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ATHEISM and HUMANISM

12-9-19 Why I'm a libertarian defeatist about Medicare-for-all
The first time I heard the phrase "Medicare-for-all," I thought, "Oh, so that's how it happens. That's how America gets single-payer health care." I'm not excited at the prospect. But I am resigned to its inevitability and unenthused about the realistic alternatives. I'm a libertarian health-care defeatist. My reasoning here is pretty simple: As Americans from across the political spectrum agree, our present health insurance system sucks. Compared to similar countries, we pay more for worse outcomes — and the complexity! Heaven forbid anyone ever get a straightforward answer on what a procedure costs. The whole thing is intolerably expensive and convoluted. Moreover, U.S. health care hasn't been in striking distance of a free market for decades, and the obstacles to getting there seem insurmountable. So if the principle of the thing is already irreparable, and I'm pretty sure it is, we may as well simplify. And Medicare-for-all — at once familiar and radical and sneakily difficult to argue against if you aren't also calling for an end to Medicare proper, which neither major party is — just might be the marketing that sells it. I'd be surprised if the United States didn't have some sort of universal, state-provided health care, maybe under the Medicare brand, within about 10 years. A bit of history may here be in order. Contrary the suggestion of GOP apoplecticism c. 2010, ObamaCare was hardly the introduction of state meddling in the health-care market. Before the Affordable Care Act, the Cato Institute's Michael Tanner notes at National Review, "[n]early all health care was subsidized in some way, either directly or indirectly." The government already "directly paid for more than half of all health-care spending," and the "third-party and even fourth-party payment mechanism[s]," which paid 87 cents of every health-care dollar, "insulated consumers from the cost of their health-care choices and drove up both spending and prices." Meanwhile, Tanner continues, "provider cartels, both insurers and medical professionals, used regulatory and licensing barriers to protect themselves from competition and inflate prices." (Webmaster's comment: Nevermind that Univeral Healthcare works in Europe and costs less than 1/3rd of what healthcare does in America! And is better than it is in America. Libertarians want a survival of the fittest economy. Doctors can charge anything they want and even more if you're dying. If you can't pay for care you die! Tough Luck! And you walk down the street packin heat shooting it out with anyone who disagrees with you. The factest draw is in the right! Back to no law except the law of the gun! It's the Libertarian way.)

12-7-19 How robocalls became America's most prevalent crime
Today, half of all phone calls are automated scams. Is there any way to stop this incessant bombardment? Here's everything you need to know:

  1. Why so many robocalls? Automated telephone calls might be America's most prevalent form of lawbreaking, with more than 180 million such calls every day. A 2009 law that banned unsolicited, prerecorded telemarketing has failed to stem the explosion of calls seeking to steal information or scare people into scams.
  2. How do robocallers work? Two inventions are behind the robocall scourge. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) dialing — the technology used by apps like Skype — lets scammers place millions of calls a day, costing just $0.006 per minute if a call is answered. The other breakthrough is "neighborhood spoofing," which disguises robocalls to appear on caller ID with the same area code as the number being dialed, instead of an 800 number or distant area cod
  3. What are common scams? Many Americans have been called by a fake Social Security Administration representative, who claims that the recipient's Social Security number is compromised, asks for the number, and then uses it to commit identity theft.
  4. Does anyone fall for them? Only a small number of people do, but a lousy yield is still highly profitable. For all the millions of New Yorkers who hung up on the Social Security scam this year, by October, 523 suckers had lost $5.8 million, police said.
  5. Are robocalls policed? The FTC blocked more than a billion illegal robocalls in June, but meaningful enforcement can still seem hopeless. Robocallers now place calls from a huge volume of numbers to avoid detection.
  6. Can robocalls be stopped? Adding your number to the federal Do Not Call registry is moderately effective for avoiding traditional telemarketers but useless for escaping fraudulent robocalls.
  7. The king of the robocall: Adrian Abramovich lived in one of Miami's gated oceanside communities in a house filled with art and posters from Scar­face and Good­fellas. The house doubled as the office from which Abram­o­vich, an Ar­gen­tine immigrant, allegedly made 96,758,223 illegal robocalls over three months in 2016.

12-7-19 North America’s first English settlers were unlucky scientists
The first English people to settle permanently in the Americas included early scientists, known as “chymists”, who battled hunger and disease in an ill-fated bid to find gold. In the early 17th century, the English were eager to explore and exploit North America. It had been just over 100 years since Columbus’s first transatlantic voyages, and during that time, the Spanish had removed large quantities of gold and silver from South and Central America. The English failed to find gold – but while this has previously been put down to a lack of skill, it turns out geology was to blame. A team led by Umberto Veronesi at University College London and Marcos Martino´n-Torres at the University of Cambridge has just completed an analysis of 400-year-old scientific equipment unearthed at Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. The team studied fragments that came from crucibles – vessels in which rock samples can be heated and melted to analyse their chemistry and reveal valuable metals and minerals – and examined the residues stuck to the interior walls. It found a number of different chemicals, suggesting that the Jamestown chymists analysed a variety of rocks and experimented with different chemical additives in an effort to work out how to extract the maximum amount of gold or silver. The crucible residues also suggest the settlers might have succeeded in making brass – a useful copper and tin alloy. But there were no rich mineral deposits near Jamestown, and the small quantities of precious metals and alloys the chymists did recover failed to impress their financial backers in England. They were accused of idleness and incompetence – a label that stuck even into the 20th century, says David Givens, director of archaeology at the Jamestown Rediscovery project.

12-6-19 Was Trump chosen by God?
Was President Trump chosen by God to lead our nation? asked Jay Parini. In a recent interview with Fox News, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said he believes—and told Trump personally—that the president is “the chosen one,” sent to achieve the Lord’s will. This belief has spread like “a strange virus” among other evangelical Trump supporters. They contend that God often uses imperfect men to achieve his aims, such as the biblical King David, an adulterer. As a practicing Christian and son of a Baptist minister, I nonetheless find Trump to be an odd choice to further Jesus Christ’s message of love, forgiveness, and selflessness. Jesus asked us “to curb our anger, not even to hold a grudge.” He insisted that “one cannot serve two masters, God and money,” and that “we should treat others as we wish ourselves to be treated.” Does this sound like Trump? He embodies rage, vengeance, greed, dishonesty, and cruelty. Proclaiming Trump as “the chosen one,” moreover, implies that all world leaders are chosen by God, including Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Ayatollah Khamenei. True Christians know that our world is “a deep mystery,” and that only the arrogant think they know “what the Divine has in mind.”

12-6-19 Health care is eating the economy
It’s conventional wisdom that middle-income Americans are feeling squeezed, but most explanations pass over the most important reason, said Robert Samuelson: health-care costs. Many of the Democratic presidential candidates’ policies—such as Medicare for All, free college tuition, subsidies for child care—come with good intentions, but they don’t address the elephant in the room. Our uncontrolled medical spending is crowding out almost everything else. In the early 1960s, “health spending was about 2 percent of federal outlays.” Now it is one-third. Health-care spending makes up 18 percent, or almost one-fifth, of our entire economy. “Imagine what we could do if U.S. health spending had been held to, say, 12 percent of GDP. We’d have $1.2 trillion to spend on other things.” Ironically, much of the Democrats’ rhetoric about how health care is “right” turns out to be “self-defeating and ultimately undesirable.” It makes almost any effort to curb spending subject to attack as “cruel or immoral.” If the government can’t cut health spending, it reduces “spending on other programs, raises taxes, or bloats deficits.” These effects are felt keenly by middle-income and poor Americans, because medical costs consume more of their incomes. And if we can’t stabilize those costs, “expect the squeeze to continue indefinitely.”

12-6-19 How Europe pays for its welfare state
Some Democratic presidential candidates “insist that America could afford a European-style welfare state if only it taxed the rich more heavily,” said The Wall Street Journal. But a close look at Europe’s taxation policies shows that countries have “learned the hard way that the rich aren’t rich enough to pay for their entitlements,” and balance their budgets by heavily dunning the middle class. Germany, for example, imposes a 42 percent rate on married households earning $124,000, whereas in the U.S., such a couple pays 22 percent. Sweden’s top rate of 55 percent kicks in with individual earnings as low as $47,000, and in the U.K., taxpayers earning just $64,000 pay a 40 percent rate. Governments also slap workers with hefty payroll taxes they call “social insurance contributions” that are far higher than America’s Social Security and Medicare deductions, and impose a Value Added Tax of 21 percent on all consumer purchases, regardless of a buyer’s income. As a result, Europe’s tax system takes more than half of most people’s wages and is far less progressive than the U.S.’s. Beware politicians who claim they can finance free college, day care, and health care for all by taxing billionaires. “The middle class will pay, because that’s where the real money is.” (Webmaster's comment: But it works so well. People are better off and happier in Europeon Welfare States than people in the United States.)

12-6-19 U.S. refugee admissions flatline
The U.S. admitted zero refugees in October, the first time that’s happened in nearly three decades, The Washington Post reported last week. The Trump administration effectively halted admissions while it delayed approving a refugee ceiling for the 2020 fiscal year. In the meantime, hundreds of flights to the U.S. were canceled for approved refugees, some of whom saw their eligibility expire as the moratorium dragged on. The new refugee ceiling will allow 18,000 admissions this year, an all-time low. In addition to refugees, other legal immigrants face new hurdles. During Trump’s first two years in office, denials of H1Bs—the most common visa for skilled workers and a frequent target of immigration hard-liners—more than doubled, as did wait times for citizenship.

12-6-19 Ignoring the fears of ethnic minorities
Germany’s ethnic minorities are quietly seething, said Ferda Ataman. Just a few weeks after a neo-Nazi tried to shoot up a synagogue on Yom Kippur and ended up killing two passersby, the main theme in the media is that many Germans feel political correctness is threatening their freedom of speech—specifically, their right to use racist terms. Hate crimes rose 20 percent from 2017 to 2018, and in the east, voters are throwing their support behind far-right, xenophobic parties who want to expel anyone who isn’t an ethnic German. In response, pundits reach out to these white voters to try to understand what’s driving them to embrace extremists, but they don’t ask minorities—including Asian-Germans, Turkish-Germans, Afro-Germans—how we feel about this scary trend. They lump us together as outsiders, when many of us are third-generation Germans. Germany is our native land, where our grandparents worked, paid taxes, died, and yet many of us have a “Plan B” for fleeing if it all comes crashing down. It’s not fair: We don’t want to leave. Minority Germans are model citizens, well-behaved and not prone to marching in the streets, but make no mistake: “They are angry. I am angry.” And we will make our anger known at the ballot box.

12-6-19 Let us love one another?
The Christmas Parade in Troy, Tenn., has been canceled, after the inclusion of a “Love Everybody” float. Float creator Dwight Tittle, 47, said he was inspired by the Bible’s exhortation “Let us love one another.” But since his float includes an LGBT rainbow, threats and complaints led to the town canceling the parade due to “scheduling conflicts.”

12-6-19 Trump's food stamp cuts are cruel politics and bad economics
The move will hurt hundreds of thousands of Americans and hamstring a critical recession response mechanism. On Wednesday, the Trump administration made a unilateral policy change to cut back the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as food stamps, with the result being that hundreds of thousands of Americans who previously received the benefits will now be ineligible. In the grand scheme, this isn't that surprising: The Republican Party has tried again and again to cut SNAP and the rest of the anti-poverty safety net — most recently under the guidance of former Republican Speaker of the House and "serious wonk" Paul Ryan. What is noteworthy is that President Trump was supposed to herald a different kind of Republican Party: more skeptical of elites, more sympathetic to the hard-working "forgotten" people. That GOP efforts to strip struggling Americans of aid have continued or even increased in intensity under Trump simply throws the destructiveness of this obsession into particularly sharp relief. Let's begin with the basic policy and economics. SNAP is one of the country's most important safety net programs, providing aid to roughly 40 million people per month in 2018, and considerably more in the depths of the last recession. Under current law, able-bodied adults without children or other dependents are already limited to receiving SNAP benefits for three months every three years, though they can receive them for longer if they are either working or in training programs. More important for our purposes here, states are also able to get waivers from the federal work requirements to allow those specific recipients to stay on the program longer when unemployment is higher. The amount of waivers issued jumped after the 2008 crisis, but is now back to its pre-crisis norm.

12-6-19 West Virginia prison staff suspended over Nazi salute
Several US prison employees have been suspended after a photo emerged showing training class participants giving what appears to be a Nazi salute. The image shows employees at the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation making the gesture below a sign that reads "Hail Byrd!", referring to a class instructor. State Governor Jim Justice has called for the employees to be fired. Officials have also informed faith and community leaders about the photo. It shows around 30 blurred faces and appears to have been recently shot for the state's "Basic Training Class #18". The photo does not include names of the employees and the location is not known. The class reportedly took place from 21 October to 27 November. The text referred to a class leader, the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety said. "I condemn the photo of Basic Training Class #18 in the strongest possible terms," Governor Jim Justice told The Washington Post. "I have directed Secretary Jeff Sandy of the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety to continue actively investigating this incident, and I have ordered the termination of all those that are found to be involved in this conduct." In a letter to employees at the facility, Mr Sandy said that several people had already been suspended. "It is distasteful, hurtful, disturbing, highly insensitive and completely inappropriate," he said. "It betrays the professionalism I have seen time and time again displayed and practiced by our brave correctional employees." The department had informed faith leaders and community leaders of the photo, Mr Sandy added. "We have asked for their help to address it effectively, including with recommended changes or additions to our training programs," he wrote.

12-6-19 Wedding planning websites curb promotion of US plantation venues
Four major US wedding planning websites will restrict the promotion of venues that idealise former slave plantations. Pinterest, the Knot Worldwide and Brides said they would limit plantation advertisements, in some cases removing adjectives that romanticise the venues such as "charming" or "elegant". Planning platform Zola has removed all the listed plantations from its site. The changes follow calls from civil rights group Color of Change to bar the promotion of plantations outright. "The decision to glorify plantations as nostalgic sites of celebration is not a compassionate one for the black women and justice-minded people who use your site," the organisation wrote in a letter to Zola executives, according to BuzzFeed News, which first reported the changes. "In fact, 'classic,' 'elegant,' and 'glamorous,' are just a few of the tags that your site uses to describe the places where many of your readers' ancestors were tortured and stripped of their most fundamental rights," Color of Change wrote. These plantations - scattered across the American South - remain, for many, a painful reminder of the country's legacy of slavery and racism. At the height of slavery, the National Humanities Center estimates that there were over 46,000 plantations stretching across the southern states. But they have also become a popular choice for weddings. A simple web search for "plantation weddings" will call up venues in Louisiana, South Carolina and Virginia promising "beautiful backdrops" featuring "columned mansions" and "moss-covered oaks". An enduring source of controversy, the modern use of slavery plantations has been the source of heightened debate in recent years. A post on Reddit in September asking if it was reasonable to skip a best friend's wedding because it was held on a plantation received over 1,000 comments on both sides of the argument.

12-6-19 What happens when governments crack down on scientists just doing their jobs?
Human rights take a back seat when state leaders try to control the narrative. On a sunny day in March 2016, Turkish forensic physician Sebnem Korur Fincanci drove into Cizre, a town in southeastern Turkey. The government had just lifted a 79-day curfew meant to help the Turkish military rout out members of the separatist PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Turkey has long fought to keep insurgents from creating a separate Kurdish country, and has designated the PKK as a terrorist organization. Like most people outside of Cizre, Fincanci had no idea what had transpired during the lockdown. She arrived to a devastated city. The air, she says, smelled of burnt flesh. Houses were riddled with bullet holes, the furniture inside burned or bashed with sledgehammers. Residents led her to three bombed-out buildings. Fincanci entered one and saw within the basement rubble a jawbone and a pair of eyeglasses. She could immediately tell that the jawbone was a child’s. Fincanci had not brought her forensic tools. She had assumed that this visit was preliminary, a time to talk with Cizre residents about their medical needs. So, she snapped pictures of the bone, the glasses and the surrounding debris with her cell phone. Residents later confirmed that the building had been home to a young family. A few days later, Fincanci wrote a report and posted it on the website of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, a volunteer organization she helped found in 1990. She also sent the report to Turkey’s internal affairs office. Fincanci wrote that the military had committed atrocities against innocent civilians. She demanded a full investigation. Instead, in June 2016, the government charged her with spreading terrorist propaganda. “I was arrested and sent to prison,” Fincanci says.

12-5-19 William Barr is shockingly clear about his authoritarianism
William Barr, the top federal law enforcement officer in the United States, is fast becoming the nation's chief advocate for an authoritarian vision of American government. First came his October 11 speech at the University of Notre Dame in which the attorney general embraced a deeply anachronistic vision of religion in American public life. It was a story of a morally upstanding Republican majority upholding biblically based Judeo-Christian piety and righteousness against an aggressive minority faction of liberals and progressives who use positions of cultural and political power to impose an agenda of moral relativism on the nation. As Ross Douthat, a religious conservative himself, pointed out in a critical column on the speech, this construal of the American scene distorted reality in multiple ways. What Douthat didn't say is that, by seeking to convince religious conservatives that they have the American majority on their side and that it's crucially important for the future of American democracy that this side prevail in its battle against godless relativists, Barr was providing a justification for using all the powers of the federal government to bring about that outcome. Five weeks later came Barr's even more alarming speech to the conservative legal group The Federalist Society. Here he described the presidency (and because of that, American self-government itself) as under siege by Congress and the courts. The greatest achievement of the American constitutional framers, he claimed, was the creation of a strong, independent, and unitary executive. And yet the liberals and progressives in charge of these other branches of government do everything in their power to hobble and weaken the presidency, which should, and will, do everything it can to reaffirm its distinctive powers and prerogatives.

12-5-19 50 years ago, income inequality was severe in the U.S. It still is
Over the last half century, the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the United States has persisted. The share of the total national income going to the poorest 20 percent of the [United States] has increased very little in the past 20 years … only from 5.1 to 5.4 percent … between 1947 and 1967. The proportion of the low-earning group that is nonwhite has remained at about 21 percent, which is more than twice the proportion of nonwhite families in the country as a whole. And census figures reveal that a greater proportion of the bottom fifth … reside in the South. There’s still a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots in the United States. In 2018, the lowest-earning fifth of the population earned only about 3 percent of the nation’s total income, while the highest-earning fifth raked in about 52 percent. Income disparities between racial groups have also endured, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In 2018, the average income was about $87,200 for Asian American households, $70,600 for white households, $51,500 for Hispanic households and $41,400 for black households. Poverty rates follow a similar trend: about 10.1 percent of Asian, 8 percent of white, 17.6 percent of Hispanic and 20.8 percent of black households fell below the poverty line, in which a household’s income isn’t enough to meet the family’s basic needs. America’s poorer populations are still concentrated in the South. In 2018, residents of the Northeast, West and Midwest earned an average $70,100, $69,500 and $64,100, respectively. Those in the South earned a substantially lower $57,300. Southern communities also suffer higher poverty rates — about 13.6 percent in 2018, compared with 10.3, 11.2 and 10.4 percent in the Northeast, West and Midwest, respectively. And those regional contrasts could become more severe with climate change (SN: 6/29/17).

12-4-19 Altruism 2.0: How to use science to make charitable acts go further
Effective altruists use evidence and reason to maximise the impact of their kindness. Joshua Howgego follows their lead to see if it can help him do good better. THE Athena Hotel in Blackpool, UK, looks like any ordinary seaside guest house. Behind the net curtains, it is anything but. The guests, who typically stay for months, have been selected because they share a common mission, one so important that they can’t waste precious time cooking, doing laundry or holding down a normal job. They have come to Blackpool to save the world. This is the world’s first hotel for “effective altruists”, people who take an evidence-based approach to helping others. It was purchased in 2018 with the proceeds of a cryptocurrency investment to allow data-driven philanthropists to dedicate themselves to improving and saving as many lives as possible. And yes, Blackpool was chosen for a reason. The 17-room hotel was a bargain at £130,000, freeing up the proprietor’s cash to subsidise the various projects being pursued. When I first read about this place, I felt a twinge of guilt. Like many of us, I like to think I am a good person. I spend a few evenings a month volunteering with a charity that helps people with debt problems. I give money to my church. And I buy the occasional sandwich for homeless people. Learning about the hotel made me wonder if I could do good better. Investigating how turned out to be a discombobulating experience. My principles were challenged in ways I never expected, and I ended up pondering some bizarre questions, not least how to think about the future of humanity. One thing is for sure: doing good is more complicated than you might think.The origins of effective altruism can be traced to a thought experiment devised in the 1970s by philosopher Peter Singer. Imagine you walk past a shallow pond and see a child drowning. Should you wade in and save the infant, even though it means getting your clothes muddy? Most people will answer yes in a split second. But if we do it in this case, Singer argued, why wouldn’t we do the same for people dying of malaria or from unsafe drinking water or any other of the easily preventable poverty-related conditions that persist in parts of the developing world?

12-4-19 Science's fake news problem: How funding pressures drive bad research
CLAIMS of “fake news” within the UK Houses of Parliament are nothing new. This time, however, the charge has been laid not at the door of politicians, but of scientists. And it was scientists themselves making the claims. They came at a meeting I attended last week where the British Neuroscience Association (BNA) launched a fightback against bad science with its “Credibility in Neuroscience” campaign. The problem isn’t just that some findings turn out to be wrong. It is, after all, the point of science to be constantly questioning, testing and refining hypotheses. The BNA campaign claims that the entire structural edifice of academia now encourages mistakes to be made. This starts with well-meaning efforts by managers and funders to judge researchers’ productivity. That is done by gauging how many papers they write and the prestige of the journals that publish them, as quantified by their “impact factor” – basically, an average of how often the papers they publish are cited by other papers. Researchers’ publication records increasingly govern every aspect of their career success, including pay rises, future jobs and funding for new projects. In this “publish or perish” culture, it is in their interests to produce a blizzard of papers that are groundbreaking and flashy, so as to get published in high-impact journals. With an eye to maintaining their impact factor, journals are incentivised to publish such papers, rather than ones that, for example, describe attempts to replicate others’ work. The resulting system is the antithesis of how good science should be done, namely by tackling questions in a thoughtful and systematic way and by testing and retesting any unexpected result in different labs and circumstances. Prime evidence of how bad things have become is the replication crisis in psychology, where doubts have been raised over classic findings such as priming, the idea that behaviour can be changed by subtle, unconscious cues. In psychiatry, a review published this year called into question two decades of work on a link between depression and a gene affecting the brain chemical serotonin. “It wasn’t just that people said it mattered and it didn’t, it’s that we built whole castles in the air on it mattering,” said psychologist Dorothy Bishop of the University of Oxford at the BNA event.

12-4-19 France anti-Semitism: Jewish graves defaced with Nazi swastikas
More than 100 graves at a Jewish cemetery in France have been defaced with Nazi swastikas in the latest in a wave of anti-Semitic attacks. Vandals spray-painted the gravestones in the eastern town of Westhoffen, near Strasbourg, days after another incident in a nearby village. In response, President Emmanuel Macron said France would fight anti-Semitism "until our dead can sleep in peace". France is home to a Jewish community of about 550,000 - the biggest in Europe. "Jews are and make France," Mr Macron said in a tweet on Tuesday evening. "Those who attack them, even in their graves, are not worthy of the idea we have of France," he said. France's north-eastern Alsace region, on the border with Germany, has been marked by a series of anti-Semitic acts in recent months. Chief Rabbi Haïm Korsia said he was "outraged and horrified to learn of the desecration of yet another cemetery in Alsace". As well as swastikas, the number 14 was used, a slogan linked to a white supremacist slogan. The prefect of the Bas-Rhin region, Jean-Luc Marx, visited the site to express his support for the Jewish community. The Westhoffen cemetery houses about 700 graves, including those of several relations of former Prime Minister Léon Blum, France's first Jewish leader before and shortly after World War Two. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, on a visit to the cemetery on Wednesday, said the attack was "an expression of pure hatred" and announced the creation of police taskforce against hate. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe expressed "revolt and disgust at the anti-Semitic inscriptions in two communes of Bas-Rhin", adding: "The perpetrators of these acts must be found and punished." Last week, anti-Semitic tags were daubed on the walls of the town hall in Rohr, not far from Westhoffen. Jewish officials said one of the slogans in the attack on Rohr appeared to refer to the Jewish cemetery at Westhoffen. Another town hall was attacked in the Bas-Rhin area in April, while in February, Nazi symbols and anti-Semitic slogans were spray-painted on more than 90 graves in the Alsace village of Quatzenheim. (Webmaster's comment: The Nazis are back! Death camps will soon follow!)

12-3-19 'English Only': The movement to limit Spanish speaking in US
There are an estimated 41 million Spanish speakers in the US and that number is increasing. Yet there is also a small but vocal movement to restrict the spread of Spanish. "This is a country where we speak English. It's English. You have to speak English!" Donald Trump often said during his 2016 US presidential campaign. The then presidential candidate made this point to cater to his supporters but he also used it as a strategy against some of his adversaries in the race for Republican Party nomination. One particular target was rival and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who sometimes expressed himself in Spanish. Mr Trump's tough approach to immigration paid off among sectors of the electorate that somehow share his opinion that "in the States United you have to speak English". However, Mr Trump's demand has no legal basis: the US has no official language. Videos on social networks show people criticising others for speaking Spanish in public places. The message of these videos is clear. If you are in this country, you have to speak its language. Those viral attacks generally do not occur against tourists who speak Dutch, French or Italian, for example. They are usually directed against people who speak Spanish and who, because of their work or simply because of their physical appearance, are classified as immigrants. "These reactions against people who speak Spanish are probably not new," Heidi Beirich, a researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), tells BBC Mundo. "But Donald Trump unleashed feelings that were not expressed publicly so often before." The SPLC monitors hate groups in the US, which they define as any organisation that - based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities - has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.

12-3-19 Malaysian minister criticises 'obscene, half naked' tattoo show in Kuala Lumpur
A Malaysian minister has called a tattoo exhibition "obscene" and ordered an investigation after pictures of half-naked men and women went viral. The minister for tourism, arts and culture said that while a permit was issued, there was no green light for any form of nudity at the event. Mohammadin Ketapi said the show "was not Malaysian culture...the majority of Malaysians are Muslim". Recently, there has been more debate about Islamic conservatism in Malaysia. The Tattoo Malaysia Expo drew participants from some 35 countries and was held over the weekend in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The show has taken place since 2015, but only this year drew criticism from the government, which announced "firm action" against the organisers. "It is impossible for the ministry to approve of any programme that contains obscenity such as this," Mr Ketapi said in a statement. Pictures showed heavily-tattooed participants in semi-nude poses. Malaysian media blurred some of the images. Mr Ketapi said: "We will wait for the full investigation report and will not hesitate to take legal action if they are found to have been in violation of set conditions." Around 60% of Malaysia's 32 million people are Muslim, and critics say the country has been moving towards more religious conservatism. A religious court this year sentenced five men to jail, caning and fines for attempting gay sex. In 2018, two women were caned for lesbian sex in the conservative state of Terengganu.

12-3-19 Louis van Amstel says teacher 'bullied his son for having two dads'
A substitute teacher has been sacked from a school in Utah after allegedly berating the adopted son of Dancing With The Stars professional Louis van Amstel for having gay parents. Mr van Amstel accused the teacher of bullying his 11-year-old, who he is in the process of adopting. The teacher asked the class what they were thankful of for Thanksgiving. The boy said he was thankful for "being adopted by his two dads", according to Mr van Amstel. In response, the teacher allegedly said "that's nothing to be thankful for" and gave the class a lecture about homosexuality, Mr van Amstel said. The teacher has been fired by Kelly Services, the subcontracting company that hired her. Mr van Amstel, 47, vented his anger over the incident at a school in Cedar Hills, south of Salt Lake City, in a series of social media posts. The teacher, according to Mr van Amstel, told the boy that "two men living together is a sin". "The substitute teacher was giving her very clear opinion that two men is wrong, homosexuality is wrong," Mr van Amstel said. Three girls asked the teacher to stop, but when she did not, they complained to the principal, Mr van Amstel said. As the teacher was escorted from the school, she "continued to argue her point", school officials told Mr van Amstel. A spokesman for the Utah school district said "appropriate action has been taken". In a statement, Kelly Services said: "We are concerned about any reports of inappropriate behaviour and take these matters very seriously. "We conducted an investigation and made the decision to end the employee's relationship with Kelly Services."

12-3-19 Pisa rankings: Why Estonian pupils shine in global tests
Estonia is Europe's newest education powerhouse. It outperforms the major European economies, including the UK, in influential global education tests. These Pisa tests measure the ability of 15-year-olds to apply their skills and knowledge to real-life problem-solving in reading, maths and science. The OECD has run the tests since 2000, and most middle and higher income countries take part. The latest results are published on Tuesday. In the Pisa results published in 2016, Estonia came third in science while the UK was ranked 15th, and in reading Estonia was ranked sixth - far above the UK's 22nd place. UK spending on education is relatively high compared to the average across larger economies, but the same is not true of this small Baltic state. Estonia has made high quality early years education a priority. It's drop-off time at Kelmikula kindergarten in the capital, Tallinn. Mums Kristin Talvik and Elvira Uustalu both have six-year-old children in the oldest group. That means they'll start compulsory schooling next year at the age of seven, so parents rely on kindergarten to get them ready. "It's very important because learning will be so fast. He'll need to ask teachers questions, raise his hand, be brave" says Kristin. "The most important thing is that he is socially ready." Almost every child in Estonia comes to Kindergarten from the age of three, or even earlier. Parents have to make a contribution, but it is capped as a proportion of the minimum wage. So, for these Tallinn mums Kristin and Elvira, that means up to €80 (£70, $90) a month per child.


FEMINISM

12-9-19 Miss Universe 2019: 'May every little girl see their faces reflected in mine'
"I grew up in a world where a woman who looks like me, with my kind of skin and my kind of hair, was never considered to be beautiful. "I think that it is time that that stops today." That's the message from newly-crowned Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi, who is from South Africa. More than 90 women from across the world took part in the pageant which was held in Atlanta in the US on Sunday. Zozibini beat Puerto Rico's Madison Anderson and Mexico's Sofia Aragon in the final three to take the tiara. Finalists in the competition were In her final question, 26-year-old Zozibini was asked what we should be teaching young girls today. Her answer was leadership. "It's something that has been lacking in young girls and women for a very long time - not because we don't want to, but because of what society has labelled women to be," she said. "I think we are the most powerful beings on the world, and that we should be given every opportunity. "And that is what we should be teaching these young girls - to take up space." Zozibini is the first black woman to win the competition since Leila Lopes in 2011. The Angolan former winner congratulated her in a post on Instagram, writing: "Congrats girl you did us very proud." Relfecting on her win, Zozibini wrote: "Tonight a door was opened and I could not be more grateful to have been the one to have walked through it. "May every little girl who witnessed this moment forever believe in the power of her dreams and may they see their faces reflected in mine. "I proudly state my name Zozibini Tunzi, Miss Universe 2019!" The hashtag #MissUniverse was trending on Twitter and she even got a shout-out from Oprah Winfrey. Several people highlighted the importance of a black woman with natural hair winning a beauty pageant.

12-9-19 Finnish minister Sanna Marin, 34, to become world's youngest PM
Finland's Sanna Marin is to become the world's youngest prime minister at the age of 34. The transport minister was picked by her Social Democratic party after its leader, Antti Rinne, quit as PM. She will be sworn in this week. She will lead a centre-left coalition with four other parties, all headed by women, three of whom are under 35. Mr Rinne stepped down after losing the confidence of a coalition member over his handling of a postal strike. When she takes office, Ms Marin will be the world's youngest sitting prime minister. New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern is 39, while Ukrainian premier Oleksiy Honcharuk is 35. She will be the third female prime minister in the Nordic country. Media reports say Sanna Marin was raised in a "rainbow family", living in a rented apartment with her mother and her mother's female partner. She told the Menaiset website (in Finnish) in 2015 that as a child she felt "invisible" because she was unable to talk openly about her family. But she said her mother had always been supportive and made her believe she could do anything she wanted. She was the first person in her family to go to university. Ms Marin rose quickly through the ranks of the Social Democrats, heading the city administration in Tampere at the age of 27 and becoming an MP in 2015. She has been transport and communications minister since June and has a 22-month-old daughter. Analysts say it may be a coincidence that Finland now has a female prime minister and four party leaders in the ruling coalition who are women, but gender equality is a big issue in Finland and women in Finnish politics have been bubbling under for a long time. A couple of decades ago, researchers noticed that many parties had young women in prominent positions, either second or third in command, Reetta Siukola, development manager at the Centre for Gender Equality Information, told the BBC.

12-8-19 Bob Hawke 'asked daughter to keep rape claim secret'
The daughter of former Australian PM Bob Hawke has alleged she was raped in the 1980s but he asked her to stay silent to avoid harming his career. Rosslyn Dillon's allegations are made in court documents seen by Australian site the New Daily. She says she was raped by Bill Landeryou, an MP in Hawke's Labor Party. Both men are now dead. Ms Dillon, 59, is currently pursuing an A$4m (£2m; $2.7m) claim on her father's estate. In an affidavit, Ms Dillon alleges she was raped by Landeryou while working for his office. At the time Hawke was attempting to become Labor leader. According to the papers, Ms Dillon says she was sexually assaulted three times, in 1983. After the third time she told her father she had been raped and wanted to go to the police, but he responded by saying: "You can't. I can't have any controversies right now. I am sorry but I am challenging for the leadership of the Labor Party," the documents show. Ms Dillon's sister, Sue Pieters-Hawke, told The New Daily the family was aware of the allegation. "She did tell people at the time. I believe there was a supportive response but it didn't involve using the legal system," she told the site. Other family members have not commented to Australian media. A former union official, Landeryou served as an MP from 1976-1992. He and Hawke are said to have been on good terms throughout Hawke's premiership. Hawke was the dominant figure in 1980s Australian politics, winning four general elections. He introduced sweeping economic and social change to his country, while cultivating a public persona of a down-to-earth, beer swigging rogue.

12-8-19 Tanzanian college giving young mothers a chance to build a career
Tanzania’s president, John Magufuli, banned teenage mothers from returning to public schools in 2017, claiming they could be a bad influence. Many of these girls often find themselves banished by their families as well, with little or no government support. But in Arusha, in northeastern Tanzania, a centre has been set up to help this girls, offering them skills such as tailoring and catering, while offering shelter to their children. We met Debra Emmanuel, one of 23 mothers who have just become the first group to graduate from this programme.

12-7-19 Unnao rape case: Indian woman set on fire on way to hearing dies
An Indian woman who was set on fire on her way to testify against her alleged rapists has died of her injuries. The 23-year-old died late on Friday after suffering cardiac arrest at a Delhi hospital. She had 90% burns. She was attacked on Thursday as she was walking to a hearing in the rape case she filed against two men in March in Unnao, in northern Uttar Pradesh state. Five men, including the alleged rapists, have been arrested, Indian police say. The sister of the victim, whose name has not been released, told the BBC that she wanted the death penalty for the pair. She said the family would continue to fight the case against them in court. Rape and sexual violence against women have been in focus in India since the December 2012 gang-rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in the capital, Delhi. But there has been no sign that crimes against women are abating. According to government figures, police registered 33,658 cases of rape in India in 2017, an average of 92 rapes every day. (Webmaster's comment: There were 135,755 rapes in the United States in 2017. That's 372 per day! And the United States has only 1/4th as many people as India! So the United States has 16 times the rate of rape per capita as India!) Unnao district has itself been in the news over another rape case. Police opened a murder investigation against a ruling party lawmaker in July after a woman who accused him of rape was seriously injured in a car crash. Two of her aunts were killed and her lawyer was injured. Separately, on Friday, Indian police shot dead four men suspected of raping and killing a young female vet in the southern city of Hyderabad last week. That case sparked widespread outrage, and the killing of the suspects, in what rights activists believe may have been an extra-judicial killing, sparked jubilation among local residents.

12-6-19 Intruder Cowered
An 82-year-old female body builder in Rochester, N.Y., confronted a home invader and beat him into submission. When the intruder broke into Willie Murphy’s home, she clobbered him with a table, poured shampoo in his face, and beat him with a broom. Murphy, a champion bodybuilder who pumps iron daily at her local YMCA, said, “I was whaling on that man. Cause I said to myself, ‘If it’s my time to go to hell, I’m taking him with me!’” Cops arrived to find the intruder cowering under her blows.

12-6-19 The African-American aviator who found freedom in the sky
As one of the first African-American women to qualify as a pilot, Azellia White discovered a sense of freedom in the air that was routinely denied to her on the ground. The Texan received her pilot’s license in 1946, overcoming the then widespread belief that neither women nor blacks had what it took to become aviators. Together with her husband and two black airmen, White then founded Sky Ranch Flying Service outside Houston, providing flight training, delivery, and charter services—mostly for African-Americans in the region. Flying, she said, “gave me the freedom to travel, which I often didn’t have on land. We lived in the highly segregated South, where going on foot from town to town could be dangerous.” She was born Azellia Jones in Gonzales, Texas, to a sharecropper father and a midwife mother. The young Azellia “excelled at high school,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.), and in 1941 she moved with her husband, Hulon White, to Tuskegee, Ala. Hulon would work there as a mechanic for Army Air Forces’ all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron—“better known to history as the Tuskegee Airmen.” Inspired by these groundbreaking aviators, “White decided to try her hand in the cockpit,” said The Washington Post. By her telling, flying was a cinch. You just listen to the instructor, she said, and “first thing you know, you’re flying.” After World War II, White trained returning veterans to become pilots, often shocking her passengers with aerial stunts. “Their expressions floored me every time,” she said. The Sky Ranch closed in 1948, in part because changes to the G.I. Bill cut funding for flight training, but White kept flying into her 80s. “I lost myself up in the clouds,” she recalled. “It was breathtaking.”

12-6-19 Number of abortions drop
The number of abortions dropped to 623,471 in 2016 across 47 states—the lowest number since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began tracking the procedure in 1969. (Three states did not report data.) Of those abortions, 91 percent were performed at or before 13 weeks.

12-6-19 Ectopic pregnancies can be fatal
For the second time in a year, Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill in the Ohio state legislature that would require doctors to attempt to reimplant an embryo from an ectopic pregnancy into a woman’s uterus, or face murder charges—even though such a procedure does not exist. Ectopic pregnancies, in which the embryo implants itself in a woman’s fallopian tube, can be fatal for the mother unless doctors end the pregnancy.

12-6-19 Hyderabad case: Police kill suspects in rape and murder of Indian vet
Indian police have shot dead four men suspected of raping and killing a young female vet in Hyderabad last week. The men were in police detention and were taken back to the scene of the crime in the early hours of Friday. The suspects were shot when they tried to steal the officers' guns and escape, police told BBC Telugu. However, human rights organisations including Amnesty International have called for investigations to determine if these were extrajudicial killings. "Extrajudicial killings are not a solution to preventing rape," said Avinash Kumar, executive director of Amnesty International India. The 27-year-old rape victim's charred remains were discovered last Thursday - leading to outrage and protests over alleged police inaction. After news of the killings broke, the victim's mother told the BBC, "justice has been done", while neighbours celebrated with firecrackers, and thousands of people took to the streets to hail the police. Ten armed policemen took the four suspects - who were not handcuffed - to the scene of the crime to reconstruct the incident early on Friday, said VC Sajjanar, police commissioner of the Hyderabad suburb of Cyberabad. The toll plaza where the rape and murder took place is close to the suburb, which houses a number of global tech companies like Microsoft and Google. The police were looking for the victim's phone, power bank and watch which were reported missing, the police commissioner said. "The four men got together and started to attack the officers with stones and sticks and also snatched away weapons from two officers and started firing," the commissioner said, in response to questions about why the men had been killed. "Although the officers maintained restraint and asked them to surrender, they continued to fire and attack us. This went on for 15 minutes. We retaliated and four accused got killed." Two officers suffered head injuries but these were not caused by bullets, he added. The two police officers were admitted to hospital, he said

12-6-19 Uber had 6,000 US sexual assault reports in two years
Uber said it received almost 6,000 reports of sexual assault in the United States in 2017 and 2018. While the number of cases rose in 2018, the rate of incidents dropped by 16%, as the number of journeys was higher. Passengers - as opposed to drivers - accounted for nearly half of those accused of sexual assault. The data was published in a report which Uber said showed its commitment to "improving safety for Uber and the entire industry". Uber is facing growing scrutiny around the world, and recently lost its licence to operate in London. The report showed 5,981 sexual assault incidents were reported out of the 2.3bn US trips over the two-year period. Uber claimed 99.9% of the total journeys were concluded without safety issues. Uber said the report was the first comprehensive safety review of its ride-hailing business. "Voluntarily publishing a report that discusses these difficult safety issues is not easy," said Tony West, chief legal officer at Uber. "Most companies don't talk about issues like sexual violence because doing so risks inviting negative headlines and public criticism. But we feel it's time for a new approach." The company told the BBC there were currently no concrete plans to release safety reports for any non-US markets. Uber said 3,045 sexual assault reports were made in 2018 compared with 2,936 in 2017. Last year, 1.3 billion trips were completed in the US, up from one billion in 2017. The head of the US National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Karen Baker, welcomed the report, saying it "provides an opportunity to shed light on how this information-sharing emboldens our work for a safer future". Passenger safety, in particular sexual violence, have been major challenges for Uber and its US rival Lyft, as well as China's Didi. In November, London's transport regulator announced that Uber would not be granted a new licence to operate after repeated safety issues.

12-5-19 Unnao: India woman set on fire on her way to rape case hearing
A 23-year-old alleged rape victim is fighting for her life after she was set on fire while going to court in northern India. The woman was on her way to a hearing in the case she filed against two men in March, in Uttar Pradesh state. She is in critical condition in hospital, where she is being treated for severe burns. Five men including two of her alleged rapists have been arrested on suspicion of setting her on fire, police say. The woman was on her way to a train station when a group of men assaulted her and dragged her to a nearby field, where they set her on fire, according to reports in local media. Doctors treating her in the hospital in Lucknow city said she had received 90% burn injuries and that she would soon be flown in an air ambulance to the capital, Delhi, for better medical care. The incident occurred in Unnao district, which was recently in the news over another rape case. Police opened a murder investigation against a ruling party lawmaker in July after a woman who accused him of rape was seriously injured in a car crash. Two of her aunts were killed and her lawyer was injured. This latest incident has sparked widespread outrage in India, which is still reeling from a shocking murder and rape case that grabbed headlines just under a week ago. A 27-year-old vet in the southern city of Hyderabad was raped and set on fire on 27 November. Protests were held across the country after the victim's charred remains were found following her disappearance last week. Nearly a hundred rapes are reported in India every single day according to the last recorded crime statistics. Across towns, cities and villages, women, children and sometimes men are subjected to brutal attacks. Many don't get reported, let alone make the headlines. In recent days there's been growing outrage in the wake of the recent gang rape and murder of a vet in Hyderabad. This latest case in Unnao has deepened that anger. In a country where there's huge stigma around coming forward and reporting cases of sexual violence, are there enough safeguards for those who do? Are authorities doing enough to punish the perpetrators?

12-5-19 South Korea intelligence officers accused of raping defector from North
Two South Korean intelligence officials have been accused of raping a North Korean defector, with one said to have abused her dozens of times. The alleged victim, who had been in the two men's custody, was forced to have two abortions, her lawyers say. The officials, a lieutenant colonel and a master sergeant, have been suspended and an investigation has begun. North Korean women who defect are more vulnerable to sexual assault than South Koreans, human rights activists say. Difficult economic circumstances can make them reluctant to speak out. The defence ministry's intelligence command is tasked with investigating North Korean defectors and gathering intelligence. Early this year, the two suspects were assigned the woman's custody, law firm Good Lawyers told BBC Korean. According to the law firm, the first time the woman was raped she was unconscious as a result of drinking alcohol. The master sergeant is accused of raping her dozens of times while the lieutenant colonel is accused of raping her once. The defence ministry said that its investigators had already looked into the allegations and had sent the case to armed forces prosecutors. South Korean defence ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said the officials "would be appropriately handled depending on the investigation results". More than 72% of the 33,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea are women. A human rights activist who advises North Korean women told BBC Korean that "many North Korean defectors experience sexual violence in China before coming to Korea". "They endured it and when they come to South Korea some have this notion that they are already defiled." Human rights group Korea Future Initiative says thousands of North Korean women and girls are being forced to work in the sex trade in China, and that many are forced into at least one form of sexual slavery within a year of leaving their homeland. When the activist asked North Korean women what they thought of the MeToo movement in South Korea back in 2018, some replied by saying: "What good will it do?"; "It only brings humiliation"; or "They should just endure it."

12-4-19 Dua Mangi: Slut-shamed in Pakistan for being abducted
It's been three days since Dua Mangi was kidnapped from an affluent neighbourhood of Pakistan's biggest city Karachi, but there is still no trace of her. Her friend Haris Soomro, with whom she was walking down the street when she was abducted by four or five armed men, was shot and injured by one of the assailants when he tried to resist. He's still in hospital - reports say he was shot in the neck - and his condition is not said to be stable. The motive behind the kidnapping is unclear, and not much detail of Dua Mangi's personal life is known, but a quick look at her Facebook page reveals her to be an educated, successful, independent woman. However, the kidnapping might have gone unnoticed in crime-ridden Karachi as just another statistic - had it not been for a storm it raised on social media. It started with her sister, Laila Mangi, posting Dua's picture on Facebook with the news she had been kidnapped. Laila asked her followers to keep an eye out and inform the family if they saw her anywhere. One of her cousins made a similar request on Twitter. These messages attracted responses from several rights activists, but the debate soon evolved into one that was less focused on Dua's recovery and more on the way she was dressed, suggesting that - with a sleeveless top - she was asking for it. There were also caustic comments on why she, a young woman, was roaming around with a male friend at night. This attracted a frenzy of comments, both sympathetic and unkind, with many taking issue with the portrayal of Dua as an immodestly dressed hate figure who deserved what she got. Many tweeters turned on Dua's critics, questioning their own moral standards. Though the mixing of sexes is becoming increasingly common in urban areas of Pakistan, traditional conservative elements still see it as dishonourable and un-Islamic. (Webmaster's comment: As always it's blame the woman for her being attack!)


SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

12-9-19 Climate change: UN negotiators 'playing politics' amid global crisis
UN negotiators meeting in Madrid have been accused of "playing politics" while the climate crisis grows. The talks - now in their final week - are bogged down in technical details as key countries seek to delay efforts to increase their pledges, observers say. Ministers are due to arrive in the Spanish capital this week to try to secure an ambitious outcome. US presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg is due to attend, while Greta Thunberg will also address the meeting. Up to half a million people took part in a march in Madrid in support of rapid climate action, but according to observers, negotiators haven't got the message. "The problem is while hundreds of thousands of people are marching outside in Madrid, and school children are striking, countries are playing politics with the negotiations," said Mohammed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, a climate and energy think tank based in Nairobi, who's an observer at these talks. "We need ministers to arrive this week and make some real progress." Inside the convention centre, the central question of increasing country pledges to cut their carbon has been pushed aside as negotiators resort to protecting national interests. Back in 2015, everyone signed up to the Paris agreement and put new plans on the table that are due to run from 2020. However the richer countries were supposed to undertake specific carbon cutting actions in the years between 2015 and 2020, which many haven't yet achieved. Here in Madrid a group of countries including China, India and Saudi Arabia are pushing for these pre-2020 commitments be adhered to - even if it means achieving them post-2020. Observers believe this is partly a negotiating tactic designed to put pressure on richer nations in any discussions about improving pledges in the period after 2020.

12-9-19 Polluting firms 'will be hit by climate policies'
Carbon-intensive firms are likely to lose 43% of their value thanks to policies designed to combat climate change, a report says. Meanwhile the most progressive companies will see an uplift of 33% in their value. The forecast was commissioned by the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). Representatives of fossil fuel companies told the BBC they were already adapting their businesses to take climate change into account. But the PRI study suggests major winners and losers will emerge between, and within, big sectors. Car-makers with the swiftest transition to electric vehicles (EVs), for instance, are projected to increase in value by 108%, according to the study by Vivid Economics. Manufacturers slow to move to EVs will see their value fall, as governments realise that petrol and diesel models must be phased out faster for climate targets to be met. Meanwhile, the study predicts that the world’s largest listed coal companies could fall in value by 44%. And the 10 biggest firms in oil and gas could lose 31% of current value. Electric utilities with the strongest strategy for renewables could see values increase by 104%, while laggards could see them fall by two-thirds. Miners producing minerals critical for the transition may see a 54% upside, while those with the smallest share of “green minerals” will witness valuations almost halving. Agricultural firms with high exposure to “sustainable” biofuels and non-beef protein sources could gain at least 10% of current value. Those exposed to under-pressure sectors such as cattle may lose between 15% and 43% - depending on their links with deforestation. The figures are inevitably speculative, and rely on an assumption that politicians will be forced to respond strongly to the growing climate crisis – which, given current political progress, remains debatable.

12-9-19 Madrid climate talks will set the tone for Glasgow 2020
World leaders are heading to Madrid for the high-level stage of the COP25 UN climate conference. The outcome of the talks could have a huge bearing on the Glasgow event next year. So far the negotiations have been slow and frustration at the speed of progress is growing. But climate scientist Prof Sandy Tudhope from Edinburgh University believes there is still time to turn them around. He said: "I'm going to be optimistic about that because it is doable but what it will require is a lot of goodwill - a lot of really open transparent but astute diplomacy. "I'm optimistic because we have to be optimistic. Climate change is a challenge but we can use it as a way to have a fairer and better environment." About 29,000 delegates are registered to attend the event in Madrid where the rulebook for the 2015 Paris Agreement is being finalised. The arrival of environment ministers and - for some countries - prime ministers and presidents might jolt negotiations into action on the main sticking points: carbon markets and financing for loss and damage. But those issues don't go away if an agreement isn't reached at the end of the week and it could hang over to the Glasgow COP. Prof Piers Forster, a member of the Committee on Climate Change which advises governments, said the UK would then have to step up. He added: "We have to build it around creating a good story about the different world we want to create and what sort of world we want for our children and grandchildren. "We have to really make sure that we do bring everyone with us on this kind of journey." While there is much excitement about Glasgow being the focus next year, there is also concern. Friends of the Earth Scotland wants poorer, developing nations to have more involvement, and not just at the top table.

12-8-19 Seychelles: The island nation with a novel way to tackle climate change
On board Darryl Green's small fishing boat, just off the island of Praslin in the Seychelles, the water is so clear we can see the seabed. Brightly coloured fish swim around the hull. "You know at my age I've seen the fish size decrease dramatically," the fisherman reminisces. He's on board his boat with his young grandson in tow. "If as fishermen, we do not take responsibility for our fish stocks, who's going to do it? If we don't start somewhere then in the future we're going to be very hard pushed to find fish to feed our children." Mr Green has been fishing his local bay for decades - but not any more. He's set up a project with his fellow fishermen to voluntarily stop fishing here for six months of the year, hoping that this will allow fish stocks to replenish. "This is our office," he says. "You go to the office to work. We come here to work. This is where we earn our livelihood. So we've got to protect it." During the six months off, they have to fish further out to sea, while some of them do other things like carpentry too. Mr Green's project is one of many which have been funded by a pioneering marine conservation plan. In the first deal of its kind, the East African nation swapped 5% of its national debt for a cash injection to fight the effects of climate change on the ocean. In return, it promised to protect 30% of its national waters, which is an area twice the size of the UK - by the end of next year. It's a huge undertaking for this tiny nation. The Seychelles government agreed the debt swap with the Nature Conservancy, a US charity, and a number of investors in 2016. Under the terms of the $21m (£16m) deal, the charity and the investors - who include the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation - bought a portion of the Seychelles' national debt from European nations, such as the UK and France. The debt is now held by a trust, the Seychelles Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust (SeyCCAT), which offers the country lower interest rates on its repayments. The savings - over $8 million - are ring-fenced for projects designed to protect marine life and handle the effects of climate change.

12-7-19 Scientists issue wake-up call on dangerous loss of oxygen from oceans
The world’s oceans have lost around 2 per cent of their oxygen on average over half a century, alarming scientists who have warned of the trend’s impact on fisheries and endangered species. The number of low oxygen sites along coasts globally has spiralled from 45 in the 1960s to around 700 now, according to a peer-reviewed report by 67 researchers for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Presented at the ongoing UN climate talks in Madrid, the research projects the oceans will lose 3-4 per cent oxygen globally by the end of the century if carbon emissions continue unchecked. Climate change makes deoxygenation worse by warming the oceans, changing ocean circulation and reducing the mixing of waters vital for bringing oxygen from the atmosphere to deeper waters. “It’s almost insane that it’s 2019, we’ve heated the ocean and there’s hardly anyone talking about what this is doing as a combined stressor. We’ve managed to successfully do [raise awareness of] acidification and ocean heating, but deoxygenation is the ultimate wakeup call,” says Dan Laffoley at the IUCN. Species including tuna and marlins are both vulnerable when oxygen levels drop because of their high oxygen demand. Such zones can also wreak devastation on coral reefs – one event off Australia killed a million reef fish. The 2 per cent average global decline between 1960 and 2010 masks big regional differences. While a handful of places may have gained oxygen, Laffoley says off the coast of California, some areas have lost 30-40 per cent. The figures are almost certainly an underestimate due to poor monitoring in some regions, such as off China, he adds. Alongside ocean warming, the other big driver for deoxygenation is the polluting nutrients from agriculture that run off into rivers and then into coastal waters. The nutrients fuel algae growth, and when bacteria eventually break down the algae they use up the oxygen in the water.

12-7-19 Climate change: Oceans running out of oxygen as temperatures rise
Climate change and nutrient pollution are driving the oxygen from our oceans, and threatening many species of fish. That's the conclusion of the biggest study of its kind, undertaken by conservation group IUCN. While nutrient run-off has been known for decades, researchers say that climate change is making the lack of oxygen worse. Around 700 ocean sites are now suffering from low oxygen, compared with 45 in the 1960s. Researchers say the depletion is threatening species including tuna, marlin and sharks. The threat to oceans from nutrient run-off of chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorus from farms and industry has long been known to impact the levels of oxygen in the sea waters and still remains the primary factor, especially closer to coasts. However, in recent years the threat from climate change has increased. As more carbon dioxide is released enhancing the greenhouse effect, much of the heat is absorbed by the oceans. In turn, this warmer water can hold less oxygen. The scientists estimate that between 1960 and 2010, the amount of the gas dissolved in the oceans declined by 2%. That may not seem like much as it is a global average, but in some tropical locations the loss can range up to 40%. Even small changes can impact marine life in a significant way. So waters with less oxygen favour species such as jellyfish, but not so good for bigger, fast-swimming species like tuna. "We have known about de-oxygenation but we haven't known the linkages to climate change and this is really worrying," said Minna Epps from IUCN. "Not only has the decline of oxygen quadrupled in the past 50 years but even in the best case emissions scenario, oxygen is still going to decline in the oceans." For species like tuna, marlin and some sharks that are particularly sensitive to lack of oxygen - this is bad news. Bigger fish like these have greater energy needs. According to the authors, these animals are starting to move to the shallow surface layers of the seas where there is more of the gas dissolved. However, this make the species much more vulnerable to over-fishing.

12-7-19 PG&E: California power firm to pay $13.5bn to wildfire victims
Californian utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) has agreed a $13.5bn (£10.2bn) settlement with victims of wildfires in the state. The company's equipment has been linked to several blazes including the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history, 2018's Camp Fire. PG&E filed for bankruptcy this year and has already settled with insurers and local authorities. The agreements should allow the firm to emerge from bankruptcy. PG&E's settlement relates to claims over several deadly blazes:

  1. The 2018 Camp Fire which killed 85 people in and around the town of Paradise. Investigators blamed the fire on PG&E transmission lines
  2. The 2017 Northern California wildfires, which swept through the state's wine country killing more than 30 people
  3. The 2016 Ghost Ship Fire in Oakland, when a blaze tore through a warehouse that had been converted into a music venue and artist collective. 36 people died
  4. The 2015 Butte Fire, which caused two deaths and burned down hundreds of structures. Authorities said a PG&E power line came in contact with a tree, sparking the blaze

PG&E President Bill Johnson said since entering the bankruptcy process "getting wildfire victims fairly compensated, especially the individuals, has been our primary goal. "We want to help our customers, our neighbours and our friends in those impacted areas recover and rebuild after these tragic wildfires," he said. This year saw yet more rampant wildfires and the firm sought to prevent them by cutting off power to customers in California. (Webmaster's comment: And why aren't all the PG&E executives in prison for manslaughter?)

12-7-19 Indian Ocean Dipole: What is it and why is it linked to floods and bushfires?
Flooding and landslides in East Africa have killed dozens of people and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Australia, a period of hot, dry weather has led to a spate of bushfires. Both weather events have been linked to higher-than-usual temperature differences between the two sides of the Indian Ocean - something meteorologists refer to as the Indian Ocean Dipole. What exactly is the dipole and how does it work? The Indian Ocean Dipole - often called the "Indian Niño" because of its similarity to its Pacific equivalent - refers to the difference in sea-surface temperatures in opposite parts of the Indian Ocean. Temperatures in the eastern part of the ocean oscillate between warm and cold compared with the western part, cycling through phases referred to as "positive", "neutral" and "negative". The dipole's positive phase this year - the strongest for six decades - means warmer sea temperatures in the western Indian Ocean region, with the opposite in the east. The result of this unusually strong positive dipole this year has been higher-than-average rainfall and floods in eastern Africa and droughts in south-east Asia and Australia. "When an Indian Ocean dipole event occurs, the rainfall tends to move with the warm waters, so you get more rainfall than normal over the East African countries," Dr Andrew Turner, a lecturer in monsoon systems at the UK's University of Reading, told the BBC. "On the other hand, in the east of the Indian Ocean, sea surface temperatures will be colder than normal and that place will get a reduced amount of rainfall." A negative dipole phase would bring about the opposite conditions - warmer water and greater precipitation in the eastern Indian Ocean, and cooler and drier conditions in the west. A neutral phase would mean sea temperatures were close to average across the Indian Ocean.

12-6-19 The ‘bleak’ outlook on climate change
The world has acted so slowly to combat global warming that the eventual temperature increase will be double what has been deemed safe. That’s the conclusion of a new United Nations report, whose authors say the future is “bleak” unless there are rapid, unprecedented cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, reports The Washington Post. The latest annual Emissions Gap Report found that global temperatures are on track to rise by up to 5.8 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100—nearly twice the maximum increase pledged by world leaders in the 2016 Paris Agreement. If temperatures continue to climb, scientists say, the world will experience a cascade of disastrous consequences. Coral reefs will die in increasingly acidic oceans. Many coastal cities will be frequently flooded by rising seas. And intense heat could make parts of the world unlivable. To meet the Paris Agreement’s ambitious target, keeping temperatures from rising more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels, global emissions will have to fall 7.6 percent a year over the next decade. That would require countries to raise their emissions-reduction targets fivefold—not likely, given that global emissions have risen about 1.5 percent a year for the past decade. U.S. carbon dioxide emissions jumped 3.4 percent last year. “Our collective failure to act early and hard on climate change means we now must deliver deep cuts to emissions,” says Inger Andersen, head of the U.N. Environment Program. “We need to catch up on the years in which we procrastinated.”

12-6-19 Greta Thunberg: 'They try so desperately to silence us'
Swedish activist Greta Thunberg says young people are "bringing change" to the Madrid climate talks and will not be silenced. At a news conference Miss Thunberg said that she hoped the negotiations would yield "something concrete" The 16-year-old was mobbed by press and spectators when she visited the conference centre earlier on Friday. She had to be escorted away for her own safety amid shouts of "leave her alone" from concerned observers. Having arrived via overnight train from Lisbon to large crowds waiting for her in Madrid, Miss Thunberg was set to join a large demonstration in favour of rapid climate action this evening. Speaking before the gathering she said that the voices of the young would not be drowned out. "People want everything to continue like now and they are afraid of change," she told reporters. "And change is what we young people are bringing and that is why they want to silence us and that is just a proof that we are having an impact that our voices are being heard that they try so desperately to silence us. Miss Thunberg is due to address the climate negotiations that have been going on in Madrid for the past week. She remains hopeful that they will lead to a positive outcome. "I sincerely hope that COP25 will lead to something concrete and it will lead to also to an increase in awareness in people in general and that the world leaders and people in power grab the urgency of the climate crisis because right now it doesn't seem like they are," she said. "We will do everything we can to show that this is something that cannot be ignored, that they cannot just hide away any longer." Miss Thunberg has arrived in Europe after a voyage across the Atlantic by yacht. The hope among many here is that the scale of the march and her speech to the COP next week will give a big boost to the talks process that seem badly in need of a lift.

12-6-19 Greta at United Nations climate talks one year apart
At last year's United Nations climate change talks, not many people knew who Greta Thunberg was. But in the last 12 months, her school strikes have inspired millions to do the same and to call for more action on climate change. Now the teenager is back, for this year's Conference of the Parties (COP) in Madrid.

12-6-19 Christmas Without Ice
Winter wonderlands, with news that the annual “Christmas in Ice” sculpture garden in North Pole, Alaska, has been canceled for the first time ever due to lack of ice. “Is this another one of a series of warm winters in Alaska that are part of our changing climate?” said local climatologist Rick Thoman. “You bet.”

12-6-19 'Sydney mega fire getting out of control'
Sydney in Australia has been blanketed by thick smoke all week due to bushfires. Authorities warned they could not contain the blaze as more than eight fires joined together to form a "mega fire". Scientists said prolonged drought and climate change were the reason for this year's early and intense bushfire.

12-6-19 Giving money to set the Amazon on fire?
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro blamed a new culprit last week for the devastating Amazon rain forest fires: Leonardo DiCaprio. Bolsonaro has accused foreign environmental organizations of setting fires this year that ravaged thousands of square miles of Brazil in order to attract donations. He told supporters, “DiCaprio is a cool guy, isn’t he? Giving money to set the Amazon on fire.” DiCaprio’s environmental group pledged $5 million to help locals battle and recover from the fires, which scientists believe are largely the result of deliberate deforestation to make way for farms and cattle. “The future of these irreplaceable ecosystems is at stake, and I am proud to stand with the groups protecting them,” DiCaprio said.

12-6-19 Climate change: Greta Thunberg mobbed at UN climate talks
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was mobbed by press and delegates as she made her first visit to UN climate talks in Madrid. Ms Thunberg joined a youth demonstration inside the conference which was quickly swamped by spectators eager to catch a glimpse of Greta. Amid shouts of "leave her alone" from concerned observers, she was escorted away by UN security staff. Ms Thunberg has arrived in Madrid following a voyage across the Atlantic by yacht. The hope among many here is that the scale of the march and her speech to the COP next week will give a big boost to the talks process that seems badly in need of a lift. This COP started with great hope last Monday, with strong words from the UN secretary-general and others, warning that time is running out and that negotiators should be guided by the science. Since then, the urgency has given way to frustration. Little obvious progress is being made on the central question of raising countries ambitions to cut carbon. Indeed, the UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa said the issue of increased pledges wasn't even on the agenda for the final outcome from this conference. "We don't have in the agenda one item that's called 'ambition' and, therefore, it's not like we are expecting to have a specific decision on that." In the face of several recent scientific reports stating that countries were falling further behind when it comes to meeting the Paris agreement targets, this was a little disturbing to say the least. According to some experts at these talks, extra ambition would be great but equally important would be a firm timetable to deliver their pledges over the next 12 months, ahead of the Glasgow COP this time next year. Right now, that's not certain. "It would be extremely concerning if the countries here in Madrid did not agree that there is a timeline for next year in coming forward with their commitments," said David Waskow from the World Resources Institute.

12-6-19 Measures to reduce air pollution quickly result in big health benefits
Reducing air pollution in homes, cities or countries can have a dramatic effect on health almost immediately, and the benefits can far outweigh the costs, according to a review of evidence from around the world. At a World Health Organization meeting earlier this year, respiratory doctors were asked, “If you stopped air pollution, what would you expect?” So a group led by Dean Schraufnagel of the University of Illinois at Chicago have tried to answer this question. Even the doctors were surprised by how big the benefits can be, and how quickly they kick in. “With some of this stuff, I had to do a double take,” Schraufnagel says. For instance, when Ireland banned smoking in workplaces in 2004, the number of people dying from any cause fell by 13 per cent after just a week. There were also big falls in heart disease, strokes and a lung condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Non-smokers benefited the most. These health benefits can lead to dramatic cost savings. The benefits of the 1970 Clean Air Act in the US exceeded the costs of implementing it by a factor of 32 to 1, the US Environmental Protection Agency has estimated, and will amount to $2 trillion for the year 2020. Local measures such as shutting factories or reducing traffic can also have big benefits, especially for children. When a steel mill in Utah Valley in the US was shut for a year, hospitalisations for pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis and asthma fell by half. Traffic restrictions during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, nearly halved the number of people needing medical care for asthma. And factory closures and traffic restrictions during the 2008 Beijing Olympics led a fall in deaths from heart disease and strokes.P

12-5-19 Genetics can play key role in saving trees
Tree conservation strategies based on genetic data are best suited for landscapes affected by a rapidly changing climate, a study suggests. Researchers found using genetic markers of climate resilient traits are more effective than traditional seed-selection methods. The team also found that the current generation of trees are struggling to cope in current conditions. The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Co-author Prof Victoria Sork, from the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) explained why the team of researchers felt there was a need to carry out the study. "Trees, which are long lived, and climate change - which is happening quickly - could be out of sync with each other," she explained. "The question is that if they are out of sync with each other, how can we manage tree populations so that they can better cope with increased temperatures?" Prof Sork said that current conservation strategies often worked on the assumption that plants were currently growing in conditions well-suited to the species. However, the team found that this was not the case. Prof Sork: "I became concerned about oak because it was a very important species for the ecosystem. "When a site burns down, as we are getting an increasing number of fires, people will often replant to quickly re-establish the ecosystem that was destroyed. "But the question is, are they planting the right seedlings?" Writing in their paper, the researchers observed: 'In California, valley oak (Quercus lobate) is already mismatched to current temperatures and will likely experience further declines in growth rate as temperatures rise over the next century." Failure to achieve optimal growth could leave the trees less resilient to future climatic conditions." The rapid climate change that we are seeing now, the reason trees are so vulnerable is because their lifespan exceeds the rate of climate change," Prof Sork suggested.

12-5-19 A vital project for monitoring ocean currents has been saved - for now
An under-threat flagship science project that monitors an ocean current crucial to weather on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean has been given a reprieve after funding was secured for its short-term future. New Scientist revealed in May that a string of moorings that has been recording the slowing of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) for the past 15 years, called the RAPID array, faced closure due to a funding crisis. Researchers feared the end of RAPID would stop efforts to see the long-term trend of the current – which needs more than 20 years of data – and what its future holds under climate change. “The continuity of long-term ocean observations is critical to understanding the role of the oceans in climate, especially at present in light of the discussions at COP25,” says Meric Srokosz at the UK’s National Oceanography Centre, referring to the UN climate talks under way in Madrid. The funding for the project was due to run out next year, but will now continue until at least 2021. The £1 million funding needed for the year came from several sources, including the National Oceanography Centre and the US National Science Foundation. Laura Jackson at the Met Office says the project has been critical for monitoring the AMOC and helps inform climate change models. “We have seen how changes measured by the RAPID array affect the ocean temperatures in the North Atlantic, and that these can impact weather patterns,” she says. A collapse of the AMOC – as heavily dramatised in the film The Day After Tomorrow – is considered unlikely this century, but RAPID would be key for detecting the start of such an event. The slowing of the AMOC was raised by a group of influential scientists last week as one of a series of dangerous tipping points in Earth’s systems that may be close because of human activities.

12-5-19 Ryrkaypiy: Far-north Russian village overrun by polar bears
More than 50 polar bears have descended on a village in Russia's far north. All public activities in Ryrkaypiy, in Chukotka region, have been cancelled, and schools are being guarded to protect residents from the bears. Conservationists say climate change could be to blame, with weak coastal ice forcing the bears to search for food in the village rather than at sea. Other experts have said polar bear visits are now so frequent, Ryrkaypiy should be permanently evacuated. Tatyana Minenko, head of Ryrkaypiy's bear patrol programme, told Ria Novosti that they had counted 56 polar bears in the village. The animals were "both adult and young... there were females with cubs of different ages", she said - adding that almost all of them appeared to be thin. The polar bears normally live on Cape Schmidt, just 2.2 km (1.4 miles) from Ryrkaypiy. WWF conservationist Mikhail Stishov said the area had been experiencing unusually warm weather. "If the ice were strong enough the bears, or at least some of them, would have already gone to sea, where they could hunt for seals or sea hares," he said. While waiting for the ice to freeze they are drawn to villages for food, Mr Stishov added. Last week, a polar bear specialist from the US-based Institute of the North said the bears now visit Ryrkaypiy so often that the village should be evacuated, and its roughly 700 residents resettled. Anatoly Kochnev told Tass news agency that polar bear visits are increasingly frequent - and that just five years ago, only about five bears got close to the village."I as a scientist believe [Ryrkaypiy village] should not remain there," he said. "We try to control the situation, but nobody would want to think what may happen there in three to five years." The region's animal protection official Yegor Vereshchagin told Tass that if residents wished to leave, "they could organise a referendum".

12-5-19 Plastic pollution has killed half a million hermit crabs, study says
An estimated 570,000 hermit crabs have been killed after being trapped in plastic debris, a new study has said. The researchers said piles of plastic on beaches create physical barriers and "deadly traps" for the crabs. The study looked at strawberry hermit crab populations on two remote tropical island locations. The scientists say more research is needed into how plastic pollution is affecting wildlife populations worldwide, especially on land. "The potential for plastics on beaches and in other terrestrial ecosystems to cause harm is under-acknowledged," said co-author Alex Bond, a senior curator in the department of life sciences at the Natural History Museum in London. He says plastic in the ocean entangles and is ingested by wildlife, but on land it acts as a trap and a barrier to species going about their daily lives. The researchers surveyed sites on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean and Henderson Island in the South Pacific. They say both locations are littered with millions of pieces of plastic. They say crabs had crawled into plastic containers and were unable to get out, eventually dying. The containers had openings that allowed the crabs to enter, but were positioned with the opening facing an upward angle, so that the crabs would have difficulty crawling back out. The researchers counted how many hazardous containers there were and how many contained trapped crabs, and extrapolated their findings to estimate totals for the islands. "These results are shocking but perhaps not surprising," said lead researcher Jennifer Lavers from the institute for marine and Antarctic studies at the University of Tasmania in Australia. "It is inevitable that these creatures will interact with and be affected by plastic pollution," she said. The problem is worsened by the fact that hermit crabs don't have a shell of their own. As they grow, they need to move into larger shells. When one crab dies, it emits a smell that tells another crab a new shell is available. Meaning, "the very mechanism that evolved to ensure hermit crabs could replace their shells, has resulted in a lethal lure," according to the paper.

12-4-19 We need to wake up to the potential threat from microplastics
“CAN’T be seen, can’t be smelled, can’t be heard, but can be stopped.” That warning, issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services, is about carbon monoxide poisoning from faulty heaters. It could equally apply to a newly recognised threat, except for the last part. Microplastics can’t be seen, can’t be smelled, can’t be heard – and can’t be stopped. As a result of our 50-year addiction to plastics, microplastics are now ubiquitous in the environment. These tiny fragments, formed as plastic breaks apart into ever-smaller pieces, are found in soil, water and air. They rain down on us 24/7 and have entered the food chain and water supply. There is little or no prospect of cleaning them up, and the load will inevitably get worse as the approximately 8 billion tonnes of plastic we have manufactured over the past century or so breaks up but doesn’t biodegrade. “The 8 billion tonnes of plastic we have manufactured over the past century or so will break up but not biodegrade” Concern about microplastics has so far largely focused on wildlife and the environment, and there is evidence of harms to both. But now attention is turning to us. What, if anything, do these particles do to the human body? At this point, there are more questions than answers. To put our ignorance into perspective, we don’t even know for sure that the very smallest fragments, called nanoplastics, actually exist – even though they are hypothesised to be the most harmful to our health. The good news is that researchers are waking up to the potential threat and scrambling to find some answers. The bad news is that it will take years to properly evaluate the problem. As yet, funding is paltry: just a few million euros. Plastic manufacturers who have made a fortune out of the stuff might consider putting a hand into their pocket, perhaps to kick-start research on technologies to clean up the ever-increasing amounts of waste. It may turn out to be a false alarm. If microplastics posed a specific threat to human health, perhaps we would have seen it by now. If that feels like clutching at (plastic) straws, that is because it is. Even if we get lucky this time, the natural world will be paying the price of our so-called ingenuity for decades to come.

12-4-19 Climate change is causing birds to shrink, study suggests
As the climate warms, birds are shrinking and their wingspans are growing, according to a new study. Researchers analysed 70,716 specimens from 52 North American migratory bird species collected over 40 years. The birds had died after colliding with buildings in Chicago, Illinois. The authors say the study is the largest of its kind and that the findings are important to understanding how animals will adapt to climate change. "We found almost all of the species were getting smaller," said lead author Brian Weeks, an assistant professor at the school for environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan. "The species were pretty diverse, but responding in a similar way," he said. "The consistency was shocking." He said studies of animal responses to climate change often focus on shifts in geographical range or timing of life events, like migration and birth. But this study suggests body morphology is a crucial third aspect. "That's one major implication," he said. "It's hard to understand how species will adapt without taking all three of these things into consideration." The findings showed that from 1978 to 2016, the length of the birds' lower leg bone - a common measure of body size - shortened by 2.4%. Over the same time, the wings lengthened by 1.3%. The evidence suggests warming temperatures caused the decrease in body size, which in turn caused the increase in wing length. "Migration is an incredibly taxing thing they do," Mr Weeks said, explaining that the smaller body size means less energy available for the birds to complete their long journeys. He says the birds most likely to survive migration were the ones with longer wingspans that compensated for their smaller bodies. The scientists aren't exactly sure why warmer temperatures cause birds to shrink. One theory is that smaller animals are better at cooling off, losing body heat more quickly due to their larger surface-area-to-volume ratios.

12-4-19 Jane Fonda protests against climate change
Actress Jane Fonda suggested that fossil fuel companies be held accountable "like at Nuremberg." The actress has been arrested several times for civil disobedience while protesting in Washington DC, where she has relocated to. She participates in weekly demonstrations which began in October.

12-4-19 Climate-warming CO2 emissions will hit a record high in 2019
While coal burning emissions ebb, those from other fossil fuels continue to climb. Despite decades of warnings from scientists about the dangers of climate change, the world is on track to hit a new record high for climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. By year’s end, fossil fuels will have flooded the atmosphere with about 36.8 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2019 — up from 36.57 billion tons in 2018, according to monthly emissions data reported by and estimated for different regions. And increasing use of oil and natural gas means those emissions levels will probably keep rising, researchers predict online December 4 in Environmental Research Letters. Many countries are harnessing renewable energies. In the United States alone, wind power generation rose about 8 percent in 2019 from 2018, while solar went up an estimated 11 percent. But that trend hasn’t been enough to stem the global emissions that are driving climate change, melting polar ice caps and revving up hurricanes (SN: 9/25/19). “Most of the renewables being built today aren’t displacing coal and other fossil fuels — they’re [just] adding new energy,” says environmental scientist Rob Jackson of Stanford University. In another paper published December 4 in Nature Climate Change, Jackson and colleagues argue for global climate policies that directly cut fossil fuel use, such as retiring coal-fired power plants and deploying technology that siphons carbon from the atmosphere. “Coal is the only fossil fuel that has shown a hint of declining,” Jackson says. Global coal usage is down slightly, by 0.9 percent in 2019 — with a 10.5 percent drop in the United States and a 10 percent decline in the European Union, his team estimates. But global natural gas and oil use rose 2.6 percent and 0.9 percent respectively, canceling out the benefit of coal’s marginal decline.

12-4-19 Global carbon emissions up 0.6 per cent as oil and gas grow in 2019
Global carbon emissions kept growing this year, but have continued to fall in the US despite Donald Trump’s pro-coal rhetoric and his rollback of Barack Obama’s clean power plan. As delegates discuss how to cut emissions at UN climate talks in Madrid, the annual Global Carbon Project report shows that they are set to grow 0.6 per cent to just under 37 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019. That is slightly less than the 0.9 per cent per year on average this decade, a slowdown that was caused mainly by a 0.9 per cent global fall in coal use, which plunged by a tenth in the US and European Union. Glen Peters at the Center for International Climate Research says the figures show that Trump is failing to protect coal in the US, because of the economics of old coal plants squeezed out by gas and renewables. US emissions are projected to fall 1.7 per cent this year. Not counting the exceptional effect of the 2009 financial crash, that means average annual US emissions cuts have been “more or less the same” under Trump and Obama, says Peters. High carbon trading prices have put the EU on track for a 1.7 per cent emissions cut too, while India’s usual 5 per cent annual increase dropped to just 1.8 per cent due to a strong monsoon, which hit the economy and boosted hydropower to record levels.But globally the picture is gloomier. Electric cars failed to dent oil use, which is up 0.9 per cent, while gas rose 2.6 per cent and is now the biggest driver of emissions growth. Emissions from deforestation fires were up because of fires in the Amazon. China, which accounts for more than a quarter of humanity’s emissions, is set for 2.6 per cent growth. “The urgency of action has just not sunk in yet. There is a lot of talk. There is action, it’s not that there isn’t,” says Corinne Le Quéré at the University of East Anglia, UK. “But this action is still quite confined to relatively specific technologies rather than penetrating across society.”

12-4-19 Climate change: Emissions edge up despite drop in coal
Researchers say that carbon dioxide emissions this year have risen slightly, despite a drop in the use of coal. The Global Carbon Project's annual analysis of emission trends suggests that CO2 will go up by 0.6% in 2019. The rise is due to continuing strong growth in the utilisation of oil and gas. Since the Paris agreement was set out in 2015, CO2 emissions have risen by 4%. Last year saw a strong rise in emissions of almost 3%, with strong demand for coal in China being the main factor. There was also a surge in demand for oil, driven by a booming global market for cars, particularly SUVs. This year's modest rise, if indeed it is a rise, as the margin of error is large, reflects some significant changes in the demand for fossil fuels. While global emissions from coal use fell by less than 1%, this masks some huge drops in countries like the US and across the European Union. "Through most of 2019 it was looking as if coal use would grow globally, but weaker than expected economic performance in China and India, and a record hydropower year in India - caused by a strong monsoon - quickly changed the prospects for growth in coal use," said Robbie Andrew, a senior researcher at the Cicero Centre for International Climate Research, part of the Global Carbon Project. "Coal use in both the US and the EU28 has dropped substantially, possibly by as much as 10% in both regions in 2019 alone, helping push down global coal consumption," Mr Andrew said. The drop in coal as a source of energy was offset by the continued rise of oil and gas. The data comes as the COP25 climate summit continues in Madrid amid a growing sense of crisis. Gas use rose by a robust 2.6%, and while renewable sources like wind and solar have also grown substantially, according to the authors the greener fuels have merely slowed the rise in the growth of fossil fuel emissions. "Compared to coal, natural gas is a cleaner fossil fuel, but unabated natural gas use merely cooks the planet more slowly than coal," said Dr Glen Peters, also from Cicero.

12-3-19 Climate change: Last decade 'on course' to be warmest
Scientists say that average temperatures from 2010-2019 look set to make it the warmest decade on record. Provisional figures released by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) suggest this year is on course to be the second or third warmest year ever. If those numbers hold, 2015-2019 would end up being the warmest five-year period in the record. This "exceptional" global heat is driven by greenhouse gas emissions, the WMO says. The organisation's State of the Global Climate report for 2019 covers the year up to October, when the global mean temperature for the period was 1.1 degrees C above the "baseline" level in 1850. Many parts of the world experienced unusual levels of warmth this year. South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania were warmer than the recent average, while many parts of North America were colder than usual. Two major heat waves hit Europe in June and July this year, with a new national record of 46C set in France on 28 June. New national records were also set in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and the UK. In Australia, the mean summer temperature was the highest on record by almost a degree. Wildfire activity in South America this year was the highest since 2010. The WMO clearly links the record temperatures seen over the past decade to ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases, from human activities such as driving cars, cutting down forests and burning coal for energy. In 2018, concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide all reached new record highs. The WMO says the warming experienced over the past decade is taking its toll on the natural world. The ice is melting at both poles and sea level rise has accelerated since the start of satellite measurements in 1993. Much of the heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions is going into the oceans, says the WMO. The waters are more acidic as a result and marine heat waves are becoming more common. As well as hurting nature, the increased heat is also affecting humans, with heat waves posing a particular risk to the elderly.

12-3-19 Greta Thunberg: Young are 'angry' over climate change
Climate activist Greta Thunberg said that adults should stop making young people "angry" over global warming. Ms Thunberg was speaking after her arrival in Lisbon, Portugal, after a two-weeks-plus journey across the Atlantic from her starting point in Virginia, US. "People are underestimating the force of angry kids," she told reporters. The 16-year-old is on her way to the COP25 climate summit in Madrid. She is taking a stand on more polluting forms of transport by sailing, rather than flying or travelling in cars. Responding to a question from a journalist who said some adults viewed her as "angry", Ms Thunberg said: "We are angry, we are frustrated and it's because of good reasons. Climate summit told of nation's 'fight to death' "If they want us to stop being angry, maybe they should stop making us angry." She had originally planned to travel from the US to a UN climate summit in Chile. But the South American nation had to give up the event due to civil unrest. The venue changed to Spain, and so Ms Thunberg hitched a ride on a 48ft sailing catamaran called La Vagabonde. She travelled with Australian YouTubers Riley Whitlum and Elayna Carausu, as well as Briton Nikki Henderson - who is a professional yachtswoman. Their boat uses solar panels and hydro-generators for power.


SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

12-6-19 Suspended animation in the ER
Doctors in Baltimore have placed humans in a state of suspended animation for the first time, as part of a groundbreaking trial that aims to give surgeons more time to save critically injured patients. Formally known as emergency preservation and resuscitation (EPR), the science fiction–like procedure is being tested on patients who arrive at the University of Maryland Medical Center with an acute trauma—such as a gunshot or stab wound—have lost more than half their blood, and have suffered a heart attack before reaching the operating table. Such patients typically have only a 5 percent chance of survival, and surgeons have just minutes to prevent death from oxygen and blood loss. With EPR, a patient’s blood is replaced with ice-cold saline, which rapidly cools the body temperature to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit and almost completely stops brain activity. This gives the doctors a two-hour window to perform surgery before they have to warm the body back up and restart the heart. The trial is ongoing, with results expected next year. Study leader Samuel Tisherman tells New Scientist it was “a little surreal” performing EPR for the first time, but says he is confident the procedure will “save lives.”

12-6-19 Ketamine vs. alcoholism
A one-off dose of ketamine could help heavy drinkers substantially cut back on their alcohol consumption, new research suggests.. The powerful sedative, sometimes known as the club drug Special K, has previously been shown to be highly effective in treating depression by helping patients rewrite their memories, reports NPR.org. To discover if ketamine could have a similar effect on alcoholism, a team at the University College London recruited 90 people who each drank the equivalent of 30 pints of beer a week. On the study’s first day, the participants were all shown pictures of alcoholic drinks, asked to rate their urge to drink, and then allowed to have a beer. The next day, the participants were divided into three groups: One group repeated the experiment but then received a dose of ketamine instead of beer. The second looked at the pictures and then took a placebo. The third was shown no pictures and received a ketamine shot. The results were impressive: Over a 10-day follow-up, the first group drank significantly less, and on fewer days, than the others. Nine months later, they had roughly halved their weekly alcohol consumption. (The other groups also reduced their intake but not by as much.) If the findings can be replicated, says John Krystal, head of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, “then it opens up a new window about a strategy to treat alcohol-use disorders.”

12-6-19 A once-scrapped Alzheimer’s drug may work after all, new analyses suggest
At the highest doses, aducanumab slowed mental decline, the drug developer claims. Call it a comeback — maybe. After being shelved earlier this year for lackluster preliminary results, a drug designed to slow Alzheimer’s progression is showing new signs of life. A more in-depth look at the data from two clinical trials suggests that patients on the biggest doses of the drug, called aducanumab, may indeed benefit, the company reported December 5. People who took the highest amounts of the drug declined about 30 percent less, as measured by a commonly used Alzheimer’s scale, than people who took a placebo, Samantha Haeberlein of the biotechnology company Biogen reported at the Clinical Trials on Alzheimer’s Disease meeting in San Diego. With these encouraging results in hand, Biogen, based in Cambridge, Mass., plans to seek drug approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in early 2020. The results are “exhilarating, not just to the scientific community but our patients as well,” Sharon Cohen, a behavioral neurologist at the Toronto Memory Program, said during a panel discussion at the meeting. Cohen participated in the clinical trials and has received funding from Biogen. The presentation marks “an important moment for the Alzheimer’s field,” says Rebecca Edelmayer, director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago. Alzheimer’s disease slowly kills cells in the brain, gradually erasing people’s abilities to remember, navigate and think clearly. Current Alzheimer’s medicines can hold off symptoms temporarily, but don’t fight the underlying brain destruction. A treatment that could actually slow or even stop the damage would have a “huge impact for patients and their caregivers,” she says.

12-6-19 Samoan government takes drastic measures to fight measles outbreak
Red flags are flying in Samoa, indicating the houses of people in need of a measles vaccine. An outbreak on the Pacific island has led to drastic government measures to fight off the deadly disease. The Samoan Ministry of Health declared the start of the measles outbreak on 16 October and there have been more than 4300 cases reported since then, including 63 deaths linked to measles. Most of the deaths are among children under the age of 5. The government of Samoa declared an emergency on 19 November, closing schools and restricting children from attending public gatherings. The government also made vaccination mandatory for all 200,000 residents. In the first week after the emergency declaration, public health officials vaccinated 44,907 people, a quarter of the country’s population. As of 5 December, 74 per cent of the population had been vaccinated. The Samoan government undertook a door-to-door mass vaccination campaign on 5 and 6 December to vaccinate people between 6 months old and 60 years old. During that time, the government shut down services so that civil servants could help public health officials administer the vaccine in mobile clinics. Healthcare professionals from New Zealand and Hawaii flew in to help. According to estimates from UNICEF and the World Health Organization, the measles vaccination rate in Samoa fell from 74 per cent in 2017 to 34 per cent in 2018. That may be due in part to hesitancy among parents to vaccinate their children after two Samoan infants died in 2018 due to improperly prepared MMR vaccines. Measles is spreading throughout the region, with outbreaks in Tonga, Fiji, the Philippines and New Zealand.

12-6-19 Samoa arrests vaccination critic amid deadly measles crisis
Samoa has arrested an anti-vaccination campaigner as the country continues to battle a deadly measles outbreak. Edwin Tamasese was charged with incitement against a government order after he was detained on Thursday. The outbreak - which has killed at least 63 people, mostly young children, since October - is in part blamed on people spreading false information, claiming vaccinations are dangerous. Samoa declared a state of emergency, and made vaccinations compulsory. Measles is a highly contagious illness that causes coughing, rashes and fever. Although effective and safe vaccination is available, even some developed countries have seen a resurgence in recent years as unfounded fears about vaccine safety began to spread, often on social media. Samoa's low vaccination rates are in part due to the deaths in 2018 of two children wrongly being attributed to vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella. However, their deaths were due to nurses mixing the vaccine with a muscle relaxant instead of water, and not the vaccine itself. The cases had nonetheless raised local fears, and were exploited by people seeking false proof that vaccines are harmful. His words were echoed by Unicef representative to the Pacific Dr Sheldon Yett, who told the BBC earlier this month that "people who are spreading lies and misinformation about vaccinations are killing children". "The best way to keep children safe is to make sure they're immunised. Preventing vaccination and presenting false information kills children. That is clear - the evidence speaks for itself." Vaccination is not the only way Samoa is trying to end the outbreak. Earlier this week unvaccinated families were asked to hang a red flag outside their homes, while all schools have been closed and children under 17 are banned from public gatherings.

12-6-19 Will the world's 'first male birth control shot' work?
For a long time, there have been only two contraceptive solutions which rely directly on men. They can either wear a condom, or have sterilising surgery called a vasectomy to cut or seal the two tubes that carry sperm to the penis. A male birth control pill and a contraceptive gel are still in the works. But India says it is going to launch the world's first male birth control injection soon. Will this be the male contraceptive that succeeds? Invented by Sujoy Guha, a maverick 78-year-old Delhi-based biomedical engineer, the drug is a single preloaded syringe shot into the tubes carrying sperm from the testicle to the penis, under local anaesthesia. The non-hormonal, long-acting contraceptive, researchers claim, will be effective for 13 years. After years of human trials, the drug called Risug, an acronym for reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance, is ready. It is a viscous gel which inactivates the sperm. The effectiveness of a second part of the treatment - an injection which dissolves the gel, hopefully reversing the effects and allowing a man to father a child - hasn't yet been tested in humans, though it has worked in animal studies. And, like other non-barrier methods, the contraceptive injection wouldn't protect against sexually-transmitted infections. "This will be a world class contraceptive for men. It is safe and effective and lasts for long. We expect it will be cleared for production in the very near future," says RS Sharma, a reproductive biologist at the Delhi-based Indian Council of Medical Research and the drug's lead researcher. But there are some questions over whether this is truly a reversible contraceptive. Some scientists say Risug is really a replacement for surgical vasectomies, something which the Indian researchers do not entirely deny. "The contraceptive aspect of the drug still needs to be assessed with expanded reversibility studies. Presently it appears more like a sterilisation approach. The reversibility needed to allow the drug to become a contraceptive needs to be established," Michael Skinner, a reproductive biologist at Washington State University, told me.

12-6-19 Exclusive: First ever piglets containing monkey cells born in China
Pig-primate chimeras have been born live for the first time but died within a week. The two piglets, created by a team in China, looked normal but a small proportion of the cells in their body were derived from cynomolgus monkeys. “This is the first report of full-term pig-monkey chimeras,” says Tang Hai at the State Key Laboratory of Stem Cell and Reproductive Biology in Beijing. The ultimate aim of the work is to grow human organs in animals for transplantation. But the results show there is still a very long way to go to achieve this, the team say. Hai and his colleagues genetically modified cynomolgus monkey cells growing in culture to make them produce a fluorescent protein called GFP, enabling them to keep track of these cells and their descendents. They then derived embryonic stem cells from these modified cells and injected them into pig embryos five days after fertilisation. More than 4000 embryos were implanted in sows. Ten piglets were born as a result, of which two were chimeras. All died within a week of birth. In the chimeric piglets, multiple tissues including the heart, liver, spleen, lung, and skin partly consisted of monkey cells, but the proportion was low: between 1 in 1000 and 1 in 10,000. It is not clear why the piglets died, Hai says, but because the non-chimeric pigs died as well, the team suspects it is to do with the IVF process rather than the chimerism. IVF does not work nearly as well in pigs as it does in humans and some other animals. The team is now trying to create healthy animals with a higher proportion of monkey cells, Hai says. If that is successful, the next step would be to try to create pigs in which one organ is composed almost entirely of primate cells. Something like this has already been achieved in rodents. In 2010, Hiromitsu Nakauchi, now at Stanford University, created mice with rat pancreases, by genetically modifying the mice so their own cells couldn’t develop into a pancreas.

12-6-19 An ancient critter may shed light on when mammals’ middle ear evolved
How early the hammer, anvil and stirrup arose has been hard to pin down. Exceptionally preserved skulls of a mammal that lived alongside the dinosaurs may be offering scientists a glimpse into the evolution of the middle ear. The separation of the three tiny middle ear bones — known popularly as the hammer, anvil and stirrup — from the jaw is a defining characteristic of mammals. The evolutionary shift of those tiny bones, which started out as joints in ancient reptilian jaws and ultimately split from the jaw completely, gave mammals greater sensitivity to sound, particularly at higher frequencies (SN: 3/20/07). But finding well-preserved skulls from ancient mammals that can help reveal the timing of this separation is a challenge. Now, scientists have six specimens — four nearly complete skeletons and two fragmented specimens — of a newly described, shrew-sized critter dubbed Origolestes lii that lived about 123 million years ago. O. lii was part of the Jehol Biota, an ecosystem of ancient wetlands-dwellers that thrived between 133 million and 120 million years ago in what’s now northeastern China. The skulls on the nearly complete skeletons were so well-preserved that they were able to be examined in 3-D, say paleontologist Fangyuan Mao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and colleagues. That analysis suggests that O. lii’s middle ear bones were fully separated from its jaw, the team reports online December 5 in Science. Fossils from an older, extinct line of mammals have shown separated middle ear bones, but this newfound species would be the first of a more recent lineage to exhibit this evolutionary advance. O. lii apparently moved its jaw both in side-to-side and in rolling motions as it chewed. Such chewing ability, the team says, may have played a role in the evolutionary separation of the jaw and middle ear bones.

12-5-19 Cretaceous fossils are missing link in mammal ear evolution
Fossils of several shrew-like mammals that lived some 120 million years ago have revealed the earliest evidence of the middle ear bones separating from the jaw, a key step in the evolution of hearing. Three tiny bones in the middle ear, known as the incus, malleus and stapes (or hammer, anvil and stirrup), are responsible for the exceptional hearing found in mammals such as dolphins and bats. Biologists think that this complex architecture gradually evolved as the bones behind the back teeth of the lower jaw shrank and were pushed back. But fossil evidence of how and when this transition happened is rare. Now Jin Meng at the American Museum of Natural History and his colleagues have discovered proof of this missing link in several nearly complete skeletons of a previously unknown creature, Origolestes lii, found in the Yixian Formation in Liaoning province, China. The middle ear bones in this mole-sized creature sit behind and at the base of its jawbone, but like in modern mammals, are completely separate from the jaw. In particular, O. lii’s middle ear bones weren’t connected to the jaw through a bridge called Meckel’s cartilage – a feature found in a relative that lived around the same time. evolutionary time”. The evolution of small and loose bones allowed mammals to hear at higher frequencies, and this may have helped them catch insects, says Meng. “On the other hand, the selection pressure for eating different food, such as vegetables and meat, require strong jaw movement, which would be constrained if the hearing organ was attached to the lower jaw,” he says. Once the two were separate, hearing and chewing were both able to evolve rapidly without each impairing the other.

12-5-19 African swine fever helps drive world food prices to two-year high
The slaughter of half of China’s pigs due to a virus raging across Asia and Europe has helped drive world food prices to a two-year high. The United Nations said today that global food prices rose significantly in November, up nearly 10 per cent on the same month last year, pushed up by a combination of rising meat and vegetable oil prices. Meat prices jumped by 4.6 per cent on the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s meat price index, the biggest month-on-month rise for more than a decade. One reason is China importing meat other than pigs to fill the gap left by the domestically-produced pigs killed due to African swine fever. World food prices rose the most for cattle and mutton, the FAO said, buoyed by strong demand for imports, particularly from China as end-of-year festivities approach. “African swine fever is obviously a huge reality in the world. It has pushed up the meat index over the course of the year. And it has led to China importing a lot of other meat, also pushing up prices,” says a spokesperson for the FAO. Meat imports to China do have some impact on world food prices – pig meat imports are up 49 per cent and bovine imports 54 per cent between January and October – but the effect is limited because Chinese imports are dwarfed by its domestic production. Some of the gap left by Chinese pigs culled to stop the spread of the virus or killed by it directly has been filled by ramped-up domestic poultry production. While cereal production is set to hit a record high this year – up 2.1 per cent on 2018 to 2714 million tonnes – vegetable oils bumped up global food prices last month. The FAO’s vegetable food oils index was up 10.4 per cent in November, driven in part by Indonesia requiring more biodiesel be blended in with petrol supplies, in turn diverting more palm oil from food to energy.

12-5-19 A gene tied to facial development hints humans domesticated themselves
Called BAZ1B, it may also help explain why domesticated animals look cuter than their wild kin. Domestic animals’ cuteness and humans’ relatively flat faces may be the work of a gene that controls some important developmental cells, a study of lab-grown human cells suggests. Some scientists are touting the finding as the first real genetic evidence for two theories about domestication. One of those ideas is that humans domesticated themselves over many generations, by weeding out hotheads in favor of the friendly and cooperative (SN: 7/6/17). As people supposedly selected among themselves for tameness traits, other genetic changes occurred that resulted in humans, like other domesticated animals, having a different appearance than their predecessors. Human faces are smaller, flatter and have less prominent brow ridges than Neandertal faces did, for instance. Domesticated animals look different from their wild counterparts as well. Shorter snouts, curly tails, floppy ears and spotted coats are all traits that tend to pop up in domesticated animals. But until recently, no one had an explanation for this “domestication syndrome.” Then in 2014, three scientists proposed that as people selected animals for tameness, they also happened to select for genetic changes that slightly hamper movement of some developmentally important cells (SN: 7/14/14). These neural crest cells are present early in embryonic development and migrate to different parts of the embryo where they give rise to many tissues, including bones and cartilage in the face, smooth muscles, adrenal glands, pigment cells and parts of the nervous system. The researchers’ idea was that mild genetic changes might produce neural crest cells that don’t move as well, leading to domestic animals’ cuddlier look.

12-5-19 Scientists’ brains shrank a bit after an extended stay in Antarctica
The effects of isolation and a monotonous environment may be to blame. Socially isolated and faced with a persistently white polar landscape, a long-term crew of an Antarctic research station saw a portion of their brains shrink during their stay, a small study finds. “It’s very exciting to see the white desert at the beginning,” says physiologist Alexander Stahn, who began the research while at Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin. “But then it’s always the same.” The crew of eight scientists and researchers and a cook lived and worked at the German research station Neumayer III for 14 months. Although joined by other scientists during the summer, the crew alone endured the long darkness of the polar winter, when temperatures can plummet as low as –50° Celsius and evacuation is impossible. That social isolation and monotonous environment is the closest thing on Earth to what a space explorer on a long mission may experience, says Stahn, who is interested in researching what effect such travel would have on the brain. Animal studies have revealed that similar conditions can harm the hippocampus, a brain area crucial for memory and navigation (SN: 11/6/18). For example, rats are better at learning when the animals are housed with companions or in an enriched environment than when alone or in a bare cage, Stahn says. But whether this is true for a person’s brain is unknown. Stahn, now at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging to capture views of the team members’ brains before their polar stay and after their return. On average, an area of the hippocampus in the crew’s brains shrank by 7 percent over the course of the expedition, compared with healthy people matched for age and gender who didn’t stay at the station, the researchers report online December 4 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

12-4-19 We constantly eat microplastics. What does that mean for our health?
Tiny particles of plastic are in our food, water and even the air we breathe. We investigate the impact they have inside our bodies. THIS morning I tried to count how many plastic objects are in my house. I got as far as the bottom drawer in my kitchen cabinet – which contained 147 assorted plastic boxes, lids, cups, straws and disposable cutlery – then gave up. I had to get to work. Good job I didn’t get down on my hands and knees with a microscope to look for really small bits of plastic, because I would never have left. By some estimates, the average household generates 6 kilograms of plastic dust every year, around 700 billion fragments known as microplastics. Like snowflakes, every one is different. Every one may also be harmful. They aren’t just indoors. “They are everywhere,” says Dick Vethaak, an environmental toxicologist at the Deltares research institute in Delft, the Netherlands. “In the water, in food, in the air – you are surrounded by a cloud of them. Everything is contaminated.” More are created every day and they will be with us for centuries. Big plastic debris has been on our radar for years. Yet this is just the start of something more insidious. Plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade but it does break down, fragmented by wind, waves and sunlight into ever-smaller pieces. They may be too small to see, but they are still there, worming their way into every nook and cranny of the environment – including our bodies. This, in a nutshell, is the pervasive problem of microplastics. But beyond knowing that they exist and are everywhere, we are woefully ignorant about them and their potential impact on us. That is why the search for answers is taking on a new urgency. It is widely assumed that microplastics are harmful to the environment and ongoing research suggests that this is a fair assumption. But when it comes to human health, we are flying almost blind. “It is only just very recently that we recognised that we are dealing here with a health issue,” says Vethaak.

12-4-19 Monthly oral contraceptive capsule shown to work in pigs
An oral contraceptive capsule may only need to be taken once a month. In tests in pigs, the capsule slowly released a contraceptive into the stomach that then persisted in the blood for weeks. “This is the first example that I’m aware of a capsule that can deliver a drug over the course of a month,” says Giovanni Traverso at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, part of the team that developed the capsule. The team designed the capsule’s drug delivery system so that it would stick around in the stomach. Within the capsule is a structure made up of six arms attached to a central body. Each arm is loaded with the progestogen contraceptive levonorgestrel. While inside the capsule the structure is folded up, but once the capsule reaches the stomach it starts to degrade. This releases the structure, allowing the arms to unfold and create a star that opens to such a size that it cannot fit through the sphincter that controls the exit of the stomach. Over the next few weeks, the hormone is gradually released, before the arms eventually fall off and the pieces pass through the body, says Traverso. So far, Traverso and his colleagues have only tested their contraceptive in pigs. Three animals given the capsule had similar blood levels of the contraceptive to five female pigs that were given the daily version of the oral contraceptive, although these levels did drop over the course of a month. The researchers plan to incorporate oestrogen along with progestogen before they trial the capsule in people as this is the more common format for long-acting contraceptives, says Traverso. He hopes to start human trials within the next five years. He imagines the once-a-month contraceptive being especially useful in low-to-middle income countries.

12-4-19 A single gene controls how our faces develop when we are young
A single gene controls much of the development of the human face. The same gene is also involved in the domestication of dogs – suggesting that we have domesticated ourselves as a species. The finding is one of the first pieces of hard evidence for the idea that humans are self-domesticated. Over generations, humans have evolved less aggressive behaviours and appearances, says Giuseppe Testa at the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, Italy. This paved the way for large-scale societies in which thousands or millions of people cooperate. Domestic animals are recognisably different from their wild cousins. For example, dogs’ faces are relatively short compared with wolves, and they often have small teeth and floppy ears. Domestic animals also tend to be more sociable towards humans. Human faces look similarly “domesticated” compared with other hominin species, such as Neanderthals. Our faces are flatter and don’t have prominent brow ridges – and we are unusually social and cooperative. As a result, some scientists suspect that before we domesticated dogs and cattle, we first domesticated ourselves. All the parts of the body that are affected by domestication are derived from a single cluster of cells in the developing embryo called the neural crest. This implies that changes to the neural crest might underlie domestication. By studying the genes that control the neural crest, some biologists hope to show that the same kinds of genetic changes are behind the domestication of dogs and humans. Testa’s team studied a gene called BAZ1B, which is known to be involved in controlling the neural crest. BAZ1B is crucial for the development of the face. It belongs to a cluster of genes on chromosome 7, mutations in which cause Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes distinctive facial characteristics and hyper-sociability. The dog version of the gene has been linked to domestication.

12-4-19 Samoa measles: Unvaccinated families told to hang red flag on door
Families that have not been vaccinated against measles in the Pacific nation of Samoa have been asked to hang a red flag outside their homes to help fight a deadly outbreak of the disease. The flags will assist medical teams travelling door to door inoculating residents. The government says more than 4,000 people have been infected with measles out of a population of 200,000. Sixty people have died so far, many of whom were children under five. Samoa declared a state of emergency in November to combat the outbreak and vaccinations are now compulsory. All schools are closed and children under 17 are banned from public gatherings. Samoan officials say the vaccination rate has now reached about 55%. Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has vowed to get the figure above 90%. "Our children and people will never become immune to any future epidemic unless we have almost 100% vaccination coverage," he said while touring a hospital ward on Wednesday. "It's the only antidote." Unicef has sent 110,500 vaccines to the country, and New Zealand has sent medicine, nurses and equipment - while battling an outbreak of the disease itself. It usually takes between 10 days and two weeks for a vaccine to start working. Some people are reportedly peddling false treatments. One businessman told Australian broadcaster ABC that his "Kangen Water" - in reality, tap water - could alleviate symptoms. Tonga and Fiji have also declared states of emergency to tackle their measles outbreaks in the last month. However, both countries have far higher vaccination rates - more than 90% in both countries - and have so far not reported any deaths. The Tonga women's rugby team were put in quarantine on Thursday after a measles outbreak. Measles is a highly infectious viral illness that can sometimes lead to serious health complications, including infections of the lungs and brain. (Webmaster's comment: All unvaccinated people; men, women and children, should be forced to wear a red patch on their clothes that says "I am unvaccinated and a serious danger to your health!")

12-3-19 Cholesterol levels predict if under-45s will ever have heart disease
A person’s cholesterol levels before the age of 45 can predict their lifetime risk of developing cardiovascular disease. The finding has prompted debate about whether younger people should be recommended preventative measures, such as taking statins. The result comes from an analysis of medical data on nearly 400,000 people of European ancestry from across Europe, Australia and North America. The study found that when blood concentrations of non-HDL cholesterol – often known as “bad cholesterol” – are higher than 145 milligrams per 100 millilitres before the age 45, a person’s relative risk of developing heart disease at some point in their life nearly doubles. For concentrations between 100 and 145 milligrams before 45, the relative lifetime risk increases by 10 to 20 per cent. “It is important because people might want to know how they could lower their risk,” says Frank Kee at Queen’s University Belfast, UK, who worked on the study. We have known since the 1980s that cholesterol is linked to atherosclerosis – the clogging of arteries that can cause cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease and stroke. There are many ways a person can lower their lifetime risk of this, such as lifestyle changes and taking medications. For example, in the past 30 years, statin drugs have been widely prescribed to lower cholesterol, contributing to small life expectancy gains. Under existing guidelines, people in the UK and US are only prescribed statins based on their estimated 10-year risk of developing cardiovascular disease, not their lifetime risk, says Kee. The study provides compelling data that lowering cholesterol earlier on in life could be highly beneficial, says Betty Raman at the University of Oxford.

12-3-19 Artificial neurons developed to fight disease
Scientists have made artificial nerve cells, paving the way for new ways to repair the human body. The tiny "brain chips" behave like the real thing and could one day be used to treat diseases such as Alzheimer's. A team from the University of Bath used a combination of maths, computation and chip design to come up with a way to replicate in circuit form what nerve cells (neurons) do naturally. Neurons carry signals to and from the brain and the rest of the body. Scientists are interested in replicating them, because of the potential that offers in treating diseases such as Alzheimer's, where neurons degenerate or die. Prof Alain Nogaret, from Bath's department of physics, said the novelty of their research was to transfer the electrical properties of brain cells on to synthetic circuits made from silicon. "Until now, neurons have been like black boxes, but we have managed to open the black box and peer inside," he said. "Our work is paradigm-changing because it provides a robust method to reproduce the electrical properties of real neurons in minute detail." Making artificial neurons that respond to electrical signals from the nervous system has been a long-time goal in medicine. Challenges included designing the circuits and finding the parameters that make the circuits behave like real neurons. "We have managed to extract these parameters for biological neurons and plug these parameters into the synthetic circuits we have made," said Prof Nogaret. The researchers replicated two types of neurones, including cells from the hippocampus, an area of the brain that plays a major role in memory, and brain cells involved in the control of breathing. The work opens up a range of possibilities in repairing the neuron that have been lost to degenerative disease, including medical implants to treat conditions such as heart failure and Alzheimer's.

12-3-19 Revealed: Mental health websites are selling your data to advertisers
Mental health websites are sharing user data with advertisers, including the results of tests for depression. This means that people seeking information or help for mental health conditions can be targeted with adverts while they may be vulnerable. Eliot Bendinelli at Privacy International in London and his colleagues looked at 136 of the most popular websites in the UK, France and Germany that provide resources and information about mental health conditions. The researchers found that 76 per cent of the websites contained third-party marketing trackers. These collect information about a user and can track them as they browse other sites. This can be combined into a detailed profile. Many of the pages had trackers from Google, Facebook and Amazon and shared information with data brokers – firms that aggregate information and sell individual profiles to other organisations – and advertising companies. “It’s currently almost impossible to seek information and help about depression without advertisers knowing,” says Frederike Kaltheuner at the Mozilla Foundation in London, who is part of the team. “Knowing who is depressed and when allows advertisers to target people when they are at their most vulnerable. Feeling low today? Here are some diet pills.” Advertisers target users based on their personal data, such as their IP address and location, and the site they visit, says Bendinelli. Some sites also have real-time bidding, where information, including a page’s content and URL, is used to instantaneously show a relevant ad on the page. Several websites with questionnaires about depression stored users’ answers and shared them with third parties. When the researchers first analysed the UK’s National Health Service website in September, they found that a mood self-assessment quiz shared individual answers, test scores and the test URL with Adobe for analysis purposes. However, the NHS website has since updated its privacy policy so users now need to manually opt in to be tracked.

12-3-19 Medications alone work as well as surgery for some heart disease patients
Patients with stable ischemic heart disease can avoid stents or bypass surgery. In their heyday, stents and bypass surgery were the go-to treatment for patients newly diagnosed with heart disease. That began to change about a decade ago, after new data emerged suggesting these procedures were no better than treatment with medical therapy alone for patients whose heart-related symptoms aren’t considered an emergency. Now a large study has tipped the scales further, reporting that statins, aspirin and other medications together protect these patients just as well as stents or bypass surgery against heart attacks and death. The key to managing these patients, who have stable ischemic heart disease, “is medicines, medicines, medicines,” says Michael Gavin, a cardiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston who was not involved in the study. “That’s what’s going to stop you from having a heart attack.” Going the medical therapy route does require that patients are committed to that route. That means seeing the doctor regularly, keeping up with medications and exercise and eating a healthy diet. Medical therapy “gives a good prognosis,” says preventive cardiologist Gina Lundberg of Emory University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study. But “you can’t say ‘I don’t want the stent,’ and then not do all those things, and get a good result.” The federally-funded study, called ISCHEMIA, is the largest clinical trial to examine whether medical therapy alone, or along with stents or bypass surgery, reduces death or heart attacks in patients who have heart disease primarily due to plaque-containing, narrowed coronary arteries, but who have manageable pain or other symptoms. The participants in the invasive procedure group had a device threaded through the arteries, followed by placement of a stent to keep an artery open or else bypass surgery to divert blood flow around a blockage. The procedures come with risks such as bleeding or the formation of blood clots that can block an artery again.

12-3-19 An ancient outbreak of bubonic plague may have been exaggerated
Archaeological evidence suggests a sixth century epidemic didn’t radically change European history. An ancient bubonic plague outbreak often characterized as a mass killer that felled Eurasian civilizations was actually pretty tame, researchers say. Known as the Justinianic plague, the outbreak likely didn’t cause enough deaths to trigger major events such as the eastern Roman Empire’s decline, Islam’s rise and the emergence of modern Europe, say environmental historian Lee Mordechai and his colleagues. Many scholars have argued that the Justinianic plague caused tens of millions of deaths starting in the sixth century and reduced European and Middle Eastern populations by 25 to 60 percent. Economies crumbled as a result, devastating what was left of the Roman Empire and ushering in a period of cultural stagnation, from this perspective. But several new lines of archaeological evidence related to ancient population and economic changes challenge that scenario, Mordechai and his team report December 2 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Support for the claim that the Justinianic plague was a watershed event in the ancient world is just not there,” says study coauthor Merle Eisenberg, an environmental historian at the University of Maryland’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis. Yet a scenario of the plague outbreak wiping out populations and reshaping societies appears in many textbooks on ancient history, he says. The Justinianic outbreak, caused by the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, occurred several centuries before the more widely known Black Death plague, which killed tens of millions of people in the 14th century (SN: 1/17/16). An initial outbreak began during the reign of Emperor Justinian, who ruled the eastern part of the Roman Empire after the fall of Rome, and ran from around 541 to 544. Intermittent plague reoccurrences lasted until around 750, and stretched around the Mediterranean and into Europe and the Middle East.


ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

12-8-19 This orangutan's 'personhood' victory brings hope to U.S. animal rights movement
Sandra was awarded personhood rights in Argentina, but now that she lives in Florida, activists are hoping the movement will catch on in the U.S. 33-year-old orangutan awarded "nonhuman" personhood rights in a landmark 2015 court decision in Argentina has settled into a new home in Florida. "She walked into her room. She was just engaged and interested. Very calm," said Patti Ragan, founding director of Sandra the orangutan's new home, the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida. "She looked at every single toy left in there for her, foraged around for food in the hay, and got some blankets, went up and made a nest, and slept well." Sandra landed at the center in November because she's a hybrid of two orangutan subspecies, and Indonesia, one of the native environments for orangutans — where most preferred sanctuaries are located — has banned orangutans like her from its sanctuaries. As part of implementing Sandra's new rights, the Argentinian judge wanted her to live at an accredited facility — and the Florida center was the only one in the Americas that met those standards. Her arrival has raised the hopes of U.S. activists who are trying to match the successes of lawyers who turn to the courts to fight for animal rights around the world. "The animal law movement focused on using the legal system itself really grew out of the United States," said Matthew Liebman, director of litigation for the northern California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund. "But the most remarkable progress we've seen has been outside of the United States with things like the Sandra case in South America." Steven Wise, who heads the nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project and teaches animal rights jurisprudence at the law school at Tel Aviv University, is bringing many of the cases arguing for personhood for animals in the U.S. He hopes Sandra's case may sway U.S. judges, even if it cannot officially serve as a precedent in U.S. courts.

12-7-19 Biodiversity: The best plants for attracting insects to gardens
You can do your bit for insects by growing lots of foliage in your garden, a study has found. Ground-dwelling insects, such as beetles, generally benefit from dense vegetation, including evergreens. Spiders, however, prefer a bit of bare earth - such as a bald patch in a lawn or a sparse flower bed. Alarm bells are ringing about a global decline in insects. Recent studies suggest populations are plummeting, due to nature loss and pesticides. Against this backdrop, new research, published in Biodiversity and Conservation, investigated how plants can best support all forms of insect life. "The main message is the more foliage there is, the more invertebrates you will have in your garden," said Andrew Salisbury, Royal Horticultural Society principal entomologist. "Gardeners can make a lot of difference just by growing stuff in their gardens, taking it a little bit easy on being too tidy and avoiding the use of pesticides wherever possible." While dense planting is good for insects in general, one particular group of invertebrates, the spiders that live on the ground rather than spinning webs, do better when there are a few bare patches. "It might be that with less foliage, particularly at the ground level - they are able to move more freely and hunt more freely," the entomologist said. The researchers looked at how invertebrates thrive in different planting combinations, including native, near-native and exotic species. They concluded that growing a wide variety of plants was important, with a bias towards native and near-native species. And evergreen plants such as holly, Christmas box and pittosporum might have a special role to play for invertebrates, providing shelter during the winter months for the likes of ladybirds, springtails and ground beetles. Tips to support invertebrates in gardens:

  1. Let planting fill out, but keep some areas sparser to help specific groups, notably spiders
  2. Use plenty of native and near-native plants to support the greatest number of ground-active invertebrates
  3. Try to include some evergreens in your garden to give shelter to invertebrates
  4. The greater the variety of plants in a garden, the richer the diversity of invertebrates it will support

12-6-19 ‘A Polar Affair’ delves into a centurylong cover-up of penguin sex
A new book surveys penguin biology and Antarctic exploration history. On March 29, 1912, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott wrote the final diary entry of his ill-fated quest to reach the South Pole. That same day, more than 350 kilometers away, naval surgeon and zoologist George Murray Levick was hunkered down within a snowbank at Cape Adare, observing Adélie penguins. Levick had accompanied Scott to Antarctica, but was not one of the five expedition members on the final trek to the pole. The return journey claimed the lives of all five. Levick survived the expedition, however, and in 1914, published a manuscript summarizing his observations — the first scientific descriptions of Antarctic penguins. But he left something out. During his months observing Adélie penguins, which included an entire breeding cycle, Levick witnessed the birds engaging in same-sex mating rituals. He also saw the birds engage in a variety of other sexual behaviors that in humans we might call promiscuity, infidelity, even prostitution. Levick recorded these scandalous details in a second manuscript, “The sexual habits of the Adélie penguin,” in 1915. But the manuscript was stamped “Not for Publication” and remained unpublished for nearly a century. In 2012, the manuscript resurfaced in a scientific journal. Penguin biologist and author Lloyd Spencer Davis, who had thought he was the first to record same-sex behavior in Antarctic penguins in 1996, was dismayed and intrigued. So Davis embarked on a personal quest to understand how and why Levick’s observations had been buried in the first place — seemingly by his own wishes. The result of that quest is Davis’ book A Polar Affair, an entertaining, chatty and sometimes salacious romp through polar exploration history, penguin biology and Victorian mores. (Webmaster's comment: Religious beliefs censored the truth.)

12-6-19 Death by dog lick
A man has died in Germany after contracting a rare infection from being licked by his dog. The previously healthy 63-year-old dog owner went to a hospital in Bremen suffering flu-like symptoms, leg pain, breathing difficulties, and purpura fulminans, a blood-clotting disorder. His symptoms quickly broadened to include brain damage, kidney failure, and cardiac arrest, and after 16 days of treatment, he died from multiple organ failure. Doctors determined that the infection was caused by Capnocytophaga canimorsus, a bacteria that occurs naturally in the mouths of cats and dogs. “[It] usually doesn’t cause any sort of significant disease,” Stephen Cole, from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, tells CNN.com. “However, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong patient…it can lead to severe infections.” Cases are extremely rare and typically affect people with immune, spleen, or alcohol abuse issues. They also usually involve the patient being bitten; in this case, the man contracted the bacteria from a lick alone.

12-6-19 A single-celled protist reacts to threats in surprisingly complex ways
A new try of a dismissed 1906 experiment suggests a protist can, in fact, ‘decide’ what to do. Being single-celled doesn’t necessarily doom a creature to a simple life. A fresh look at a long-dismissed, century-old experiment suggests that so-called primitive organisms can behave in surprisingly complex ways. Stentor roeseli, a tiny trumpet-shaped protist, can dodge, duck or flee in response to an irritating stimulus, changing its behavior when one strategy fails, researchers report online December 5 in Current Biology. The study suggests that single cells, rather than being preprogrammed to react in a certain way, are capable of “changing their minds” based on experience. “This fascinating experiment reminds us that primitive organisms can do complicated things,” says Sindy Tang, a cellular engineer at Stanford University who wasn’t involved in the study. S. roeseli rose to prominence in 1906, when the American zoologist Herbert Spencer Jennings described some of the most complex behaviors ever reported for a single-celled organism. The millimeter-long freshwater protist spends much of its life fastened to drifting algae, using hairlike cilia on its body to sweep food into its mouth. Jennings messed with S. roeseli, disturbing them with a pipette-delivered stream of a chemical irritant. Instead of simple reflexive behaviors, he documented a complex hierarchy of avoidance tactics. First, the protist would bend to dodge the onslaught. If that failed, it would repel the irritant by using its cilia to “spit” water out of its mouth. When Jennings persisted, it would contract its whole body to shrink away. Its final act was to escape by detaching from its substrate and floating away. At the time, biologists considered single cells to be capable only of rudimentary behaviors, such as moving toward or away from some stimulus. Consequently, Jennings’ work garnered much attention. But attempts to replicate it failed, and eventually his observations were dismissed.

12-5-19 Why you should worry about your pet’s ecological footprint
No Planet B | From domestic cats’ ecocide of small animals to the greenhouse gases they emit, owning a pet is an environmental vice we must confront, writes Graham Lawton. ONE of my cats has died, and I am bereft. It wasn’t the one we expected to lose first, the saggy old ginger tom, but the much younger one who we thought had many years left in him. Turns out he had a weak heart. Mine is now broken. I tell you this not to wallow in grief but to raise an issue that rarely gets an airing when we talk about making personal sacrifices to help the environment. I loved my cat and I miss him, but I take comfort from the fact that my loss is the planet’s gain. I have long suspected that my cats are a major contributor to my household’s environmental footprint. Unlike the humans who live there, they eat meat every day. They also slaughter wildlife. Though the one we lost was a gentle soul, he was also a ruthless killer. I have cleaned up my fair share of decapitated mice and shredded spiders, and once watched, helpless and aghast, as he killed a wren in the back garden. A few cans of cat food and the odd mauled bird hardly constitute ecocide, but summed across the world, domestic cats are a serious environmental menace. If you doubt this – and I know I have already raised some hackles – I recommend a devastatingly brilliant article called “The ecological cost of pets” by biologist Peter Marra of Georgetown University and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington DC. Marra is a well-known critic of cats. In 2016, he co-authored a book called Cat Wars, which argued that domestic moggies have a devastating impact on wildlife. His new article, published in the journal Current Biology, demolished my lingering hope that the ecological impact of my cats is negligible. In the UK, for example, pet cats kill more than 275 million small animals a year. In the US, the toll is probably in the billions. This is just pet cats; feral cats kill even more (both my cats were strays before we took them in).

12-5-19 Ryrkaypiy: Far-north Russian village overrun by polar bears
More than 50 polar bears have descended on a village in Russia's far north. All public activities in Ryrkaypiy, in Chukotka region, have been cancelled, and schools are being guarded to protect residents from the bears. Conservationists say climate change could be to blame, with weak coastal ice forcing the bears to search for food in the village rather than at sea. Other experts have said polar bear visits are now so frequent, Ryrkaypiy should be permanently evacuated. Tatyana Minenko, head of Ryrkaypiy's bear patrol programme, told Ria Novosti that they had counted 56 polar bears in the village. The animals were "both adult and young... there were females with cubs of different ages", she said - adding that almost all of them appeared to be thin. The polar bears normally live on Cape Schmidt, just 2.2 km (1.4 miles) from Ryrkaypiy. WWF conservationist Mikhail Stishov said the area had been experiencing unusually warm weather. "If the ice were strong enough the bears, or at least some of them, would have already gone to sea, where they could hunt for seals or sea hares," he said. While waiting for the ice to freeze they are drawn to villages for food, Mr Stishov added. Last week, a polar bear specialist from the US-based Institute of the North said the bears now visit Ryrkaypiy so often that the village should be evacuated, and its roughly 700 residents resettled. Anatoly Kochnev told Tass news agency that polar bear visits are increasingly frequent - and that just five years ago, only about five bears got close to the village."I as a scientist believe [Ryrkaypiy village] should not remain there," he said. "We try to control the situation, but nobody would want to think what may happen there in three to five years." The region's animal protection official Yegor Vereshchagin told Tass that if residents wished to leave, "they could organise a referendum".

12-5-19 Recordings reveal that plants make ultrasonic squeals when stressed
Although it has been revealed in recent years that plants are capable of seeing, hearing and smelling, they are still usually thought of as silent. But now, for the first time, they have been recorded making airborne sounds when stressed, which researchers say could open up a new field of precision agriculture where farmers listen for water-starved crops. Itzhak Khait and his colleagues at Tel Aviv University in Israel found that tomato and tobacco plants made sounds at frequencies humans cannot hear when stressed by a lack of water or when their stem is cut. Microphones placed 10 centimetres from the plants picked up sounds in the ultrasonic range of 20 to 100 kilohertz, which the team says insects and some mammals would be capable of hearing and responding to from as far as 5 metres away. A moth may decide against laying eggs on a plant that sounds water-stressed, the researchers suggest. Plants could even hear that other plants are short of water and react accordingly, they speculate. “These findings can alter the way we think about the plant kingdom, which has been considered to be almost silent until now,” they write in their study, which has not yet been published in a journal. Previously, devices have been attached to plants to record the vibrations caused by air bubbles forming and exploding – a process known as cavitation – inside xylem tubes, which are used for water transport. But this new study is the first time that sounds from plants have been measured at a distance. On average, drought-stressed tomato plants made 35 sounds an hour, while tobacco plants made 11. When plant stems were cut, tomato plants made an average of 25 sounds in the following hour, and tobacco plants 15. Unstressed plants produced fewer than one sound per hour, on average.

12-4-19 Dogs have a better ear for language than we thought
Dogs pay much closer attention to what humans say than we realised, even to words that are probably meaningless to them. Holly Root-Gutteridge at the University of Sussex, UK, and her colleagues played audio recordings of people saying six words to 70 pet dogs of various breeds. The dogs had never heard these voices before and the words only differed by their vowels, such as “had”, “hid” and “who’d”. Each recording was altered so the voices were at the same pitch, ensuring that the only cue the dogs had was the difference between vowels, rather than how people said the words. After hearing the recordings just once, 48 of the dogs reacted when either the same speaker said a new word or the same word was said by a different speaker. The remainder either didn’t visibly respond or got distracted. The team based its assessment of the dogs’ reactions on how long they paid attention when the voice or word changed – if the dogs moved their ears or shifted eye contact, for example, it showed that they noticed the change. In contrast, when the dogs heard the same word repeated several times, their attention waned. Until now, it was thought that only humans could detect vowels in words and realise that these sounds stay the same across different speakers. But the dogs could do both spontaneously without any previous training. “I was surprised by how well some of the dogs responded to unfamiliar voices,” says Root-Gutteridge. “It might mean that they comprehend more than we give them credit for.” This ability may be the result of domestication, says Root-Guttridge, as dogs that pay closer attention to human sounds are more likely to have been chosen for breeding. The work highlights the strength of social interactions between humans and dogs, says Britta Osthaus at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK. “It would be interesting to see whether a well-trained dog would react differently to the command of ‘sat’ instead of ‘sit’,” she says.

12-4-19 Devil worm genes hold clues for how some animals survive extreme heat
The critters have extra copies of a gene that ramps up to deal with higher temperatures. You might expect a “devil worm” to have fiery eyes and a forked tail — or horns, at the very least. But under the microscope, Halicephalobus mephisto looks nothing like its nickname. Measuring a scant half of a millimeter, it’s a little squiggle of a critter. “There’s nothing particularly menacing about them,” says John Bracht, a molecular biologist at American University in Washington, D.C., and proud owner of the only live devil worms in a U.S. lab. Instead, the worm, a kind of nematode, earned that title because it somehow manages to live in hellish conditions, he says. First described in 2011, H. mephisto is one of the deepest-living land animals found to date. The only live one ever caught in the wild was filtered out of water from an aquifer 1.3 kilometers underground in a South African gold mine (SN: 6/1/11). At that depth, devil worms must cope with low oxygen, high methane levels and temperatures around 37° Celsius. The captured worm laid eight eggs. Now, thanks to that one worm’s descendants, scientists have some genetic clues to how the nematodes tolerate these conditions. The nematodes have duplications of two genes involved in heat shock and cell survival decisions, Bracht and his team report November 21 in Nature Communications. Picking up those extra copies over time likely helped the devil worms cope with extreme conditions and move deeper underground, Bracht says. The researchers found that H. mephisto has about 112 copies of the gene that makes Hsp70 proteins, which refold damaged proteins that have unraveled due to heat stress. That’s a big leap from the devil worm’s closest relative that has had its genetic instruction book, or genome, analyzed already — a nematode that has 35 copies of the Hsp70 gene. Heat stress tests in the lab exposing the devil worms to temperatures from 38° to 40° Celsius show that these genes ramp up to make more Hsp70 proteins when the heat is on. That suggests that these proteins somehow help the devil worms take the heat.

12-3-19 Female brown bears hang out near humans to keep cubs safe from males
FEMALE brown bears with cubs seem to hang around near people’s homes. It may be a way to avoid males, who would force the females to abandon their young earlier. Joanie Van de Walle at Sherbrooke University in Canada and her colleagues studied brown bears living in a rolling landscape of managed forests, bogs and lakes in Sweden. The area was dotted with houses and cabins. Female brown bears keep their cubs for 1.5 or 2.5 years. A female who keeps offspring for 2.5 years can bestow more care, perhaps raising survival chances, but may come into conflict with males who want to mate with her. Males may kill a cub outright, or drive it off. “Males would have an interest in shortening the period of maternal care,” says Van de Walle. “We thought females might come up with counter-tactics.” To check this, her team used GPS collars and helicopters to track 23 male bears and 16 female bears with cubs. They found that females that only kept cubs for 1.5 years had similar habitats to males, but females that spent more time close to human homes kept cubs for 2.5 years (Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, doi.org/dgbj). In Sweden, hunters aren’t allowed to kill family groups, so females with cubs have little to fear. In contrast, males and lone females are fair game, so have good reason to avoid places where people live. “It’s a really interesting observation to see these differences in females,” says Dieter Lukas at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who has studied infanticide by male animals. However, he isn’t convinced that the risk of infanticide is what pushes females to venture close to homes. He points out that cubs that go solo aged 1.5 years normally survive.

12-3-19 'Toxic chemical cocktail' passed to baby porpoises
Baby porpoises in waters off the UK are being exposed to a cocktail of chemicals in their mother's milk. Research found the most potent pollutants, which may be toxic to the brain, are passed from mother to calf. The chemicals are among the 200 or so polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which accumulate in the bodies of dolphins, porpoises and whales. PCBs were once used in plastics and paints. Banned decades ago, they hang around in the environment. The toxins that linger longest in a mother's body - and are considered more poisonous to the brain and nervous system - are transferred to infants in milk, a study found. "It's a tragic irony that juvenile porpoises are being exposed to a toxic cocktail of chemicals during feeding - when all they're supposed to be getting are the vital nutrients they need for the crucial developmental stage of their life," said Rosie Williams of ZSL's Institute of Zoology and Brunel University London. Meanwhile, one killer whale (orca) found dead off Scotland in 2016 contained among the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, ever recorded. PCBs could lead to the disappearance of half of the world's populations of killer whales from the most heavily contaminated areas within a period of just 30 to 50 years, scientists concluded last year. The study looked at levels of more than 200 chemical pollutants that are collectively known as PCBs in hundreds of harbour porpoises stranded off the coasts of Scotland, England and Wales. Juveniles had the highest levels of chemicals thought to be most toxic to the brain and nervous system. It's vital to learn more about PCB exposure in juvenile animals "to mitigate the impact of these dangerous chemicals on populations", said Prof Susan Jobling of Brunel University London. Populations of harbour porpoises around the UK are believed to be stable, though they face threats from pollution, accidental fishing and infection. The situation is much more dire for killer whales, which are down to a handful of individuals.

12-3-19 Gadhimai: Nepal's animal sacrifice festival goes ahead despite 'ban'
Less than five years ago, animal charities heralded the end of animal sacrifice at a religious festival dubbed "the world's bloodiest". But on Tuesday, the Gadhimai festival began with the killing of a goat, rat, chicken, pig and pigeon. According to animal activists who travelled to a remote corner of Nepal for the festival, it was followed by the deaths of thousands of buffalo. Some 200,000 animals were killed during the last festival, in 2014. The tradition dates back to a priest who was told about 250 years ago in a dream that spilled blood would encourage Gadhimai, the Hindu goddess of power, to free him from prison. For the hundreds of thousands of devotees who travel to the temple from India and Nepal, it is an opportunity to have their wishes fulfilled. "I had four sisters. Eight years ago, I made a wish for a brother and the goddess blessed us with him," Priyanka Yadav, of Janakpur, explained to BBC Nepali. However, animal rights activists have long argued it was cruel. Then, in 2015, the Humane Society International (HSI) and Animal Welfare Network Nepal (AWNN) announced "victory", saying animal sacrifices had been banned. But Ram Chandra Shah, the temple's then chairman, told the BBC no such arrangement had been made. "Devout Hindus could be requested not to offer animal sacrifice to the goddess, but they could not be forced not to do so - nor [could] the tradition be banned or stopped completely," he said at the time. Attempts were made to curb the influx of animals ahead of this year's two-day festival: Indian authorities began seizing animals unlicensed traders were trying to bring across the border. Nepal's government has also not provided any support, according to the festival's chairman, Motilal Kuswaha. But the animals continued to arrive at the temple in Bariyarpur, about 150km (93 miles) south of Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, and on Tuesday morning around 200 butchers prepared to begin their work.

12-3-19 US national parks face 'crisis' over invasive animal species
Invasive animal species represent a crisis for United States national parks, experts have said, in a call for widespread, systemic action. More than half of national parks are threatened by invasive animal species, but the threat has gone unaddressed, according to a new paper. The panel of experts said coordinated efforts and partnerships would be essential for success. The paper was published in the journal Biological Invasions. National parks span more than 85 million acres and can be found in all 50 states. They are home to the country's most beloved natural wonders and well-known historic sites. Since 1916, more than 400 parks have been established for protection. The paper is the result of a three-year effort by a panel of experts, established by the National Park Service (NPS) in 2016 to assess the threat of invasive animals. They note the NPS has had an invasive plant management programme for nearly two decades, but that invasive animals have not received the same attention. "The issue of invasive animal species has long been acknowledged, but there has yet to be a concerted, coordinated effort to address the issue," said lead author Ashley Dayer, an assistant professor in the department of fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. A survey identified 1,409 populations of invasive animals made up of 331 species across the parks. Of those invasive populations, only 23% have management plans and only 11% are under control. Those populations can be found across ecosystems, from lakes, rivers and reefs to forests, grasslands and deserts. And all kinds of animals are represented, including mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. The impacts of invasive animal species vary, but they can cause a loss of park wildlife, damage natural ecosystems, hurt visitor experiences and be expensive to control. A number of individual parks have addressed their unique issues with invasive species with some success. The authors say a transformative, service-wide programme could help others follow suit.

12-3-19 The race to find wild relatives of food plants before it's too late
Seeds from 400 wild relatives of food crops such as bananas, rice and aubergines have been collected to save their valuable genetic diversity before it is lost. These could be crucial for maintaining food production as the climate changes. “This was a massive effort,” says Hannes Dempewolf at the Crop Trust in Bonn, Germany, which led the 10-year project. The next step is to use the wild plants to breed new varieties of crops with traits such as drought or disease resistance. That is important because we know that if farmers keep cultivating the same varieties in the same way, yields can plummet as pests and diseases evolve and spread. For instance, rice yields in Asia were hit by the rice grassy stunt virus in the 1970s, says Dempewolf. Resistant varieties were then created by crossing rice with a wild relative. Now the virus is becoming a problem again. It is a constant battle, a bit like walking up an escalator the wrong way. What is more, the speed at which such issues arise is accelerating because of climate change, which is already hitting food production. “You have to walk faster to stand still,” says Alisdair Fernie of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology in Germany, who wasn’t involved in the project. This is why the Crop Trust set out to save the genetic diversity present in wild plants. “Since 2013, more than 12 million seeds have been collected,” says Chris Cockel at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank in the UK. These come from about 5000 locations of the 400 crop relatives. Plants sampled include a type of wild carrot that grows in salty water, an oat relative resistant to the powdery mildew that devastates normal oats, and a kind of bean that tolerates high temperatures and drought. The seeds are now being sent to non-profit breeding organisations around the world. Some will also be stored in seed banks, including the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic.

12-3-19 Polar bear spray-painted with 'T-34' baffles Russia wildlife experts
Footage shared on social media in Russia of a polar bear with "T-34" spray-painted in black on its side has alarmed experts. Experts warned the stunt could affect the animal's ability to blend in with its surroundings and hunt for food. An investigation is under way to determine exactly where in Arctic Russia the video was filmed. The T-34 was a tank that played a vital role in the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two. The footage was posted on Facebook by Sergey Kavry, a member of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) nature organisation, and then shared by local media. Mr Kavry said the video had been shared with a WhatsApp group for the indigenous people of the Chukotka region in Russia's Far East, and that scientists monitoring wildlife in the area would not have branded the bear in such a way. "I don't know the details of which region, district, or vicinity this [footage] was taken," he said, adding: "If it's a military lettering theme... that is some kind of perverse disrespect for history." The press officer for WWF Russia, Daria Buyanova, told the BBC that seeing the images was "quite a shock" and that the inscription "looks like a bad joke". A scientist at the Institute of Biological Problems of the North, Anatoly Kochnev, said it was unlikely that the bear could have been painted without it being sedated. He said the bear could not have been mobile, or at least must have been quite still while it was being sprayed because "the characters are evenly written and are all the same size". He suggested the incident may have taken place in the remote Russian region of Novaya Zemlya, where a team of specialists had earlier sedated polar bears that had been wandering into populated areas. (Webmaster's comment: The T-34 tank kicked German ass all the way from Stalingrad into Berlin. The best designed tank of the war.)