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ATHEISM and HUMANISM

2-23-18 Sacrificed for the right of revolution
When Nikolas Cruz decided to turn his former high school into a slaughterhouse, he went to the Sunrise Tactical Supply store in a Parkland strip mall, put down $1,000 in cash, and pointed to an AR-15. He could have chosen a different semiautomatic rifle, or a handgun, or a knife, but he wanted a weapon designed for war. It was the same choice made by the Las Vegas shooter (who shot more than 400 people in 10 minutes), the Sutherland Springs shooter, the Newtown shooter, and so many others. A civilian knockoff of a weapon designed for battlefields, AR-15–style rifles are the perfect tools for mass killings — easy even for a novice Rambo to fire accurately, with little recoil, and customizable with handgrips, sights, and magazines of 30 to 100 rounds. For 10 years, the federal government banned assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines, but that law expired in 2004. Now the NRA and its allies fiercely oppose any renewal of the ban. Why? You'll hear various disingenuous arguments, but in The Federalist this week, John Davidson provides the answer that is the bedrock of all gun-control opposition. The Second Amendment, Davidson says, was not meant to merely protect hunting and self-defense. No: "The right to bear arms stems from the right of revolution." Weapons designed for war must remain legal, Davidson says, so that Americans can "overthrow their government if it becomes tyrannical." It's a terrible shame, he concedes, that AR-15s have been used to shoot up schools, concerts, workplaces, and churches — but the Second Amendment "is worth dying for." Seen from this perspective, the bullet-riddled dead of Parkland, Newtown, Las Vegas, et al. are necessary sacrifices; their slaughter enables liberty-loving Americans to maintain the option of armed rebellion. This core belief, which drives the intractable opposition to any form of gun control, is not often publicly discussed; until it's addressed and confronted, the carnage will continue. (Webmaster's comment: But none of these weapons will stop a Abrams Tank or a Drone with a Hellfire Missile.)

2-22-18 NRA and Florida: Seven things Wayne LaPierre blames after shooting
In the aftermath of the mass shooting at a Florida high school, the head of the powerful National Rifle Association has delivered a combative speech. Here are seven of the things Wayne LaPierre blamed.

  1. Insecure Schools
  2. Family Structure
  3. Mental Health System
  4. The FBI
  5. Mainstream Media
  6. Democrats
  7. European Socialists

(Webmaster's comment: Blame anything except the availablity of automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons. They should all be outlawed. They are mass killing machines.)

2-22-18 Outrage after US lawmaker links mass shooters to Democrats
A Republican US lawmaker from New York is facing political backlash after she claimed in a radio interview that many mass shooters tend to be Democrats. Democrats immediately condemned Claudia Tenney's remarks, which came a week after a school shooting left 17 people dead in Florida. She had been responding to a question about crime in the inner cities. A spokesman for the Democrats called her an "embarrassment" and her comments "unhinged, shameful and disgusting". Ms Tenney said in a statement on Wednesday night that she was "fed up with the media and liberals attempting to politicise tragedies and demonise law-abiding gun owners and conservative Americans every time there is a horrible tragedy". "While we know the perpetrators of these atrocities have a wide variety of political views, my comments are in response to a question about the failure to prosecute illegal gun crime," she added. "I will continue to stand up for law-abiding citizens who are smeared by anti-gun liberal elitists." In her interview with Albany radio station WGDJ, Ms Tenney said that she feared that "legal gun owners are going to be targeted" by new gun laws being proposed. "It's interesting that so many of these people that commit the mass murders end up being Democrats," Ms Tenney said. The interviewer claimed that most gun crimes occur "in what's euphemistically called the inner cities involving minorities, and they're the ones that Democrats generally are going to bend over backwards to protect". "Obviously there's a lot of politics in it," Ms Tenney said in response. She added that gun owners "have the least amount of crimes than virtually any other demographic". (Webmaster's comment: Except they are the ones causing the MASS MURDERS!)

2-22-18 Leslie Nope: NRA under fire for Parks and Rec gif
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is under fire after tweeting a gif from US TV show Parks and Recreation. In a post thanking spokeswoman Dana Loesch "for being the voice of over 5 million NRA members", the gun rights advocates included a gif of main character Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler. The show's co-creator, writer Michael Schur, responded by asking the NRA to remove the post. His comments have been widely shared. "Please take this down," Mr Schur wrote. "I would prefer you not use a gif from a show I worked on to promote your pro-slaughter agenda." (Webmaster's comment: And that's exactly what it is! Profits before human lives!)

2-22-18 The AR-15: Would a ban stem the bloodshed?
“Who is crazier?” asked Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald: Nikolas Cruz, 19, the troubled former student who shot 17 people dead last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School? Or the society that “let him buy an AR-15 rifle?” A civilian version of the M-16 developed for use in Vietnam, the semiautomatic AR-15 fires high-speed, low-caliber rounds that cause maximal damage within a human body, and it fires them very quickly, with little recoil to the shooter. Hence the horrifying death tolls of recent shootings in Las Vegas; Sutherland Springs, Texas; Orlando; San Bernardino, Calif.; and Newtown, Conn. Take it from a gun enthusiast, said George Skelton in the Los Angeles Times. The short-barreled AR-15 is “not a good hunting weapon.” For self-defense, a shotgun or a handgun is much more practical. The only real tactical reason to own an AR-15 with a 50-round magazine is “to kill lots of people in a few minutes.” That’s why the AR and its variants have become the “weapon of choice for mass killers” and why fully 68 percent of Americans, including 48 percent of gun owners, want them banned. It’s simple: If we want to curtail mass shootings in America, the first step is to “ban mass-shooting weapons.” Actually, it’s not so simple, said Jacob Sullum in Reason.com. “Americans own something like 15 million AR-15–style rifles.” That makes any confiscation program a nonstarter; it also tells us that these guns are “almost never used to commit violent crimes.” The fact is that rifles account for only about 2 percent of gun homicides each year, compared with 65 percent for handguns. Handguns were also used in 66 percent of mass shootings between 1982 and 2012, compared with only 14 percent for rifles. It may be true that so-called assault weapons have been used in the recent mass shootings with the highest death tolls, but if they’re banned, killers could easily turn to semiautomatic handguns or other rifles. (Webmaster's comment: Ban all automatic and semi-automatic weapons, rifle or handgun!)

2-22-18 Mass shootings this year
Some 28 different congressional districts have experienced a mass shooting so far this year, when a mass shooting is defined as four or more people shot in an incident. In 2017, more than 180 congressional districts did so—the equivalent of 40 percent of the House of Representatives.

2-22-18 Congress is not doing enough to prevent mass shootings
In a poll conducted after the Parkland, Fla., shooting, 77% of Americans say Congress is not doing enough to prevent mass shootings. 62% say President Trump is not doing enough. Americans are divided on whether or not to bring back the assault-weapons ban that expired in 2004. 50% support restoring the ban, while 46% are opposed. More than 70% of Republicans and independents supported banning assault weapons in 1999. Today, just 29% of Republicans do.

2-22-18 Millions of heavily armed Muslims
To fundamentally change the nature of the gun debate, all of America’s Muslims should join the NRA, said Mehdi Hasan. There are 3 million to 7 million Muslims in the country, and only 5 million NRA members, so a mass membership drive by Muslim-Americans “could effectively give them control of the organization.” More importantly, the prospect of millions of Muslims armed with AR-15s and other weapons of war would “petrify conservatives.” Just think of it: “glossy photos of hijab-clad women wielding AR-15 assault rifles at their local gun range; billboard ads claiming that ‘the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is...a good Muslim with a gun.’” Panicked Republicans would suddenly see the wisdom of universal background checks, longer waiting times on purchases, and other restrictions. You might even see some right-wingers “start questioning the hallowed Second Amendment itself.” Despite claiming to stand for all Americans’ gun rights, the NRA only cares about arming white Americans against their fear of dark-skinned criminals and terrorists. “So if your name is Muhammad or Ali or Omar, go strike a patriotic blow for gun control. Go sign up with the NRA.”

2-22-18 National defense,
National defense, after a think-tank study found that three-quarters of Americans ages 17 to 24 are ineligible for military service because they’re too fat, have criminal records, or didn’t graduate high school. The image of “hearty, scrappy” Americans who “can do anything,” the study’s co-author says, “is no longer accurate.”

2-22-18 Lesbian teacher fired
Parents of children attending a private Catholic school this week protested the firing of a popular first-grade teacher just days after she married her girlfriend. About 20 parents gathered at Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic School to demand more information about why Jocelyn Morffi was abruptly terminated after her wedding in the Florida Keys, but the school has refused to provide a specific reason. One of Morffi’s colleagues told The New York Times that teachers were called into a meeting after the firing and warned not to post pictures or attend events that condoned same-sex marriage, leaving the four teachers who attended the wedding fearing for their jobs. Parents described Morffi as a model teacher who coached basketball and organized students to distribute meals to the homeless. “This teacher has made such a contribution to the school,” said Samantha Mills, whose child was in Morffi’s class last year. “She just does everything in love.”

2-22-18 Wall Street’s Big Five
Wall Street’s Big Five—Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley—all gave their CEOs raises in 2017. The five chief executives were paid on average $25.3 million, up 17 percent from 2016. Combined total compensation for the group was $126 million—the highest annual tally since before the financial crisis.

2-22-18 Budding narco-state
The Netherlands is becoming a safe haven for gangs that traffic drugs and people, the Dutch police union said this week. After the country softened its stance on marijuana in the 1970s, letting small amounts of weed be sold at so-called coffee shops, it grew into a hub for drug trafficking. Now most of the ecstasy taken in Europe and the U.S. comes from Dutch labs run by Moroccan gangs, and half of the cocaine consumed in Europe enters through the Dutch port of Rotterdam. Officers say they are overwhelmed by drug gang–related crime but are powerless to cut off the criminals’ revenue sources. Amsterdam’s police chief, Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, said his force spent up to 70 percent of its time tackling gang-related hit jobs.

2-22-18 Trump endorses guns for teachers to stop shootings
US President Donald Trump has said arming teachers could prevent school shootings like that which left 17 people dead last week in Florida. Teachers carrying a concealed gun could end attacks "very quickly", he said. Mr Trump floated the proposal - long-championed by the powerful NRA gun lobby - as emotional survivors of the 14 February massacre urged him to take measures to stop similar attacks. The US leader called for improved background checks on gun buyers. "It's not going to be talk like it's been in the past," he said. President Trump listened to pleas for gun reform on Wednesday from about 40 students, teachers and families in the executive mansion's state dining room. Hundreds of teenagers from the Washington DC suburbs rallied outside at the time - some voicing support for arming teachers. Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow died in last week's attack - the second-deadliest shooting at a US public school - said: "We, as a country, failed our children." "It should've been one school shooting and we should've fixed it. And I'm pissed. It's my daughter I'm not going to see again," he went on to say. Mark Barden - whose son Daniel was killed in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut - said more guns was not the answer. "Schoolteachers have more than enough responsibilities right now, than to have to have the awesome responsibility of lethal force to take a life," he said. (Webmaster's comment: Arming teachers will just make them the first target for school shooters. Instead outlaw all automatic and semi-automatic weapons! They have only one purpose, killing lots of people.)

2-22-18 NRA head: Gun control advocates 'exploiting' Florida tragedy
The head of the most powerful gun lobby in the US has blamed Democrats and media for "exploiting" a school shooting that left 17 people dead. The head of the most powerful gun lobby in the US has blamed Democrats and media for "exploiting" a school shooting that left 17 people dead. Wayne LaPierre said "opportunists" are using the 14 February tragedy to expand gun control and abolish US gun rights. Mr LaPierre's comments came during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. He also echoed President Donald Trump's call to arm teachers who are trained to carry concealed weapons. "As usual, the opportunists waited not one second to exploit tragedy for political gain," said Mr LaPierre, who is the executive director and CEO of the National Rifle Association (NRA). "They hate the NRA. They hate the second amendment. They hate individual freedom," he said, referring to the second amendment, which governs the right to bear arms. His comments were the powerful gun lobby's first more than a week after an alleged gunman opened fire on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and killed 17 people. Mr LaPierre lambasted the FBI for failing to follow up on a tip about the suspect, Nikolas Cruz, before the attack. He also criticised America's "European-style socialists" who are calling for more gun control. (Webmaster's comment: But Europe doesn't even have 1/10 the mass killings with guns that the United States has. Those "socialists" must be getting it right!)

2-22-18 Amnesty accuses President Trump of human rights violations
Human rights group Amnesty International has accused Donald Trump of "hateful" politics and of being a threat to human rights. "President Trump takes actions that violate human rights at home and abroad," the group said. Amnesty put Mr Trump in the same group as the leaders of Egypt, Russia, China, the Philippines, and Venezuela. The organisation was launching its annual report, staging the event in Washington for the first time. "The spectres of hatred and fear now loom large in world affairs, and we have few governments standing up for human rights in these disturbing times," said Salil Shetty, head of Amnesty. "Instead, leaders such as al-Sisi, Duterte, Maduro, Putin, Trump and Xi are callously undermining the rights of millions," referring to the leaders of Egypt, the Philippines, Venezuela, Russia, the US and China. It also called Mr Trump's travel ban - implemented days after he took office - a "transparently hateful move". The ban - which targeted a number of Muslim-majority countries - "set the scene for a year in which leaders took the politics of hate to its most dangerous conclusion", Mr Shetty said. The 400-page report summarises human rights issues of concern to Amnesty in 159 countries across the world.

2-21-18 Trigger warnings are taking over universities, but do they work?
Talk of trigger warnings and microaggressions are sweeping through university campuses, but some researchers question whether they have any psychological basis. WARNINGS before lectures. Speakers banned. Debate stifled. Students are increasingly making demands about what can and can’t be said on campus. This month, online magazine Spiked revealed that 55 per cent of UK universities are censoring speech. For many, it is a worrying sign that students are turning away from a diversity of thought that would promote critical thinking, the very thing university education is designed to support. But can students’ concerns be dismissed as mere political correctness? Or do trigger warnings and microaggression policies help prevent real psychological harm? Trigger warnings originated online as a way to alert people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that what they were about to see might trigger distressing flashbacks. They are now being used in universities as a heads-up to students that they might find course material upsetting. Although there has been no direct test of their effectiveness, it is well known that people are generally less stressed by threatening situations if they know about them in advance, because they feel more in control. This may be particularly true for people with PTSD. A study found that their startle response, a sign of anxiety, when exposed to unexpected loud noises was significantly higher than that of people with generalised anxiety disorder or no disorder. There was no difference between the groups when the noise was expected.

2-21-18 Work the crowd: How ordinary people can predict the future
Want to know if a dictator will be deposed? Or shares will crash? Intelligence agencies and firms are realising groups of everyday people can foresee what will happen. EVERY day after breakfast, Shannon Gifford would sit down at her computer for an hour and scour obscure corners of the internet for clues. The questions she was attempting to answer changed. Once she was trying to find out whether radioactive poison would be discovered in the body of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. At other times she was working out whether the price of oil would rise above $60 a barrel that year, or predicting the outcome of a forthcoming presidential election in Ghana. Gifford isn’t an investor, a spy or even an insatiably curious news junkie. Alongside hundreds like her, she was part of an extraordinary experiment to find out whether the wisdom of the crowd can predict the future. The answer surprised even the US intelligence officials behind the experiment. It turns out crowds really can make accurate predictions – so accurate, in fact, that they promise to permanently change how states analyse intelligence. We have known some of the benefits of collective wisdom since Aristotle, but a slightly more recent example features in the 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds by journalist James Surowiecki. The opening pages tell the story of the day Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton went to a country fair. Galton, a formidable scientist himself, asked people to guess the weight of an enormous ox. Most got it absurdly wrong, but the median guess of the 800-strong crowd was just 1 pound off the true weight of the ox, which for the record was 1198 pounds, or 543 kilograms.

2-21-18 Florida shooting survivors rally for stricter gun controls
Survivors of a Florida school shooting that left 17 people dead are marching in the state capital to press lawmakers to take more action on gun control. Students are due to meet legislators after marching to the statehouse. It is the first organised protest of the youth-led anti-gun movement that has swept the US since the attack. About 100 students arrived in Tallahassee hours before the state legislature rejected a ban on assault rifles like the one used in the attack. "We're here to ask for change and we're confident change will happen," said Noah Kaufman, 16, "We know the issues, and we know who is with us and who isn't." Many students said they stayed awake overnight to research legislation and write speeches. "This isn't a Democrat or Republican issue, it's a life issue," said Mr Kaufman. Under pressure to act, President Donald Trump on Tuesday backed a move to ban devices that can enable rifles to shoot hundreds of rounds a minute. This bump-stock accessory was used by a gunman in Las Vegas to kill 58 concert-goers last year. The president, who is a strong gun rights advocate, will host students and teachers at the White House on Wednesday for a "listening session" on gun control. (Webmaster's comment: Vote against any legislator endorsed or supported by the NRA!)

2-21-18 George and Amal Clooney pledge $500,000 to gun reform rally
George and Amal Clooney have said they are donating $500,000 to support students who will march to demand political action on gun control.. The Clooneys said they would also join students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for the 24 March rally in the nation's capital. "Our children's lives depend on it," the couple said in a statement. The "March for Our Lives" rally is being organised in the wake of last week's mass school shooting in Florida. Mr Clooney said in the statement: "Our family will be there on March 24 to stand side by side with this incredible generation of young people from all over the country, and in the name of our children Ella and Alexander, we're donating 500,000 dollars to help pay for this groundbreaking event." Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer, gave birth to twins in 2017. Oprah Winfrey has announced that she will match the Clooneys' donation. "George and Amal, I couldn't agree with you more," she said in a tweet. Hollywood director Steven Spielberg also pledged to match the $500,000 donation. The "March for Our Lives" event is one of several rallies that will take place across the country on the same day. The demonstrations are being organised primarily by students, who say they aim to challenge politicians to take tougher action on gun control. The Clooneys are known to donate to political causes. (Webmaster's comment: Vote against any legislator endorsed or supported by the NRA!)

2-21-18 How to win the gun debate: Stop talking about guns
President Trump's 2016 campaign was relentless in its depiction of an on-the-brink America awash in crime. Never mind that most indicators showed the country was enjoying a respite from such troubles, with numbers dipping to levels not seen since the early 1960s. Trump shoved the statistics aside to paint a dystopian picture of a nation sinking under Death Wish-levels of murder and assault. And Trump, it was clear, wanted to be our Charles Bronson. Trump was right about one thing: There is American carnage. It's just different than what Trump described. And he seems utterly disinterested in helping us end it. Seventeen dead in Parkland, Florida. Twenty-six massacred in a Texas church. Fifty-eight slaughtered in Las Vegas. Hundreds more injured and maimed and traumatized, lives ruined and interrupted and ended. This is carnage, and it demands a solution. Yet Trump and his party have been utterly absent in finding solutions. Democrats shouldn't despair. They can change this. But it will require some counterintuitive thinking. Forget guns. It's time for liberals to recast America's mass killings as a crime problem. And it's time to cast politicians who sit on their hands in the face of such massacres — Trump chief among them — as soft on crime.

2-21-18 Stanley Majors: Life sentence for Oklahoma man who murdered neighbour
A man who was convicted of killing his neighbour after months of harassing his Arab-American family has been sentenced to life in prison for the hate crime. Stanley Majors was sentenced on Tuesday by a judge in Oklahoma for killing 37-year-old Khalid Jabara, whose family came to the US from Lebanon. Prosecutors say Majors stood at the front steps of the family's home and fatally shot Mr Jabara in August 2016. Family members say police failed to protect them despite many complaints. Prosecutors had requested during the trial that the judge show Majors no mercy in sentencing, saying he had not shown remorse for his crime. The Jabara family did not attend the sentencing hearing in Tulsa but said in a written statement that the killer's "time to turn his life around" had "come and gone". Majors had earlier been found guilty of committing a hit-and-run driving attack on Khalid Jabara's mother in 2015, leaving her with a broken nose and shoulder. After serving a jail sentence for that attack, he was released and continued to harass the family, police say. (Webmaster's comment: But they did nothing?) The family successfully received a protective restraining order and complained to police several times when he violated that order. They say that racist taunts and hate-filled rants continued to come from their next-door neighbour. His defence team had argued that he was mentally ill at the time of the shooting, and felt targeted by the Jabara family because he was gay. In addition to the sentence of life without the possibility of parole, he was also sentenced for violating Oklahoma's hate crime law.

2-20-18 Florida school shooting: Trump 'supportive' of better gun background checks
US President Donald Trump supports efforts to improve background checks on gun ownership, the White House says. He spoke with Republican Senator John Cornyn about a bipartisan bill that seeks to improve the checks in place before someone can buy a gun. The suspect in last week's Florida school shooting, in which 17 people died, bought his gun legally. Nikolas Cruz appeared in court on Monday. Students from the school have demanded action on gun control. It has emerged that Mr Cruz was able to buy seven rifles in the past year, despite being examined by Florida mental health workers in 2016, US media report. One of those was the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle used to carry out last Wednesday's attack. "While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said on Monday. (Webmaster's comment: Background checks, hell. Ban ownership of all automatic and semiautomatixc weapons!)

2-20-18 End ICE
America doesn't need a "papers, please" agency. The most notorious government agency under the Trump presidency is surely U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The president may not be able to build his wall, but he can turn a horde of goons loose on America's schools, churches, and homes. In the spirit of bold policy ideas, allow me to propose a reform of ICE: Just get rid of it. There is simply no need to have an agency whose major task is rounding up and deporting otherwise law-abiding immigrants. Here is a brief and highly incomplete list of atrocities committed by ICE over the past year, compiled by Sean McElwee: Arresting fathers while dropping their kids off at school; staking out churches to round up people seeking sanctuary; deporting a successful businessman who has lived in the U.S. for 40 years; attempting to deport a veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan over a minor drug conviction; deporting an HIV-positive man to Venezuela, where a collapsed medical system means almost certain death; arresting, jailing for two weeks, and attempting to deport a doctor and green-card holder who has lived in the U.S. for 40 years over minor expunged charges from when he was 17; deporting the sole caregiver of a 6-year-old paraplegic boy; and even secretly compiling ways to strip citizenship from legal residents. Across the country, families are being ripped apart for no reason by a police force that is, quite simply, an anti-immigrant militia. ICE focuses special attention on its political enemies, arresting and deporting leaders of immigrant rights' groups (some of them are suing the agency over this practice). They even tracked down and arrested an unauthorized immigrant who had written anonymously in The Seattle Times about his longtime girlfriend being arrested. "You are the one from the newspaper," the agent said.

2-20-18 WHO warns of soaring rates of measles in Europe
Europe has seen a big surge in measles cases in 2017, which the World Health Organization says is a tragedy after a record low of 5,273 cases in 2016. Cases increased four-fold, with more than 20,000 people affected and 35 deaths. Fifteen European region countries, including the UK, had large outbreaks. Measles cases were highest in Romania, Italy and Ukraine. People shunning vaccination is part of the problem, say experts. Although research published 20 years ago about a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism has been discredited, the scare it created damaged some people's trust of the vaccine. Measles is a highly infectious viral illness that can be deadly. The MMR vaccine can prevent it. The WHO says there have been declines in overall routine immunisation coverage, as well as consistently low coverage among some marginalised groups and interruptions in vaccine supply or underperforming disease surveillance systems. Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, from the WHO, said: "Every new person affected by measles in Europe reminds us that unvaccinated children and adults, regardless of where they live, remain at risk of catching the disease and spreading it to others who may not be able to get vaccinated. "This short-term setback cannot deter us from our commitment to be the generation that frees our children from these diseases once and for all." The UK saw 282 cases in 2017, linked to the continuing outbreak in Europe.

2-19-18 The lesbian pioneers who fooled Spain's Catholic Church
There was something unusual about the fresh-faced groom that day. The priest at the San Jorge church in A Coruña, north-western Spain, didn't see anything special, and the smattering of relatives in attendance weren't saying anything. But both 'Mario' and his bride, Marcela, were women. It was 1901, and the union between Elisa and Marcela remains the only known same-sex marriage in the history of the Spanish Catholic Church. But the couple's sweet victory over the conservative culture of early 20th Century Spain would be short-lived. They were to spend the rest of their lives on the run from persecution across two continents. Now Elisa and Marcela's story is to be made into a film by Isabel Coixet, whose latest movie The Bookshop, with Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy, is soon to be released in the UK. "When I think about these two women and the courage it took for one of them to pretend to be a man, it was unbelievably brave," Coixet, who also wrote the script, told the BBC. "I was fascinated the first time I heard about the story, which almost raised more questions than it has answers. "We don't know what happened to them in the end, and how did they think they would get away with it?"

2-19-18 Iceland's mooted circumcision ban sparks religious outrage
Religious groups have condemned a bill in Iceland's parliament that would ban circumcision for non-medical reasons. The draft law would impose a six-year prison term on anyone guilty of "removing part or all of the [child's] sexual organs", arguing the practice violates the child's rights. Jewish and Muslim leaders however have called the bill an attack on religious freedom. Iceland would be the first European country to ban the procedure. The country is thought to have roughly 250 Jewish citizens and around 1,500 Muslim citizens. MP Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir of the Progressive Party, who introduced the bill at the start of the month, said: "We are talking about children's rights, not about freedom of belief. "Everyone has the right to believe in what they want, but the rights of children come above the right to believe." Iceland passed a law in 2005 banning female genital mutilation, and supporters of this move have compared it to that law. The latest bill (in Icelandic) says circumcision "involves permanent interventions in a child's body that can cause severe pain". If it passes its first reading, the draft law will go to a committee stage before it can come into effect. (Webmaster's comment: It's about time somebody stopped this barbaric practice. It's genital mutilation pure and simple.)

2-18-18 Florida school shooting: Students to march on Washington
Young survivors of Wednesday's school shooting in Florida have announced a national march on Washington to demand political action on gun control. Student organisers told US media that they were determined to make Wednesday's shooting a turning point in the national gun debate.The attack, which left 17 students and staff members dead, was the deadliest US school shooting since 2012. Yesterday protestors chanted "shame on you" to US lawmakers and the president. Mr Trump said last year he would "never" infringe on the right to keep arms - a long-running and contested debate within the US. In his first public comments on the gun control issue since the attack, Mr Trump blamed the Democrats for not passing legislation when they controlled Congress during the early years of Barack Obama's administration. Speaking on US television networks on Sunday morning, student survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas announced their March for Our Lives campaign. They are planning to march on Washington on 24 March to demand that children and their families "become a priority" to US lawmakers. They want other protests to happen simultaneously in other cities on the same day. "We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around," Cameron Kasky, a survivor from the school said. It is one of many student-led protests amassing support on social media in the wake of Wednesday's attack. On Saturday students and their parents - as well as politicians - took part in an emotionally-charged rally in Fort Lauderdale, close to Parkland. Arguably the most memorable moment came when high school student Emma Gonzalez took to the podium and attacked the US president and other politicians for accepting political donations from the National Rifle Association (NRA), a powerful gun rights lobby group. "If the president wants to come up to me and tell me to my face that it was a terrible tragedy and... how nothing is going to be done about it, I'm going to happily ask him how much money he received from the National Rifle Association," said Ms Gonzalez. "It doesn't matter because I already know. Thirty million dollars," the 18-year-old said, referring to NRA donations during Mr Trump's presidential campaign.

Prayers and condolences are not enough! Our government officials need to TAKE ACTION or STEP DOWN!

2-18-18 In Florida aftermath, US students say 'Never Again'
The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were well practised on how to respond in an active shooter situation - the school has lockdown drills, security systems and restricted entrances. But a sole gunman on Valentine's Day was still able to kill 17. From the school's survivors, and other students across the US, movements have sprung up in its aftermath rejecting what has been dubbed the "new normal" for their generation. Thousands of teenagers, including many still too young to vote, have become grassroots activists. Social media has become a tool for their ideas and campaigns to spread. Their calls for gun control are not different to those in the aftermath of other tragedies - but the maturity and voracity of the students publicly voicing their demands has led many on social media to say this time feels different. "In Newtown the students were so young they couldn't stand up, but trust me - we are going to be the change," Parkland survivor Alex Wind told the BBC. As Wednesday's atrocity took place, he was forced to huddle in darkness with 60 other students for over an hour and a half as shots rang out throughout their school. Alex and four of his friends founded the Never Again campaign in the immediate aftermath. Now over a dozen of them are tirelessly campaigning and making the rounds on US cable news networks to share their message that the school's survivors will not back down. "It is absolutely insane that a 19-year-old cannot purchase alcohol but can walk in and buy an AR-15 - a weapon of war, by all means a weapon of mass destruction," he said. "You don't need this to protect your home or your family, its absolutely absurd you can sell it commercially." (Webmaster's comment: We do not need semi-automatic weapons for any kind for hunting. They are killing machines for humans! And the NRA supports their sale for profits!)

2-17-18 Florida school shooting: A killer comes to 'paradise'
Students re-live Wednesday's shooting in Florida - and demand tougher gun laws from their government. Where would you expect a school shooting to happen? Where would you expect 17 people to be shot in the head, in the heart, in the arms and legs, while waiting for home-time? Not here, surely. Not among the palm trees and picket fences. Not among the golf courses, the gated communities, the fortnightly farmers' market. Lanny James, 77, spends the winter in Margate, 5 miles (8km) from Parkland. He bought his place four years ago, but has been coming to Florida since 1976. He was playing golf when he heard the news. Four dead when he finished his round; 17 dead when he got home. "I just love South Florida," he says. "But this is supposed to be paradise. These things aren't supposed to happen." But they did happen: here, where the sky is blue, the grass is green and it's legal for 18-year-olds to buy semi-automatic rifles. At 14:06 local time (19:06 GMT) on Wednesday, Nikolas Cruz got into an Uber. At 14:19 (19:19 GMT), he got out at Stoneman Douglas, the school that expelled him last year. Cruz, 19, walked into the school and took out his rifle, which he bought 12 months earlier. At 14:21 (19:20 GMT), he started shooting. Two minutes later, the fire alarm went off. Darryl Verna, 17, knew the alarm wasn't a drill. They had a drill that morning, and they never happen twice a day. But he didn't think it was serious. "I thought it was a prank at first," he says. So, like he did that morning, he went outside, by the gates, and waited for the alarm to stop. Darryl's friend, Kaleb Martinez, 16, was also outside. Like Darryl, he wasn't worried.

2-18-18 The battle over 'chain migration'
President Trump wants to limit family-based immigration as part of an overall reform of the system. Why? Here's everything you need to know:

  • What is 'chain migration'? The term itself remains a point of heated contention. Formally known as "family reunification," it's the process by which U.S. citizens and green-card holders can sponsor their relatives to come and live here, too.
  • Which relatives can come in? Trump has contended that "a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives." But that's not really true.
  • What are the standards? Sponsors have to prove that their annual household income is 125 percent of the poverty line — at least $20,300 for a two-person household — and show that they can support their family member without government aid. Every visa applicant also has to go through a criminal and terrorism background check.
  • What about the benefits? Advocates say that America was built on family-based immigration, with previous waves of Italian, Irish, German, Jewish, Polish, and other immigrants bringing over family members once they got a foothold in America. Those relatives helped them settle in their communities, start family businesses, and contribute to the national economy.
  • What do critics say? Restrictionists say the situation has gotten out of hand. The foreign-born population of the U.S. has quadrupled since 1970; immigrants who arrived from 1981 to 2000 sponsored an average of 1.77 relatives to join them, but the most recent are sponsoring an average of 3.46, according to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS).
  • What has Trump proposed? As part of a broader package that includes a border wall and a path to citizenship for 1.8 million "DREAMers," or children who were illegally brought to the U.S., Trump wants to limit sponsorship to the "nuclear family" — that is, to spouses and children under 21 only. But even if Congress did pass much tighter restrictions on families, authorities would still have to process the nearly 4 million people already on the waiting list.
  • What's in a name? "Amnesty." "DREAMers." "Anchor baby." The immigration debate has become a war of words, as both sides seek to frame the issues with terms that shape perceptions and drive popular opinion. Trump has successfully weaponized "chain migration," which in 2016 was used zero times on Fox News; in 2017, it appeared 295 times, according to Media Matters.

2-18-18 Israel rebukes Poland PM for 'Jewish perpetrators' remark
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has sharply rebuked his Polish counterpart for saying that Jews were among the perpetrators of the Holocaust. He said the remarks by Mateusz Morawiecki at the Munich Security Conference were "outrageous". Mr Netanyahu said they showed "an inability to understand history". The dispute comes weeks after Israel condemned a new Polish law making it illegal to accuse the Polish nation or state of complicity in Nazi crimes. The legislation was signed into law by President Andrzej Duda but also referred to the country's highest court to consider its constitutionality. What did Mr Morawiecki say in Munich? He was responding to an Israeli journalist who asked if anyone who said there were Polish collaborators in the Holocaust would be considered a criminal in Poland under the new law. Mr Morawiecki said: "It's extremely important to first understand that, of course, it's not going to be punishable, not going to be seen as criminal to say that there were Polish perpetrators - as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as there were Ukrainian.... not only German perpetrators." What does the new Polish law state? It says that "whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich… shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years". But it adds the caveat that a person "is not committing a crime if he or she commits such an act as part of artistic or scientific activities". (Webmaster's comment: Some polish people did take part in robbing and killing the Jews. That is a fact! The hatred of Jews was in every country in Europe and in the United States.)

2-18-18 The mystery of Toronto's gay village killings
For years, there were whispers in Toronto's gay community about a serial killer stalking the community. Now that one of their own has been charged with the murders of five missing men, they wonder why the police didn't act sooner. In a small park in the heart of Toronto's Gay Village, about 200 people assembled in the snow to mourn the victims of an alleged serial killer. Many wore armbands painted with the words "love", "heal", "rise", "grieve". The words were later used in a call-and-response between organisers and the large crowd. "Today we grieve," they said, and the word echoed back from the crowd. "Today we resist. Today we heal. Today we rise. Today, of all days, we love." But as the names of the victims were read out into the winter air, there was only silence. In January, police charged Bruce McArthur with five counts of first degree murder for the deaths of Andrew Kinsman, 49, Majeed Kayhan, 58, Soroush Mahmudi, 50, Dean Lisowick 47, and Salim Esen, 44. McArthur has not yet entered a plea and the police investigation is ongoing. Officials believe there may be more victims. The arrest confirmed the worst fears of many in the Village, who for years had whispered that a serial killer might be targeting their community. "Too many people for too long in our community have been lost," said Troy Jackson, who hosted the community vigil. Located at the intersection of Church Street and Wellesley Street, Toronto's Gay Village has been the city's enclave for the LGBT community since the 1960s. It's also been more than a neighbourhood - a home away from home for many who may feel marginalised because of their sexuality.

2-17-18 White House refuses to release photo of Trump gun law repeal
The White House has refused to release a photo of President Donald Trump signing a law making it easier for some people with mental illness to buy guns. Despite repeated requests from CBS News, the White House press office has issued only a one-line response. Mr Trump last year repealed an Obama-era rule allowing the names of certain people on mental health benefits to be entered into a criminal database. The controversy follows a shooting by a suspect who had mental health issues. Nikolas Cruz is accused of using a legally-purchased rifle to kill 17 people at his former high school in Parkland, Florida, on Wednesday. In a tweet, Mr Trump called the gunman "mentally disturbed" and vowed to "tackle the difficult issue of mental health" during a speech to the nation. But the Republican president's critics noted his own annual budget proposed this week would cuts hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for mental health programmes. CBS News says it requested a copy of the image - which White House photographers confirm exists - 12 separate times by phone or email. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders has only said in a note dated 19 April 2017: "We don't plan to release the picture at this time." CBS News asked the White House again on Thursday to release the photo, but has not received a response. Legislation is often signed into law with much fanfare at the White House, including photo-ops, press conferences and even gifts to selected participants.

2-17-18 Florida shooting: Senators singled out over gun lobby funds
As the US reels over the latest shooting at a high school campus in Parkland, Florida - the 18th so far in 2018 - "thoughts and prayers" from public figures are not all being well received on social media. Screenwriter Bess Kalb, who writes for Jimmy Kimmel Live, has been singling out senators who are tweeting their condolences by responding with the amount of money they have received from the National Rifle Association (NRA): When GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted that her heart was breaking for those affected, Ms Kalb's response that GOP candidates took more than $17m (£12m) from the NRA was retweeted more than 7,500 times and liked 11,000 times. The figures that Ms Kalb used are based on an article from the New York Times in October 2017 following the Las Vegas shooting. The paper produced a list of all the thoughts and prayers expressed by senators and the money they had received from the NRA during the year 2016-2017. In response to Florida's senator Marco Rubio's post that "Today is that terrible day you pray never comes" Ms Kalb wrote the figure $3,303,355. After Congressman Ken Buck wrote how devastated he felt about the shooting, Ms Kalb simply posted "$800,544 from the NRA."

2-17-18 New Zealand goose: How one blind bisexual bird became an icon
A memorial is being held for a New Zealander who spent most of his life as a loving partner, caring father and an icon of the LGBT community. Thomas the goose died 6 February at almost 40 years old and is being buried beside his partner on Saturday. "Thomas has been such an iconic and well-loved bird," said Craig Shepherd, who runs the Wellington Bird Rehabilitation Trust where Thomas spent his last years. "It's lovely that he is going to be buried where he spent most of his life." But how exactly did a goose end up an icon? It all started around 1990 when a black swan named Henrietta flew in to the Waimanu lagoon, located in a small town on New Zealand's Kapiti Coast. Due to a damaged wing, she was unable to fly with the other swans and was often alone until a few years later when a white goose named Thomas arrived. The duo quickly formed a bond and Thomas was very protective of Henrietta, even scaring off any humans or dogs that came near her. But after 18 blissful years together, a new young female swan entered the equation and was often spotted with Henrietta. No one thought much of it, assuming that they were both females. The shocker came when the new swan laid an egg. It turned out that Henrietta was in fact a male swan who had mated with the new female swan. "It's very hard to establish the gender of mature black swans," said Michael Peryer, the tour guide at the Waikanae Estuary where the lagoon is located. "So it turned out in fact that Thomas and Henrietta - who was really a Henry - had 18 happy gay years together." Henrietta was re-named Henry, and the new young swan was given the name Henrietta.

FEMINISM

2-23-18 Kelly Lindsey: Afghanistan women's coach says it is 'life or death' for players
Spat at, stoned in the street, and having to avoid bombings on the way to training. All because you want to play football. That is the reality for some of Afghanistan women's international team. Their coach - retired former USA international Kelly Lindsey - has never set foot in the country because of security concerns. Some of her players have not even played 11-a-side football before they join up with the national squad, which was formed in 2010. Yet, in Lindsey's two years in charge, they have climbed from 128th in the Fifa rankings to 106th. Progress - in spite of the "unique" nature of a job which means all matches and training camps are held overseas for safety reasons. Lindsey's squad is a mixture of players from the worldwide Afghan diaspora and those who still live in Afghanistan. Those in Australia, Europe and North America have female role models in the shape of their mothers, many of whom emigrated with their children when their husbands were killed in conflict. The players who have remained face threats of violence and - just as bad in the eyes of the Afghan culture - risk damaging their family's dignity and reputation. "It's not easy to get to training," Lindsey, 38, tells the BBC's World Football programme. "They get spat on, they get stoned, there are bombings that happen on the way. "It's important for the girls outside to understand that this is real. It's not stories. These girls go through it every day."

2-23-18 One French woman in eight has been raped, study says
About four million French women - 12% of the total - have been raped at least once in their lives, a survey suggests. The study for the Fondation Jean Jaurès, a Paris-based think tank, also says 43% have been subjected to sexual touching without their consent. Like many other countries, France has seen women take to social media to highlight abuse in recent months. Many have shared their experiences under the hashtag "Balance ton porc" ("rat on your pig"). The campaign was launched following the rape allegations against Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein last October. In addition to the 12% who say they have been raped, 58% have been subjected to disturbing propositions and 43% to "sexual touching without consent", the study says. Most of the women reporting such abuse have experienced it several times, it adds. The report highlights the "heavy consequences and long-term repercussions suffered by the victims". But the "rat on your pig" movement has generated national debate around what constitutes harassment. Last month French movie star Catherine Deneuve was one of 100 women who signed an open letter claiming the movement had gone too far. It warned of a new type of "Puritanism" and insisted men should be "free to pester women". "Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or clumsily, is not - and nor is men being gentlemanly a chauvinist attack." (Webmaster's comment: Many women have been so well indoctinated by men they actually defend sexual abuse. At least one in four American women have been raped.)

2-22-18 Another sex scandal: Trump’s ‘hush money’
In any normal administration, the revelations would be “a Category 5 hurricane,” said Dana Milbank in The Washington Post. Former Playboy model Karen McDougal had a nine-month affair with Donald Trump back in 2006, just months after his wife, Melania, gave birth to their son, Barron, according to a handwritten account from the time obtained by The New Yorker. In 2016, McDougal sold the rights to her story for $150,000 to American Media Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer—but the company, which is owned by longtime Trump friend David Pecker, never published it, as a favor to then presidential candidate Trump. That report comes at the same time President Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen confirmed that shortly before the 2016 election, he personally paid $130,000 in hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels. Daniels says she also had an affair with Trump in 2006. Can you imagine how these revelations would affect any other president? asked Ryan Cooper in TheWeek.com. “Sean Hannity’s eyes would have popped out of his sockets in rage if Barack Obama had paid secret hush money to anyone, let alone a porn star.” Trump’s past conduct was “gross and unworthy,” said Rich Lowry in NationalReview.com, but there’s a reason why these stories won’t bring down his presidency. Voters elected Trump despite extensively aired accusations of sexual misconduct by 19 women. Unless he has been “stupid enough” to continue misbehaving in the White House, as President Clinton did, this scandal won’t hurt him. Still, Trump must be nervous, said Jeremy Binckes in Salon.com. Cohen’s payment to Daniels may have violated campaign finance laws, and the porn star says the Trump lawyer’s public statement about the payments breached their nondisclosure agreement, freeing her to speak openly about the affair.

2-22-18 Meryl Streep slams 'pathetic' Harvey Weinstein lawyers
Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence have condemned Harvey Weinstein's lawyers for using their names in his defence against a legal action. Six women are bringing a class action lawsuit against the disgraced producer. His lawyers want it dismissed because it is too broad, arguing that actresses such as Streep haven't accused him. But Streep said the way they used the fact he didn't abuse her "as evidence that he was not abusive with many OTHER women is pathetic and exploitative". And Lawrence said he and his company were trying to "take things out of context and use them for their own benefit". The six women are suing Weinstein and the "Weinstein Sexual Enterprise", which they say includes his brother Bob and their film studio The Weinstein Company. Weinstein has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by dozens of women. He denies all allegations of non-consensual sex. The women's lawsuit describes Weinstein as a predator and accuses him of widespread sexual misconduct. They argue that the statute of limitations on the allegations - a legal time limit within which claims should be filed - does not apply because they were under duress not to make the claims earlier. Weinstein's legal team used the names of Streep, Lawrence and Gwyneth Paltrow in papers filed in New York in an attempt to get the case dismissed. (Webmaster's comment: Winstein should spend the rest of his life in prison!)

2-22-18 Arizona couple charged with locking up adopted children
A couple in Arizona have been charged with locking up their adopted children for up to 12 hours at a time with only a bucket for a toilet. Benito and Carol Gutierrez are accused of keeping the four children, aged between six and 12, locked in rooms with no light or food. Police were alerted when one boy left the house in Tucson. He entered a shop to call a relative, but an employee called police because of concerns about the boy's appearance. The Pima County Sheriff's Department said they discovered that the children "were kept in separate bedrooms, which were locked from the outside, with no access to food, water, lights, or bathroom facilities for up to twelve hours at a time on a regular basis". Police said the children - all biological siblings adopted by the couple - did not realise the conditions in which they lived were unusual. They were excellent students and had no reported problems in school. At a press conference, Detective Pat Willson praised the employee of the Family Dollar shop who contacted police. "We commend this citizen," he said. "He wasn't sure the situation was a crime, but he reported his concerns." The couple had passed all required background checks to be allowed to adopt children, Mr Willson said, adding that there had been no reported problems in the past. They have now been charged with child abuse.

2-21-18 Ford executive leaves over inappropriate behaviour
The head of Ford's US operations is leaving the company immediately following an internal investigation into inappropriate behaviour. The carmaker said its inquiry had concluded that some of Raj Nair's conduct had been "inconsistent with the company's code of conduct". Ford did not specify why the investigation was started nor what it uncovered. Mr Nair said in a statement that "I sincerely regret" certain behaviour. Ford President and Chief Executive Jim Hackett said in a statement: "We made this decision after a thorough review and careful consideration. Ford is deeply committed to providing and nurturing a safe and respectful culture and we expect our leaders to fully uphold these values." Mr Nair had been President of Ford North America since 1 July. He was previously head of global product development and chief technical officer. He apologised, without elaborating on the reasons for his going. "I sincerely regret that there have been instances where I have not exhibited leadership behaviours consistent with the principles that the company and I have always espoused," Mr Nair said. He added: "I continue to have the utmost faith in the people of Ford Motor Company and wish them continued success in the future." A spokesman for the US's second biggest carmaker said the company would not be commenting on the nature of Mr Nair's departure.

2-20-18 Fifty Shades and the secret compromises of women
It's an uncomfortable fact that at the very moment the #MeToo movement advocates for equal treatment in the workplace, women are rushing to theaters to watch the final movie of the Fifty Shades trilogy, in which the female protagonist happily marries her obsessive stalker-cum-employer. For many feminists, it's frustrating that the hardscrabble fight for true equality coincides with fantasies about subordination. It seems to play into the worst myths about women: specifically, that they liked their oppressed status as second-rate citizens, and experience "women's lib" as a burden they long to shrug off. This, after all, is the kind of thinking that leads to schools informing teenage girls they're not allowed to say no to boys who ask them to dance. And to presidents and senators praising men who beat their wives as "hard workers" and "good guys." That we don't like that something is happening, however, is no argument for ignoring it. We won't get anywhere with these conversations about sex and consent if we can't speak frankly about how women are getting off. And Fifty Shades is how droves of women are getting off — all kinds of women, but cis, heterosexual women especially. Why? One possibility is that Fifty Shades captures aspects of the secret compromises many women make that softer romances don't. The fact is, people lie about sex all the time: not always on purpose, and not always for themselves. Many say, for example, that they wanted to give what was taken from them. Why? Because it produces an acceptable story of the self and the relationship. To have had something done to you (like sex, or abuse) without your wanting it? This, in our culture, makes you a victim. It makes your partner a monster. Easier to say you wanted it and convince yourself it's true.

2-20-18 Lawmaker accused of firing aide who refused kissing game
A state lawmaker who rose to national prominence as a campaigner against sexual assault is accused of firing an aide who refused to play "spin the bottle", according to court papers. David John Kernick filed a complaint against California Democrat Cristina Garcia about the alleged 2014 incident. He claims she wrote him up for insubordination and fired him two days after he refused to play the game. Ms Garcia has denied previous allegations against her. Mr Kernick said in the complaint that Ms Garcia, who was featured in a Time magazine profile of #MeToo victims last year, approached him at fundraiser at a whiskey bar and invited him to sit on her hotel room floor to play the kissing game. The latest complaint against Ms Garcia accuses her of disciplining Mr Kernick "with a write up for insubordination" before firing him two days later. He described his time working as a field representative for the California assemblywoman as "extremely stressful", claiming she used vulgar language and discussed inappropriate topics at work. Ms Garcia was first accused of harassment by former aide Daniel Fierro, who said a drunken Ms Garcia cornered him after an annual legislative softball game in 2014 in the team dugout. He claims Ms Garcia stroked his back, squeezed his buttocks and attempted to grab his crotch. Mr Fierro told Politico he did not originally report the incident. He said he was 25 years old at the time. When the allegations first emerged, Ms Garcia said she had "zero recollection of engaging in inappropriate behaviour". "Such behaviour is inconsistent with my values," she added.

2-20-18 Channel 4 documentary accuses Harvey Weinstein of physical assault
The producer of Golden Globe-winning film My Week With Marilyn has accused embattled movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of physically attacking him. David Parfitt said Weinstein was "in a fury" about a test screening of the film doing so well with the audience as he wasn't happy with the final cut. "He pinned me up against a Coke machine and threatened all sorts of stuff," Parfitt told a Channel 4 documentary. "It was very scary. He was just furious the film in our version worked." Parfitt said Weinstein "had decided there wasn't enough of Marilyn in the film and that he wanted more Marilyn". The film won Michelle Williams a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the Hollywood legend opposite Eddie Redmayne. A spokesman for Weinstein said: "Mr Parfitt and Mr Weinstein had creative differences on the film, any conflict between them was solely over their different visions for the film... while Mr Weinstein has apologised for boorish behaviour in certain situations in the past, Mr Weinstein unequivocally denies he ever engaged in criminal misconduct of any kind." Channel 4's Working with Weinstein is the first documentary about the film producer to be aired since allegations against him first surfaced in October. It looks at UK-based claims of sexual harassment and assault against Weinstein over the past 30 years. Weinstein says all the allegations in the documentary are untrue.

2-19-18 Oxfam Haiti scandal: Suspects 'physically threatened' witnesses
Oxfam has revealed that three of the men accused of sexual misconduct in Haiti physically threatened witnesses during a 2011 investigation. The charity has published its internal report on alleged abuse by some of its staff following public pressure. In the 2011 report, Oxfam said "more needed" to be done to prevent "problem staff" working for other charities. Despite the warning, several men linked to the alleged abuse subsequently took up roles at other charities. Theresa May told BBC London the revelation that three Oxfam staff physically intimidated witnesses during the charity's investigation was "absolutely horrific". "This is exactly the problem that we see which means that all too often people don't feel able to come forward to report what has happened to them," the prime minister said. Oxfam - which has almost 10,000 staff working in more than 90 countries - has released a redacted version of its report, saying it wants to be "as transparent as possible" about the decisions it made. Parts of the 11-page document are blacked out to hide people's identities, including the names of the three men accused of intimidating witnesses.

2-19-18 Gaza women's TV channel blocked by Hamas
Authorities in Gaza have blocked the launch of a women's television channel there, just before it was due to go on air. Officials from the Palestinian militant Islamist group Hamas, which dominates the territory, said Taif TV had not obtained the necessary licences. However the channel said it had met all the legal requirements. Civil liberties groups have long criticised Hamas for what they say is a poor record on women's rights in Gaza. The Palestinian independent Maan news agency said Hamas had on Sunday banned a launch party for the channel, after which it was meant to begin broadcasting. The Hamas-run Ministry of Information said Taif TV did not have legal permission, despite being repeatedly informed of the need for relevant licences. "The management of the channel was asked to settle their legal status, to obtain licences to start work and were notified of another licensed media organisation of the same name," the ministry said. The channel denied this was the case, saying it belonged to media organisations which had both been licensed by the Ministry of Information and Ministry of Economy. "Therefore, they are legal to do their media production work and use social media platforms," it said in a statement. "That does not violate Palestinian law and is part of the basics of free media activity." Taif TV says it is the first channel of its kind and aims to "shed light on Palestinian women as an integral part of the social fabric, and the role of women in building society". In a video on its Facebook page, the channel's manager is seen thanking a crowd of people outside its building for "believing in Taif's ideas. "Our idea will remain and we will keep working on it," he says.

SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

2-22-18 Sea levels rising faster
Rapidly melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are speeding up the rate of global sea level rise, new research reveals. In future decades, scientists warn, coastal cities such as New Orleans, Boston, and Miami will be inundated unless they invest in costly strategies to mitigate the effects of flooding and erosion. The grim predictions are based on 25 years of satellite data and precise ocean measurements. The data show a total sea level rise of 2.8 inches since 1993. More worrying, researchers say, is that the rise is picking up speed as ice sheets melt, and will double by 2100 to about 0.5 inches per year. They estimate that on average, the world’s oceans will be 26 inches higher by the end of the century. This is actually a conservative estimate, and the total increase is likely to be higher, study author Steve Nerem tells CNN.com. “We are already seeing signs of ice-sheet instability in Greenland and Antarctica,” he says, “so if they experience rapid changes, then we would likely see more than 65 centimeters [26 inches].” The rising seas will cause major flooding in coastal cities, which may have to spend billions on sophisticated sea barriers in coming decades.

2-22-18 The global water crisis
With Cape Town nearing “Day Zero,” the world may be seeing a grim portent of a drier future. A hotline for snitching on water-guzzling neighbors. Signs in café bathrooms reading “When it’s yellow, let it mellow.” Radio stations playing only two-minute songs to help people time their showers. Cape Town’s residents are adapting to life under water rationing in innovative ways. Some wash their feet before going to bed, so they don’t have to wash their sheets as often. Others proudly write “I’m saving water” in the layer of dirt on their cars. Restaurants encourage customers to use hand sanitizers rather than soap and water, and provide paper towels so that they don’t have to launder linen napkins. And everyone, everywhere, uses buckets to collect and recycle much of the water they use. These measures have given some Capetonians a new perspective on their city. “There are many Cape Town residents in the poorer areas who are saying they’ve lived in Day Zero conditions all their lives,” says resident Suzanne Buchanan. “It is certainly giving us more privileged citizens pause for thought.”

  • What is Day Zero?
  • Can it be prevented?
  • Which regions are vulnerable?
  • Where is conflict likely?
  • How can shortages be alleviated?
  • Life under water rations

2-21-18 Rock dusting on farms could cool the climate, so let’s try it
Crushed basalt applied to agricultural land could soak up billions of tons of carbon dioxide and boost crops. Let's put it to the test, says Olive Heffernan. On the menu of geoengineering options, one has always stood out as a saner choice: enhanced weathering. No need to deploy giant mirrors in space to deflect sunlight or to risk food riots by converting crops to fuel. Just scatter crushed rock far and wide. It sounds simple: rock mops up carbon dioxide – it’s a slow but significant part of the carbon cycle – so if we speed up natural weathering we could get enough of this greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere to dampen climate change. Ordinarily, common silicate minerals react slowly with CO2 in air and water. In the process, much of the CO2 is bound up in stable alkaline compounds, which eventually wash into the oceans. It’s reasonable to assume that if silicates were spread more widely over Earth’s surface as crushed rock, more CO2 would bind to them more rapidly, offsetting emissions from human activities. This would have two benefits: the CO2 would be stored more or less permanently; and the end product is alkaline, so run-off has the added bonus of countering ocean acidification. But, like many other geoengineering ideas, enhanced weathering has been beset by problems. Most such propositions have suggested dusting cropland and other surfaces with olivine-rich rock, because it weathers quickly and can capture a tonne of CO2 per tonne of dissolved rock. The olivine, however, would need to be mined on a vast scale, with huge environmental and energy costs. And, as it weathers, olivine releases toxic metals like nickel and chromium that could get into the food chain. That limits its use on farms, which are ideal places to deploy this technique.

2-21-18 Green is the new black: Redesigning clothes to save the planet
The clothes on your back are responsible for huge amounts of pollution – but lab-grown fabrics and changes to our fashion habits can make a big difference. IT WAS a rookie error. Two decades ago, Gary Cass had just finished a degree in viticulture and was working at a friend’s winery in Western Australia when he forgot to add carbon dioxide to a vat of wine. Oxygen seeped in, feeding bacteria that caused a thick skin of sludge to form on its surface. Grateful not to be sacked, Cass threw it away in disgust. He couldn’t have guessed that, 20 years on, he would be using that same sludge to make more environmentally sound clothes. Dressing ourselves is a necessity that has spawned one of the most polluting economic activities on the planet. The clothing industry creates carbon emissions of 1.2 billion tonnes a year – more than aviation – and making and maintaining our clothes consumes shedloads of water, energy and non-renewable resources, too. Concern about clothing sustainability is suddenly in vogue. In November 2017, designer Stella McCartney spoke out against her industry following a report on clothing’s environmental impact by the sustainable economy think tank the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Cass is just one of many trying to respond to such concerns, finding ways to make clothes greener at all stages of their lives, from production and processing to washing and disposal. And although there is no single easy solution, it turns out there is quite a lot we can all do to help.

2-21-18 When it comes to climate change, a tantrum is just what we need
We can’t wait for the next generation to solve the problem of climate change but today’s kids can still be a big force for change, says Michael E. Mann. WHEN my daughter was five, I read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss to her. Much of it is about unrestrained development and damage to nature. It is sad, and she cried at times. But it is also hopeful. Its message is that, in the end, we have a choice – an opportunity remains to save our environment, but it is up to us to act. My generation – in particular, our politicians – have so far failed to act sufficiently. We haven’t done what is necessary to avert the threat posed by climate change. If fossil fuel use continues as now, we will warm our planet to dangerous levels within a few decades, having released too much carbon dioxide to avoid this. We cannot, as some hope, wait for a more environmentally aware generation to follow and solve the problem, as in The Lorax. And yet children do have a role to play. They have the ability to influence the environmental attitudes of adults for the better. It is this potential to engage across the generations that helped inspire The Tantrum That Saved the World, a book I co-wrote with Megan Herbert, an accomplished children’s author and illustrator. We have tried to create a mutual learning experience for parents and children. Our hero is a girl called Sophia, who is upset by creatures appearing at her door. They have been displaced by the impact of climate change on their habitat and are searching for a new home.

2-21-18 Huge underwater landslides and tsunamis may be caused by ooze
Layers of ooze in the seabed may be responsible for submarine “megaslides” that dwarf ordinary landslides and can cause tsunamis. THE largest landslides on Earth happen in the oceans, and an ooze of dead plankton may be responsible. If so, it could help us predict the risk of devastating tsunamis triggered by these events. Far beneath the waves, huge “megaslides” can transport 3000 cubic kilometres of sediment at speeds of up to 80 metres per second. The largest such event on record was the Storegga Slide 8150 years ago off the coast of Norway. Dwarfing every slide known on land, it caused a tsunami that flooded coastlines around the North Sea by up to 20 metres. This may have been devastating for the prehistoric inhabitants of the area. Nobody knows what triggers megaslides. The one clue was that past events had a smooth surface underlying them, suggesting the sediment must have slid over some kind of layer of weakness. But there the trail went cold. “The problem has been that this weak zone vanishes with the landslide,” says Morelia Urlaub at the Geomar Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany. Now Urlaub and her colleagues believe that the cause of the weak zone is ooze, a “fluffy” substance made of dead single-celled organisms called diatoms. It forms when diatoms – a major component of plankton – die and drift down to the seafloor. Urlaub’s team got lucky, she says, because a now defunct international research effort called the Ocean Drilling Program once collected a core from marine sediments off the north-west coast of Africa. It was right next to the site of the Cap Blanc Slide, a megaslide that happened about 149,000 years ago. This gave the team access to deep-sea sediments, where they discovered a 10-metre-thick layer of ooze (Geology, doi.org/ckng).

2-20-18 Ocean plastic tide 'violates the law'
The global tide of ocean plastic pollution is a clear violation of international law, campaigners say. They have been urging for a new global treaty to tackle the problem. But a new report - to be presented to a Royal Geographical Society conference on Tuesday - says littering the sea with plastics is already prohibited under existing agreements. The report urges those governments that are trying to tackle the issue to put legal pressure on those that are not. The paper (downloadable PDF) has been written by the veteran environment journalist Oliver Tickell. It has been produced as Irish scientists publish details of a study in which they found microplastics in three-in-every-four deep-water fish sampled in the northwest Atlantic. Mr Tickell's principal conclusion is backed by ClientEarth, the legal group that successfully sued the UK over failures to meet air pollution laws. The journalist says legal action against big polluters such as China, India and Indonesia can be taken only by a nation state. So he calls for governments and green groups to support small island nations suffering most from plastic pollution. Tickell maintains that marine plastic litter can already be controlled through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); the London Convention; the MARPOL Convention; the Basel Convention; Customary Law, and many other regional agreements. Article 194 of UNCLOS, for instance, requires states to "prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from any source. "Measures shall include, inter alia, those designed to minimize to the fullest possible extent... the release of toxic, harmful or noxious substances, especially those which are persistent, from land-based sources… [and] shall include those necessary to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems as well as the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life."

2-20-18 Cyclone Gita hits New Zealand after hammering Tonga
New Zealand has declared a state of emergency as Cyclone Gita struck the city of Christchurch, just days after causing devastation on the island nation of Tonga. CHRISTCHURCH and other districts on the South Island of New Zealand declared a state of emergency this week as Cyclone Gita tore through the country, leaving many without power. Last week, Gita reached wind speeds of 230 kilometres per hour and ripped through the Pacific island of Tonga. It was the worst cyclone to hit the country in 60 years, destroying or damaging an estimated 1400 houses. Arriving at New Zealand, the storm first hit the zone between the North and South islands, whipping up waves up to 9 metres tall. As Gita went south to Christchurch, it brought almost 30 centimetres of rainfall in places. Almost 200 schools were shut, and New Zealand’s national airline cancelled all flights to and from the capital, Wellington. “Even though the deep low pressure system moves away from us early on Wednesday, the effects of Gita will last a few more days, with further rain likely about central New Zealand until Thursday,” said Lisa Murray at MetService in Wellington.

2-20-18 Gita: State of emergency as storm hits New Zealand
The city of Christchurch and several other districts on New Zealand's South Island have declared a state of emergency after being hit by the remnants of Cyclone Gita. Dozens of schools have been shut and roads closed in the South Island as the storm made landfall on Tuesday. Air New Zealand has cancelled all flights in and out of the capital, Wellington, in the North Island. Residents were told to expect floods and winds of up to 150km/h (90mph). The Grey District, Buller District and Nelson Tasman are among the regions in the South Island to have declared a state of emergency, as has Taranaki in the North Island. "The full impact of the storm will be felt overnight and tomorrow morning," said Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel. She urged residents in low-lying areas to evacuate, saying: "We are expecting homes to be flooded." The Buller District Mayor Garry Howard said he expected high seas and strong winds in the West Coast region. "This is not a good situation for those in seafront properties," he said. Gita, which was downgraded on Tuesday from a tropical cyclone to a storm, is already causing flooding in parts of the South Island with waves up to 7m (22ft) high. Community halls in Christchurch and other districts are providing shelter for those affected by the weather.

2-18-18 Does bad air lead to bad behavior?
New research links air pollution to higher levels of crime and other unethical acts. Looking for an excuse the next time you get caught doing something unethical? If you live in a highly polluted city, you may be in luck. Recent research offers evidence that air pollution inspires unethical behavior, ranging from low-stakes cheating to criminal activity. It reports this is likely due to polluted air increasing personal anxiety, which can throw people's moral compasses out of whack. "This research reveals that air pollution may have potential ethical costs that go beyond its well-known toll on health and the environment," lead author Jackson Lu of Columbia Business School said in announcing the results. "Our findings suggest that air pollution not only corrupts people's health, but can contaminate their morality." Evidence of a link between pollution and crime has been growing for several years. A 2015 study found violent crimes were 2.2 percent higher in neighborhoods downwind of air pollution. Another released in December linked higher levels of particulate matter with higher rates of juvenile delinquency. In the first of their four studies, Lu and his colleagues add to this evidence. Using data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Environmental Protection Agency covering the years 1999 to 2009, they compared air pollution levels and crime rates in 9,360 American cities. They found that, even after taking a variety of factors into account, including the poverty and unemployment rates and the numerical strength of the local police force, cities with higher levels of air pollution also had higher rates of seven major categories of crime, including murder, aggravated assault, and robbery.

SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

2-23-18 Eating fish as a child seems to protect you from hay fever
Infants who eat fish are less likely to develop hay fever later on, a finding that suggests changing diets have played a role in rising allergy rates. Toddlers who eat fish at least once a month are less likely to develop hay fever in later childhood. Hay fever – the itchy, sneezy reaction to pollen, dust and fur – is becoming increasingly common in industrialised countries. Some have blamed the fact that children are being exposed to a narrower range of microbes for disrupting our immune systems, but diet may also play a role. To explore this, Emma Goksör at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and her team asked over 4000 parents about their children’s diet and lifestyle at one year of age, and then again when they were nearly teenagers. Consistent with previous studies, they found that those who grew up on farms with animals were half as likely to develop hay fever – perhaps because they encounter a greater range of microorganisms in infancy. But they also found that children who ate fish at least once a month when they were one-year-olds were 30 per cent less likely to develop hay fever by the age of 12. This connection has been hinted at before: for example, a 2003 study found that 4-year-olds were 55 per cent less likely to suffer from hay fever if they had eaten fish in their first year of life. Other studies have found links between early fish consumption and lower rates of similar allergic diseases like asthma and eczema. “Communities that eat lots of fish generally have lower rates of allergic disease and other inflammatory conditions,” says Mimi Tang at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia. Studies have also found that children whose mothers took fish oil during pregnancy were less likely to develop asthma, eczema and food sensitivities.

2-23-18 Neanderthals were capable of making art
Contrary to the traditional view of them as brutes, it turns out that Neanderthals were artists. A study in Science journal suggests they made cave drawings in Spain that pre-date the arrival of modern humans in Europe by 20,000 years. They also appear to have used painted sea shells as jewellery. Art was previously thought to be a behaviour unique to our species (Homo sapiens) and far beyond our evolutionary cousins. The cave paintings include stencilled impressions of Neanderthal hands, geometric patterns and red circles. They occupy three sites at La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales - situated up to 700km apart in different parts of Spain. It relies on measuring the radioactive decay of uranium that gets incorporated into mineral crusts forming over the paintings. The results gave a minimum age of 65,000 years ago for the cave art. Modern humans only arrived in Europe roughly 45,000 years ago. This suggests that the Palaeolithic artwork must have been made by Neanderthals, a "sister" species to Homo sapiens, and Europe's sole human inhabitants at the time. But, so far, the researchers have found only abstract expressions of art by Neanderthals.

2-22-18 Neanderthals made the oldest cave art in the world
We weren’t the only ancient artists – the discovery of 66,700-year-old cave art show our Neanderthal cousins also liked to draw. We now know for sure that our extinct Neanderthal cousins were artists who regularly drew on cave walls. The finding implies the capacity to make art may have been inherited from the common ancestor we share with Neanderthals, which lived 500,000 years ago. Many European caves contain prehistoric art, all of which has been attributed to modern humans, though there have been past claims of Neanderthal paintings with weak evidence. Alistair Pike of the University of Southampton, UK and his colleagues have been studying prehistoric art in the Monte Castillo caves in northern Spain for a decade. In 2012, they reported that a red dot on the wall of El Castillo cave was at least 40,800 years old. That was just when Neanderthals were disappearing from Europe and modern humans arrived. “We couldn’t work out whether it was modern humans or Neanderthals that did that painting,” says Pike. Now his team has studied art in three more caves, and found older paintings that must have been made by Neanderthals, since modern humans weren’t around. The first, La Pasiega, is also part of Monte Castillo. It is a long tube, sculpted by water, with arches that have been painted. One painting is a symbol made up of red lines. It is covered with a mineral called calcite, formed when water flowed over the painting and left behind dissolved chemicals. The calcite contains radioactive uranium, which decays into thorium at a known rate. By comparing the amount of uranium and thorium, the researchers determined the calcite was 64,800 years old, so the painting must be at least that old.

2-22-18 Cave art suggests Neandertals were ancient humans’ mental equals
Newly dated rock drawings and shell ornaments predate Homo sapiens in Europe by at least 20,000 years. Neandertals drew on cave walls and made personal ornaments long before encountering Homo sapiens, two new studies find. These discoveries paint bulky, jut-jawed Neandertals as the mental equals of ancient humans, scientists say. Rock art depicting abstract shapes and hand stencils in three Spanish caves dates back to at least 64,800 years ago, researchers report in the Feb. 23 Science. If these new estimates hold up, the Spanish finds become the world’s oldest known examples of cave art, preceding evidence of humans’ arrival in Europe by at least 20,000 years (SN Online: 11/2/11). The finds raise the possibility that “Neandertals took modern humans into caves and showed them how to paint,” says archaeologist Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France. Personal ornaments previously found at a coastal cave in southeastern Spain are older than the cave art, dating to around 120,000 to 115,000 years ago, scientists report February 22 in Science Advances. Only Neandertals inhabited Europe at that time. Those artifacts consist of pigment-stained seashells with artificial holes, presumably for use as necklaces, and seashells containing remnants of pigment mixtures, say geochronologist Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues. Hoffmann is also an author of the cave art study. The new findings join previous reports of potentially symbolic Neandertal artifacts, such as a possible necklace made from eagle claws (SN: 4/18/15, p. 7) and bird-feather decorations.

2-22-18 A powerful new flu drug
As Americans cope with the worst flu season in a decade, the Japanese drug maker Shionogi says it has developed a new drug that can kill the flu virus within one day. In a human trial, just one dose of the experimental drug, known as baloxavir marboxil, cleared the virus three times faster than Tamiflu, which must be taken twice daily for five days. “The data that we’ve seen looks very promising,” the World Health Organization’s Martin Howell Friede tells The Wall Street Journal. “This could be a breakthrough in the way that we treat influenza.” When the flu virus enters our bodies, it hijacks cells and forces them to replicate the virus, making us very sick. Antivirals, including Tamiflu, help by preventing these flu “copies” from escaping the cells where they were manufactured. Shionogi’s drug takes a more direct approach, preventing the virus from taking control of cells in the first place. The fast-acting drug could make the virus less contagious and provide patients with more immediate symptom relief. The drug is fast-tracked for approval in Japan. Shionogi plans to apply for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this summer.

2-22-18 Measles cases soar
More than 21,000 people got measles in Europe last year, more than quadruple the number in 2016, and at least 35 of them died. World Health Organization officials blame the spike on parents rejecting or delaying jabs for their children because of the discredited but widespread belief that there is a link between childhood vaccinations and autism. The most affected countries were Italy, Romania, and Ukraine, with about 5,000 cases each. The vaccination rate for young children in Italy is 85 percent; WHO says 95 percent should be immunized to prevent outbreaks. Measles is highly contagious and can cause blindness, encephalitis, and death. Such deaths are “a tragedy we cannot accept,” said WHO official Zsuzsanna Jakab.

2-22-18 Vaccines Work!
Progress, after the World Health Organization predicted that polio will finally be eradicated “once and for all” in 2018. Last year, there were only 22 reported new cases of the disease, which paralyzed or killed millions of children in the 20th century.

2-22-18 Global Virome Project is hunting for more than 1 million unknown viruses
The search for microbes lurking in animal hosts aims to prevent the next human pandemic. To play good defense against the next viral pandemic, it helps to know the other team’s offense. But the 263 known viruses that circulate in humans represent less than 0.1 percent of the viruses suspected to be lurking out there that could infect people, researchers report in the Feb. 23 Science. The Global Virome Project, to be launched in 2018, aims to close that gap. The international collaboration will survey viruses harbored by birds and mammals to identify candidates that might be zoonotic, or able to jump to humans. Based on the viral diversity in two species known to host emerging human diseases — Indian flying foxes and rhesus macaques — the team estimates there are about 1.67 million unknown viruses still to be discovered in the 25 virus families surveyed. Of those, between 631,000 and 827,000 might be able to infect humans. The $1.2 billion project aims to identify roughly 70 percent of these potential threats within the next 10 years, focusing on animals in places known to be hot spots for the emergence of human-infecting viruses. That data will be made publicly available to help scientists prepare for future virus outbreaks — or, ideally, to quash threats as they emerge.

2-22-18 Fighting bacteria with dirt
Scientists have discovered a new antibiotic capable of wiping out several strains of “superbugs,” including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The new class of microbe-destroying molecules, known as malacidins, was extracted from microorganisms living in dirt, suggesting new weapons against drug-resistant bacteria could be lurking right under our feet, The Washington Post reports. “Every place you step, there’s 10,000 bacteria, most of which we’ve never seen,” says lead researcher Sean Brady. “There’s this reservoir of antibiotics out in the environment we haven’t accessed yet.” The vast majority of antibiotics are produced by fungi and by bacteria themselves in their ongoing competition against one another, but only about 1 percent of these microbes can be grown in petri dishes. The researchers bypassed this problem by removing DNA from 2,000 soil samples teeming with bacteria, cloning it, and injecting it into microbes that can be cultured in a lab. These microbes produced malacidin, which destroys the cell walls of bacteria. The molecule efficiently cleared MRSA infections in rats without inducing resistance. The development of a new drug will take years, but these findings point to a new strategy for combating antibiotic--resistant infections, which kill at least 23,000 Americans a year.

2-22-18 Miniature personalised tumours could help you get the best chemo
Growing mini tumours in the lab from a patient’s own cells could help doctors discover the best way to treat each person, homing in on the right drugs to use. Growing miniature tumours in the lab could help doctors discover the best way to treat each patient, homing in on the right drugs to use. Nicola Valeri, of the Institute of Cancer Research, in London, and her team have shown this by taking 110 biopsies from tumours. These were all secondary tumours from 71 people with cancers that had spread from the bowel, oesophagus or bile duct. In the lab, the team grew up the cells from these biopsies into miniature tumours, and tested 55 standard chemotherapeutic drugs on each kind, to see which were the best at killing them. These tests showed with 100 per cent accuracy which drugs hadn’t worked out when tried in the patient who’d donated the cells. The tests were 88 per cent accurate at predicting drugs that had successfully shrunk tumours in these patients. Cancer treatment is often guided by genetic sequences taken from a primary tumour, but the team think their method is a better way of deciding how to fight cancer that has spread elsewhere in the body. “We know that cancers evolve over treatment and change between the primary and the secondaries,” says Valeri. The team is planning to test their approach in a clinical trial in which chemotherapy drug selection for each person will be guided by testing balls of their cells in the lab. As well as tumour cells, they’re also looking at how immune and inflammatory cells from a person might help guide their treatment.

2-22-18 Having children may add 11 years to a woman’s biological age
Having a baby seems to be linked to shorter caps on the ends of a woman’s chromosomes – a sign of ageing that has been linked to disease and a shorter lifespan. Women who have given birth seem to have hallmarks of faster biological ageing than those that don’t – and the difference is equivalent to around 11 years. That’s what Anna Pollack and her colleagues at George Mason University, Virginia, found when they looked at one measure of biological ageing. The team looked at the length of telomeres – chunks of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes. These shorten with each cell division, and shrunken telomeres have been associated with a shorter lifespan, as well as a host of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Pollack and her colleagues looked at telomere lengths in blood samples taken between 1999 and 2000 from 1,954 women from across the US. They were all aged between 20 and 44 at the time. They found that women who had given birth had telomeres that were on average 4.2 per cent shorter than those who had not had children, even after accounting for factors like age, socioeconomic status and body mass index. “It is equivalent to around 11 years of accelerated cellular ageing,” says Pollack. The size of the telomere shortening is bigger than that seen in studies of smoking or obesity, says Pollack. “We were surprised to find such a striking result.” It’s unclear whether this is caused by pregnancy, childbirth, or the experience of raising children. Women who have been pregnant seem to have a degree of protection from some cancers, including breast and uterine cancer, but are more at risk of heart disease and diabetes, thanks to hormonal changes.

2-22-18 Chemicals undo weight loss
A class of widely used chemicals lurking in nonstick pans, pizza boxes, food wrappers, and other consumer products are accumulating in people’s bodies and can cause weight gain. For 60 years, chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, have been used to make a wide range of stain-resistant, waterproof, and nonstick products, including cookware, carpets, and food wrappers. These chemicals have already been linked to cancer, immune system dysfunction, and hormone disruption. Now Harvard researchers have found exposure to these ubiquitous chemicals could also slow metabolism. The team analyzed blood samples collected from 621 overweight or obese people. They found those with the greatest levels of these chemicals burned fewer calories and regained more weight after dieting than those with minimal exposure. This link was particularly strong among women, who gained back up to five more pounds than those with the lowest PFAS levels. “It is very hard to avoid exposure to PFASs, but we should try to,” study author Qi Sun tells TheGuardian.com. “It’s an increasing public health issue.”

2-22-18 Standing sheds pounds
The harmful effects of prolonged sitting are well established. New research suggests that spending more time on your feet, perhaps at a standing desk, is not only healthier—it can also help people lose weight. After analyzing 46 studies involving more than 1,000 people, scientists at the Mayo Clinic found that standing burns 0.15 calories more per minute than sitting. This seemingly insignificant difference can have notable effects over time. Six hours of standing would burn an extra 54 calories per day. After one year, this could amount to a loss of 5.5 pounds. Those who keep it up for an additional three years could shed up to 22 pounds, the Los Angeles Times reports. “Standing for long periods of time for many adults may seem unmanageable, especially those who have desk jobs,” says study author Francisco Lopez-Jimenez. “But for the person who sits for 12 hours a day, cutting sitting time to half would give great benefits.”

2-22-18 Cycling in later life makes you less likely to have a bad fall
Riding a bike into your older years means stronger legs, better balance and a lower risk of falls that injure and kill millions of elderly people. Middle-aged men in Lycra – or “MAMILs” – may be onto something. People who keep cycling into their later years are surer on their feet, lowering the risk of falls that plague older folk. One-third of over 65s take a tumble each year. Apart from the physical injuries, the fear of a repeat can limit mobility and independence and lead to further health issues like arthritis and depression. About one-quarter of older people who fracture their hip during a fall die within a year. Chris Rissel at the University of Sydney and his colleagues wondered whether bike-riding could prevent falls by improving balance and leg strength. They compared 79 people aged 65 or older who still regularly rode with 28 others who stopped when they were younger. The participants were a mix of men and women living in the Netherlands. Those who still cycled performed better in all tests of strength and balance. For example, they were able to stand on one leg for more than twice as long, could jump twice as high, and were faster at going from sitting to standing. “We would expect this to translate to fewer falls because there’s good evidence that strength and balance are the core preventative factors,” says Rissel. A questionnaire found that the participants who still cycled also reported being 25 per cent more confident on average in their ability to stay on their feet during everyday activities like walking around the house, going up and down stairs, and navigating busy shopping centres.

2-22-18 Almost every antidepressant headline you’ll read today is wrong
A review of the evidence on antidepressants has been hailed as the final word on these drugs, but questions remain for people with less severe depression. Antidepressants really do work, and should be prescribed to millions more people, if you believe today’s newspaper headlines. The reality is more nuanced, as we still don’t know that these drugs will help most people with less severe depression. The positive press has been triggered by a study out this week that found these medicines do relieve depression, contradicting previous claims they are little better than a placebo. The latest investigation was a mammoth undertaking by a respected group of researchers. It reviewed over 500 trials of 21 different drugs, containing more than 100,000 people with depression. Most media reports say the new findings should put the controversy to bed. Let’s not be too hasty. The previous negative studies found that antidepressants don’t work in people with mild-to-moderate depression. Most of the people in the latest review had more severe depression. So it is good news for that severe group, but it doesn’t resolve whether this is true for all forms of depression. Mild depression is more common than the severe form, so we are still in the dark about how much antidepressants help most people – and the main complaint is that doctors prescribe these pills too easily for those at the milder end of the spectrum. Nor does the new study reveal how well they work for the other conditions they are often recommended for, such as anxiety and phobias.

2-22-18 Ancient Britons 'replaced' by newcomers
The ancient population of Britain was almost completely replaced by newcomers about 4,500 years ago, a study shows. The findings mean modern Britons trace just a small fraction of their ancestry to the people who built Stonehenge. The astonishing result comes from analysis of DNA extracted from 400 ancient remains across Europe. The mammoth study, published in Nature, suggests the newcomers, known as Beaker people, replaced 90% of the British gene pool in a few hundred years. Lead author Prof David Reich, from Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, US, said: "The magnitude and suddenness of the population replacement is highly unexpected." The reasons remain unclear, but climate change, disease and ecological disaster could all have played a role. People in Britain lived by hunting and gathering until agriculture was introduced from continental Europe about 6,000 years ago. These Neolithic farmers, who traced their origins to Anatolia (modern Turkey) built giant stone (or "megalithic") structures such as Stonehenge in Wiltshire, huge Earth mounds and sophisticated settlements such as Skara Brae in the Orkneys. But towards the end of the Neolithic, about 4,450 years ago, a new way of life spread to Britain from Europe. People began burying their dead with stylised bell-shaped pots, copper daggers, arrowheads, stone wrist guards and distinctive perforated buttons. Co-author Dr Carles Lalueza-Fox, from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE) in Barcelona, Spain, said the Beaker traditions probably started "as a kind of fashion" in Iberia after 5,000 years ago. From here, the culture spread very fast by word of mouth to Central Europe. After it was adopted by people in Central Europe, it exploded in every direction - but through the movement of people.

2-21-18 Ancient ‘dark-skinned’ Briton Cheddar Man find may not be true
The headline was that an ancient Briton from 10,000 years ago had dark skin, but the genetics of skin colour are so complex that we can’t be sure. A Briton who lived 10,000 years ago had dark brown skin and blue eyes. At least, that’s what dozens of news stories published this month – including our own – stated as fact. But one of the geneticists who performed the research says the conclusion is less certain, and according to others we are not even close to knowing the skin colour of any ancient human. The skeleton of Cheddar Man was discovered in 1903 in a cave in south-east England where it had lain for 10,000 years. Until a few weeks ago, he had always been depicted with pale skin. This makes some sense, given that people living at northern latitudes often have paler skins. The explanation may be that it allows more of the weak northerly sunlight into their skin, so they can make enough vitamin D. And it seems our species reached Europe 30,000 years before Cheddar Man lived, so his ancestors would have had plenty of time to evolve paler skins. But the new DNA analysis suggests that Cheddar Man may have had dark skin. Most news stories said his skin was “dark to black”. To show this, researchers including Susan Walsh at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis read Cheddar Man’s DNA. Walsh had helped develop a model that attempts to predict someone’s eye, hair and skin pigmentation solely from their DNA, and the team applied this model to Cheddar Man.

2-21-18 The tamed ape: Were humans the first animal to be domesticated?
Deep inside our genome are bits of DNA we share only with animals such as dogs and cattle. Our self-domestication may have been a pivotal moment in making us human. FIRST came the dog, followed by sheep and goats. Then the floodgates opened: pigs, cows, cats, horses and a menagerie of birds and other beasts made the leap. Over the past 30,000 years or so, humans have domesticated all manner of species for food, hunting, transport, materials, to control pests and to keep as pets. But some say that before we domesticated any of them, we first had to domesticate ourselves. Mooted by Darwin and even Aristotle, the idea of human domestication has since been just that: an idea. Now, for the first time, genetic comparisons between us and Neanderthals suggest that we really may be the puppy dogs to their feral wolves. Not only could this explain some long-standing mysteries – including why our brains are weirdly smaller than those of our Stone Age ancestors – some say it is the only way to make sense of certain quirks of human evolution. One major insight into what happens when wild beasts are domesticated comes from a remarkable experiment that began in 1959, in Soviet Siberia. There, Dmitry Belyaev took relatively wild foxes from an Estonian fur farm and bred them. In each new litter, he chose the most cooperative animals and encouraged them to mate. Gradually, the foxes began to behave more and more like pets. But it wasn’t just their behaviour that changed. The tamer foxes also looked different. Within 10 generations, white patches started to appear on their fur. A few generations later, their ears became floppier. Eventually the males’ skulls shrank and began to look more like those of the females.

2-21-18 New fossils are redefining what makes a dinosaur
Defining what’s unique about these ‘fearfully great lizards’ gets harder with new finds. “There’s a very faint dimple here,” Sterling Nesbitt says, holding up a palm-sized fossil to the light. The fossil, a pelvic bone, belonged to a creature called Teleocrater rhadinus. The slender, 2-meter-long reptile ran on all fours and lived 245 million years ago, about 10 million to 15 million years before scientists think dinosaurs first appeared. Nesbitt, a paleontologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, tilts the bone toward the overhead light, illuminating a small depression in the fossil. The dent, about the size of a thumbprint, marks the place where the leg bone fit into the pelvis. In a true dinosaur, there would be a complete hole there in the hip socket, not just a depression. The dimple is like a waving red flag: Nope, not a dinosaur. The hole in the hip socket probably helped dinosaurs position their legs underneath their bodies, rather than splayed to the sides like a crocodile’s legs. Until recently, that hole was among a handful of telltale features paleontologists used to identify whether they had their hands on an actual dinosaur specimen. Another no-fail sign was a particular depression at the top of the skull. Until Teleocrater mucked things up. The creature predated the dinosaurs, yet it had the dinosaur skull depression.

2-21-18 We can now squeeze a molecule and turn it into one that we want
We can now precisely tweak molecular structures just by squeezing them - a technique that could let us efficiently build custom drug compounds on the cheap. It’s a tight squeeze. Researchers have controlled a chemical reaction by squeezing specially designed molecules between a pair of diamonds. This could be a more precise way to make custom molecules on demand for use in pharmaceuticals. There are several ways to initiate a chemical reaction that breaks molecular bonds or moves electrons around. You can add heat, electricity or light, or simply pull the molecule apart. Now, Nicholas Melosh at Stanford University and his colleagues have initiated these sorts of reactions by simply squeezing the whole molecule. This is the first time anyone has started an asymmetrical chemical reaction by just squeezing. High pressure is a simple way to create some types of molecular changes, like turning graphite into diamonds. But most reactions are symmetrical across an entire molecule – because the pressure is coming from all sides, every part of the graphite’s structure shifts in the same way to become diamond. For more sophisticated, asymmetrical reactions, the molecule needs some sort of internal structure that put pressure on a particular location. Melosh and his colleagues accomplished this by placing the part of the molecule in which they wanted the reaction to take place between two rigid molecules called carboranes.

2-21-18 A new study eases fears of a link between autism and prenatal ultrasounds
On almost every measure, prenatal ultrasounds didn’t seem related to a risk of developing autism, a recent study finds. Ultrasounds during pregnancy can be lots of fun, offering peeks at the baby-to-be. But ultrasounds aren’t just a way to get Facebook fodder. They are medical procedures that involve sound waves, technology that could, in theory, affect a growing fetus. With that concern in mind, some researchers have wondered if the rising rates of autism diagnoses could have anything to do with the increasing number of ultrasound scans that women receive during pregnancy. The answer is no, suggests a study published online February 12 in JAMA Pediatrics. On average, children with autism were exposed to fewer ultrasounds during pregnancy, scientists found. The results should be “very reassuring” to parents, says study coauthor Jodi Abbott, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine. To back up: Autism rates have risen sharply over the last several decades (though are possibly plateauing). Against this backdrop, researchers are searching for the causes of autism — and there are probably many. Autism is known to run in families, and scientists have found some of the particular genetic hot spots that may contribute. Other factors, such as older parents and maternal obesity, can also increase the risk of autism.

2-20-18 How you speak predicts if psychedelic therapy will help you
Psilocybin, a compound in magic mushrooms, may help treat depression in some people. Now speech analysis can indicate who would benefit the most. The way you speak may reveal whether a psychedelic drug could help treat depression or anxiety. Robin Carhart-Harris and his team at Imperial College London have been testing psilocybin – a hallucinogen found in magic mushrooms – in people with treatment-resistant depression. Their pilot study found that when it was given to 12 volunteers alongside psychological support, five of them no longer met the clinical criteria for a depression diagnosis three months later. But how can you tell if psilocybin might help someone? Working with the Imperial team, Facundo Carrillo at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina and his colleagues tested the idea that speech patterns give a clue. Speech analysis has already been used to identify people with a range of mental health disorders, including depression and schizophrenia. “Language is a window to the mind,” says Matthew Johnson at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “It’s a huge part of how people express themselves.” Carrillo’s team developed software to analyse interview responses given by 17 people with treatment-resistant depression before psilocybin treatment, and 18 people without depression. The psilocybin treatment seemed to reduce the symptoms of seven of the people with depression by more than 50 per cent. Using the results to train their software, the researchers say it can predict whether a person with depression will respond to psilocybin with 85 per cent accuracy

2-20-18 A fake organ mimics what happens in the blink of an eye
Faux eyeball surface could be used to test treatments for eye diseases. A new artificial organ gives a new meaning to the phrase “making eyes.” For the first time, researchers used human cells to build a model of the surface of the eye that’s equipped with a fake eyelid that mimics blinking. This synthetic eye could be used to study and test treatments for eye diseases, researchers reported February 16 in a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dan Huh, a bioengineer at the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues grew a ring of conjunctival cells — tissue that covers the white part of the eye — around a circle of corneal cells on a contact lens?shaped platform. A faux eyelid made of a thin hydrogel film covers and uncovers the eye to spread tear fluid over the cells. This artificial eye surface could help researchers study dry eye disease, a condition that affects an estimated 16 million adults in the United States. People with dry eye disease don’t produce enough tears or fail to make tears with the proper chemical composition to keep their eyes hydrated. Huh’s team could give the organ the symptoms of dry eye disease by making it blink less frequently, so the device could be used to test the safety and effectiveness of new eye drop medications. This kind of artificial organ may also be used to study other eye injuries, like corneal ulcers, Huh said.

2-20-18 How to build a human brain
Some steps for growing mini versions of human organs are easier than others. In a white lab coat and blue latex gloves, Neda Vishlaghi peers through a light microscope at six milky-white blobs. Each is about the size of a couscous grain, bathed in the pale orange broth of a petri dish. With tweezers in one hand and surgical scissors in the other, she deftly snips one tiny clump in half. When growing human brains, sometimes you need to do some pruning. The blobs are 8-week-old bits of brainlike tissue. While they wouldn’t be mistaken for Lilliputian-sized brains, some of their fine-grained features bear a remarkable resemblance to the human cerebral cortex, home to our memories, decision making and other high-level cognitive powers. Vishlaghi created these “minibrains” at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA, where she’s a research assistant. First she immersed batches of human pluripotent stem cells — which can morph into any cell type in the body — in a special mix of chemicals. The free-floating cells multiplied and coalesced into itty-bitty balls of neural tissue. Nurtured with meticulously timed doses of growth-supporting ingredients, the cell clumps were eventually transferred to petri dishes of broth laced with Matrigel, a gelatin-like matrix of proteins.

2-20-18 Are computers better than people at predicting who will commit another crime?
Maybe not. When it comes to predicting whether or not someone will commit another crime — which can affect lockup time — computer programs don’t have an edge over people. In courtrooms around the United States, computer programs give testimony that helps decide who gets locked up and who walks free. These algorithms are criminal recidivism predictors, which use personal information about defendants — like family and employment history — to assess that person’s likelihood of committing future crimes. Judges factor those risk ratings into verdicts on everything from bail to sentencing to parole. Computers get a say in these life-changing decisions because their crime forecasts are supposedly less biased and more accurate than human guesswork. But investigations into algorithms’ treatment of different demographics have revealed how machines perpetuate human prejudices. Now there’s reason to doubt whether crime-prediction algorithms can even boast superhuman accuracy.

2-20-18 Origins of land plants pushed back in time
A seminal event in the Earth's history - when plants appeared on land - may have happened 100 million years earlier than previously thought. Land plants evolved from "pond scum" about 500 million years ago, according to new research. These early moss-like plants greened the continents, creating habitats for land animals. The study, based on analysing the genes of living plants, overturns theories based purely on fossil plant evidence. "Land plants emerged on land half a billion years ago, tens of millions of years older than the fossil record alone suggests," said study author, Dr Philip Donoghue of the department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. "This changes perception of the nature of early terrestrial environments, displacing pond scum in favour of a flora that would have tickled your toes - but not reached much higher." Early plants would have provided a habitat for fully terrestrial animals, which emerged onto land at much the same time, he said. This coincides with the time period when life became more diverse and abundant in the seas - an event known as the Cambrian explosion. "Our results show the ancestor of land plants was alive in the middle Cambrian Period, which was similar to the age for the first known terrestrial animals," said co-researcher Dr Mark Puttick, from the Natural History Museum, London.

2-19-18 We’re evolving a gene that may stop us from drinking alcohol
Humans are still evolving and producing new gene variants, and one of them may give protection against becoming addicted to alcohol - by stopping us drinking altogether. Humans are still evolving, and alcohol may be helping to drive the process in some places. A variant of a gene that protects us against alcohol addiction, possibly by making boozing intolerable, seems to be favoured by evolution. So are several other gene variants. Novel gene variants are known to have arisen and spread among humans in the recent past. One allows some people to tolerate the lactose in cow’s milk, so they can digest dairy produce. Other rapidly changing genes have been linked with education, smoking and Alzheimer’s disease. People have been drinking alcohol for many thousands of years, so it seems reasonable that our taste for booze – and the attendant dangers – could also have affected our genes. Benjamin Voight of the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues have tried to identify regions of the human genome that have evolved over the last few thousand years. The group trawled through the genomes of about 2500 living people from 26 populations on four continents, obtained by the 1000 Genomes Project. To pick out gene variants that are on their way to becoming established across humankind, the team looked for ones that have emerged relatively recently in seemingly disparate populations – such as in both westernmost Europe and easternmost Asia. The group assumed such variants are helpful, because they must either have spread rapidly across continents, or arisen independently and stuck several times over.

2-19-18 This is what the flu does to your body
And why it feels so awful. Every year, from 5 to 20 percent of the people in the United States will become infected with influenza virus. An average of 200,000 of these people will require hospitalization and up to 50,000 will die. Older folks over the age of 65 are especially susceptible to influenza infection, since the immune system becomes weaker with age. In addition, older folks are also more susceptible to long-term disability following influenza infection, especially if they are hospitalized. We all know the symptoms of influenza infection include fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, headaches, and fatigue. But just what causes all the havoc? What is going on in your body as you fight the flu? I am a researcher who specializes in immunology at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, and my laboratory focuses on how influenza infection affects the body and how our bodies combat the virus. It's interesting to note that many of the body's defenses that attack the virus also cause many of the symptoms associated with the flu.

  • How the flu works its way into your body: Influenza virus causes an infection in the respiratory tract, or nose, throat, and lungs. The virus is inhaled or transmitted, usually via your fingers, to the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, or eyes.
  • Why your head hurts so much: While the influenza virus is wholly contained in the lungs under normal circumstances, several symptoms of influenza are systemic, including fever, headache, fatigue, and muscle aches.
  • Why your muscles ache: Our study in an animal model found that influenza infection leads to an increase in the expression of muscle-degrading genes and a decrease in expression of muscle-building genes in skeletal muscles in the legs.

2-19-18 Flu is evolving in new and unpredictable ways in China’s poultry
A woman in China has been infected by a new type of flu. With thousands of people travelling after Chinese new year, the risk of new strains spreading is high. A type of avian flu has infected people for the first time. So far, the virus doesn’t seem to be especially threatening, but its jump from chickens to humans was unexpected: the World Health Organization says no similar strains have ever crossed over to people before. Last week, the Hong Kong government announced that a 68-year-old woman in Jiangsu Province in eastern China was hospitalised in January with severe respiratory symptoms. This turned out to be the first recorded case of an H7N4 flu virus infecting humans. The woman recovered after a month in hospital. But the case still rang alarm bells, highlighting the huge amount of unpredictable viral evolution taking place in livestock farming. A different kind of bird flu – H7N9 – first emerged in China in 2013, and has since infected more than 1,500 people there. More than half of these cases took place last winter and spring alone, and 40 per cent of them died. H7N9 has become ubiquitous in Chinese poultry, but it doesn’t spread easily from person-to-person. The nightmare scenario is that this virus could hybridise with a type of influenza that spreads more readily between people, and cause a severe pandemic. Such hybridisation can occur when one bird carries two or more kinds of flu – and it seems that a quarter of poultry in Chinese markets do.

2-19-18 Autism: Scientists take 'first steps' towards biological test
Scientists have taken the first steps towards what they say could become a new blood and urine test for autism. Their study tested children with and without the condition and found higher levels of protein damage in those with the disorder. The researchers said the tests could lead ultimately to the earlier detection of the condition, which can be difficult to diagnose. But experts expressed caution, saying such a test was still a long way off. Autism affects behaviour and particularly social interaction but it is difficult to spot and is not usually diagnosed before the age of two, and often much later. Currently, there are no biological tests that can spot the condition, which is diagnosed through behavioural assessments by clinicians. For this new study, published in the Molecular Autism journal, researchers looked for chemical differences in the blood and urine of 38 autistic children and 31 children without the condition, all aged between five and 12. In those with autism they found higher levels of protein damage - particularly in the blood plasma - which they said were associated with ill health. Dr Naila Rabbani, from the University of Warwick, who led the study, told the BBC the tests could ultimately be used by doctors to diagnose autism earlier in childhood by detecting these markers.

2-19-18 'Loneliest tree' records human epoch
It’s been dubbed "the loneliest tree on the planet" because of its remote location, but the Sitka spruce might represent something quite profound about the age in which we live. The tree, sited on Campbell Island in the Southern Ocean, records in its wood a clear radioactive trace from the A-bomb tests of the 1950s and 60s. As such, it could be the "golden spike" scientists are seeking to define the start of the Anthropocene Epoch - a new time segment in our geological history of Earth. The suggestion is that whatever is taken as the golden spike, it should reflect the so-called "Great Acceleration" when human impacts on the planet suddenly intensified and became global in extent. This occurs after WWII and is seen for example in the explosion in plastics production. Chris Turney, from the University of New South Wales, Australia, and colleagues, say the Sitka spruce captures this change exquisitely in the chemistry of its growth rings. "We're putting this forward as a serious contender to mark the start of the Anthropocene. It's got to be something that reflects a global signal," Prof Turney told BBC News. "The problem with any Northern Hemisphere records is that they largely reflect where most major human activity has happened. But this Christmas tree records the far-reaching nature of that activity and we can't think of anywhere more remote than the Southern Ocean." The spruce shouldn't really be on Campbell Island, which is some 600km from the southern tip of New Zealand. Its natural habitat is found at northern Pacific latitudes, but a single tree was placed on the subantarctic island around 1905, possibly as the start of an intended plantation. The next nearest tree is on the Auckland Islands about 200km to the northwest. Prof Turney and colleagues drilled a fine core into the spruce, which has wide, sharply delineated growth rings, and examined the wood's chemistry. They found a big leap in the amount of carbon-14 in a part of a ring representing the latter half of 1965. This peak in the radioactive form of the element is an unambiguous signature of the atmospheric nuclear tests that occurred post-war. The radioisotope would have been incorporated into the tree as carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.

2-19-18 Modern tech unravels mysteries of Egyptian mummy portraits
A new exhibit explores the science of ancient funeral paintings. Everybody’s a critic. Even back in second century Egypt. While digging in Tebtunis in northern Egypt in the winter of 1899–1900, British archaeologists stumbled upon portraits of affluent Greco-Egyptians placed over the faces of mummies. One grave contained an ink and chalk sketch, a bit larger than a standard sheet of printer paper, of a woman from around the years A.D. 140 to 160. The sketch includes directions from an unidentified source to the artist to paint the “eyes softer.” That ancient critique is now the name of a temporary exhibit at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art in Evanston, Ill. “Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt” features the sketch, along with six more intact or nearly intact Egyptian funeral portraits, one still attached to its mummy. All were discovered more than a century ago but recently examined using modern scientific tools. The relics from this time period don’t resemble your granddad’s King Tut. Egyptians applied a new approach to mummies during the Roman-dominated era from the first through third centuries A.D. These mummies featured portraits of the deceased held in place by the linens wrapping the dead. Such paintings served as a prelude to other panel paintings in the ancient world, including Christian icons.

2-19-18 Mix of metals in this Picasso sculpture provides clues to its mysterious origins
Alloy ‘fingerprints’ help curators piece together where a sculpture was cast. An analysis of the metals in dozens of Picasso’s bronze sculptures has traced the birthplace of a handful of the works of art to the outskirts of German-occupied Paris during World War II. This is the first time that the raw materials of Picasso’s sculptures have been scrutinized in detail, conservation scientist Francesca Casadio of the Art Institute of Chicago said February 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And the elemental “fingerprints” help solve a mystery surrounding the sculptures’ origins. “In collaboration with curators, we can write a richer history of art that is enriched by scientific findings,” Casadio said. Casadio and colleagues from the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., studied 39 bronzes in the collection of the Picasso Museum in Paris. The team used a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to record the amount of copper, tin, zinc and lead at several points on each sculpture.

2-18-18 Babies can recover language skills after a left-side stroke
Babies’ stroke-damaged brains can pull a mirror trick to recover. A stroke on the left side of the brain often damages important language-processing areas. But people who have this stroke just before or after birth recover their language abilities in the mirror image spot on the right side, a study of teens and young adults shows. Those patients all had normal language skills, even though as much as half of their brain had withered away, researchers reported February 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Researchers so far have recruited 12 people ages 12 to 25 who had each experienced a stroke to the same region of their brain’s left hemisphere just before or after birth. People who have this type of stroke as adults often lose their ability to use and understand language, said study coauthor Elissa Newport, a neurology researcher at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. MRI scans of healthy siblings of the stroke patients showed activity in language centers in the left hemisphere of the brain when the participants heard speech. The stroke patients showed activity in the exact same areas — just on the opposite side of the brain.

2-17-18 Electronic skin animates heartbeat on the back of your hand
A flexible e-skin containing a few hundred micro LEDs can display your vital signs or messages from your doctor. Wearing your heart on your sleeve could take on a whole new meaning. An electronic skin can display a person’s heartbeat whilst attached to the back of their hand. The e-skin displays a patient’s electrocardiogram – a waveform representing the electrical activity of the heart – based on data collected by an ultrathin, flexible sensor. The display stretches to 45 per cent of its original length allowing it to conform to the contours and movements of the body. The device’s creators are based at the University of Tokyo and Japanese company Dai Nippon Printing. Their new device features a 16 × 24 array of micro LEDs that can create complex, moving images. This is an improvement on a previous version that could only display a single digit or letter. The team believe that displaying medical information or important messages directly on the skin rather than on monitors is more accessible for less tech-savvy people. “People use and look at their hands much more frequently than smartphones,” says Someya, at the University of Tokyo, who is presenting the device at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. This could be particularly helpful for displaying important information. “For example, elderly people forget to take medicine. It would be nice if the skin display gently shows a reminder,” says Someya.

2-17-18 This stick-on patch could keep tabs on stroke patients at home
Motion sensors track speech and swallowing patterns. Stretchy sensors that stick to the throat could track the long-term recovery of stroke survivors. These new Band-Aid-shaped devices contain motion sensors that detect muscle movement and vocal cord vibrations. That sensor data could help doctors diagnose and monitor the effectiveness of certain treatments for post-stroke conditions like difficulty swallowing or talking, researchers reported February 17 in a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Up to 65 percent of stroke survivors have trouble swallowing, and about a third of survivors have trouble carrying on conversations. The devices can monitor speech patterns more reliably than microphones by sensing tissue movement rather than recording sound. “You don’t pick up anything in terms of ambient noise,” says study coauthor John Rogers, a materials scientist and bioengineer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “You can be next to an airplane jet engine. You’re not going to see that in the [sensor] signal.”

ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

2-23-18 Wildlife secrets of Nigeria's last wilderness
The world's rarest chimpanzee has been captured on camera in the remote forests of Nigeria. The Nigeria-Cameroon chimp was seen at various locations within Gashaka Gumti National Park, raising hopes for its future survival. Conservationists also recorded the first sighting in the country of a giant pangolin. The park is regarded as a national treasure, but its wildlife is under threat from pressures such as poaching. Researchers from Chester Zoo, working with the Nigeria National Park Service, surveyed over 1,000 square kilometres of the national park. Known for its mountain rainforests, savannah woodlands and rolling grasslands, it is home to some of West Africa's most endangered animals. The cameras spotted some animals that have never been recorded before in the area and others, like chimps, which are rarely seen. Stuart Nixon, the Africa Field Programme Co-ordinator at Chester Zoo, said confirmation of the locations of chimps was an important discovery. "Gashaka's been regarded for many years as having the biggest population of this Nigeria-Cameroon chimp, which is the rarest chimp subspecies," he said. "We consider it the most important population - that's really why we need to count it and see what the status of the chimp is right now - that will ultimately affect what we know about this subspecies elsewhere."

2-23-18 World's fishing fleets mapped from orbit
It's another demonstration of the power of Big Data - of mining a huge batch of statistics to see patterns of behaviour that were simply not apparent before. Computers have crunched 22 billion identification messages transmitted by sea-going vessels to map fishing activity around the globe. The analysis reveals that more than 55% of the world's oceans are now subject to industrial exploitation. By area, fishing's footprint is now over four times that of agriculture. That's an astonishing observation given that fisheries provide only 1.2% of global caloric production for human food consumption. The investigation shows clearly that the biggest influences on this activity are not environmental - whether it is summer or winter, or whether there is an El Niño or fish are migrating, for example. Rather, the major controlling factors are very largely political and cultural. "You'd think that fishing activity would follow some natural pulse of the seasons, but in fact that's secondary to whether it's a weekend or not, or whether there's a moratorium, or a public holiday," says David Kroodsma from Global Fishing Watch, which led the study published in Science Magazine. "Because fishing is an industrial activity tied to politics and culture, this is actually a positive message because it shows we have a lot of human agency in the way we fish the oceans, and it's entirely within our power to change things," he told BBC News.

2-22-18 New mapping shows just how much fishing impacts the world’s seas
Fish are harvested from more than half the area covered by oceans, and some spots are super busy. Fishing has left a hefty footprint on Earth. Oceans cover more than two-thirds of the planet’s surface, and industrial fishing occurred across 55 percent of that ocean area in 2016, researchers report in the Feb. 23 Science. In comparison, only 34 percent of Earth’s land area is used for agriculture or grazing. Previous efforts to quantify global fishing have relied on a hodgepodge of scant data culled from electronic monitoring systems on some vessels, logbooks and onboard observers. But over the last 15 years, most commercial-scale ships have been outfitted with automatic identification system (AIS) transceivers, a tracking system meant to help ships avoid collisions. In the new study, the researchers examined 22 billion AIS positions from 2012 through 2016. Using a computer trained with a type of machine learning, the team then identified more than 70,000 fishing vessels and tracked their activity. Much of the fishing was concentrated in countries’ exclusive economic zones — ocean regions within about 370 kilometers of a nation’s coastline — and in certain hot spots farther out in the open ocean, the team found. Such hot spots included the northeastern Atlantic Ocean and the nutrient-rich upwelling regions off the coasts of South America and West Africa.

2-22-18 The last wild horses aren’t truly wild
DNA study finds that Przewalski’s horses had a tame ancestor. When it comes to wild claims, hold your horses. Free-roaming Przewalski’s horses of Central Asia are often called the last of the wild horses, the only living equines never domesticated. But a new genetic analysis of ancient horse bones suggests that these horses have a tamed ancestor after all, making them feral rather than wild. The findings also debunk the idea that these domesticated ancestors — known as Botai horses —gave rise to all other modern horses. That leaves the progenitors of today’s domesticated horses a mystery, researchers report online February 22 in Science. The earliest known domesticated horses were those of the ancient Botai people in northern Kazakhstan (SN: 3/28/09, p. 15). Botai sites dating to around 5,500 years ago are scattered with remnants of harnesses and pots with horse-milk residue, suggesting the animals provided both transportation and food.

2-22-18 Bats spread Ebola because they’ve evolved not to fight viruses
Bats can carry viruses like Ebola and Marburg that are lethal for humans. This may be because, in order to fly, their bodies have given up on fighting such viruses. Bats provide a refuge for some of the most lethal viruses known, including Ebola, Marburg, Nipah and SARS. Now we may know why the animals tolerate these lethal viruses – and it’s because flying is such hard work. Peng Zhou of the Wuhan Institution of Virology in China and his colleagues studied the immune systems of bats and flightless mammals. They focused on free-floating DNA within cells. This can happen as the result of a viral infection, as the viruses hijack the cells’ DNA replication apparatus to copy their own genetic material. But it can also happen during strenuous exercise, which creates chemicals called free radicals that build up in cells and damage the DNA, releasing fragments of it. Most mammals don’t have to perform hugely strenuous exercise, so their own DNA rarely leaks out into their cells. As a result, if their immune system detects any free DNA, it interprets it as an emerging viral threat and begins fighting back. The trigger for action is a sensor molecule called STING, which swamps the viral infection with antiviral substances called interferons. However, bats fly and this is extremely strenuous, so their DNA often does leak out. This could lead the bat’s immune system to mistakenly attack the animal’s own tissues. To avoid this, bats appear to have evolved milder reactions to viral infections, allowing the bats and the viruses to tolerate each other.

2-21-18 Sea urchins can drill holes in solid rock with just their teeth
If a sea urchin can't find a suitable pit to live in, it makes one – even if it has to spend months gnawing away at hard granite. Sea urchins can scrape their way through solid rock to make themselves homes. This ability has long been suspected but never demonstrated, until now. Michael Russell at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and his colleagues studied purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), which live along the west coast of North America. These animals look like purple balls with hundreds of spines, called tubefeet, which they use to walk and move food to their mouths. They also use their tubefeet to attach themselves to rock, making it difficult to dislodge them. The safest homes are pits and holes, which offer a larger surface area for an urchin to lock onto. In the lab, the researchers placed single sea urchins on flat pieces of soft mudstone, moderately hard sandstone and tough granite. After a year, they measured the weights of the rocks, how the surfaces looked, and how much the rocks were eroded. The sea urchins had eaten holes in all the rocks, although they made slower progress on the harder ones. Holes in mudstone were about 220 cubic centimetres, whereas holes in sandstone were 63 cubic centimetres and holes in granite were just 45 cubic centimetres. “We were not surprised that they excavate rock,” says Russell. “What shocked us was… how fast they were able to form pits, particularly in the sandstone.”

2-21-18 France wants to have 500 wolves roaming its countryside
The number of wolves in France will be allowed to increase by 40 per cent, as wilderness continues its return to Europe. FRANCE will let its wolf population grow by 40 per cent, despite anger from farmers worried for their sheep. Wolves were eradicated from France by hunting in the 1930s, but since the 90s they have been creeping back from Italy. There are now thought to be 360 wolves in France. The government announced a new strategy this week that will allow the population to grow to 500 by 2023. To appease farmers, 10 per cent of the population may be culled each year. Farmers are also authorised to shoot any time their flocks are under attack. Around 10,000 sheep were killed by wolves in the Alps in 2016, and France paid €3.2 million of compensation to farmers. Under the new plan, farmers can apply for funding to protect their animals, but compensation will be contingent on them putting up fences and other protective measures. Wolves are protected in Europe by the 1979 Bern Convention. Environmentalists see their return as a positive, and many are opposed to the hunting of wolves.

2-20-18 Bunnies draped in fake polar bear fur are both cosy and stealthy
A warm fabric made of freeze-dried liquid silk mimics polar bear fur, making rabbits invisible to infrared cameras. It could do the same for humans. It’s a bunny in bear’s clothing. By wrapping a rabbit up in a new textile inspired by polar bear hair, researchers have been able to keep all the animal’s body heat in, keeping it both cosy and invisible to infrared imaging. The hollow interior structure of a polar bear’s fur helps the bears insulate themselves against harsh Arctic winters. Each hair is about 200 micrometre across, full of pores 15 to 20 micrometres wide. It is harder for heat to move through air than solid materials, so these pores make sure that the polar bear retains its body heat instead of radiating it away into the frigid air. Porous structures like this often snap easily, but polar bear fur doesn’t suffer this problem because all of the elongated pores are aligned in layers in the same direction as the hair. This gives the hairs mechanical strength that they wouldn’t have if the pores were spread about randomly. Ying Cui at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, and her colleagues processed silk to create a textile that mimics the pores of polar bear fur. They dissolved the silk in water and dripped a constant stream of the solution through a cold copper ring. When the liquid silk “thread” passes through the ring, ice crystals grow within the thread in layers similar to the layers of pores in polar bear hairs. The frozen fibre is then freeze-dried to leave gaps where the ice was, resulting in well-aligned pores that take fill up to 87 per cent of the silk fibres’ volume with air. The researchers can then weave the fibres together into a textile.

2-19-18 France to let wolf population grow despite farmers' fears
France is to allow the wolf population to grow from about 360 now to 500 by 2023, despite protests from farmers worried about their livestock. A new plan announced by the government represents a rise of nearly 40% in the wolf population. After being eradicated by hunters in the 1930s, the wolf made its way back into France from Italy in the 1990s. Wolves are listed as a protected species by the Bern Convention that France has signed up to. Animal rights groups had been pushing for a more radical proposal and accused ministers of lacking political courage. In a gesture to farmers, the government said that hunters in France would still be allowed to cull 40 wolves this year, the same as in 2017. Up to 10% of the wolf population could be culled every year from 2019, and that proportion could rise to 12% if more frequent wolf attacks were registered. Almost 12,000 sheep were killed by wolves in France in 2017 and the government has come under strong pressure from farmers in French regions - particularly in the Alps and the Pyrenees. "We place trust in all of the stakeholders and local lawmakers to calm the debate and enable co-existence over the long-term," Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert and Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot said in a joint statement. The new plan also envisages that livestock owners will be able to apply for state funds to protect their animals from wolves. France is not the only Western European country witnessing the return of the wolf. Last month a wolf was spotted in the Flanders region of northern Belgium for the first time in over a century. There were an estimated 60 wolf packs living in Germany in 2017, a rise of some 15% on the previous year. (Webmaster's comment: Most of their natural game has been eradicated, that's why they eat livestock.)

2-19-18 DNA secrets of how vampire bats became bloodthirsty
DNA analysis is giving clues to how the vampire bat can survive on blood alone. The bat can drink up to half its weight in blood a day unlike other relatives, which dine on fruit, nectar or insects. Blood is low in nutrients and can harbour deadly viruses. Vampire bats have key differences in genes involved in immunity and food metabolism compared with other bats. The researchers say the bat's gut microbes are also distinct. They found evidence of more than 280 types of bacteria in the bat's droppings that would have made most other mammals unwell. "The data suggests that there is a close evolutionary relationship between the gut microbiome and the genome of the vampire bat for adaptation to sanguivory (feeding exclusively on blood)," said study author, Dr Marie Zepeda Mendoza of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. The common vampire bat harbours many genes that have been selected to cope with blood feeding, she added. Blood is very high in protein (93%), but low in carbohydrate (1%) and vitamins. It may also harbour blood-borne diseases. Vampire bats have evolved many features for such a specialised diet - from sharp teeth for severing blood vessels to changes in kidney function to deal with a protein-rich diet.

2-20-18 The flowers that give us chocolate are ridiculously hard to pollinate
A complicated reproductive system makes pollination a tough job. It’s a wonder we have chocolate at all. Talk about persnickety, difficult flowers. Arguably some of the most important seeds on the planet — they give us candy bars and hot cocoa, after all — come from pods created by dime-sized flowers on cacao trees. Yet those flowers make pollination just barely possible. Growers of commercial fruit crops expect 50 to 60 percent of flowers to make a fruit, or pod, says Emily Kearney of the University of California, Berkeley. In some places, cacao crops manage to be that prolific. But worldwide norms run closer to 15 to 30 percent. In the traditional Ecuadorian plantings that Kearney studies, cacao achieves a mere 3 to 5 percent pollination. The first sight of a blooming cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) can be “disconcerting,” Kearney says. That’s because most flowers come directly out of the trunk, rather than sprouting from branches as in many other trees. For cacao, special trunk pads burst into little pale constellations of five-pointed starry blossoms. Some trunks, says Kearney, “are completely covered with flowers.”

2-19-18 Mute crickets can’t chirp but rub their wings together anyway
Male Hawaiian crickets that have lost the ability to chirp still go through the motion of “singing”, even though females can’t hear them. Hawaiian crickets still try to call for females, despite having lost their ability to sing. Male crickets woo females by “singing”, which they do by vigorously rubbing their wings together. Bumps and ridges on the wings scrape against each other, making a distinctive sound. However, in the early 2000s researchers noticed that up to 95 per cent of male Hawaiian crickets (Teleogryllus oceanicus) on the islands of Kauai and Oahu had lost their voices. Both sets of males independently evolved flat wings, making them effectively mute. This vastly reduced their romantic prospects, but it meant the crickets were protected from a fly called Ormia ochracea. This parasite homes in on a male cricket’s song and sprays maggots onto its back. These burrow into the male and devour it from the inside out. “Silent males are protected from attacks by this fly, and so this mutation has spread very rapidly,” says Nathan Bailey at the University of St Andrews, UK. Now Bailey and his colleagues have found that silent males still rub their wings against each other, as if to call females. Not only does the behaviour not work – the females can’t hear them – but the action uses up a lot of energy. Just as some animals have vestigial organs that have lost all function, like the human appendix, the crickets seem to have a vestigial behaviour.

2-19-18 Electric eel-inspired batteries could power life-long pacemakers
A new battery made of fleshy hydrogel layers generates and stores power like electric eels do. It could power pacemakers without ever needing to be replaced. Future pacemakers could be powered by artificial eels. A soft, fleshy, electric eel-inspired battery could be the key to creating next generation medical implants. The team behind the power source have been able to produce 110 volts, but they say they could be on the verge of driving that up several-fold. To create this power, Anirvan Guha at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and his colleagues used thousands of hydrogels spread across a thin, pliable surface in evenly-spaced bubbles and then filled the space between two sheets of the material with a saline solution. The ions in that solution created friction and electricity in the gel layers, providing 110 volts of power, about the same amount of power provided by many wall sockets. The structure of this new material is similar to the layers of skin that produce an electric eel’s deadly jolt. The team presented their latest results at the a meeting of the Biophysical Society in San Francisco on 19 February. This research builds on previous work by making the gels thinner and giving them a larger contact area, which increased the power capacity. The researchers say that improvements in the way the gels repel ionized atoms could further drive up the voltage produced.

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