belief that man should be in charge of the Earth, and have dominion on it, and be good stewards of it."
However, Mr Obama's campaign derided Mr Santorum's remarks as unacceptable, and he did not re-use the phrase on Monday. "It's just time to get rid of this mindset in our politics that, if we disagree, we have to question character and faith,'' said Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary.

Mr Obama recently refused permission for a Canadian firm to build a major pipeline, called Keystone XL, from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico.  Environmental concerns shaped his eventual decision, drawing criticism from those backing the pipeline and calling for greater US energy independence. Mr Santorum said on Monday that he would approve the pipeline if elected.
Mr Santorum has seen an increased focus on his campaign since winning contests in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota on 7 February. The latest national Gallup tracking poll shows Mr Santorum leading Mr Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, by 10 points. He is also polling strongly in Michigan, although a new poll shows Mr Romney improving his position in the state - rising to 33% support behind Mr Santorum's 37%.

As the primary nears, the Romney campaign has increased the pace of TV advertising in Michigan, including attacks on Mr Santorum - whom they paint as an unreliable guardian of the US economy and a veteran of a broken Washington system. Mr Romney is also planning to make a major economic speech on 24 February at Ford Field, home to the Detroit Lions NFL team.

The prospect of a Santorum win in Michigan and an extended nomination process - and even a possible Rick Santorum candidacy - has left some Republicans concerned about their chances in November's general election. If Mr Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich emerged as the nominee, they would lose 35 states in a general election match-up with Mr Obama, the senator predicted.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

FBI 'Anti-Terror' Arrest Near US Capitol

Artist's impression of Amine El Khalifi in Virginia courthouse - 17 February
A man has been arrested in Washington, near the Capitol building, as part of an anti-terror investigation.  Amine El Khalifi, 29, is said to be an illegal immigrant originally from Morocco.
Officials said the man was heading to carry out a suicide attack on the Capitol Building, home to the US Congress. He was "closely and carefully monitored" for weeks, according to the FBI and US Capitol police.  Authorities say the public was never in any danger. Mr Khalifi allegedly thought undercover FBI agents he was working with were members of the al-Qaeda network. However, he was not believed to have any genuine connections to al-Qaeda, officials said.

Mr Khalifi made a brief court appearance and was charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against US property - a charge that carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Capitol police officer stands guard outside building - 17 February

The suspect was said to have overstayed a visitor visa since 1999, and was under investigation for more than a year. He was based in Alexandria, Virginia. He carried a vest he thought was packed with explosives, reports said, but had in fact been supplied and made harmless by undercover agents. He was also carrying a gun that did not work. Explosives the suspect allegedly sought to use in connection with the plot had been "rendered inoperable by law enforcement and posed no threat to the public," a spokesman for the US Justice Department said. Mr Khalifi was said to have been arrested in a parking garage a few blocks from the Capitol as he made his way towards Capitol grounds. He had been under surveillance for several weeks.

According to an FBI affidavit, Mr Khalifi met other individuals at a residence in Arlington, Virginia in January 2011, at which he agreed with a statement that the "war on terrorism" was a "war on Muslims" and said the group had to be ready for war. He considered other targets for an attack including an office building in Alexandria and a Washington restaurant, the affidavit said, before switching his sights to the Capitol. It said he had detonated a test bomb in a quarry in West Virginia in the presence of undercover operatives last month.

He had also visited the Capitol on multiple occasions to plan the details of the alleged attack. US law enforcement officials routinely carry out "sting" operations in an effort to stop potential terror suspects. In one of the most recent incidents, in September 2011, 26-year-old US citizen Rezwan Ferdaus was arrested for allegedly plotting to fly explosive-packed, remote controlled planes into the Pentagon and the Capitol building.

There have been number of convictions based on stings in recent years, the BBC's Adam Brookes reports from Washington. However, Muslim groups and civil rights groups have expressed concern at the way the FBI uses stings in counter-terrorism cases.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Iran Loads 'First Domestically-Made Nuclear Fuel'

Iran has staged an elaborate ceremony to unveil new developments in its nuclear programme. Tehran says it has used domestically-made nuclear fuel in a reactor for the first time, and also unveiled more efficient enrichment centrifuges. State TV showed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inspecting the rods as they were loaded into a reactor.

Western countries fear Iran wants to make nuclear weapons; Tehran says it only wants to produce its own energy. The government unveiled the "new generation" of faster, more efficient uranium enrichment centrifuges at its Natanz facility in the centre of the country. The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, said they were three times more efficient than their existing capacity. President Ahmadinejad was wearing a white coat at the research reactor in Tehran, and was also shown attending the ceremony to mark what he has called the great achievements in the nuclear sphere. He said last week that his country would never halt its programme to enrich uranium.

In January, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had started the production of uranium enriched up to 20% at its Qom plant. A deal to provide fuel for the reactor from abroad collapsed two years ago - at which point Iran decided to make the fuel itself.

One central point links these developments,  Iran is determined to show that it can master nuclear technology on its own, and that international sanctions against its nuclear programme will make no difference. The US and the European Union have recently imposed new sanctions targeting Iranian oil sales as part of a drive to increase international pressure on Tehran over its nuclear programme.

Meanwhile, Iran has written to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to offer to re-open talks with world powers on its nuclear programme. "We voice our readiness for dialogue on a spectrum of various issues which can provide ground for constructive and forward-looking cooperation," the letter from chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said, according to AP news agency.

The Obama administration dismissed the move as erratic behaviour resulting from the squeeze caused by sanctions. EU officials have not yet commented. Talks between Iran and six world powers - the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China - on Tehran's nuclear programme collapsed a year ago.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Unique Proposal

When Matt Grevers jumped into the pool prior to this last weekend's 100-meter backstroke at the Missouri Grand Prix, he had diamond on his mind, not gold. The two-time gold medalist had concocted an elaborate plan to propose to his longtime girlfriend, fellow national-team swimmer Annie Chandler, atop the medal stand. All he had to do was get there. Grevers ended up winning the race. And when organizers asked Chandler to present the medals to the three top finishers, she didn't suspect anything out of the ordinary. When Grevers dropped to a knee, Chandler's reaction says it all:
"I've just been searching for a unique way to pop the question," Grevers told reporters. "My whole family is here and I figured it would be a perfect opportunity and a unique situation."
Originally, Grevers had hoped to propose while Chandler was on the medal stand. A fifth-place performance in Friday's 100 breaststroke scuttled those plans. He didn't want to do it on Sunday, so his plans were all riding on Saturday's backstroke race.
"I took [the race] out a little fast because my heart was racing the whole time," he said. "If I didn't get first it wouldn't have worked out so well."
Grevers' brother, Andy, is an assistant swim coach at the University of Missouri (where the event was held) and played a key role in the proposal. He held the ring during the race and surreptitiously passed it to his brother afterward.
The couple didn't talk about potential wedding dates, though late July probably won't be in the cards. The 2012 London Olympics begin on the 27th of that month. Grevers and Chandler hope they'll both be competing.

Story and video : courtesy of Yahoo


Throwing More Than Snow
OOPS! Blowing a little more than snow in Ontario today

Obama Hosts China's Heir Apparent

President Obama: "It is absolutely vital that we have a strong relationship with China"
  Obama has pressed China's leader-in-waiting on trade and human rights, as he welcomed him to the White House.

Meeting Vice-President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office, Mr Obama also said it was "vital" that Washington maintained a strong relationship with Beijing. Mr Xi said he hoped his visit would deepen mutual understanding and friendship between the two powers. The US and China have been at odds over trade, currency and human rights.

Mr Xi, 58, is widely expected to succeed China's President Hu Jintao, who must retire as head of the Communist Party later this year and from the presidency in 2013. Washington has been putting pressure on Beijing over what it sees as unfair trade practices, as well as the value of its currency and intellectual property theft. "We want to work with China to make sure that everybody is working by the same rules of the road when it comes to the world economic system," said Mr Obama, flanked by Mr Xi. "That includes ensuring that there is a balanced trading flow not only between the United States and China but around the world."

Protesters chant on behalf of Tibetan rights in front of the White House on 14 February 2012
Demonstration outside the Whitehouse

Mr Xi's trip comes amid concerns over a clampdown by Beijing on protests in Tibet. Human rights activists staged a protest outside the White House as China's vice-president arrived. "On critical issues like human rights we will continue to emphasize what we believe is the importance of recognizing the aspirations and rights of all people," Mr Obama added. He also said that China's "extraordinary development" over the last two decades had brought "increased responsibilities".

The leaders were expected to discuss foreign policy issues, including Syria and Iran. But Washington also hopes to learn more about the Chinese heir apparent's leadership style, say correspondents.
Mr Xi is making a week-long trip as the guest of US Vice-President Joe Biden, who made a high-profile visit to China late last year.

Earlier in the day, Mr Xi met Mr Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the White House's Roosevelt Room. Mr Biden said that while "we are not always going to see eye to eye", both nations would speak "candidly" about their differences.

Mr Xi will meet Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, too. On Wednesday, he is due to travel to Iowa to meet his hosts from his first visit to the US in 1985 when he was a county official.  He is also scheduled to visit a farm in Iowa on Thursday before flying to Los Angeles, California, to meet business leaders there.  Mr Xi will reportedly also attend a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game on Friday.
Correspondents say the US-China relationship has become an increasingly delicate one over a series of security and economic issues.  Mr Xi's visit comes a year after President Hu's trip to Washington, which he referred to in his comments provided by the Chinese government to The Washington Post.
In his remarks to the newspaper, Mr Xi sounded a note of warning to the US over its presence in the Pacific. He said scaling up military activity was not what the region wanted to see. China and the US, Mr Xi said, had ''converging interests'' in the region and there was ''ample space'' for both in the Pacific Ocean. "We also hope that the United States will fully respect and accommodate the major interest and legitimate concerns of Asia-Pacific countries," he wrote. In his remarks to the newspaper, Mr Xi also emphasized that China had taken ''active steps'' to address US concerns over trade.
''Frictions and differences are hardly avoidable in our economic and trade interactions,'' he said. ''We must not allow frictions and differences to undermine the larger interests of our business co-operation.''
Who is Xi Jinping?
  • China's likely next leader, expected to lead the country from 2013
  • Currently China's vice-president and vice chair of the Central Military Commission (which controls the army)
  • Son of Xi Zhongxun, one of the Communist Party's founding fathers
  • Joined the party in 1974
  • His wife, singer Peng Liyuan, describes him as frugal, hardworking and down-to-earth

Monday, February 13, 2012

Whitney Mourned at Grammys

the decline
the bottom

The music world has been remembered the life and career of Whitney Houston at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. The star was found dead in her Los Angeles hotel room on Saturday, the day before the prestigious ceremony.

Meanwhile, after a post mortem examination, the Los Angeles coroner said there were no visible signs of trauma on Houston's body and that foul play was "not suspected at this time". The coroner confirmed that Houston, 48, was found in the bath.

Host LL Cool J opened the event with a prayer for the singer.  Cool J said: "There is no way around this. We've had a death in our family. "The only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer for a woman who we loved - for our fallen sister, Whitney Houston."

The audience then gave a standing ovation after watching a clip of her hit I Will Always Love You.  Later, dressed in black and with a simple piano accompaniment, singer Jennifer Hudson gave a moving rendition of the same song, ending with the line: "Whitney, we will always love you."

Others paying tribute during the ceremony included Bruno Mars, who told the crowd: "Tonight we're celebrating. Tonight we're celebrating the beautiful Miss Whitney Houston.

Stevie Wonder said: "To Whitney up in heaven, we all love you."

Melanie Fiona, who won best traditional R&B vocal performance and best R&B song, said: "Whitney Houston, I would not be standing up here if it were not for you, thank you so much."

The reaction to Houston's death dominated the ceremony, which is the most high-profile event in the US music calendar.

Before the show, Jimmy Jam, a friend and producer of Houston's, said it was "a bittersweet occasion". Anytime someone passes away, the thing you do is you gather your family together, tell stories," he said. "A little bit of mourning, little bit of celebrating - this is our family tonight and we're going to do it the best that we can do it."

Earlier on Sunday, the Rev Al Sharpton paid tribute to Houston while preaching at the Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles. "Yes, she had an outstanding range," he said. "Yes, she could hit notes no one else could reach. But what made her different was she was born and bred in the bosom of the black church. A lot of artists can hit notes but they don't hit us. Say words but they have no meaning. Have gifts and talent but no anointing. Something about Whitney that would reach in you and make you feel."

Houston became known for powerful ballads such as I Will Always Love You and One Moment In Time.She holds the record for having the most consecutive chart-topping singles in the US - reaching number one seven times between 1985 and 1988. She won six Grammys during her career. But her later career was overshadowed by substance abuse and her turbulent marriage to singer Bobby Brown. In recent years drug use had taken its toll on the star and her voice - once acknowledged as one of the finest in pop music - was badly damaged.
Meanwhile, Houston's 18-year-old daughter Bobbi has been released from hospital after being treated for stress and anxiety following her mother's death.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Black Hole Eats Asteroids

Sagittarius A* black hole

What is a black hole?
  • A black hole is what's left after a very big star dies, after it has collapsed under its own gravity
  • The gravitational pull of black holes is so massive that nothing, not even light, can escape their pull
For years scientists have been puzzled as to why a giant black hole at the centre of the Milky Way has bright flares coming out of it. Experts from the University of Leicester say they've found the answer in data from Nasa's Chandra satellite. They say it's because the huge black hole, called Sagittarius A*, is vaporizing massive asteroids.

But scientists say the asteroids need to be over 12 miles across to create flares big enough to be detected. So there are many, many more smaller asteroids being sucked in that can't be seen.
The black hole's huge force rips apart any asteroid passing within about 100 million miles of it - that's roughly the same distance between the Earth and the Sun. The pieces of rock are then vaporized, which is what creates the flare.

X-ray observations
Nasa's Chandra satellite scans the skies looking for the X-rays given off by really high-temperature explosions and other extreme events in space. It's so sensitive that it can study particles right up to the last millisecond before they get sucked into a black hole.  The flares that Chandra has detected coming from the black hole are actually flashes of X-rays, not visible light.

Scientists will continue to study Sagittarius A* for the rest of 2012 to try to find out even more about it.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

US Banks Agree $25bn Mortgage Settlement

Five of the biggest US banks have agreed to provide $25bn to homeowners to settle claims over improper foreclosure practices. The deal, struck with the US government and most US states, follows allegations of abusive practices by lenders during the country's housing collapse.  The banks involved are Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase and Ally Financial.

President Obama said that homeowners had not been treated fairly. "Many companies that handled these foreclosures didn't give people a fighting chance to hold on to their homes," he said. "In many cases they didn't even verify that these foreclosures were actually legitimate." He added that the deal would "speed relief to the hardest hit homeowners in some of the most abusive practices of the mortgage industry", saying this was the first step in turning the page on an "era of recklessness".

The settlement follows a year of wrangling and is the biggest struck between the US government and a single industry since 1998. The deal will provide $3bn of relief for borrowers who are currently on repayments but who cannot refinance their loans because they are larger than the value of their homes. It will also give $17bn in principal reductions to those who are behind on their payments and at risk of default, and provide about $2,000 in compensation for those whose homes have been foreclosed.

The five banks involved will contribute relative to their share of the market, and other banks could join the programme, increasing the size of the pot. By settling, the five banks will avoid civil federal lawsuits. However, they are still exposed to the possibility of litigation from states or individuals.  They will also be subject to tighter regulation of foreclosure practices.

All US states except Oklahoma were involved in the agreement, which will last for three years. The abuses happened after the US housing bubble burst five years ago.  From 2006, when the American property market peaked, house prices are down by a third and almost 11 million Americans owe more than their homes are worth.

Many companies processing foreclosures - or repossession orders - failed to verify documents. Some employees signed papers they had not read or used fake signatures to speed up the process, an action dubbed "robo-signing". Attorney General Eric Holder said the deal represented the "latest step forward in righting the wrongs that led to our nation's housing-market collapse and economic crisis".

Californian borrowers will receive almost half of the $25bn settlement, which does not include mortgages originated by the giant mortgage backers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. California's Attorney General, Kamala Harris, said she would try to reach a deal with the two lenders. "I will continue to fight for principal reductions for the approximately 60% of California homeowners whose loans are owned by Fannie Mae
and Freddie Mac," she said.
This deal is significant because it is likely to help as many as two million American households and it could help to reshape mortgage lending practices. But this by no means solves all of America's housing woes. Critics say this deal may prove more help to the banks than to struggling home-owners and the collapsed housing market.
For one, the banks can now put this behind them without a deeper investigation into any wrong-doing. They have already set aside money to pay for the settlement. Meanwhile, borrowers who lost their homes to wrongful foreclosure are unlikely to get them back. And this deal does nothing to help the one in four borrowers who are struggling with negative equity and who have continued to repay their mortgages on time.
This is a step in the right direction but there is still much more work to rehabilitate America's housing market.

Tibetan Immolations Protest Religious Repression

The U.S. has expressed "disgust" with the Chinese and Russian vetoes of a United Nations resolution to condemn the Syrian regime, and rightly so. So why is the Obama Administration saying so little when it comes to ongoing violence against another repressed people? Do mounting protests in the restive region set the stage for a 'Tibetan Spring'? Hugo Restall discusses.

We're talking about China's crackdown in Tibet, where at least 19 Tibetans have burned themselves to death over the last year in protest at Chinese rule, most recently last Friday. Senator John McCain may have been right when he told China's Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun in Munich last week that China could be seeing the start of an Arab Spring-like movement. "It is a matter of concern when Tibetans are burning themselves to death because of the continued repression of the Tibetan people in your country," he warned.

As expected, Mr. Zhang dismissed this possibility. But Beijing's actions show that it appreciates the danger. As the Tibetan New Year holiday and the anniversary of the 2008 Lhasa riots approach, the government is moving troops into restive regions and rounding up suspected troublemakers. Internet access and mobile phone networks have been shut down, and foreign journalists shut out. Lest any officials think of going soft, Tibet's official newspaper warned that leaders who fail to maintain stability would lose their jobs. A "thankfulness education" campaign requires Tibetans to hang the portraits of Chinese leaders in homes.

The use of brute force often succeeds in preventing unrest for a time. But it also fuels resistance in the long term and increases the danger of a more violent movement forming. The latest self-immolations could presage another outbreak of riots.

As usual, Beijing blames the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile for encouraging the self-immolations. In fact, the suicides are a rebuke to the Dalai Lama's "middle way," which asks the Tibetan people to be patient while exile leaders offer to negotiate with China on their behalf. As calls for violence and extremism echo on both sides, the Dalai Lama looks increasingly irrelevant.

This image from video purports to show Buddhist nun Palden Choetso engulfed in flames in her self-immolation protest against Chinese rule on a street in Tawu, Tibetan Ganzi prefecture, in China's Sichuan Province Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011.

Self-immolation is forbidden by Tibetan Buddhism and it was practically unknown to Tibetans as a form of protest until 1998, when a former monk named Thupten Ngodup burned himself to death in New Delhi. His suicide, which came as Indian police broke up a hunger strike by the pro-independence Tibetan Youth Congress, was an expression of frustration with the Dalai Lama's failure to achieve any alleviation of the suffering in Tibet. Prominent Youth Congress leaders have long called for an end to the nonviolent resistance insisted on by the Dalai Lama.

Some Tibetans hope that the new generation of Chinese leaders who are due to assume power later this year will take a more humane approach to governing Tibet. While there is little evidence to support this, the possibility should be kept alive. If violence breaks out next month it will become even more difficult for the authorities to reverse direction. Statements like Mr. McCain's can get the message to the Chinese that Congress hasn't forsaken Tibet. A statement from President Obama would be even better.