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An Open Mind by Megan Godtland

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Many Christians attack science, facts, truth, logic, and
reason and we just "respect their opinion!" It's time we
all said enough is enough and attack them right back!

"Whenever you find injustice,
the proper form of politeness is attack."
- T-Bone Slim

Special Report

CMM, Child Mental Mutilation!
Speak out against it whenever you hear about it or encounter it!

We at Sioux Falls Free Thinkers are coining a new acronym CMM, "Child Mental Mutilation." Child Mental Mutilation refers to teaching children the anti-science claims that "There is no Evolution", "There was no Evolution", The Earth is only 6,000 Years Old", "Dinosaurs lived at the same time as Man", The Earth is Flat", "The Sun Circles the Earth" and "The Earth is the Center of the Universe", and "The Earth is Square." Teaching these untruths to children cripples them mentally, often for life. It leaves them incapable of dealing with the real world! There are few crimes greater than the deliberate mutilation of a child's mind. It ranks right up there with physical or sexual abuse of a child, which also often mentally cripple a child for life. There can be no excuse for any of these crimes against children!

ATHEISM and HUMANISM

12-13-17 Alabama election: Democrat Jones defeats Roy Moore in Senate upset
Doug Jones has become the first Democrat in 25 years to win a US Senate seat for Alabama, after a bitter campaign against Republican Roy Moore. His unexpected victory deals a blow to President Donald Trump, who backed Mr Moore, and narrows the Republican majority in the Senate to 51-49. Mr Moore has so far refused to concede, saying "it's not over". He fought a controversial campaign, in which allegations surfaced of sexual misconduct with teenage girls. Mr Moore, a firebrand conservative who has said he believes that homosexual activity should be illegal, has repeatedly denied the claims against him. The contest was for the seat vacated by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this year. Alabama will have a Democrat in the US Senate. It's an outcome that seemed all but impossible a year ago and still seemed unlikely even as voters headed to the polls on Tuesday. The ramifications of this unexpected victory are clear. The Republican majority in the Senate will narrow, considerably improving the chances Democrats could gain control of the chamber in the 2018 mid-term elections. It could also be seen as a rebuke of President Donald Trump, who gave full-throated support to Roy Moore even when other leaders in his party were hesitant. After winning governor races in Virginia and New Jersey in November, some Democratic supporters will be hoping that an anti-Trump electoral wave is forming. But Moore was such a flawed candidate that it may be too early to tell. (Webmaster's comment: Donald Trump tumbles to earth with a bump!)

12-13-17 Roy Moore defeat: Five consequences of Alabama election
Christmas has come early for Democrats, who notched a surprise win in Alabama in one of the most unpredictable, improbable Senate races in modern memory. But what kind of mark will this vote leave on US politics? The last time Alabama elected a Democratic US senator was 25 years ago. Since then the state has been moving steadily to the right - in 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton there by nearly 30 points. There are few, if any, US states as ruby-red conservative. And yet a plurality of voters have sent Democrat Doug Jones to the US Senate. There is a risk in reading too much into these results in Alabama, given the unique circumstances. The Republican candidate had a cloud of controversy hanging over his head - not just from allegations of sexual impropriety, but also a history of inflammatory statements and legal run-ins that knocked him out of the Alabama Supreme Court twice. The former judge had a loyal base of support, but there were traditionally Republican voters who found his views on homosexuality, Muslims and civil rights distasteful. Despite his obvious flaws as a candidate with any broad appeal, the impact of this defeat will be felt in several ways.

12-13-17 Alabama upset: What Jones victory over Moore means for Trump
Democrat Doug Jones victory over Republican Roy Moore in deeply conservative Alabama could have real consequences for President Donald Trump, the BBC's Nick Bryant explains.

12-13-17 USA Today editorial says Trump unfit to clean Obama's toilet
The editorial board of USA Today has said President Donald Trump is "unfit to clean the toilets" in Barack Obama's library or shine George W Bush's shoes. The scathing editorial comes after Mr Trump claimed a female senator "would do anything" for campaign cash - words which some regarded as sexual innuendo. "Rock bottom is no impediment for a president who can always find room for a new low," the newspaper added. USA Today is not known for publishing such blistering editorials. One of the nation's highest-circulated newspapers, it usually includes an "opposing view" column with each opinion piece. But during the 2016 election, the newspaper broke its tradition of not endorsing a presidential candidate by publishing an editorial outlining why, it argued, Mr Trump was "unfit for the presidency". Although USA Today did not endorse his challenger Hillary Clinton, it told their readers to vote "just not for Donald Trump". Its latest editorial came a day after Mr Trump tweeted that New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand had "come to my office 'begging' for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them)". Mrs Gillibrand earlier this week called on Mr Trump to resign over allegations of sexual harassment by multiple women. By Wednesday, five other Democratic senators had joined her call. USA Today responded: "A president who would all but call Sen Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library or to shine the shoes of George W Bush. "This isn't about the policy differences we have with all presidents or our disappointment in some of their decisions. "Obama and Bush both failed in many ways. They broke promises and told untruths, but the basic decency of each man was never in doubt."

12-13-17 Roy Moore's shocking loss reveals the cost of Republican lunacy
In an astounding upset, Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama special election to the U.S. Senate. It was the seat that Attorney General Jeff Sessions won in 2014 running unopposed with over 97 percent of the vote — and a state President Trump won by nearly 28 points. Contrast the modern Republican Party, which enjoys a highly unusual level of political dominance, with that of the Democratic Party of the mid-1930s, which was even more dominant. The Democrats of Franklin D. Roosevelt's day had their share of problems (most notably having to rely on racist conservative Dixiecrats as part of the coalition) but fundamentally, the New Deal Democrats were a functioning political party. They catered to a large majority of the population and their policies did redound to the benefit of that population, creating enthusiastic support for the party. Modern Republicans, by contrast, are barely even pretending that their policies are going to be widely popular and successful. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell occasionally produce some half-hearted lies about turbocharged economic growth, but their words are belied by their actions. In both the failed attempt at ObamaCare repeal and the tax bill that is on the verge of passage, Republicans have made a mockery of legislative procedure — holding almost no hearings or markups, and in the case of the tax bill, literally scribbling in the margins of the draft in the middle of the night. They are doing this because those bills are wildly unpopular (indeed, they would cause untold misery and death), and they want to ram them through before the public gets wind of what's going on.

12-13-17 Doug Jones' victory is an epic disaster for Republicans
st night the people of Alabama succeeded narrowly in doing the right thing by rejecting an accused serial sex predator who believes that the Bible should supersede American laws and dispatching his Democratic opponent, a decent man who once prosecuted KKK bombers, onward to the United States Senate. By rejecting Roy Moore, one of the worst human beings ever to run for public office in the history of this country, Alabamians decisively humiliated the hapless, reeling President Trump and his hate-addled former adviser Stephen Bannon, both of whom were all-in for their Gulf Coast Crackpot. There is no spinning such a shocking, epic disaster for Republicans. By sticking with Roy Moore as their standard bearer in this election long after any sensible group of parents would have removed him from the PTA or thrown him out of the pool party, Republican primary voters and their cowardly, politically suicidal leaders may ultimately cost their party control of the Senate for the second time in six years. With their endless arrogance and inexplicable resentment, they threw away one of the safest Senate seats in the history of the American republic. Democrats now need just to protect their incumbents and make relatively easy pickups in Arizona and Nevada to bring the entire Trump presidency, including judicial appointments, to a halt next November. Full stop. But that is not what any of them did. Because when these Republicans sidle on up to the corner of Right Thing Way and Shameful Capitulation Road, they choose capitulation. Every. Single. Time. The president hesitated, but threw his weight behind Moore earlier this month. With few exceptions, congressional Republicans either endorsed Moore or retreated into a pitiful silence. Collectively, they realized their candidate was an unapologetic accused child predator and a lawless authoritarian and they all climbed on board the Scumbag Hindenburg with him anyway, shouting slurs and outrages right up until the glorious moment last night when their ship burst into flames on national TV. They'll live for the rest of their lives with the rotting moral stench of having supported Roy Moore.

12-13-17 Is there a limit to what science can understand?
Maybe science can't answer all the complex questions. Where does that leave us? Albert Einstein said that the "most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible." He was right to be astonished. Human brains evolved to be adaptable, but our underlying neural architecture has barely changed since our ancestors roamed the savannah and coped with the challenges that life on it presented. It's surely remarkable that these brains have allowed us to make sense of the quantum and the cosmos, notions far removed from the "commonsense" everyday world in which we evolved. But I think science will hit the buffers at some point. There are two reasons why this might happen. The optimistic one is that we clean up and codify certain areas (such as atomic physics) to the point that there's no more to say. A second, more worrying possibility is that we'll reach the limits of what our brains can grasp. There might be concepts, crucial to a full understanding of physical reality, that we aren't aware of, any more than a monkey comprehends Darwinism or meteorology. Some insights might have to await a post-human intelligence. (Webmaster's comment: I've been saying the same thing for a long time. You could teach chimps how to drive a car but they'll never understand how to fix the engine. Humans are smarter than chimps, and they understand how to use many of the physical laws of the universe, but not why those laws are what they are and what's behind them. Human intelligence has its limits.)

12-12-17 America's dawning authoritarianism
What does it feel like when a liberal democratic country turns the corner into authoritarianism? America is changing. It isn't always obvious and flagrant — like Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announcing that some opposition parties will not be allowed to take part in the country's 2018 elections, or the Polish government changing the way the courts oversee the nation's laws in order to advance the agenda of those currently in power. And neither are these changes necessarily all things that have happened only since President Trump's election last year. Even if the authoritarian drift accelerated with Trump's rise, it didn't begin with him. He is its expression. We need to do everything we can to ensure he doesn't end up being its culmination. Doing that requires keeping our eyes open for and taking note of longer-term trends and signs of authoritarian drift that are sometimes difficult to detect. The easiest and most obvious examples are those in which government officials say and do things that clearly transgress longstanding liberal-democratic norms that constrain government power. Think of the president's penchant for attacking the news media, including statements at rallies that seem designed to incite violence against reporters. Just this past weekend Trump made a point of singling out Dave Weigel of The Washington Post for verbal abuse and calling for him to be fired — all because Weigel tweeted a misleading photograph, which he promptly deleted, seeming to show a Trump rally in Florida with low attendance. That's the kind of behavior that more common to dictators than American presidents. Beyond Trump himself (and the stream of blatant lies that flow from his White House), there's the Justice Department's efforts to prosecute a group of protesters arrested on the day of Trump’s inauguration last January. As HuffPost reports, the six defendants face "felony charges that could potentially land them in federal prison for decades." That could stifle acts of protests in the nation's capital for years to come — and as Vox's Matthew Yglesias notes, it could even be treated by some municipalities as "a dry run … for an authoritarian crackdown on any form of protest." Then there are the examples of creeping authoritarianism that are welcomed or at least passively accepted by citizens. (Webmaster's comment: Like I've said, "Dictatorship here we come!")

12-12-17 The long journey to reveal the Oregon Trail's racist history
As the U.S. grapples with its legacy of prejudice, one parent is bringing the fight to Oregon public schools. Last spring, Layna Lewis dropped her daughter off at Irvington Elementary School in Portland, Oregon for the fourth-grade class' overnight trip to Oregon City, where the kids would learn about the Oregon Trail by participating in hands-on activities. As is the custom for this trip, which is considered a tradition for many Oregonians, the kids that morning were dressed in pioneer garb. Lewis, who is African American and Native American, was disturbed watching kids of color running around in their bonnets, knowing they wouldn't have been able to own land in the days of the Oregon Trail. "It was glaringly inaccurate," she says of the field trip, concerned that the racial dynamics of the time were being glossed over. Shortly after, Lewis made an eight-minute video called "Oregon FAIL" where she interviewed four girls in the class about the field trip, which has been organized by the Multnomah Education Service District (MESD) since 1998 and serves 3,000 students around the state. In the video, the girls, one of whom is her daughter, recall how narratives about people of color and Native Americans had been omitted in the lessons, which are taught by high school volunteers. "It makes me wonder about my ancestors' history and where were they in this story?" one black girl says to the camera, in response to the question Lewis posed asking them to relay their experience of the field trip. Another girl says Native Americans were treated "like side characters. Throw them out, get away." The video was posted in a neighborhood Google group. News of it made its way to Irvington School's then-principal, Kathleen Ellwood, who is not originally from Oregon and only attended the field trip's evening square dance. She claims she wasn't familiar with the educational aspects of the trip and was surprised by the content in the video. (Webmaster's comment: Don't have pride in our past. We don't deserve it!)

12-12-17 Debt relief for defrauded students halted under Trump, says report
The US Education Department has stopped cancelling student debts for people defrauded by failed for-profit schools, according to its Inspector General. A new report by the independent auditor says affected borrowers face mounting interest and other financial burdens. Before leaving office, President Barack Obama passed new laws speeding up debt cancellations for defrauded students. But under President Donald Trump and his Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, cancellations have ground to a halt. Ms DeVos has delayed the implementation of Mr Obama's reforms, saying they would create costs for taxpayers. According to the Inspector General's report, the Education Department under Ms DeVos has received 25,991 debt cancellation claims, denying two and approving none. During Mr Obama's final months in office, from 1 July 2016 to Mr Trump's inauguration in January 2017, the Education Department received 46,274 claims, approving 27,986 and denying none. In 2015, a huge for-profit school network, Corinthian Colleges, collapsed after investigations into fraud and malpractice in the company led the government to cut off federal funds. Nearly 80,000 students were left facing debts to the Education Department, despite the department having authority to cancel debts when schools have violated students' rights or broken the law. (Webmaster's comment: Of course the rich don't care, they have LOTS of money. The less well off? You're SCREWED!)

12-12-17 Trump attacks 'begging' Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
US President Donald Trump has attacked Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a day after she called on him to resign over sexual misconduct allegations. Mr Trump said the New York senator was "begging" him for campaign donations and "would do anything" for cash. Ms Gillibrand and several women who accuse the president of sexual harassment urged Congress on Tuesday to investigate their claims. Mr Trump branded their accusations "fabricated" and "FAKE NEWS!" In Wednesday morning's tweet, the US president accused Ms Gillibrand of being a lackey to Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer. "Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office 'begging' for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump," the US president posted. "You cannot silence me or the millions of women who have gotten off the sidelines to speak out about the unfitness and shame you have brought to the Oval Office." "President Trump should resign. But, of course, he won't hold himself accountable. Therefore, Congress should investigate the multiple sexual harassment and assault allegations against him."

12-12-17 Alabama Senate race: Trump candidate under spotlight as state votes
Alabama voters are heading to the polls in a Senate election that could have wider implications for Donald Trump. Republican candidate Roy Moore, a former Alabama judge who is embroiled in allegations of child sex abuse, has been endorsed by the US president. Mr Trump's support is at odds with much of the Republican establishment, who have distanced themselves from the 70-year-old Christian conservative. The race between Mr Moore and Democrat Doug Jones has been too close to call. Mr Moore denies claims by several women that he made unwelcome sexual advances, mostly when they were teenagers. However, the scandal has put a Senate seat in Alabama within reach of Democrats for the first time in more than two decades. (Webmaster's comment: Sexual predators have the opportunity to put another sexual predator besides Trump in government.)

12-12-17 Anti-vax views must not derail France’s compulsory vaccine law
The nation is about to make 11 childhood vaccines mandatory, but unless anti-vax echo chambers are tackled, the law may not fulfil its promise, says Laura Spinney. A new law takes force in France on 1 January to up the number of mandatory childhood vaccines to 11 from three. It has provoked a polemic, but the law is sound. If there is a problem here, it is the neglect by officials of the main drivers of vaccine hesitancy. France isn’t the first nation to get tough, as anti-vaccination views rose widely after the Wakefield scandal in the UK. Most recently, Italy passed a similar law in July, and a number of US states have also adopted a stricter stance on vaccinating children. However, France has the world’s worst anti-vax attitudes: a 2016 survey showed that 41 per cent of people there say vaccines are unsafe. The hope is the law will reverse a 20-year fall in vaccine coverage that has eroded herd immunity and raised the risk of epidemics. To prevent outbreaks of measles, for example, it is recommended that 95 per cent of the population be inoculated. France, stubbornly below that target, saw 24,000 cases of measles between 2008 and 2016. Of those, 1500 got pneumonia, 34 had neurological complications and 10 died. Against this backdrop, the new law makes sense. The additional vaccines – for whooping cough, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, Haemophilus influenzae, pneumococcus and meningococcus C – are currently recommended in France but not obligatory, although the distinction has no clinical or epidemiological grounds. (Webmaster's comment: The idea that people must be free to be unvaccinated and then walk around as disease carriers is ridiculous!)

12-11-17 We may know why younger brothers are more likely to be gay
An immune response in some pregnant women’s bodies may explain the “fraternal birth order effect” – that men are more likely to be gay the more older brothers they have. The more older brothers a boy has, the more likely he is to be gay when he grows up – an effect called the “fraternal birth order effect”. Now it seems that increasing levels of antibodies in a mother’s immune system could play a role. Anthony Bogaert at Brock University, Canada, and his team think that some women who are pregnant with boys develop antibodies that target a protein made by the Y chromosome. Our immune systems make antibodies to recognise foreign molecules, which have the potential to be from dangerous bacteria. But pregnant women sometimes also produce antibodies against fetal molecules – for example, if their fetus has a different blood group. Bogaert’s team wondered if maternal antibodies might play a role in shaping sexual orientation. The team collected blood from 142 women, and screened it for antibodies to a particular brain protein that is only made in males. They thought this would be a good candidate, because it plays an important role in how neurons communicate with each other, and because it is produced on the surface of brain cells, making it relatively easy for antibodies to find and detect it. They found that the mothers of gay sons with older brothers had the highest levels of antibodies against this protein, followed by the mothers of gay sons with no older brothers. Women who had straight sons had less of these antibodies, while women with no sons had the least.

12-11-17 Canada, provinces reach tax deal for recreational marijuana
Canada's provinces will be getting the lion's share of the lucrative taxation revenues from legal cannabis. The provinces have agreed in principle to a two-year tax sharing agreement that gives them a 75% cut of those eventual revenues. Canada's governing Liberals are planning to legalise and regulate recreational marijuana by July 2018. Provinces had rejected an earlier proposal to share the tax revenues 50-50 with the federal government. In October, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proposed a 10% federal excise tax on recreational cannabis products that should not exceed $0.78 (C$1.00; £0.58) per gram, or 10% of the sale price. He also proposed that the revenues be shared equally between the two levels of government. Provinces rejected that proposal, arguing they would bear most of the costs related to setting up the distribution framework for recreational marijuana, regulating the drug, as well costs related to policing and public health. Each province is responsible for setting out the framework for the distribution of cannabis within its territory, and for regulating its distribution and retail sales. After meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts on Monday, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced the sweetened revenue-sharing deal. Under the agreement, the federal government will keep a 25% share to a maximum of $78m per year. Any additional revenue above will be redistributed to the 13 provinces and territories.

12-11-17 Saudi Arabia to allow cinemas to reopen from early 2018
Saudi Arabia has announced it will lift a ban on commercial cinemas that has lasted more than three decades. The ministry of culture and information said it would begin issuing licences immediately and that the first cinemas were expected to open in March 2018. The measure is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 social and economic reform programme. The conservative Muslim kingdom had cinemas in the 1970s, but clerics persuaded authorities to close them. As recently as January, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al al-Sheikh reportedly warned of the "depravity" of cinemas, saying they would corrupt morals if allowed. Saudi Arabia's royal family and religious establishment adhere to an austere form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, and Islamic codes of behaviour and dress are strictly enforced. (Webmaster's comment: Be very glad you don't live there!)

12-10-17 Scientists say alone time may be linked to creativity
You may be eagerly anticipating spending time with friends and family over the holidays. But you may also be dreading the obligation to do so, preferring to be alone. New research suggests that, as long as it isn't driven by fear, there's nothing inherently wrong with that impulse. In fact, it may stimulate a much-valued ability: creativity. When it comes to social withdrawal, "motivation matters," said University of Buffalo psychologist Julie Bowker. In the journal Personality and Individual Differences, she and two colleagues distinguish between three such catalysts, and discover they produce quite different results. The study featured 295 undergraduates at a large public university in the United States. Participants filled out a survey that allowed them to delineate specific reasons for avoiding social gatherings: shyness ("Sometimes I turn down chances to hang out with others because I feel too shy"), avoidance ("I try to avoid spending time with other people"), and unsociability ("I don't have a strong preference for being alone or with others"). People whose answers reflected shyness or avoidance scored low on creativity, and high on both types of aggression, an attitude presumably reflecting loneliness or frustration. But the opposite was true of unsociability. People who displayed that trait were less likely to engage in aggressive behavior, and more likely to report that they were creatively engaged. "Anxiety-free time spent in solitude may allow for, and foster, creative thinking and work," the researchers note. Rather than viewing unsociability "as a relatively benign form of withdrawal," this research suggests it "may be better characterized as a potentially beneficial form of withdrawal." (Webmaster's comment: When pumped up on a social media adrenaline high it's hard to imagine any person having creative thoughts!)

12-10-17 Art from inside Guantanamo Bay's prison
Ode to the Sea is a collection of artworks made by inmates from the controversial military prison, Guantanamo Bay. The exhibition is on display at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. (Webmaster's comment: Are all the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay really guilty of any crime? They have never been charged and tried in a court of law.)

12-9-17 What makes the human mind so special?
It might not be self-awareness, as many have thought for years. Everyone knows what it feels like to have consciousness: It's that self-evident sense of personal awareness, which gives us a feeling of ownership and control over the thoughts, emotions, and experiences that we have every day. Most experts think that consciousness can be divided into two parts: The experience of consciousness (or personal awareness), and the contents of consciousness, which include things such as thoughts, beliefs, sensations, perceptions, intentions, memories, and emotions. It's easy to assume that these contents of consciousness are somehow chosen, caused, or controlled by our personal awareness — after all, thoughts don't exist until until we think them. But in a recent research paper in Frontiers of Psychology, we argue that this is a mistake. We suggest that our personal awareness does not create, cause, or choose our beliefs, feelings, or perceptions. Instead, the contents of consciousness are generated "behind the scenes" by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains. All this happens without any interference from our personal awareness, which sits passively in the passenger seat while these processes occur. Put simply, we don't consciously choose our thoughts or our feelings — we become aware of them. If this sounds strange, consider how effortlessly we regain consciousness each morning after losing it the night before; how thoughts and emotions — welcome or otherwise — arrive already formed in our minds; how the colors and shapes we see are constructed into meaningful objects or memorable faces without any effort or input from our conscious mind.

12-8-17 Food delivery robots are teaching themselves how to cross roads
Until now, delivery robots have always needed humans to help them when things get tricky. Now machine learning has helped them work out how to manage without us. Ding dong! That’ll be the robot with my pizza. Such a scenario probably seems a bit far-fetched but, in the US and UK, delivery firms like JustEat and DoorDash are already experimenting using small robots to deliver groceries and meals. Currently these systems need human chaperones to monitor the robot’s progress, jumping in if it gets into trouble. But now Kiwi, a company based at the University of California, Berkeley, is using machine learning to teach its delivery robots how to cross the road safely, without any human intervention. It could be an important step in making these robots more autonomous, something that is vital if they are ever going to be delivering our dinners at scale. Such a system could also help delivery firms with the tricky ‘last mile’ problem of logistics – the fact that getting parcels to your door is the most expensive bit of the delivery process. Kiwi launched in April this year and lets students order food from campus restaurants via an app, to be delivered by its small fleet of robots. The robots use a mixture of camera sensors, lasers and an in-built map of the campus to find their way between restaurants and student addresses. (Webmaster's comment: The beginning of autonomous machine evolution?)

12-8-17 A world without doubt
"It is fake news."Ah, fake news. Such a useful concept. Totalitarian states have long known its power and utility, but autocrats are now taking lessons from the U.S. Crying "fake news" can magically erase any inconvenient evidence, whether it points to genocide, the destructive impact of rising global temperatures, Russia's election interference, or a favored politician's predations on teenage girls. The lying media made it all up! Our nation is having what philosophers might call "an epistemological crisis." That's a highfalutin way of saying many people no longer know what it's possible to know. If nothing the media reports can be trusted, if scientists are frauds, if there is no reliable source of information or verification — then how do you distinguish between "fake news" and reality? You cannot. This can be disorienting at first, but it can also be marvelously liberating: There is no objective truth — just what you want to believe, and the "biased" beliefs of the enemy. Thus, in Alabama, 71 percent of Republicans say they don't believe that senatorial candidate Roy Moore preyed on girls in their teens, despite the detailed accounts from eight women. The president's attorneys are now saying he can't be accused of obstruction of justice, even if he tried to shut down the Russia investigation, because "the president is the chief law enforcement officer." In 1984, George Orwell described a dystopian world in which citizens are taught: "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength." Surrender to the paradox, and you are free from all doubt.

12-7-17 The coming Republican assault on the safety net
With Republicans looking like they're about to pass their tax bill into law, it's tempting to see it as a lone and perhaps pyrrhic victory amidst a year of bumbling failure. If you look purely at their legislative record, that may be true. But if we pull back our gaze, it begins to look like they're having more success than we realize. They have an extraordinarily ambitious agenda, one that involves not just a bunch of discrete policy changes, but a fundamental remaking of American life. They're on their way to seeing it fulfilled, and they're about to get started on the most important piece of the puzzle. The vision is one of an America that's more unequal and more cruel, where the wealthy and powerful accrue more wealth and power, and the rest of us find more obstacles in our way. In other words, "freedom." The tax cut will most certainly have this effect. At a moment when the richest 1 percent of Americans control 40 percent of America's wealth — a higher portion than at any time in the last 50 years — and corporate profits are near all-time highs, Republicans are about to pass a gigantic tax cut that mostly benefits the wealthy and corporations. And it isn't just that they're larding benefits on those who need it least; to pay for it, the bill will increase taxes on those making less than $75,000 and take health coverage away from millions. But that's just one half of the plan. Once the tax bill is done, we get to phase II: an all-out war on the safety net. In an act of positively awe-inspiring shamelessness, they plan to argue that our high national debt demands that we cut back social programs, right after they voted to increase the debt by $1.5 trillion.

12-7-17 The GOP’s embrace of Roy Moore
Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party is now complete, said James Hohmann. When the Republican National Committee reversed itself this week and decided to support and send funds to Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore despite allegations he sexually abused multiple teenage girls, it was meekly following the leadership of President Trump. Three weeks ago, the RNC withdrew its support from Moore as highly credible accusations mounted. But the president “came to identify with Moore” because he, too, was accused of sexual abuse by more than a dozen women last year; when polls showed that Moore might win, Trump gave him his full backing. GOP senators who’d earlier warned they might expel him from the Senate if he were elected immediately surrendered their principles, saying they’d leave the decision to Alabama’s voters. For the party of social conservatism to endorse a candidate accused of preying on teenagers is astonishing; the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, expressed his disgust, saying “no vote, no majority, is worth losing our honor and our integrity.” But “this is not your father’s GOP.” Trump—who cares only about winning—“is remaking the party in his image and infusing it with his sensibilities.”

12-7-17 Moore-mentum
President Trump endorsed Roy Moore’s Senate campaign this week, calling on Republicans to rally behind the candidate despite multiple allegations that he molested teenage girls. “Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama,” Trump tweeted, later phoning Moore to say, “Go get ’em, Roy.” The Republican National Committee, which severed ties with Moore after the allegations emerged, restored financial support for his campaign ahead of the Dec. 12 vote. Republican lawmakers had been softening their criticisms of Moore, who polls show is running neck and neck with Democrat Doug Jones in the special election to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walked back earlier statements that Moore should drop out, saying that he will “let the people of Alabama make the call.”

12-7-17 Lynching back on the table
Walmart has withdrawn from sale a T-shirt that threatened journalists with lynching. The shirt, with the slogan “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required,” was popular at Trump rallies last year. After the Radio Television Digital News Association complained that the T-shirt “openly encourages violence” against journalists, the retail giant took the shirt off its website, saying it “clearly violates our policy.”

12-7-17 SCOTUS lets travel ban take effect
The Supreme Court this week allowed the Trump administration’s revised travel ban to take effect, pending the results of legal challenges against it in lower courts. The third version of the ban, issued in September, affects the citizens of eight nations, six of them predominantly Muslim. The details vary by country, but the executive order bars most citizens from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad, and North Korea from entering the U.S., as well as some groups from Venezuela. Federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland had partially blocked parts of the latest ban from taking effect amid ongoing litigation. Judges on the 4th and 9th Circuit Courts of Appeals are set to hear arguments on those injunctions this week.

12-7-17 Supreme Court divided in gay wedding cake case
The Supreme Court appeared split this week over whether a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple is protected by the First Amendment, in a case that could have far-reaching implications for gay rights and religious freedom. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, baker Jack Phillips argued that his First Amendment rights to free expression and free exercise of religion take precedence over Colorado’s anti-discrimination law. But in oral arguments, liberal justices expressed concern that ruling in Phillips’ favor would open the door to allowing businesses to discriminate. The conservative wing of the court appeared more sympathetic to Phillips, suggesting that a tolerant society must allow for some dissent based on religious principles. The decision will almost certainly come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s swing vote. Kennedy is considered a stalwart ally of gay rights—authoring the landmark opinion in 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage—but he has also favored broad interpretations of free expression. Kennedy appeared to be torn between both sides. At one point, he suggested that a bakery with a sign saying “We don’t bake cakes for gay weddings” would violate the dignity of gay couples. Later, however, he said that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had been “neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs.”

12-7-17 Meet the 17-year-old who is suing her school
Mari Oliver, from Texas, refuses to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, as a protest for civil rights for African Americans. (Webmaster's comment: Very worth watching. She is a very courageous young women!)

12-7-17 Ex-policeman Michael Slager jailed for shooting Walter Scott
A former South Carolina police officer has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for fatally shooting an unarmed African-American motorist. Michael Slager committed second-degree murder when he shot Walter Scott, 50, in the back as he fled arrest after a traffic stop, a judge ruled. "I forgive you," relatives of Scott told Slager, 36, in court, as they spoke about the death's impact on them. A bystander recorded mobile phone video of the April 2015 shooting. Experts say that without a video of the shooting, the former officer probably would not have been fired from the force nor have faced murder charges. Judge David Norton told the court that Slager, who is white, had "lived a spotless life" before the shooting. "Regardless, this is a tragedy that shouldn't have happened," he added. Lawyers for Slager had argued in court that he opened fire on Scott because he thought he had taken his police-issued stun gun during their scuffle. The case ended in a mistrial in 2016, and rather than face another jury, the former North Charleston officer pleaded guilty in May to a federal charge of violating the victim's civil rights. (Webmaster's comment: Finally a little justice for the victims of police murder!)

12-7-17 Daniel Shaver: Police officer not guilty of murder
A police officer charged with the murder of an unarmed man in the US state of Arizona has been found not guilty. Philip Brailsford shot and killed 26-year-old Daniel Shaver in the hallway of a hotel in early 2016. Bodycam footage of the incident, released after the verdict, showed Mr Shaver on his knees asking officers not to shoot him just before he was killed. Mr Brailsford was acquitted of murder and a lesser manslaughter charge. Mr Shaver was shot five times with a semi-automatic rifle as he crawled towards the officers, sobbing. Prosecutors argued that the officer had responded appropriately, according to his training, when Mr Shaver reached towards his waistband - because he believed there was a concealed firearm there. Mr Shaver was confronted by police responding to a report of a man pointing a gun out of his hotel room window in January 2016. The police report said he showed guests in his hotel room a rifle he used for work, killing birds. It later emerged that the rifle was an airsoft or pellet gun, rather than a genuine firearm. (Webmaster's comment: The police look for any excuse to kill and get away with it!)

12-7-17 Lord's Prayer: Pope Francis calls for change
Pope Francis has called for a translation of a phrase about temptation in the Lord's Prayer to be changed. The current wording that says "lead us not into temptation" is not a good translation because God does not lead humans to sin, he says. His suggestion is to use "do not let us fall into temptation" instead, he told Italian TV on Wednesday night. The Lord's Prayer is the best-known prayer in Christianity. The pontiff said France's Roman Catholic Church was now using the new wording "do not let us fall into temptation" as an alternative, and something similar should be used worldwide. "Do not let me fall into temptation because it is I who fall, it is not God who throws me into temptation and then sees how I fell," he told TV2000, an Italian Catholic TV channel. (Webmaster's comment: Arguing about what an imaginary being does is such a waste of time!)

12-7-17 US House votes to expand concealed carry gun rights
The House of Representatives has voted to allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons between states, accomplishing a decades-long firearms lobby goal. The Republican-controlled chamber passed the bill by 231-198, in their first major gun legislation since a 2012 Connecticut school massacre. Republicans said the bill would allow gun owners to travel without having to worry about conflicting state laws. The measure will need a handful of Democrats' support to pass the Senate. To make the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act more palatable, Republicans have included measures to strengthen the national background check system. The legislation would also mandate a study of "bump stock" rapid fire devices, used in October's mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada. Though Wednesday's vote in the House was largely along party lines, six Democrats crossed the aisle to back the bill. Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association, hailed the vote as "a watershed moment" and the culmination of 30 years of lobbying. But opponents said it would trample on laws in some states with tighter restrictions on carrying loaded guns in public, such as New York and California. It would permit those with concealed-carry certificates to bring a gun into any state that allows concealed weapons, even where the standards for granting such permits vary widely. Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat from Colorado, said the bill was an attempt to restrict the rights of states with tighter gun controls. "Georgia has no business, no right, to tell Colorado what its laws should be," Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty said the legislation would "hamstring law enforcement and allow dangerous criminals to walk around with hidden guns anywhere and at any time".

An international comparison of gun-related killings as a percent of all homicides

Top 10 civilian gun-owning countries

Worst mass shootings in the US since 1991

12-7-17 US inner-city children suffer ‘war zone’ trauma
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is well known as an issue for returning soldiers. But it is far more pervasive in US inner cities. For the BBC's America First? series, Aleem Maqbool is exploring health and social issues where the US, the richest country in the world, does not perform well in international rankings.

Gun murder rates (per 100,000)

12-7-17 What do the new ‘gay genes’ tell us about sexual orientation?
Two gene variants have been found to be more common in gay men. New Scientist looks at what this tells us about the way biology shapes our sexuality. Two gene variants have been found to be more common in gay men, adding to mounting evidence that sexual orientation is at least partly biologically determined. How does this change what we already knew?

  • Didn’t we already know there were “gay genes”?
  • What’s new about the latest study?
  • What genes did they find and what do they do?
  • What is the other gene?
  • Are all men who have the “gay” variants of these genes gay?
  • What about women who are gay? Are there “lesbian genes”?
  • Why should we care about the genetics of being gay?

12-7-17 Australian parliament approves same-sex marriage
Same-sex marriage will become legal in Australia after a historic bill was passed in the House of Representatives. An overwhelming majority of MPs voted to change the Marriage Act, eight days after a similarly decisive result in the Senate. The vote set off immediate celebrations in parliament, prompting cheers, applause and even a song. The result brings an end to more than a decade of robust and often bitter debate on the issue. "What a day for love, for equality, for respect," said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. "Australia has done it." The legislation sailed through parliament without amendments after Australians overwhelmingly supported the reform in a voluntary national poll. Australia's governor-general is expected to approve the bill in the coming days, marking its official passage into law. Emotional MPs hugged each other before supporters in the public gallery began singing "I am, you are, we are Australian". Earlier, many supporters had gathered on the lawn outside parliament. They included prominent same-sex marriage advocates, including former Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe and local comedian Magda Szubanski. More than 100 MPs had spoken on the legislation after it was tabled in the House of Representatives. Many senators and MPs related personal stories in explaining why they supported the bill. One MP's speech ended with a marriage proposal - a first for the lower house.

FEMINISM

12-13-17 'Feminism' is Merriam-Webster dictionary's word of the year
A leading US dictionary has named "feminism" as its word of 2017 following a surge in online searches. Merriam-Webster said interest in the term was driven by women's marches, new TV shows and films on women's issues and the string of news stories on sexual assault and harassment claims. The number of people searching for the word was up 70% on 2016, it said. The dictionary defines feminism as "the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes". It adds that it is also "organised activity on behalf of women's rights and interests". In January the first spike in interest occurred after the Women's March on Washington and similar marches in cities across the world. Many wore pink knitted "pussyhats" in reference to controversial remarks Donald Trump was recorded making in 2005. March organisers claimed that women's rights were under threat following the election of Mr Trump to the White House. The following month, interest in feminism surged again when White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said she did not consider herself a feminist. Speaking at a conservative event, she said she found it difficult for describe herself as a feminist because she was not "anti-male" and "pro-abortion". She said she was a "product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances", which she described as "conservative feminism". There was further interest in the meaning of feminism with the release of the TV series The Handmaid's Tale, based on the Margaret Atwood novel, and the hit film Wonder Woman, Merriam-Webster said.

12-12-17 Trump accused of 'slut shaming' Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
US President Donald Trump has been accused of trying to "slut shame" a female senator who demanded he quit over sexual misconduct claims. Mr Trump claimed Kirsten Gillibrand had come "begging" to him for donations and "would do anything" for cash. Senator Elizabeth Warren said Mr Trump was "trying to bully, intimidate and slut-shame" her fellow Democrat. The White House dismissed claims that the remarks were sexist, adding that he was referring to political corruption. "There's no way that this is sexist at all. This is simply talking about a system that we have which is broken", White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Tuesday. Mrs Sanders said the comments had "the same sentiment that the president has expressed many times before when he has exposed the corruption of the entire political system". She added that he has used "similar terminology many times" to discuss both men and women, adding that "politicians repeatedly beg for money". Scores of Democratic congresswomen are urging Congress to investigate claims against the Republican president. Three of his accusers held a press conference on Monday to repeat their allegations he groped, fondled, forcibly kissed and harassed them.

12-12-17 Trump attacks 'begging' Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
US President Donald Trump has attacked Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a day after she called on him to resign over sexual misconduct allegations. Mr Trump said the New York senator was "begging" him for campaign donations and "would do anything" for cash. Ms Gillibrand and several women who accuse the president of sexual harassment urged Congress on Tuesday to investigate their claims. Mr Trump branded their accusations "fabricated" and "FAKE NEWS!" In Wednesday morning's tweet, the US president accused Ms Gillibrand of being a lackey to Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer. "Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office 'begging' for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump," the US president posted. "You cannot silence me or the millions of women who have gotten off the sidelines to speak out about the unfitness and shame you have brought to the Oval Office." "President Trump should resign. But, of course, he won't hold himself accountable. Therefore, Congress should investigate the multiple sexual harassment and assault allegations against him."

12-12-17 Alabama Senate race: Trump candidate under spotlight as state votes
Alabama voters are heading to the polls in a Senate election that could have wider implications for Donald Trump. Republican candidate Roy Moore, a former Alabama judge who is embroiled in allegations of child sex abuse, has been endorsed by the US president. Mr Trump's support is at odds with much of the Republican establishment, who have distanced themselves from the 70-year-old Christian conservative. The race between Mr Moore and Democrat Doug Jones has been too close to call. Mr Moore denies claims by several women that he made unwelcome sexual advances, mostly when they were teenagers. However, the scandal has put a Senate seat in Alabama within reach of Democrats for the first time in more than two decades. (Webmaster's comment: Sexual predators have the opportunity to put another sexual predator besides Trump in government.)

12-12-17 India Tamil Nadu: Six face death penalty for Dalit murder
Six people have been sentenced to death for the murder of a man from India's Dalit community in an "honour killing" in Tamil Nadu last year. Sankar, 22, was hacked to death on a crowded road in broad daylight. People watched in horror as the attackers then fled on a motorcycle. He was murdered for marrying a woman from a higher Hindu caste, police say. She was also injured in the assault. Dalits, formerly called untouchables, are at the bottom of the caste system. The bride's father, who handed himself in and admitted to carrying out the attack, was one of those sentenced to death. Eleven people stood trial in the case. Apart from the six death sentences, one man was sentenced to life in prison while another got five years in jail. Three others, including the bride's mother, were acquitted of all charges. (Webmaster's comment: Honor Killings: Another great EVIL!)

12-12-17 Investors see big money in infertility
And they're transforming the industry. Investors searching for a new way to make big money in medicine have hit upon an age-old problem: infertility. The money isn't just in treating older women who have spent years trying to conceive. It's in persuading younger women, still in their 20s, to start worrying about their future fertility now — and to pay for pricey tests and services, such as egg freezing, as a hedge against problems down the road. Sensing a lucrative market, private equity firms are pouring money into building national chains of fertility clinics. Some are spending on splashy advertising and a deliberate strategy of reaching out to young women who are not yet trying to conceive. Venture capitalists are getting into the business, too; this year alone, PitchBook has tallied more than $178 million flowing into startups developing fertility products, such as a test that promises a credit-score-style rating of a woman's fertility. The new investors say they leave decisions about clinical practice to physicians. But they're nonetheless transforming an industry that has long been dominated by standalone clinics. Fertility experts see real benefits for patients: Clinics united into national chains have been sharing best practices, Introducing newer technologies, and offering more flexible payment plans for customers. But some doctors see potential drawbacks, too. They worry that the new ethos of treating fertility medicine as a cash cow may lead to clinics pushing patients toward unnecessary tests and services. And some are concerned about the ethics of aggressively promoting fertility care such as egg freezing — which can cost between $14,000 and $18,000 per cycle in some cities — to healthy young women who may never need it. The procedure carries some risks to the woman and is no guarantee of a future pregnancy; IVF using frozen eggs has just a middling success rate.

12-11-17 Trump sex harassment accusers demand congressional inquiry
Three women who accused President Donald Trump of sexual misconduct have demanded a congressional inquiry. At a New York City news conference, the trio accused Mr Trump of groping, fondling, forcibly kissing, humiliating or harassing them. Three of them - Jessica Leeds, Samantha Holvey, and Rachel Crooks - detailed their allegations shortly beforehand live on television. The White House said the women were making "false claims". Monday morning's press conference was organised by Brave New Films, which last month released a documentary, 16 Women and Donald Trump, about the claims made by multiple women. Ms Leeds, Ms Holvey and Ms Crooks originally went public separately with their allegations a month before last year's US presidential election. The claims have been given a new lease of life by the harassment scandals that have engulfed high-profile public figures since October's fall of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. On NBC News on Monday, Ms Holvey said Mr Trump had ogled her and other competitors in 2006 at the Miss USA beauty pageant, which he owned. The former Miss North Carolina, who was 20-years-old at the time, said "he lined all of us up" and was "just looking me over like I was just a piece of meat". "It left me feeling very gross," Ms Holvey told NBC host Megyn Kelly. She later told the reporters: "They've investigated other Congress members, so I think it only stands fair that he [Mr Trump] is investigated as well. "This isn't a partisan issue, this is, how women are treated every day." Ms Leeds, now in her 70s, says that when she was 38 she sat next to Mr Trump in the first-class cabin of a flight to New York and he sexually assaulted her. Ms Leeds said: "He jumped all over me." She said she came forward because: "I wanted people to know what kind of person Trump really is, and what a pervert he is."

12-11-17 Josh Homme: Queens of the Stone Age frontman kicks female photographer
Queens of the Stone Age musician Josh Homme has apologised after a female photographer said he kicked her in the head during a concert in Los Angeles. Chelsea Lauren posted a video on social media showing Homme kicking her camera as she took pictures close to the stage on Saturday night. "I now get to spend my night in the ER. Seriously, WHO DOES THAT?", she said. In a statement, Homme apologised and said he would never intentionally cause harm to someone. Ms Lauren described the "obviously very intentional" incident to Variety magazine. "I saw him coming over and I was shooting away," she said. "He looked straight at me, swung his leg back pretty hard and full-blown kicked me in the face." She says she will file a police report. Ms Lauren posted an update to Instagram along with two photographs she had taken seconds before the incident. She said her eyebrow was bruised and her neck was sore. Homme, 44, initially issued an apology through the Queens of the Stone Age Twitter account but following criticism the singer later shared an emotional video response, which has been posted on YouTube. "I'd just like to apologise to Chelsea Lauren. I don't have any excuse or reason to justify what I did. I'm truly sorry and I hope you're okay," he said. "I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, and last night was definitely one of them," Homme added.

12-11-17 Modern slavery: 'I had to eat the dog's food to survive'
It was already late when Maria, alone in her room, thought about taking her own life by jumping from the seventh floor window. Her day at work, just on the other side of the door, had again started around dawn and only ended 15 hours later. She felt weak, having not eaten for two days. Maria (not her real name) had arrived in Brazil from the Philippines two months earlier, hired as a domestic worker by a family who lived in a wealthy neighbourhood of Sao Paulo. The tasks they set her seemed never ending. She had to help the mother with the three school-aged boys and a baby. Then clean the large apartment, which had a large dining room, a living room and four bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. Also walk the family's dog, put all the children to bed. The family's mother usually stayed at home, closely watching everything Maria did. Once, complaining that Maria had not cleaned a glass table properly, she made her polish it for almost an hour. Some days she would count the clothes Maria had ironed and, not satisfied, would make her spend hours ironing some more. Weeks would pass without Maria's employers giving her a day off. With so much to do, she often had no time left to eat. Sometimes, even the food she was given was not enough. On that night, she thought about her own family in the Philippine countryside: her mother and three young daughters, two of whom needed special medicine for their cardiac disease. With all of them depending on her wages, Maria had no choice but to carry on. So she made her bed and went to sleep. "My world was spinning. I was crying," recalled the 40-year-old about the day she almost ended her own life. She had dreamt of coming here - "I had heard that Brazil was nice" - and struggled to understand why she was being treated so badly. When Maria woke up the next day, her stomach hurt from the lack of food, but her tasks were already waiting for her. Only hours later did she find something to eat: she was cooking meat for the family's dog and took half of it for herself. "I didn't have [any other] choice to survive."

12-11-17 India outrage over brutal rape and murder of six-year-old
Police in India are questioning several people in connection with the brutal rape and murder of a six-year-old in the northern state of Haryana.. Her body was found on Sunday close to her home from where she was allegedly abducted on the night of 8 December. The extent of the injuries to the child have horrified Indians, with many drawing parallels with the 2012 Delhi bus rape that caused massive outrage. The child's mother told BBC Hindi's Manoj Dhaka that they wanted justice. "It's been 24 hours and the police are yet to catch anyone," she said. Police have detained three of her husband's relatives for questioning but no arrests have been made so far. However no details have been released. The government has formed a special investigative team as public pressure mounts on authorities to catch those responsible for the crime. Locals, including activists and political leaders from the district, have gathered in the village to protest. In another incident, one man has been arrested over the alleged gangrape of a teenage cancer patient from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The girl has alleged that she was abducted and raped by two men, and when she approached a neighbour for help he raped her as well.

12-11-17 Tanzanian President Magufuli pardons child rapists
Children's rights activists have condemned the pardon of two child rapists by the Tanzanian president. Kate McAlpine, director of the Arusha-based Community for Children Rights, told the BBC she was "horrified but unsurprised". John Magufuli made the pardon in his independence day speech on Saturday. Singer Nguza Viking, known as Babu Seya, and his son Johnson Nguza, known as Papii Kocha, were pardoned for raping 10 primary schoolgirls. The president selected a group of prisoners to be released, who he said had corrected their behaviour. Ms McAlpine said the pardon illustrated Mr Magufuli showed a "lack of understanding about violence against children". She linked this latest speech to his June announcement where he banned pregnant schoolgirls from returning to school. "He has a blind spot when it comes to recognising children as victims. Pregnant schoolgirls are pregnant because they are victims of violence." Child rape cases in Tanzania tend to be dealt with between families, or rapists have been known to pay off police and court staff, Ms McAlpine said. "It's extremely rare for child rape cases to get to court in Tanzania," she said, and even rarer for the culprits to get life sentences.

12-11-17 Justin Bieber among celebs supporting bullied Keaton Jones
Captain America star Chris Evans has invited a bullied child to the 2018 premiere of Avengers: Infinity War. He was one of many stars to tweet a message of support to Keaton Jones after seeing a video of the boy speaking about being bullied. Actress and singer Hailee Steinfeld asked Keaton to be her date for the Pitch Perfect 3 premiere. While Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown said she wanted to be friends with him. The footage was originally published on Facebook by his mum Kimberley on Friday and has since racked up 22m views.

12-10-17 Actress Zaira Wasim: I was molested on flight
An actress who starred in Bollywood's biggest film says she was molested on a flight between Delhi and Mumbai. Zaira Wasim, 17, said a "middle-aged man" repeatedly moved his foot up and down her neck and back while she was "half-asleep". She documented the incident on Instagram, and tried to film the man's behaviour but said it was too dark. The airline, Air Vistara, said it was carrying out a detailed investigation into the incident. "I was sure of it. He kept nudging my shoulder and continued to move his foot up and down my back and neck," Ms Wasim posted on her Instagram account early on Sunday. She said she blamed the turbulence at first, but was later woken by the man's foot touching her neck. Ms Wasim shared a video of herself after the flight, in which she was visibly upset. "This is terrible. No one will help us if we don't decide to help ourselves," she said.

12-10-17 Sudan women in trousers: No indecency charges
Charges of indecency have been dropped against 24 women who were caught wearing trousers at a party near the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. The gathering was raided by morality police on Wednesday. If convicted, the women could have faced punishment of 40 lashes and a fine for wearing "an obscene outfit". Rights activists say tens of thousands of women are arrested and flogged for indecency every year, and laws can be applied arbitrarily. They say the law in Muslim-majority Sudan against wearing trousers and short or tight skirts discriminates against Christians. Traditionally, women in Sudan wear loose flowing robes. Campaigner Amira Osman told Netherlands-based Radio Dabanga the public order act violated women's rights. "The party took place in a closed hall in a building in El Mamoura [south of Khartoum]," she said. "The girls were arrested for wearing trousers, despite obtaining a permit from the authorities." The law - Article 152 of the Criminal Code - applies to "indecent acts" in public, wearing an "obscene outfit" or "causing an annoyance to public feelings".

12-8-17 US lawmaker Trent Franks quits over 'surrogacy' talks with aides
Arizona Republican Trent Franks has resigned amid an ethics investigation into claims he repeatedly asked female staff to be surrogate mothers. The announcement came after a congressional panel said it was opening an inquiry into sexual harassment allegations against Mr Franks. The lawmaker acknowledged discussing surrogacy with two female aides when he and his wife were facing infertility. He is the third member of Congress to resign in three days. The Associated Press reports one of Mr Franks' former aides accuses him of offering her $5m (£3.7m) to act as a surrogate mother, repeatedly pressing her to carry his child. She told the news agency that another female staff member had also been approached by Mr Franks about surrogacy. One of the aides reportedly said Mr Franks retaliated against her after she turned down his alleged surrogacy requests by ignoring her and withholding assignments. A spokesman for the eight-term congressman - who has a net worth of $33m - would not comment on whether he had offered aides money to act as surrogates. Mr Franks said on Thursday his resignation would take effect next month. But on Friday he said he had decided to quit immediately after his wife was admitted to a Washington hospital "due to an ongoing ailment". In a statement on Thursday, the 60-year-old Republican acknowledged "my discussion of surrogacy with two previous female subordinates, making each feel uncomfortable. "I deeply regret that my discussion of this option and process in the workplace caused distress."

12-9-17 Dustin Hoffman faces new sex abuse allegation from co-star
A co-star of Hollywood actor Dustin Hoffman has accused him of a "horrific, demoralising and abusive experience" while on a 1984 Broadway production. Kathryn Rossetter's allegation comes a month after author Anna Graham Hunter accused Hoffman of sexual misconduct. Hoffman has not commented on the latest claims in the Hollywood Reporter. It said it had spoken to several people on the 1984 set who questioned Rossetter's account and said they had not witnessed the conduct described. The latest allegation is one of a string made against Hollywood stars and executives, sparked by initial allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein. Rossetter's account was carried in a guest column in the Hollywood Reporter on Friday, as Anna Graham Hunter's allegations had been in an article on 1 November. Rossetter said the alleged events had occurred on the 1984 Broadway production of Death Of A Salesman. She said Hoffman would regularly grope her. The actor would grab her breast and then remove his hand just before a photograph was taken, she alleged. Harassment in Hollywood: who's been accused? On one night, she said, Hoffman exposed her body to the stage crew. "Suddenly he grabs the bottom of my slip and pulls it up over my head, exposing my breasts and body to the crew and covering my face," she said. Rossetter added: "Night after night I went home and cried. I withdrew and got depressed and did not have any good interpersonal relationships with the cast."

12-9-17 Uber settles defamation lawsuit filed by Indian rape victim
Uber has agreed to settle a US civil lawsuit with a woman who accused its executives of improperly obtaining her medical records after she was raped by a driver in India. The lawsuit, which follows on from a crime committed in 2014, cited media reports where officials at the firm were said to have doubted her account. The Indian woman was living in the US when she filed the lawsuit. The Uber driver was sentenced to life in prison for the rape in 2015. In December 2014, the 26-year-old Delhi woman, who later moved to Texas, filed a case anonymously in which she said she had been kidnapped and raped by Shiv Kumar Yadav. She had used the Uber smartphone app to book a taxi home but said she had been taken by Yadav to a secluded area and raped. Yadav was sentenced to life in prison following a criminal case in India. As well as the court case, the woman sued Uber and settled out of court. However, she filed a new suit in the US after reports emerged that Uber had investigated the complaint, obtained her medical records and speculated that she made up the claims to hurt the firm's business. She alleged in the lawsuit that Uber had violated her privacy and defamed her character. The lawsuit, which was settled in San Francisco where Uber has its headquarters, also said the company had kept a copy of the woman's medical records.

12-9-17 100 Women: 'Disabled women have sexual needs too'
Up to 10 million people in Iran are living with disabilities, campaigners say, but the culture surrounding the issue is largely one of shame, writes BBC Near East Women's Affairs journalist Feranak Amidi. One area which is particularly taboo in the socially conservative country is sex, and more so the sexual needs of disabled women. Here, 41-year-old Mitra Farazandeh, who lives with disabilities in a small village in northern Iran, describes her own experience - and frustrations. I am a woman. I am a woman with 75% physical disability. Yes, I have experienced love. I always say that a person who hasn't experienced or felt love is like a scarecrow on a farm - lifeless. I was 11 when I realised I had a special feeling about our neighbour's son. This feeling didn't make sense to me. In those days, I didn't consider myself human. Because of my disability and deformity, I didn't believe I deserved to live. I was waiting for the unwanted moment of death. For 14 years, I buried this love within me. I kept it to myself. After 14 years, I decided to bow down to this love and confess to him and my family. He welcomed my love but my family didn't approve. This made my life hell for a few years. But my love for him taught me how to also love myself - it moved something within me. I have loved that man for 30 years, although we have never been together. The truth is that, regardless of my disability, I am a woman with all the needs and feelings that a woman has. I want to have my lover hold me in his arms at night and stroke my hair. Unfortunately, many people in our culture believe that women like me don't deserve to love or be loved. This causes me pain. The fact that my father doesn't allow me to be with someone I love pains me. Many other disabled women like me suffer because our sexual and emotional needs are suppressed. I believe the most important change needs to come from within ourselves. We are the ones who need to accept our sexual abilities and limitations. We need to believe we deserve to live life to the fullest and enjoy it regardless of our disabilities. Once we believe in it, people around us will also start to respect our needs.

12-7-17 How abusers shaped the news
For decades, journalists Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Bill O’Reilly, and Mark Halperin “tried to help Americans understand the country,” said Katie Rogers. Now that these powerful media figures have been felled by their sexual abuse of women, you have to wonder how their misogyny shaped their storytelling. When Lauer interviewed Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the campaign, he went easy on Trump while ambushing Clinton with a barrage of hostile questions about her private email server. Lauer’s defenders argued Clinton deserved tougher questions because she was the “presumed front-runner.” But now we know how Lauer treats women in private, “that interview reads differently.” It’s the same with Halperin. When more than 12 women accused Trump of sexual assault last year, the veteran political journalist questioned their credibility and insisted the Republican candidate had done “nothing illegal.” In a book he co-authored about the 2008 election, Halperin described Clinton as “Napoleon in a navy pantsuit.” In retrospect, it’s easy to see the contempt Lauer, Halperin, O’Reilly, et al. felt for ambitious feminists. As media gatekeepers, they helped shape “what the public sees, consumes, and ultimately feels.”

12-7-17 Conyers steps down
Rep. John Conyers Jr., the longest-service current member of Congress, resigned his seat this week amid mounting accusations of sexual harassment from former staffers, and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) faced growing pressure to step down in response to new allegations of inappropriate behavior. It was revealed last month that Conyers paid $27,000 out of his congressional office’s funds to settle harassment claims brought by a former employee, and he has since been accused by at least six other women of harassment and misconduct, including showing up to a meeting in his underwear and groping a woman in church. Franken faced calls from more than 30 Democratic lawmakers to step down after another woman claimed he tried to forcibly kiss her in 2006. He has been accused by six other women of groping or trying to forcibly kiss them.

12-7-17 Porn star August Ames found dead at home in California
Porn actress August Ames has been found dead at her home in California in a suspected suicide. The Ventura County Medical Examiner's Office confirmed her death to The Blast. The actress was married to adult film director Kevin Moore who said she was the "kindest person I ever knew". August, 23, had received a tirade of abuse at the weekend on Twitter after saying she wouldn't work with "crossover" gay porn actors. Some people on social media called her homophobic and also attacked her when she posted further updates defending her actions. August, whose real name was Mercedes Grabowski, had appeared in more than 270 adult films since her debut in 2013 and won two AVN industry awards, including cutest newcomer in 2015. She was also nominated for the female performer of the year award at January's AVN Awards. Her husband Kevin says August's death is a private family matter and has described his wife as "the kindest person I ever knew" and says "she meant the world".

12-7-17 Senator Al Franken to resign amid sexual misconduct claims
Democratic Senator and ex-comedian Al Franken has said he plans to quit "in the coming weeks" after string of sexual harassment allegations. "I am proud that during my time in the Senate that I have used my power to be a champion of women," the Minnesota senator said from the US Senate floor. His speech came a day after nearly 30 Democrats called on him to resign. He would be the most prominent lawmaker to resign amid a wave of misconduct claims against high-profile figures. Meanwhile, the US House of Representatives Ethics Committee launched sexual harassment investigations into two Republican congressmen. Trent Franks of Arizona announced he was resigning as the inquiry was announced. Over in the Senate, Mr Franken told his colleagues on Thursday: "Today I am announcing that in the coming weeks I will be resigning as a member of the United States Senate. "I may be resigning my seat but I am not giving up my voice." The former Saturday Night Live comic and two-term senator has apologised to several women who have accused him of groping and sexual harassment, but he faced mounting pressure to step aside after a new allegation surfaced on Wednesday. Mr Franken said some of the claims against him "are simply are not true", but added that women "deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously". He also referenced the sexual misconduct allegations that have been levelled against President Donald Trump and Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. "I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party."

12-7-17 Bryan Singer: Director denies raping 17-year-old boy
Film director Bryan Singer has denied sexual assault after being sued for allegedly raping a 17-year-old boy. According to court filings obtained by Deadline, Cesar Sanchez-Guzman has alleged he was sexually assaulted by the director on a yacht in 2003. In a statement, a representative for Singer said the director "categorically denies these allegations". It comes in the same week that Singer was fired as director of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. The court filings say the alleged assault happened when Singer gave Sanchez-Guzman a tour of the boat. "During this tour, Bryan Singer lured Cesar into a room, shut the door and demanded that Cesar perform oral sex. When plaintiff refused, Bryan Singer forced him into acts of oral and anal sex," the filing claims. Sanchez-Guzman is seeking compensation for damages including "emotional distress, mental anguish, physical and mental pain and suffering, a decrease in his ability to enjoy life" as well as past and future medical expenses and legal costs.

12-7-17 Lynette Daly case: Two Australians jailed after sex assault death
Two Australian men have been jailed for the sexual assault of a woman who later died from her injuries. Adrian Attwater and Paul Maris attacked Attwater's partner, Lynette Daly, during a camping trip on a New South Wales beach in 2011. The case drew attention for the length of time it took to prosecute the men. State prosecutors have apologised for the delay. It also highlighted issues of how race is dealt with in prosecutions. The court determined that Attwater had performed a violent sexual act on Ms Daly that caused her serious injuries while she was too intoxicated to consent. The attack took place on a campsite near the remote Ten Mile Beach in northern New South Wales. An ambulance was called hours later, but by the time it arrived Ms Daly had bled to death. The two men were found to have tried to wash away her blood in the sea and burn her clothes and a mattress. On Friday, Attwater was sentenced to 14 years in prison for manslaughter and aggravated sexual assault, while Maris received nine years for aggravated sexual assault and hindering the discovery of evidence. Though the men were initially charged in 2011, those charges were later dropped, with prosecutors saying they had insufficient evidence. Following a public outcry, the men were charged again last year. New South Wales director of public prosecutions Lloyd Babb issued an apology on Friday saying he "sincerely regretted" the delay. Ms Daley's stepfather, Gordon Davis, told ABC News: "The DPP has a lot to learn about Aboriginality and Aboriginals. You just can't sweep everything under the carpet, the way it was dealt with. "If it was two Aboriginal boys and they had done that to a non-indigenous person, they would've been in jail ages ago, and that's the difference."

12-7-17 Meet the 17-year-old who is suing her school
Mari Oliver, from Texas, refuses to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, as a protest for civil rights for African Americans. (Webmaster's comment: Very worth watching. She is a very courageous young women!)

12-7-17 5 science-backed ways to improve your relationship
Proven methods for strengthening that romantic bond How do you get to crazy love — or get crazy love back when it's gone away? Forget the silly relationship books, let's look at the real science and get some answers.

Here are 5 shortcuts to bonding deeply with a romantic partner:

  1. Kill the boring dates. Do new exciting stuff. Dancing, suspenseful movies, learning new things together.
  2. Don't fix the negatives. Build on the positives. You can't fix most problems. Double down on what works well.
  3. Really get to know them. Use Arthur Aron's questions. And ask about the best part of their day, celebrate it, and share the high point of your day. Touch. Stare into their eyes.
  4. Reminisce about the times you laughed. Emphasize similarity.
  5. Pretend you're on your first date again. Make an effort. Put your best face forward.

SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

12-13-17 Warmer Arctic is the 'new normal'
A warming, rapidly changing Arctic is the "new normal" and shows no signs of returning to the reliably frozen region of the past. This is according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Arctic Report Card. Director of the administration's Arctic Researcher Program, Dr Jeremy Mathis, said the region did a great service to the planet - acting as a refrigerator. "We've now left that refrigerator door open," he added. Dr Mathis was speaking at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in New Orleans, where Noaa presented its annual summation of Arctic science. This is the 12th report the administration has produced. And although it pointed to "a few anomalies" in a recent pattern of warming in the Arctic region, Dr Mathis said: "We can confirm, it will not stay in its reliably frozen state." "The thing I took that had the most resonance for me was we're able to use some really long-term records to put the Arctic change into context - going back more than 1,500 years. "What's really alarming for me is that we're seeing the Arctic is changing faster than at any rate in recorded history." The speed of change, Dr Mathis added, was making it very hard for people to adapt. "Villages are being washed away, particularly in the North American Arctic - creating some of the first climate refugees," he said. "And pace of sea level rise is increasing because the Arctic is warming faster than we anticipated even a decade ago."

12-13-17 Worries grow that climate change will quietly steal nutrients from major food crops
Increasing carbon dioxide tinkers with plant chemistry in ways not well understood. 2017 was a good year for worrying about nutrient losses that might come with a changing climate. The idea that surging carbon dioxide levels could stealthily render some major crops less nutritious has long been percolating in plant research circles. “It’s literally a 25-year story, but it has come to a head in the last year or so,” says Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md. Concerns are growing that wheat, rice and some other staple crops could, pound for pound, deliver less of some minerals and protein in decades to come than those crops do today. In 2017, three reports highlighted what changes in those crops could mean for global health. Also this year, an ambitious analysis made an almost-global assessment of sources of selenium, a trace element crucial for health, and warned of regions where climate change might cut the element’s availability (SN: 4/1/17, p. 14). Crop responses to rising CO2 might affect nutrition and health for billions of people, Ziska says, but the idea has been difficult to convey to nonspecialists. One complication is that though plants certainly need CO2 to grow, providing more of it doesn’t mean that all aspects of plant biology change in sync. In hoping for a farming bonus, Ziska warns, people often overlook the disproportionate zest of weeds. An outdoor experiment wafting extra CO2 through a forest has already shown, for example, that poison ivy grew faster than the trees.

12-13-17 The Larsen C ice shelf break has sparked groundbreaking research
Anticipation of one of the biggest rifts ever detected reached a fever pitch in summer 2017. In 2015, glaciologist Daniela Jansen reported that a large rift was rapidly growing across one of the Antarctic Peninsula’s ice shelves, known as Larsen C. When the shelf broke, she and colleagues predicted, it would be the largest calving event in decades. It was. In July, a Delaware-sized iceberg split off from Larsen C (SN: 8/5/17, p. 6). And researchers knew practically the moment it happened. After Jansen’s 2015 paper, a U.K.-led group called Project MIDAS began keeping close track of the rift, aided by new data delivered every six days from a pair of European polar-orbiting satellites known as Sentinel-1. Jansen, of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, and glaciologist Adrian Luckman of Swansea University in Wales were among the MIDAS team members who reported their observations on the team’s blog. To the scientists’ surprise, the news media, perhaps anticipating a climate change moment, began to track the trackers. When interviewed, the researchers repeatedly noted that ice shelves calve naturally, and that any link between the new rift and climate change is complicated at best. But the crescendo of public interest still rose, particularly during the spring and summer of 2017 as the final break loomed.

12-12-17 California Thomas Fire: No end in sight for week-long wildfire
California firefighters continue to battle one of the largest fires in the state's history as wind and dry weather make it nearly impossible to contain. The Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has consumed 234,000 acres (950 sq km) in just over a week. Destroying 900 properties, including 690 homes, it has become the fifth largest wildfire in recorded state history. Some 94,000 residents have been displaced in the last week. Though the fire has continued to spread, firefighters reported that 20% of the blaze had been contained by Tuesday morning, up from 10% on Sunday. Around 7,000 firefighters have been deployed to fight the blaze, but steep slopes and rocky terrain have made it dangerous to tackle the flames. "We are not going to put firefighters in harm's way half way up a steep, rocky slope. We are going to wait for the fire to come to us and extinguish it where it is safe," Cal Fire spokesman Ian McDonald said. Efforts to combat the wildfire have already totalled more than $48 million (£36 million).

12-12-17 Nomadic birds in danger after spate of wildfires in key wetland
The Hutovo Blato wetland in Bosnia and Herzegovina suffered its latest severe fire in October, and may vanish within decades - threatening many bird species. A protected wetland that is home to hundreds of threatened species, some of them unique, has caught fire for the ninth time since 2011. A new assessment says the entire wetland will be lost by 2050 unless better care is taken. The Hutovo Blato wetland spans 7411 hectares in south-west Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is fed by underground aquifers linked to the Krupa river, a tributary of the Neretva. More than 150 bird species spend the winter there: it is one of Europe’s richest sites for migratory birds. Altogether it is home to more than 600 plants, 45 fish species and more than 163 bird species. The site is managed by a public authority and holds a number of conservation accolades. In 2001 it was designated a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention, and BirdLife International recognises it as an Important Bird Area. However, in October 1000 hectares of the wetland was destroyed by fire. A commission formed by the public authority estimated the cost of repairing the damage at 500,000 euros. It is the ninth fire since 2011, according to Naše ptice, an NGO focused on bird conservation.

12-12-17 Polar bear video: Is it really the 'face of climate change'?
It is harrowing footage. An emaciated polar bear searches for food on Baffin Island, north-eastern Canada. Exhausted, it drags one leg slowly behind it, eventually trying to eat some discarded seating foam among rubbish humans have left. Polar bears hunt from the sea ice, which is diminishing every year, and the photography team are certain the unfortunate animal died within days. "This is what starvation looks like," wrote one of the photographers, Paul Nicklen. "The muscles atrophy. No energy. It's a slow, painful death." Mr Nicklen's colleague, Cristina Mittermeier, said: "We cried as we filmed this dying bear. This is the face of climate change." The clip has gone viral, widely shared as a warning about the dangers of climate change. But is there more to it? Mr Nicklen and Ms Mittermeier are co-founders of the conservation group Sea Legacy, with a declared mission to "use the power of storytelling to create the change we want to see". Canada's National Post newspaper argues: "These images aren't the work of a scientist, an impartial documentarian or even a concerned bystander. They are part of a very calculated public relations exercise." This particular animal could also simply have been sick. Biologist Jeff Higdon, writing on Twitter, speculated that it could have some form of aggressive cancer. "It's not starving because the ice suddenly disappeared and it could no longer hunt seals," he said. "The east Baffin coast is ice free in summer. It's far more likely that it is starving due to health issues." However, he warned that he could not be sure.

12-12-17 Climate change: Trump will bring US back into Paris deal - Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron has said he believes President Donald Trump will bring the US back into the Paris deal on combating climate change. But Mr Macron says he will not agree to the president's demand that America's terms should be negotiated. He made his comments in a CBS interview on the eve of a summit on climate he has arranged on Tuesday in Paris. Mr Macron condemned the manner in which the US had signed an international deal, then withdrawn from it. "The US did sign the Paris Agreement. It's extremely aggressive to decide on its own just to leave, and no way to push the others to renegotiate because one decided to leave the floor. I'm sorry to say that. It doesn't fly." President Macron aspires to lead the world in fulfilling the ambition of the Paris climate accord to hold global temperature rise to well under 2C. He told CBS he was not willing to be accused by future generations of understanding the extent of the climate problem but doing too little to solve it. Scientists are waiting now to see whether Tuesday's summit of 50 senior ministers and prime ministers in Paris will achieve its aim of giving a boost to the current sluggish progress on cutting emissions.

12-12-17 Golden eagle migration out of sync with climate change
Golden eagles in North America may have the timing of their migration shifted out of step with a seasonal boom in food they need to raise their young, according to scientists. A project to track the impact of climate change on migrating animals has revealed that adult golden eagles are unable to shift the timing of their migration. Lead researcher Scott LaPoint from Columbia University presented the findings at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. He explained that day length, or photoperiod, appeared to give the great birds the cue to go "as far and as fast as possible". When analysing tracking data, composed of 20 years' worth of tagging birds with satellite tags and following their seasonal migrations, Dr LaPoint noticed an unusual pattern. Younger raptors would shift the timing of their journey, seemingly adapting to weather conditions and climate. "But the adults get this photoperiod trigger and it's 'Time to go!'," he told BBC News. "I would have expected an older, wiser bird to better time their migration," he added. "But, with this [daylight] trigger, they don't have the luxury of deciding. They need to get [to their nesting site] as soon as possible to initiate a clutch. "They want to get their chicks as independent as possible by October, November." Birds younger than five years are sub-adult. They do not reproduce, so they are able to wait for good thermals to take them on a less energy-intensive journey north. Northern-breeding golden eagles can travel thousands of miles to their wintering grounds. And they have adapted to have their departure coincide with the first lasting snowfall or freeze and decreasing prey abundance.

12-12-17 'Worrying alarm call' for world's birds on brink of extinction
Overfishing and changing sea temperatures are pushing seabirds to the brink of extinction, according to new data on the world's birds. Birds that are now globally threatened include the kittiwake and the Atlantic puffin, which breed on UK sea cliffs. Meanwhile, on land, the Snowy Owl is struggling to find prey as ice melts in the North American Arctic, say conservation groups. The iconic bird is listed as vulnerable to extinction for the first time. "Birds are well-studied and great indicators of the health of the wider environment,'' said Dr Ian Burfield, global science coordinator at BirdLife International, the IUCN Red List authority on birds. ''A species at higher risk of extinction is a worrying alarm call that action needs to be taken now.'' He added that success in kiwi and pelican conservation had shown that, when well-resourced and supported, conservation efforts do pay off. Worldwide, over a quarter of more than 200 bird species reassessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature have been moved to higher threat categories while a similar number have been downgraded. Seabirds are of particular concern, including Cape gannets, which are now classified as Endangered, and the Antipodean Albatross, which risks being drowned by fishing lines. Fishing pressures and ocean changes caused by climate change are reducing food supply for the chicks of seabirds, while adults receive little protection when they fly over areas of the ''high seas'' that do not fall under the jurisdiction of any country, says BirdLife International.

12-12-17 Giant pelicans in danger after spate of wildfires in key wetland
The Hutovo Blato wetland in Bosnia and Herzegovina suffered its latest severe fire in October, and if the blazes continue the resident Dalmatian pelicans will struggle to survive. A protected wetland that is home to hundreds of threatened species, some of them unique, has caught fire for the ninth time since 2011. A new assessment says the entire wetland will be lost by 2050 unless better care is taken. The Hutovo Blato wetland spans 7411 hectares in south-west Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is fed by underground aquifers linked to the Krupa river, a tributary of the Neretva. More than 150 bird species spend the winter there: it is one of Europe’s richest sites for migratory birds. Altogether it is home to more than 600 plants, 45 fish species and more than 163 bird species. The site is managed by a public authority and holds a number of conservation accolades. In 2001 it was designated a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention, and BirdLife International recognises it as an Important Bird Area. However, in October 1000 hectares of the wetland was destroyed by fire. A commission formed by the public authority estimated the cost of repairing the damage at 500,000 euros. It is the ninth fire since 2011, according to Naše ptice, an NGO focused on bird conservation. Most of the fires have been relatively minor, but one blaze in 2011 destroyed much of the wetland, says Nikola Zovko, a director of the Hutovo Blato nature park. Big fires release lots of nutrients into the wetland’s clean waters. This stimulates the growth of algae, causing algal blooms that reduce the water’s oxygen content and kill water organisms.

12-11-17 Ancient microbes caused Earth’s first ever global warming
Over 3 billion years ago, the sun was faint so our planet should have been a snowball. But it wasn’t – and microorganisms may have been what kept it warm. We’re not the first living beings to drastically alter Earth’s climate. The earliest photosynthetic microorganisms belched out enough methane to warm the planet by 15°C. This bout of global warming may have saved Earth from freezing over, and created a comfortable climate for early organisms. When Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, the sun was 25 per cent dimmer than it is today. This suggests the early planet should have been a big snowball, but geological evidence indicates it was just as warm as now, if not warmer. One explanation for this “faint young sun paradox” is that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide warmed Earth by trapping the sun’s heat. But carbon dioxide levels probably weren’t high enough to fully account for the balmy climate. Now, Chris Reinhard and Kazumi Ozaki at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and their colleagues suggest that a major contributor to this greenhouse effect was methane – released by primitive microorganisms that had evolved to photosynthesise. Photosynthesis is the process by which green plants and many microbes sustain themselves. It involves using the sun’s energy to convert carbon into carbohydrates like sugars, which can be used as fuel. It requires sunlight and a source of electrons to “fix” the carbon. Today’s photosynthetic organisms, which date back at least 2.5 billion years, mostly use water as this source of electrons. The reaction between water and carbon dioxide produces carbohydrate fuel and releases oxygen as a waste product.

12-11-17 US flood risk 'severely underestimated'
Scientists and engineers have teamed up across the Atlantic to "redraw" the flood map of the US. Their work reveals 40 million Americans are at risk of having their homes flooded - more than three times as many people as federal flood maps show. The UK-US team say they have filled in "vast amounts of missing information" in the way flood risk is currently measured in the country. They presented the work at the 2017 American Geophysical Union meeting. This mapping project includes areas across the US that are on river floodplains and those at risk of flash floods associated with heavy rainfall. It focuses on rivers and does not include areas at risk of coastal flooding. One of the researchers, Oliver Wing PhD from the University of Bristol in the UK and part of the flood-mapping organisation Fathom, spoke to BBC News ahead of this international gathering of Earth and planetary scientists. He said the new maps were based on "cutting edge science", simulating every river catchment area. The biggest issue, Mr Wing explained, is the how incomplete the network of river gauges is in the US. So he and his colleagues created a model based on decades of analysis of the way in which river systems behave. This model "fills in those data gaps," he told BBC News, meaning the probability of flooding can be worked out in every river catchment area.

12-11-17 California's Thomas Fire scorches area larger than New York City
The most destructive wildfire raging in southern California has expanded significantly, scorching an area larger than New York City. The Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has consumed 230,000 acres (930 sq km) in the past week. Fanned by strong winds, it has become the fifth largest wildfire in recorded state history after it grew by more than 50,000 acres in a day. Residents in coastal beach communities have been ordered to leave. On Sunday, firefighters reported that 15% of the blaze had been contained but were forced to downgrade that to 10% as it continued to spread. "This is a menacing fire, certainly, but we have a lot of people working very diligently to bring it under control," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. The containment operation is not only being hampered by dry winds. It is proving challenging for firefighters because of the location and mountainous terrain. An analyst with the California fire protection department, Tim Chavez, said the emergency services were struggling because "a hot interior" was in parts practically meeting the ocean, making access difficult. "It's just a very difficult place to fight fire," Mr Chavez said, adding: "It's very dangerous and has a historical record of multiple fatalities occurring over the years."

12-11-17 The devastating beauty of Greenland's melting ice
What the planet loses as the climate warms. The autonomous Danish island, located in the Arctic, is 80 percent ice. Its massive sheet of frozen water — about 660,000 square miles across (roughly the size of Alaska) and two miles thick at its highest point — is the second largest body of ice in the world, built up from snowfall dating back to the last ice age, some 115,000 years ago. It's so massive, in fact, that the ice sheet "creates its own weather," The New Yorker reports. "Its mass is so great that it deforms the Earth, pushing the bedrock several thousand feet into the mantle. Its gravitational tug affects the distribution of the oceans." But with rising global temperatures, the great Greenland ice sheet has been shrinking at an alarming rate. Since 2012, at least a trillion tons of ice have been lost. And the melt is only accelerating: In 1993, Greenland ice-loss made up just 5 percent of the rise in global sea levels. In 2014, it contributed 25 percent. "Nobody expected the ice sheet to lose so much mass so quickly," one geophysicist told Science magazine. "Things are happening a lot faster than we expected." If all of Greenland's land ice melted, it would cause ocean levels to rise roughly 23 feet, Scientific American reports, which would decimate low-lying countries like Bangladesh and drown over 1,400 cities and towns in the U.S. alone.

12-11-17 Faltering carbon capture needs more investment not doubt
The world's first full-scale power plant carbon capture project has stumbled, but we can't let that risk the future of a technology we need, says Olive Heffernan. It’s been hailed as a game-changer, a get-out-of-jail-free card that would allow us to burn fossil fuels without precipitating dangerous climate change. But the potential for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) to clean up coal – the cheapest and dirtiest fossil fuel – is now in doubt. In recent weeks, it has become clear that a world-leading CCS project in Saskatchewan, Canada is struggling. The country’s largest coal-fired power plant, Boundary Dam, was retrofitted in 2014 with state-of-the-art technology in a bid to capture 90 per cent of its CO2 emissions and then pump them deep underground into a nearby oilfield. If successful, the scheme would prevent almost 1 million tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere each year, equivalent to taking around 250,000 cars off the road. But three years on, Boundary Dam’s performance is under-par and doubts about the expansion of CCS are rising. Since start-up, the facility has captured on average just 46 per cent of its CO2. Overall, it has stored or re-used 1.75 million tonnes of CO2, far less than the 3 million tonne target. What happens next matters a lot. Coal-fired electricity generation is still popular. Some 1600 coal plants are planned or under construction in 62 countries. If they are all built, this would expand the world’s coal-fired power capacity by 43 per cent.

12-10-17 California wildfires: Governor brands fires 'new normal'
Devastating wildfires fuelled by climate change are "the new normal", California's governor has said. Jerry Brown said vast fires, such as the ones that have ravaged southern California in recent days, "could happen every year or every few years". "We're facing a new reality in this state," he said. Mr Brown made the comments after surveying the damage in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles. Thousands of firefighters have been battling the fires since Monday. Mr Brown, a Democrat who has attacked the Trump administration's stance on climate change, said: "We're facing a new reality in this state, where fires threaten people's lives, their properties, their neighbourhoods, and of course billions and billions of dollars. "With climate change, some scientists are saying southern California is literally burning up." The largest wildfire - known as the Thomas Fire - burned close to 150,000 acres, an area of land roughly the size of Chicago, Reuters reported. On Saturday, firefighters began to make progress in containing the blaze.

12-10-17 Seven charts that explain the plastic pollution problem
Marine life is facing "irreparable damage" from the millions of tonnes of plastic waste which ends up in the oceans each year, the United Nations has warned. "This is a planetary crisis... we are ruining the ecosystem of the ocean," UN oceans chief Lisa Svensson told the BBC this week. But how does this happen, where is most at risk and what damage does this plastic actually do? Plastic as we know it has only really existed for the last 60-70 years, but in that time it has transformed everything from clothing, cooking and catering, to product design, engineering and retailing. One of the great advantages of many types of plastic is that they're designed to last - for a very long time. And nearly all the plastic ever created still exists in some form today. In July a paper published in the journal Science Advances by industrial ecologist Dr Roland Geyer, from the University of California in Santa Barbara, and colleagues, calculated the total volume of all plastic ever produced at 8.3bn tonnes. Of this, some 6.3bn tonnes is now waste - and 79% of that is in landfill or the natural environment. This vast amount of waste has been driven by modern life, where plastic is used for many throwaway or "single use" items, from drinks bottles and nappies to cutlery and cotton buds. Drinks bottles are one the most common types of plastic waste. Some 480bn plastic bottles were sold globally in 2016 - that's a million bottles per minute. Of these, 110bn were made by drinks giant Coca Cola. Some countries are considering moves to reduce consumption. Proposals in the UK include deposit-return schemes, and the improvement of free-drinking water supplies in major cities, including London.

12-9-17 California wildfires: Businesses face ruin as blaze rages
Much of California's avocado crop has been destroyed by wildfires that have ripped through the southern part of the state, industry experts say. "We've lost at least several hundred acres of avocados, probably more," the California Avocado Commission told agriculture news site AgNet West. About 90% of US avocados are grown in California, and the industry is worth millions to the economy. About 5,700 firefighters have been battling the fires, officials say. One death has been confirmed - that of a 70-year-old woman found in her car on Wednesday. Three firefighters have been injured and about 500 buildings destroyed. There are now fears the fires will have serious implications for California's vast agricultural industry. Last season's avocado harvest produced a crop worth more than $400m (£300m), according to the California Avocado Commission. Much of this was grown on family-owned farms in the south of the state. Ventura County, which is California's largest growing region for avocados, has seen the worst of the fires with 180 square miles (466 sq km) consumed, according to officials. John Krist, chief executive of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, told Reuters news agency: "A lot of that fruit everybody was looking forward to harvesting next year is lying on the ground." Food safety regulations mean the crop cannot be sold once it falls from the tree.

12-8-17 Will wildfires finally change Rupert Murdoch’s climate stance?
The media-mogul's Santa Monica vineyard was saved from wildfire destruction, but the world may yet burn thanks to his climate views, says Richard Schiffman. A wildfire has ripped through one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the US, damaging Rupert Murdoch’s $28.8 million vineyard estate in the Santa Monica mountains at the edge of Los Angeles. The media-mogul’s palatial house was saved, thanks to firefighters who spent the afternoon and night battling the conflagration. Others weren’t so lucky. Hundreds of homes and scores of lives have been lost in both northern and southern California in a spate of recent wildfires that were fiercer and moved faster than any in recent memory. Such fires are made more likely as the world warms. California has just had its hottest summer on record, and the recent wildfires came much later in the year than normal. We also know that seven of California’s 10 largest recorded wildfires have occurred in the last 14 years. California isn’t alone. Wildfires are occurring with greater frequency from Siberia to Australia. Climatologists see these as a flashing red early warning sign of the coming catastrophe as global mean temperatures continue to rise due to anthropogenic climate change. Not that you would know it from Murdoch-owned news outlets. His vast holdings of newspapers, magazines and TV stations on four continents are megaphones that spread the view that climate change isn’t happening, or at least not because of human activities. Murdoch has called climate change “alarmist nonsense“. On a flight he tweeted: “Just flying over N Atlantic 300 miles of ice. Global warming!”

12-7-17 California wildfires: Nearly 200,000 flee as new blaze spreads
Nearly 200,000 residents have been evacuated from their homes in California as firefighters battle several raging wildfires. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in San Diego on Thursday after a new blaze spread from 10 acres to 4,100 acres in just a few hours. Three firefighters have been injured and about 500 buildings destroyed. One death has been reported - a woman's body was found in a burned-out area in Ventura County. But an official told the Ventura Country Star newspaper that the death, in the town of Ojai, may have been the result of a car crash not related to the fire. About 5,700 firefighters have been battling the brushfires, officials said on Thursday, with firefighters drafted in from neighbouring states to help. The Thomas fire in Ventura County to the north of Los Angeles remains the largest of the blazes and has spread as far as the Pacific coast. It has consumed 180 square miles (a square 13.5 miles on a side) since it broke out on Monday, and destroyed more than 430 buildings, fire officials said. A BBC correspondent in Ojai says the blaze is burning in the hills all around and more than 100 fire engines have been seen driving through the town centre.

12-7-17 Massive wildfires
At least 27,000 people were forced to flee their homes this week as multiple fast-moving wildfires, whipped by strong winds, raged unchecked just outside of Los Angeles. More than 83,000 acres have been consumed and more than 200 homes destroyed so far, with the largest of the fires burning its way through parts of Ventura on its march toward the Pacific Ocean. Another 200,000 people are under evacuation orders. Months of dry weather have provided ample fuel for the infernos, exacerbated by the region’s fierce Santa Ana winds. Gusts of more than 50 miles per hour have grounded water-dropping planes and helicopters, stymieing efforts by fire crews. “The prospects for containment are not good,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said. “Really, Mother Nature’s going to decide when we have the ability to put it out.”

12-7-17 The dangers of growing light pollution
The proliferation of artificial light across the world is blurring the distinction between night and day, a significant shift that has major consequences for human health and the environment. Using a calibrated satellite radiometer, which can detect radiance, researchers found that artificially illuminated outdoor space grew by 2.2 percent each year between 2012 and 2016. Much of this increase is the result of people in developing nations in the Middle East and Asia gaining access to electricity and outdoor lighting, reports The Washington Post. But exacerbating the problem is the widespread transition to LED lights, which are cheaper and more efficient than traditional lighting. People were expected to use fewer lights when they switched over to LEDs; ­instead—presumably because the lights are ­cheaper—they are using more. Scientists warn that this perpetual glow is threatening human health and ecosystems that have evolved to rely on predictable patterns of day and night. The blue light emitted by LEDs is particularly disruptive to circadian rhythms, which govern the behavior and biological processes of most living things, including people. Light-polluted skies are also taking a toll on plants and wildlife, disrupting pollination, reproduction, migration, feeding, and other natural behaviors. “The problem is that light has been introduced in places, times, and intensities at which it does not naturally occur,” says co-author Franz Holker, of the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries. “Many organisms have had no chance to adapt to this new stressor.”

12-7-17 Shrinking monuments
President Trump ordered the largest rollback of federal land protections in the nation’s history this week, reducing the size of two Utah national monuments by roughly 2 million acres and opening vast new tracts to commercial development. The Bears Ears National Monument will shrink to 228,000 acres, about 15 percent of its original size, while Grand Staircase–Escalante will be reduced by half, leaving it with about 1 million acres. Both monuments were created by Democratic presidents, with Barack Obama setting aside Bears Ears in December 2016 and Bill Clinton forming Grand Staircase in 1996. Western communities have long bristled at restrictions put on local land; Clinton’s declaration of Grand Staircase derailed a planned coal mine in one of the state’s poorest areas. Trump’s order is already being challenged in court by environmental groups, as well as several Native American tribes.

12-7-17 Your dirty laundry is polluting the ocean
After decades of intense observation and campaigning by conservation groups, awareness of microplastic pollution has fortunately grown. There is now worldwide concern about tiny pieces of plastic litter that have a harmful impact on marine species and habitats. Large plastic litter has already been identified as both an eyesore and a danger to turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals. So the scene was already set for mass action against microbeads and other forms of tiny plastics, which are present in things such as shower gels and beauty products. But most of the small plastic we find doesn't come from your face wash. It is formed from the breakdown of larger plastics such as bottles and bags. Less widely known as a source of microplastic is the breakdown of synthetic fabrics, which forms tiny plastic fibers. Reports now indicate that these are the most common form of microplastic recovered from sediment and water samples. And the vast majority of these are produced during domestic clothes washing. In the washing machine, abrasion of clothes removes tiny fibers which are too small to be caught by the machine's filters. This may add up to hundreds of thousands of fibers from a single wash. These fibers are then carried in the waste water into the sewage system, but are far too small to be removed in the treatment plants where other solid materials and pollutants are caught. As a result, the fibers escape into rivers and then oceans. The fibers which end up in the ocean come from every kind of synthetic garment — from your socks and swimsuits to pullovers and parkas.

12-7-17 California fire burns Bel-Air mansions as spread continues
Residents of Los Angeles' wealthy Bel-Air neighbourhood have found their homes under threat after another wildfire erupted in California. The so-called Skirball Fire destroyed several homes in the exclusive area, quickly spreading over 150 acres. It is the latest eruption of wildfire in the state, which has already seen widespread destruction from a series of uncontrolled blazes. The largest, named the Thomas Fire, has covered some 90,000 acres. By Wednesday night local time, California's fire service said it had threatened 12,000 buildings, destroyed 150, and was only "5% contained". Mandatory evacuation orders remained in several areas, as strong winds helped to spread the flames. Authorities issued a purple alert - the highest level warning ever issued in the state - amid what it called "extremely critical fire weather". Ken Pimlott, head of California's fire response, told reporters: "There will be no ability to fight fires in this kind of wind." He said evacuations would be prioritised. The nearby University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) cancelled all classes on Thursday, despite the university campus lying outside the evacuation zone on the city's west side. It said it had taken the decision "given the array of uncertainties". Many schools have also been closed. In Bel-Air on Wednesday, firefighters were seen removing artwork from opulent homes as they attempted to contain the fire.

SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

12-13-17 CRISPR gene editing moved into humans in 2017
Debates about when and how to use the tool in humans take on new urgency Scientists reported selectively altering genes in viable human embryos for the first time this year. For nearly five years, researchers have been wielding the molecular scissors known as CRISPR/Cas9 to make precise changes in animals’ DNA. But its use in human embryos has more profound implications, researchers and ethicists say. “We can now literally change our own species,” says Mildred Solomon, a bioethicist and president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Garrison, N.Y. CRISPR/Cas9 is a bacterial immune system (SN: 4/15/17, p. 22) turned into a powerful gene-editing tool. First described in 2012, the editor consists of a DNA-cutting enzyme called Cas9 and a short piece of RNA that guides the enzyme to a specific spot that scientists want to edit. Once the editing machinery reaches its destination, Cas9 cleaves the DNA. Cells can repair the break by gluing the cut ends back together, or by pasting in another piece of DNA. Scientists have developed variations of the editor that make other changes to DNA without cutting, including one version described in October that performs a previously impossible conversion of one DNA base into another.p>

12-13-17 Approval of gene therapies for two blood cancers led to an ‘explosion of interest’ in 2017
CAR-T cell therapy treats patients for whom other therapies haven’t worked. This year, gene therapy finally became a clinical reality. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved two personalized treatments that engineer a patient’s own immune system to hunt down and kill cancer cells. The treatments, the first gene therapies ever approved by the FDA, work in people with certain blood cancers, even patients whose cancers haven’t responded to other treatments. Called CAR-T cell immunotherapy (for chimeric antigen receptor T cell), one is for kids and young adults with B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, approved in August (SN Online: 8/30/17). The other is for adults with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, approved in October. Other CAR-T cell therapies are in testing, including a treatment for multiple myeloma. “It’s a completely different way of treating cancer,” says pediatric oncologist Stephan Grupp, who directs the Cancer Immunotherapy Program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Grupp spearheaded the clinical trials of the newly approved ALL therapy, called Kymriah. Researchers are developing many different versions of CAR-T cell therapies, but the basic premise is the same: Doctors remove a patient’s T cells (immune system cells that attack invaders) from a blood sample and genetically modify them to produce artificial proteins on their surfaces. Those proteins, called chimeric antigen receptors, recognize the cancer cells in the patient’s body. After the modified T cells make many copies of themselves in the lab, they’re unleashed in the patient’s bloodstream to find and kill cancer cells.

12-13-17 The story of humans’ origins got a revision in 2017
Homo sapiens’ emergence pushed back to around 300,000 years ago. Human origins are notoriously tough to pin down. Fossil and genetic studies in 2017 suggested a reason why: No clear starting time or location ever existed for our species. The first biological stirrings of humankind occurred at a time of evolutionary experimentation in the human genus, Homo. Homo sapiens’ signature skeletal features emerged piece by piece in different African communities starting around 300,000 years ago, researchers proposed. In this scenario, high, rounded braincases, chins, small teeth and faces, and other hallmarks of human anatomy eventually appeared as an integrated package 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. This picture of gradual change contrasts with what scientists have often presumed, that H. sapiens emerged relatively quickly during the latter time period. Fossils clearly qualifying as human date to no more than about 200,000 years ago and are confined to East Africa. But the discoveries reported this year — including fossils from northwestern Africa — point to an earlier evolutionary phase when the human skeletal portrait was incomplete. Like one of Picasso’s fragmented Cubist portraits, Homo fossils from 300,000 years ago give a vague, provocative impression that someone with a humanlike form is present but not in focus. “Speciation is a process, not an event,” says paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “When fossil skulls of, say, Neandertals and Homo sapiens look convincingly different, we’re seeing the end of the speciation process.”

12-13-17 Brains of former football players showed how common traumatic brain injuries might be
Signs of degenerative brain disease are also found in former high school and college athletes. There have been hints for years that playing football might come at a cost. But a study this year dealt one of the hardest hits yet to the sport, detailing the extensive damage in football players’ brains, and not just those who played professionally. In a large collection of former NFL players’ postmortem brains, nearly every sample showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a disorder diagnosed after death that’s associated with memory loss, emotional outbursts, depression and dementia. Damaging clumps of the protein tau were present in 110 of 111 brains, researchers reported in JAMA (SN: 8/19/17, p. 15). Those startling numbers captured the attention of both the football-loving public and some previously skeptical researchers, says study coauthor Jesse Mez, a behavioral neurologist at Boston University. “This paper did a lot to bring them around.” And that increased awareness and acceptance has already pushed the research further. “The number of brain donors who have donated since the JAMA paper came out has been astronomical,” Mez says. As the largest and most comprehensive CTE dataset yet, the results described in JAMA are a necessary step on the path to finding ways to treat or prevent CTE, and not just for professional athletes.

12-13-17 Zika cases are down, but researchers prepare for the virus’s return
Plenty of questions remain about transmission and vaccine development. One of the top stories of 2016 quietly exited much of the public’s consciousness in 2017. But it’s still a hot topic among scientists and for good reasons. After Zika emerged in the Western Hemisphere, it shook the Americas, as reports of infections and devastating birth defects swept through Brazil and Colombia, eventually reaching the United States. In a welcome turn, the number of Zika cases in the hemisphere this year dropped dramatically in the hardest-hit areas. But few scientists are naïve enough to think we’ve seen the last of Zika. “The clock is ticking for when we will see another outbreak,” says Andrew Haddow, a medical entomologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md. Researchers’ to-do list for tackling this once-unfamiliar virus is daunting. But progress has been made, especially in learning more about Zika’s biology and interactions with its hosts, and in developing a safe and effective vaccine. In 2017, the epidemic lost steam because many areas have probably developed herd immunity to the virus (SN: 11/11/17, p. 12). Zika infected a large number of people, who are now presumably immune, and those exposed provide indirect protection to people who haven’t yet encountered Zika. If the mosquito-borne virus can’t find enough people to infect, it can’t easily spread.

12-12-17 Not all of a cell’s protein-making machines do the same job
Some ribosomes specialize and may even play a role in embryonic development, early work suggests. Protein-manufacturing factories within cells are picky about which widgets they construct, new research suggests. These ribosomes may not build all kinds of proteins, instead opting to craft only specialty products. Some of that specialization may influence the course of embryo development, developmental biologist and geneticist Maria Barna of Stanford University School of Medicine and colleagues discovered. Barna reported the findings December 5 at the joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and European Molecular Biology Organization. Ribosomes, which are themselves made up of many proteins and RNAs, read genetic instructions copied from DNA into messenger RNAs. The ribosomes then translate those instructions into other proteins that build cells and carry out cellular functions. A typical mammalian cell may carry 10 million ribosomes. “The textbook view of ribosomes is that they are all the same,” Barna said. Even many cell biologists have paid little attention to the structures, viewing them as “backstage players in controlling the genetic code.”

12-12-17 Mini brains may wrinkle and fold just like ours
Growing organoids on glass provides a window into the push and pull of brain cells. Flat brains growing on microscope slides may have revealed a new wrinkle in the story of how the brain folds. Cells inside the brains contract, while cells on the outside grow and push outward, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, discovered from working with the lab-grown brains, or organoids. This push and pull results in folds in the organoids similar to those found in full-size brains. Orly Reiner reported the results December 5 at the joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization. Reiner and her colleagues sandwiched human brain stem cells between a glass microscope slide and a porous membrane. The apparatus allowed the cells access to nutrients and oxygen while giving the researchers a peek at how the organoids grew. The cells formed layered sheets that closed up at the edges, making the organoids resemble pita bread, Reiner said. Wrinkles began to form in the outer layers of the organoids about six days after the mini brains started growing. These brain organoids may help explain why people with lissencephaly — a rare brain malformation in which the ridges and folds are missing — have smooth brains. The researchers used the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing system to make a mutation in the LIS1 gene. People with lissencephaly often have mutations in that gene. Cells carrying the mutation didn’t contract or move normally, the team found.

12-11-17 Huntington’s breakthrough may stop disease
The defect that causes the neurodegenerative disease Huntington's has been corrected in patients for the first time, the BBC has learned. An experimental drug, injected into spinal fluid, safely lowered levels of toxic proteins in the brain. The research team, at University College London, say there is now hope the deadly disease can be stopped. Experts say it could be the biggest breakthrough in neurodegenerative diseases for 50 years. Huntington's is one of the most devastating diseases. Some patients described it as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and motor neurone disease rolled into one. Peter Allen, 51, is in the early stages of Huntington's and took part in the trial: "You end up in almost a vegetative state, it's a horrible end." Huntington's blights families. Peter has seen his mum Stephanie, uncle Keith and grandmother Olive die from it. Tests show his sister Sandy and brother Frank will develop the disease. The three siblings have eight children - all young adults, each of whom has a 50-50 chance of developing the disease. The unstoppable death of brain cells in Huntington's leaves patients in permanent decline, affecting their movement, behaviour, memory and ability to think clearly. Peter, from Essex, told me: "It's so difficult to have that degenerative thing in you. "You know the last day was better than the next one's going to be."

12-11-17 We may know why younger brothers are more likely to be gay
An immune response in some pregnant women’s bodies may explain the “fraternal birth order effect” – that men are more likely to be gay the more older brothers they have. The more older brothers a boy has, the more likely he is to be gay when he grows up – an effect called the “fraternal birth order effect”. Now it seems that increasing levels of antibodies in a mother’s immune system could play a role. Anthony Bogaert at Brock University, Canada, and his team think that some women who are pregnant with boys develop antibodies that target a protein made by the Y chromosome. Our immune systems make antibodies to recognise foreign molecules, which have the potential to be from dangerous bacteria. But pregnant women sometimes also produce antibodies against fetal molecules – for example, if their fetus has a different blood group. Bogaert’s team wondered if maternal antibodies might play a role in shaping sexual orientation. The team collected blood from 142 women, and screened it for antibodies to a particular brain protein that is only made in males. They thought this would be a good candidate, because it plays an important role in how neurons communicate with each other, and because it is produced on the surface of brain cells, making it relatively easy for antibodies to find and detect it. They found that the mothers of gay sons with older brothers had the highest levels of antibodies against this protein, followed by the mothers of gay sons with no older brothers. Women who had straight sons had less of these antibodies, while women with no sons had the least.

12-11-17 Fasting may boost brainpower by giving neurons more energy
Some people who fast regularly, like those following the 5:2 diet, feel mentally sharper. Now evidence in mice may explain how fasting boosts brainpower. Could regular fasting make you smarter? People following regimes like the popular 5:2 diet usually do so for weight loss, but some who try it says it makes them mentally sharper too. If this is true, experiments in mice may have explained why. In these animals, fasting has been found to cause changes in the brain that likely give neurons more energy, and enable them to grow more connections. Mark Mattson of the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland and his team looked at 40 mice, which were given regimes in which they either ate nothing every other day, or ate normally – but consumed the same total calories – as the fasting mice. The team found that fasting was linked to a 50 per cent increase in a brain chemical called BDNF. Previous studies have shown that such an increase is likely to boost the number of mitochondria – which provide a cell’s energy – inside neurons by 20 per cent. BDNF also promotes the growth of new connections – or synapses – between brain cells, which helps in learning and memory, says Mattson. The finding makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, as animals that are hungry would need more intellectual resources to find food, says Mattson. “If human ancestors hadn’t been able to find food, they had better be able to function at a high level to chase down some prey.”

12-11-17 Irish DNA map reveals history's imprint
Scientists have unveiled a detailed genetic map of Ireland, revealing subtle DNA differences that may reflect historic events. In their sample of the Irish population, the researchers identified 10 genetic groupings - clusters - that roughly mirror ancient boundaries. The results also suggest the Vikings had a greater impact on the Irish gene pool than previously supposed. The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports. A team of Irish, British and American researchers analysed data from 194 Irish individuals with four generations of ancestry tied to specific regions on the island. This allowed the scientists to work out the population structure that existed prior to the increased movement of people in recent decades. Co-author Dr Gianpiero Cavalleri, from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, told BBC News that the differences between the different Irish groups were "really subtle". He told BBC News: "We're only picking them up now because, first of all, the data sets are getting really big." The other reason, he said, was because of "really clever analytical approaches to pick out these very slight differences that generate the clusters".

12-11-17 This ancient marsupial lion had an early version of ‘bolt-cutter’ teeth
Extinct species was a fearsome predator in Australia’s hot, humid forests. A skull and other fossils from northeastern Australia belong to a new species in the extinct family of marsupial lions. This newly named species, Wakaleo schouteni, was a predator about the size of a border collie, says vertebrate paleontologist Anna Gillespie of the University of New South Wales in Sydney. At least 18 million years ago (and perhaps as early as 23 million years ago), it roamed what were then hot, humid forests. Its sturdy forelimbs suggest it could chase possums, lizards and other small prey up into trees. Gillespie expects W. shouteni — the 10th species named in its family — carried its young in a pouch as kangaroos, koalas and other marsupials do. Actual lions evolved on a different fork in the mammal genealogical tree, but Australia’s marsupial lions got their feline nickname from the size and slicing teeth of the first species named, in 1859. Thylacoleo carnifex was about as big as a lion. And its formidable teeth could cut flesh. But unlike other pointy-toothed predators, marsupial lions evolved a horizontal cutting edge. A bottom tooth stretched back along the jawline on each side, its slicer edge as long as four regular teeth. An upper tooth extended too, giving this marsupial lion a bite like a “bolt cutter,” Gillespie says.

12-10-17 Scientists say alone time may be linked to creativity
You may be eagerly anticipating spending time with friends and family over the holidays. But you may also be dreading the obligation to do so, preferring to be alone. New research suggests that, as long as it isn't driven by fear, there's nothing inherently wrong with that impulse. In fact, it may stimulate a much-valued ability: creativity. When it comes to social withdrawal, "motivation matters," said University of Buffalo psychologist Julie Bowker. In the journal Personality and Individual Differences, she and two colleagues distinguish between three such catalysts, and discover they produce quite different results. The study featured 295 undergraduates at a large public university in the United States. Participants filled out a survey that allowed them to delineate specific reasons for avoiding social gatherings: shyness ("Sometimes I turn down chances to hang out with others because I feel too shy"), avoidance ("I try to avoid spending time with other people"), and unsociability ("I don't have a strong preference for being alone or with others"). People whose answers reflected shyness or avoidance scored low on creativity, and high on both types of aggression, an attitude presumably reflecting loneliness or frustration. But the opposite was true of unsociability. People who displayed that trait were less likely to engage in aggressive behavior, and more likely to report that they were creatively engaged. "Anxiety-free time spent in solitude may allow for, and foster, creative thinking and work," the researchers note. Rather than viewing unsociability "as a relatively benign form of withdrawal," this research suggests it "may be better characterized as a potentially beneficial form of withdrawal." (Webmaster's comment: When pumped up on a social media adrenaline high it's hard to imagine any person having creative thoughts!)

12-9-17 What makes the human mind so special?
It might not be self-awareness, as many have thought for years. Everyone knows what it feels like to have consciousness: It's that self-evident sense of personal awareness, which gives us a feeling of ownership and control over the thoughts, emotions, and experiences that we have every day. Most experts think that consciousness can be divided into two parts: The experience of consciousness (or personal awareness), and the contents of consciousness, which include things such as thoughts, beliefs, sensations, perceptions, intentions, memories, and emotions. It's easy to assume that these contents of consciousness are somehow chosen, caused, or controlled by our personal awareness — after all, thoughts don't exist until until we think them. But in a recent research paper in Frontiers of Psychology, we argue that this is a mistake. We suggest that our personal awareness does not create, cause, or choose our beliefs, feelings, or perceptions. Instead, the contents of consciousness are generated "behind the scenes" by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains. All this happens without any interference from our personal awareness, which sits passively in the passenger seat while these processes occur. Put simply, we don't consciously choose our thoughts or our feelings — we become aware of them. If this sounds strange, consider how effortlessly we regain consciousness each morning after losing it the night before; how thoughts and emotions — welcome or otherwise — arrive already formed in our minds; how the colors and shapes we see are constructed into meaningful objects or memorable faces without any effort or input from our conscious mind.

12-8-17 Food delivery robots are teaching themselves how to cross roads
Until now, delivery robots have always needed humans to help them when things get tricky. Now machine learning has helped them work out how to manage without us. Ding dong! That’ll be the robot with my pizza. Such a scenario probably seems a bit far-fetched but, in the US and UK, delivery firms like JustEat and DoorDash are already experimenting using small robots to deliver groceries and meals. Currently these systems need human chaperones to monitor the robot’s progress, jumping in if it gets into trouble. But now Kiwi, a company based at the University of California, Berkeley, is using machine learning to teach its delivery robots how to cross the road safely, without any human intervention. It could be an important step in making these robots more autonomous, something that is vital if they are ever going to be delivering our dinners at scale. Such a system could also help delivery firms with the tricky ‘last mile’ problem of logistics – the fact that getting parcels to your door is the most expensive bit of the delivery process. Kiwi launched in April this year and lets students order food from campus restaurants via an app, to be delivered by its small fleet of robots. The robots use a mixture of camera sensors, lasers and an in-built map of the campus to find their way between restaurants and student addresses. (Webmaster's comment: The beginning of autonomous machine evolution?)

12-8-17 When tumors fuse with blood vessels, clumps of breast cancer cells can spread
Tests with fake vessels suggest this is an early step in metastasis. If you want to beat them, join them. Some breast cancer tumors may follow that strategy to spread through the body. Breast cancer tumors can fuse with blood vessel cells, allowing clumps of cancer cells to break away from the main tumor and ride the bloodstream to other locations in the body, suggests preliminary research. Cell biologist Vanesa Silvestri of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine presented the early work December 4 at the American Society for Cell Biology/European Molecular Biology Organization meeting. Previous research has shown that cancer cells traveling in clusters have a better chance of spreading than loners do (SN: 1/10/15, p. 9). But how clusters of cells get into the bloodstream in the first place has been a mystery, in part because scientists couldn’t easily see inside tumors to find out. So Silvestri and colleagues devised a see-through synthetic version of a blood vessel. The vessel ran through a transparent gel studded with tiny breast cancer tumors. A camera attached to a microscope allowed the researchers to record the tumors invading the artificial blood vessel. Sometimes the tumors pinched the blood vessel, eventually sealing it off. But in at least one case, a small tumor merged with the cells lining the faux blood vessel. Then tiny clumps of cancer cells broke away from the tumor and floated away in the fluid flowing through the capillary. More work is needed to confirm that the same process happens in the body, Silvestri said.

12-7-17 Why you need to touch your keys to believe they're in your bag
You know they're there, you just need to feel them in your hand. As virtual reality headsets hit the market, they bring with them the echoes of Macbeth's words: The world they immerse you in might look or even sound right, but can't be touched or grasped. Seeing a dagger on the table before you, you might try to reach for it, but as your arm simply goes through the air, you are left with the ghostly feeling that things are not so real. Impalpable objects are not convincing, and integrating touch into new technologies is the next frontier. But why, to Macbeth and to us, does touch matter so much? What does it bring, that vision doesn't? Missing a whole family of sensations can be disturbing — yet the absence of tactile experiences seems to have more damaging consequences than the absence of other experiences, for instance olfactory ones. Contrary to the proverbial expression that "seeing is believing," it is touch that secures our epistemic grip on reality. Everyday situations show that touch is the "fact-checking" sense. Salesmen know it well: If a client hesitates to buy a product, handing it over for her to touch is likely to seal the deal. We all like to feel our wallets in our bags, even when we just put them there. Despite numerous signs asking visitors not to touch the artworks on display, guards need to regularly stop people from reaching out and touching fragile statues and canvasses. But what does touch bring if vision already tells you everything you need to know? A long-standing response in philosophy agrees that touch is more objective than the other senses. For instance, when Samuel Johnson wanted to demonstrate the absurdity of Bishop Berkeley's idea that material objects do not exist, he kicked his foot against a large stone, and triumphantly asserted: "I refute it thus." Pointing at the colored shape was not sufficient, but Johnson assumed that touch would be unquestionable. The resistance of solid objects through touch is meant to provide us with the experience that there are things out there, independent of us and our will.

12-7-17 Marriage wards off dementia
People who are married are less likely to develop dementia than those who are single and living alone, new research has found. Researchers in London and France analyzed 15 studies involving more than 800,000 people in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. After taking other possible risk factors into account, they found that those who never married had a 42 percent higher risk for dementia than those who were living with a spouse or partner. Those who had been widowed had a 20 percent higher risk. Why? The protective effect of marriage “is linked to various lifestyle factors that are known to accompany marriage,” lead author Andrew Sommerlad tells CNN?.com. These factor include “living a generally healthier lifestyle and having more social stimulation as a result of living with a spouse or partner.” Previously, studies have found that husbands and wives also enjoy better heart health than those who have never married.

12-7-17 Mouthwash linked to diabetes
More than 200 million Americans routinely swig and swish mouthwash to prevent tooth decay and bad breath. But new research suggests this seemingly healthy habit could increase risk for type 2 diabetes, particularly for those already at high risk for the disease. A three-year study involving 945 middle-aged, overweight adults found that using mouthwash at least twice a day was associated with a 55 percent higher risk for diabetes or the precursor to the condition, known as prediabetes. The study’s authors aren’t sure why, but they theorize that antibacterial agents added to mouthwashes, such as chlorhexidine and triclosan, may do more harm than good. These ingredients destroy the harmful bacteria responsible for gum disease and cavities. But they also wipe out “friendly” bacteria that are essential for the production of nitric oxide, a compound that helps regulate insulin, which in turn keeps blood sugar levels in check. “Mouthwash is often advertised for killing germs,” lead author Kaumudi Joshipura, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tells Today.com. “Killing most or all oral bacteria is not necessarily a good thing.”

12-7-17 CRISPR/Cas9 can reverse multiple diseases in mice
New use for the genetic tool turns genes on instead of snipping them. A new twist on gene editing makes the CRISPR/Cas9 molecular scissors act as a highlighter for the genetic instruction book. Such highlighting helps turn on specific genes. Using the new tool, researchers treated mouse versions of type 1 diabetes, kidney injury and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the team reports December 7 in Cell. The new method may make some types of gene therapy easier and could be a boon for researchers hoping to control gene activity in animals, scientists say. CRISPR/Cas9 is a two-part molecular scissors. A short, guide RNA leads the DNA-cutting enzyme Cas9 to specific places in the genetic instructions that scientists want to slice. Snipping DNA is the first step to making or fixing mutations. But researchers quickly realized the editing system could be even more versatile. In the roughly five years since CRISPR/Cas9 was first wielded, researchers have modified the tool to make a variety of changes to DNA (SN: 9/3/16, p. 22). Many of those modifications involve breaking the Cas9 scissors so they cannot cut DNA anymore. Strapping other molecules to this “dead Cas9” allows scientists to alter genes or change the genes’ activities. Gene-activating CRISPR/Cas9, known as CRISPRa, could be used to turn on dormant genes for treating a variety of diseases. For instance, doctors might be able to turn on alternate copies of genes to compensate for missing proteins or to reinvigorate genes that grow sluggish with age. So far, researchers have mostly turned on genes with CRISPRa in cells growing in lab dishes, says Charles Gersbach, a biomedical engineer at Duke University not involved in the new study.

12-7-17 Researchers find 'oldest ever eye' in fossil
An "exceptional" 530-million-year-old fossil contains what could be the oldest eye ever discovered, according to scientists. The remains of the extinct sea creature include an early form of the eye seen in many of today's animals, including crabs, bees and dragonflies. Scientists made the find while looking at the well-preserved trilobite fossil. These ancestors of spiders and crabs lived in seas during the Palaeozoic era, between 541-251 million years ago. They found the ancient creature had a primitive form of compound eye, an optical organ that consists of arrays of tiny visual cells, called ommatidia, similar to those of present-day bees. The team, which included a researcher from Edinburgh University, said their findings suggested that compound eyes had changed little over 500 million years. Prof Euan Clarkson, of Edinburgh University's school of geosciences, said: "This exceptional fossil shows us how early animals saw the world around them hundreds of millions of years ago. "Remarkably, it also reveals that the structure and function of compound eyes has barely changed in half a billion years."

12-7-17 Daughters of older mums are more likely to never have children
An analysis of thousands of women has found that the older your mother was when you were born, the more likely you are to be childless – but we don’t know why. The older your mother was when you were born, the less likely you are to have children – but we don’t know why. An analysis of thousands of women has found that daughters of older mums are more likely to be childless – an effect that can’t be fully explained by social factors like wealth or education. So far, there’s been mixed evidence over whether parental age at first birth is linked to lower fertility in children. There does seem to be a trend that women who are wealthier and more educated are more likely to give birth later in life – and wealth tends to be passed down the generations for multiple reasons. But Olga Basso, of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, is interested in whether there might also be biological factors that make the children of older parents less likely to have children of their own. Her team analysed data from over 43,000 women in the US who were born between 1930 and 1964. More than 19 per cent of women born to mothers aged 30 or over went on to be childless. That compares with about 15 per cent in women whose mothers had been aged 20 to 24 at the time of their birth and less than 13 per cent of those born to teenage mothers. Women who had a post-graduate degree were the most likely never to have any children, followed by women who had never married, and women who were lesbian. Analysis of the figures revealed, however, that having higher levels of education or never marrying could not fully account for the levels of childlessness in women born to older mums. Even among women who held a postgraduate degree, those born to older mothers were more likely to be childless.

12-7-17 What do the new ‘gay genes’ tell us about sexual orientation?
Two gene variants have been found to be more common in gay men. New Scientist looks at what this tells us about the way biology shapes our sexuality. Two gene variants have been found to be more common in gay men, adding to mounting evidence that sexual orientation is at least partly biologically determined. How does this change what we already knew?

  • Didn’t we already know there were “gay genes”?
  • What’s new about the latest study?
  • What genes did they find and what do they do?
  • What is the other gene?
  • Are all men who have the “gay” variants of these genes gay?
  • What about women who are gay? Are there “lesbian genes”?
  • Why should we care about the genetics of being gay?

ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

12-12-17 Nomadic birds in danger after spate of wildfires in key wetland
The Hutovo Blato wetland in Bosnia and Herzegovina suffered its latest severe fire in October, and may vanish within decades - threatening many bird species. A protected wetland that is home to hundreds of threatened species, some of them unique, has caught fire for the ninth time since 2011. A new assessment says the entire wetland will be lost by 2050 unless better care is taken. The Hutovo Blato wetland spans 7411 hectares in south-west Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is fed by underground aquifers linked to the Krupa river, a tributary of the Neretva. More than 150 bird species spend the winter there: it is one of Europe’s richest sites for migratory birds. Altogether it is home to more than 600 plants, 45 fish species and more than 163 bird species. The site is managed by a public authority and holds a number of conservation accolades. In 2001 it was designated a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention, and BirdLife International recognises it as an Important Bird Area. However, in October 1000 hectares of the wetland was destroyed by fire. A commission formed by the public authority estimated the cost of repairing the damage at 500,000 euros. It is the ninth fire since 2011, according to Naše ptice, an NGO focused on bird conservation.

12-12-17 Polar bear video: Is it really the 'face of climate change'?
It is harrowing footage. An emaciated polar bear searches for food on Baffin Island, north-eastern Canada. Exhausted, it drags one leg slowly behind it, eventually trying to eat some discarded seating foam among rubbish humans have left. Polar bears hunt from the sea ice, which is diminishing every year, and the photography team are certain the unfortunate animal died within days. "This is what starvation looks like," wrote one of the photographers, Paul Nicklen. "The muscles atrophy. No energy. It's a slow, painful death." Mr Nicklen's colleague, Cristina Mittermeier, said: "We cried as we filmed this dying bear. This is the face of climate change." The clip has gone viral, widely shared as a warning about the dangers of climate change. But is there more to it? Mr Nicklen and Ms Mittermeier are co-founders of the conservation group Sea Legacy, with a declared mission to "use the power of storytelling to create the change we want to see". Canada's National Post newspaper argues: "These images aren't the work of a scientist, an impartial documentarian or even a concerned bystander. They are part of a very calculated public relations exercise." This particular animal could also simply have been sick. Biologist Jeff Higdon, writing on Twitter, speculated that it could have some form of aggressive cancer. "It's not starving because the ice suddenly disappeared and it could no longer hunt seals," he said. "The east Baffin coast is ice free in summer. It's far more likely that it is starving due to health issues." However, he warned that he could not be sure.

12-12-17 Golden eagle migration out of sync with climate change
Golden eagles in North America may have the timing of their migration shifted out of step with a seasonal boom in food they need to raise their young, according to scientists. A project to track the impact of climate change on migrating animals has revealed that adult golden eagles are unable to shift the timing of their migration. Lead researcher Scott LaPoint from Columbia University presented the findings at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. He explained that day length, or photoperiod, appeared to give the great birds the cue to go "as far and as fast as possible". When analysing tracking data, composed of 20 years' worth of tagging birds with satellite tags and following their seasonal migrations, Dr LaPoint noticed an unusual pattern. Younger raptors would shift the timing of their journey, seemingly adapting to weather conditions and climate. "But the adults get this photoperiod trigger and it's 'Time to go!'," he told BBC News. "I would have expected an older, wiser bird to better time their migration," he added. "But, with this [daylight] trigger, they don't have the luxury of deciding. They need to get [to their nesting site] as soon as possible to initiate a clutch. "They want to get their chicks as independent as possible by October, November." Birds younger than five years are sub-adult. They do not reproduce, so they are able to wait for good thermals to take them on a less energy-intensive journey north. Northern-breeding golden eagles can travel thousands of miles to their wintering grounds. And they have adapted to have their departure coincide with the first lasting snowfall or freeze and decreasing prey abundance.

12-12-17 'Worrying alarm call' for world's birds on brink of extinction
Overfishing and changing sea temperatures are pushing seabirds to the brink of extinction, according to new data on the world's birds. Birds that are now globally threatened include the kittiwake and the Atlantic puffin, which breed on UK sea cliffs. Meanwhile, on land, the Snowy Owl is struggling to find prey as ice melts in the North American Arctic, say conservation groups. The iconic bird is listed as vulnerable to extinction for the first time. "Birds are well-studied and great indicators of the health of the wider environment,'' said Dr Ian Burfield, global science coordinator at BirdLife International, the IUCN Red List authority on birds. ''A species at higher risk of extinction is a worrying alarm call that action needs to be taken now.'' He added that success in kiwi and pelican conservation had shown that, when well-resourced and supported, conservation efforts do pay off. Worldwide, over a quarter of more than 200 bird species reassessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature have been moved to higher threat categories while a similar number have been downgraded. Seabirds are of particular concern, including Cape gannets, which are now classified as Endangered, and the Antipodean Albatross, which risks being drowned by fishing lines. Fishing pressures and ocean changes caused by climate change are reducing food supply for the chicks of seabirds, while adults receive little protection when they fly over areas of the ''high seas'' that do not fall under the jurisdiction of any country, says BirdLife International.

12-12-17 Giant pelicans in danger after spate of wildfires in key wetland
The Hutovo Blato wetland in Bosnia and Herzegovina suffered its latest severe fire in October, and if the blazes continue the resident Dalmatian pelicans will struggle to survive. A protected wetland that is home to hundreds of threatened species, some of them unique, has caught fire for the ninth time since 2011. A new assessment says the entire wetland will be lost by 2050 unless better care is taken. The Hutovo Blato wetland spans 7411 hectares in south-west Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is fed by underground aquifers linked to the Krupa river, a tributary of the Neretva. More than 150 bird species spend the winter there: it is one of Europe’s richest sites for migratory birds. Altogether it is home to more than 600 plants, 45 fish species and more than 163 bird species. The site is managed by a public authority and holds a number of conservation accolades. In 2001 it was designated a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention, and BirdLife International recognises it as an Important Bird Area. However, in October 1000 hectares of the wetland was destroyed by fire. A commission formed by the public authority estimated the cost of repairing the damage at 500,000 euros. It is the ninth fire since 2011, according to Naše ptice, an NGO focused on bird conservation. Most of the fires have been relatively minor, but one blaze in 2011 destroyed much of the wetland, says Nikola Zovko, a director of the Hutovo Blato nature park. Big fires release lots of nutrients into the wetland’s clean waters. This stimulates the growth of algae, causing algal blooms that reduce the water’s oxygen content and kill water organisms.

12-12-17 Dracula ticks in amber tell ancient blood-sucking tale
Feathered dinosaurs were covered in ticks just like modern animals, fossil evidence shows. Parasites similar to modern ticks have been found inside pieces of amber from Myanmar dating back 99 million years. One is entangled with a dinosaur feather, another is swollen with blood, and two were in a dinosaur nest. Scientists say the discovery, which has echoes of Jurassic Park, is the first direct fossil evidence that ticks fed on the blood of dinosaurs. The research is published in the journal, Nature Communications. ''Ticks parasitised feathered dinosaurs; now we have direct evidence of it,'' co-researcher Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History told BBC News. ''This paper represents a very good example of the kind of detailed information that can be extracted from amber fossils.'' Amber is fossilised tree resin. The sticky substance can trap skin, scales, fur, feathers or even whole creatures, such as ticks. In this case, the researchers found a type of tick, now extinct, that is new to science. They named it, Deinocroton draculi or "Dracula's terrible tick". "Ticks are infamous blood-sucking, parasitic organisms, having a tremendous impact on the health of humans, livestock, pets, and even wildlife, but until now clear evidence of their role in deep time has been lacking," said Enrique Peñalver from the Spanish Geological Survey (IGME), the lead researcher on the study. The fossils in amber may echo the fictional world of Jurassic Park, but they will not give up the secrets of dinosaur DNA. All attempts to extract DNA from amber specimens have failed since the complex molecule is too fragile to be preserved.

12-11-17 Bumblebees solve the travelling salesman problem on the fly
While buzzing between flowers, bees can solve the maths dilemma called the travelling salesman problem by finding the shortest route that visits every blossom. Bumblebees aren’t just hard workers, they’re efficient, too. These insects have a grasp of maths that enables them to crack the classic travelling salesman problem as they forage for pollen and nectar. The problem, a benchmark of computer science, poses the question, “Given a list of cities and the distances between each pair of cities, what is the shortest possible route that visits each city and returns to the origin city?” This was the conundrum facing bumblebees let loose on an array of artificial flower feeding stations at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK. “We tempted the bees with shortcuts between feeding stations that increased the total distance they travelled to visit all the feeders,” said Joe Woodgate at Queen Mary University of London, who led the research. Initially, the bees fell into the trap, opting for short-term gain but ending up with a longer, more exhausting journey as they visited every flower in turn. Gradually, the insects refined their flight paths and found the most effective “travelling salesman” solution. Instead of taking the obvious short cuts, they altered the order of their flower visits to reduce the overall travel distance. The team studied six bumblebees making 201 flights using a special type of radar capable of identifying signature reflections from tiny transponders attached to the insects.

12-11-17 Once settled, immigrants play important guard roles in mongoose packs
But it takes time for residents to fully accept new members. Immigrants, they get the job done — eventually. Among dwarf mongooses, it takes newcomers a bit to settle into a pack. But once these immigrants become established residents, everyone in the pack profits, researchers from the University of Bristol in England report online December 4 in Current Biology. Dwarf mongooses (Helogale parvula) live in groups of around 10, with a pecking order. The alphas — a top male and female — get breeding priority, while the others help with such group activities as babysitting and guard duty. But the road to the top of the social hierarchy is linear and sometimes crowded. So some individuals skip out on the group they were born into to find one with fewer members of their sex with which to compete —“effectively ‘skipping the queue,’” says ecologist Julie Kern. Kern and her colleague Andrew Radford tracked mongoose immigration among nine packs at Sorabi Rock Lodge Reserve in Limpopo, South Africa. The researchers focused on guard duty, in which sentinels watch for predators and warn foragers digging for food.

12-11-17 ‘Scary’ spider photos on Facebook are revealing new species
When people see a big spider they often post a photo on Facebook – and those images have now revealed up to 30 new species. Freaky photos of giant spiders on social media may have revealed dozens of new species. “When people see an animal that they think is frightening or dangerous, the most common response is to take a photo and post it to social media,” says Heather Campbell, previously at the University of Pretoria in South Africa and now at Harper Adams University, UK. In 2013, Campbell got involved with some “massive spider nerds”, who drove around at night watching for spiders on the road and “tickling” tarantulas out of their burrows with blades of grass. “I sort of got drawn into that excitement and enthusiasm,” she says. They focused on baboon spiders, a subfamily of the larger tarantula group found in eastern and southern Africa. About 56 species are known, but Campbell says much remains unknown. To find out more, they built the Baboon Spider Atlas. They combed Facebook, online forums and other social media sites for photos and information about baboon spiders. People also send in photos of spiders they find and ask questions – mostly “is it poisonous?” and “what do I do?” The data shows that many known species range more widely than thought, and that some species that were thought to spend all their time in their burrows actually wander.

12-8-17 Africa’s giraffes are being slaughtered by Joseph Kony’s army
Elephants, giraffes, giant elands and chimpanzees are being decimated by poachers linked to violent militias in a lawless region of central Africa. Joseph Kony and his notorious Lord’s Resistance Army haven’t gone away since US and Ugandan troops ended their campaign to capture him earlier this year. They have decamped to a politically unstable belt of countries near Uganda, where they and other lawless militias are now decimating iconic animals like elephants for food and illegal ivory, as well as terrorising villages and kidnapping children. That’s the grim message from a report issued today by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring agency. Compiled through interviews with 700 people from 87 villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR) and Sudan, the report exposes the threat posed to large species including elephants, giant elands and eastern chimpanzees. Giraffes are reportedly being killed simply to provide the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) with tails for deterring flies. Only 47 now survive in the Garamba complex in the DRC, where there were previously 350. Elephants totalled 22,000 in the 1970s, but are now down to between 1100 and 1400. Rhinos, of which there were once an estimated 500, are gone completely. The report found that the key threats were the LRA, corruption in the DRC state military, armed pastoralists called the Fulani and a multitude of militias, including the Janjaweed, spilling over from the chaos in Southern Sudan.

12-8-17 Record-breaking two-tonne fish is the heaviest of its kind
The record books say that the ocean sunfish is the heaviest bony fish alive, but in fact the specimen in question belongs to a different species. Given that it is 3 metres long, weighs 2300 kilograms and looks like a severed head, you would think there could be no mistaking the identity of the world’s heaviest bony fish. But in fact we have been misidentifying this ocean-going giant for years. The ocean sunfish (Mola mola) is listed in Guinness World Records as the world’s heaviest bony fish. Some sharks are larger, but their skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone. The record has stood since 2002, on the basis of a specimen caught off the Japanese coast in 1996. But now a detailed analysis of photographs and other information about the specimen has revealed that it is not an ocean sunfish, but a relative named Mola alexandrini. Sunfish look extremely peculiar to our eyes. They appear almost disc-shaped from the side and extremely narrow when viewed head-on. They have a curved rudder-like lobe at the rear, where most fish have a tail fin. Many exceed 2000kg and reach 3m long. Etsuro Sawai at Hiroshima University in Japan and his colleagues reviewed the three known Mola species: M. mola, M. ramsayi and the rare M. tecta – which was only discovered in July. They examined 30 specimens of M. mola and M. ramsayi, and trawled through accounts of sunfish sightings and captures going back 500 years.

12-7-17 AI eavesdrops on dolphins and discovers six unknown click types
Computer program picked out the noises from underwater recordings of 52 million echolocation signals. A new computer program has an ear for dolphin chatter. The algorithm uncovered six previously unknown types of dolphin echolocation clicks in underwater recordings from the Gulf of Mexico, researchers report online December 7 in PLOS Computational Biology. Identifying which species produce the newly discovered click varieties could help scientists better keep tabs on wild dolphin populations and movements. Dolphin tracking is traditionally done with boats or planes, but that’s expensive, says study coauthor Kaitlin Frasier, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. A cheaper alternative is to sift through seafloor recordings — which pick up the echolocation clicks that dolphins make to navigate, find food and socialize. By comparing different click types to recordings at the surface — where researchers can see which animals are making the noise — scientists can learn what different species sound like, and use those clicks to map the animals’ movements deep underwater. But even experts have trouble sorting recorded clicks, because the distinguishing features of these signals are so subtle. “When you have analysts manually going through a dataset, then there’s a lot of bias introduced just from the human perception,” says Simone Baumann-Pickering, a biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography not involved in the work. “Person A may see things differently than person B.” So far, scientists have only determined the distinct sounds of a few species.

12-7-17 Narwhals react to certain dangers in a really strange way
‘Unicorns of the sea’ fleeing humans show the physiological signs of also being frozen in fear. When escaping from humans, narwhals don’t just freeze or flee. They do both. These deep-diving marine mammals have similar physiological responses to those of an animal frozen in fear: Their heart rate, breathing and metabolism slow, mimicking a “deer in the headlights” reaction. But narwhals (Monodon monoceros) take this freeze response to extremes. The animals decrease their heart rate to as slow as three beats per minute for more than 10 minutes, while pumping their tails as much as 25 strokes per minute during an escape dive, an international team of researchers reports in the Dec. 8 Science. “That was astounding to us because there are other marine mammals that can have heart rates that low but not typically for that long a period of time, and especially not while they’re swimming as hard as they can,” says Terrie Williams, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. So far, this costly escape has been observed only after a prolonged interaction with humans. Usually, narwhals will escape natural predators such as killer whales by stealthily slipping under ice sheets or huddling in spots too shallow for their pursuers, Williams says. But interactions with humans — something that will happen increasingly as melting sea ice opens up the Arctic — may be changing that calculus.

12-7-17 Narwhal escape: Whales freeze and flee when frightened
Scientists who fitted heart rate-monitoring tags to Arctic narwhals have discovered a strange paradox in how the animals respond to threats. When these tusked whales are frightened, their hearts slow, but at the same time they swim quickly to escape. Scientists say the response could be "highly costly" - because they exert themselves with a limited blood supply. The findings are published in the journal Science. They raise questions about how the enigmatic "unicorns of the sea" will cope with increasing human intrusion on their Arctic habitat. Historically, narwhals have not come into contact with much human disturbance, because they live mainly hidden among Arctic sea ice. But in recent decades, as the ice has declined, this is changing. "Shipping and exploration for oil and gas is moving into the narwhals' world," said lead researcher Dr Terrie Williams, from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Having developed technology to study the physiology of dolphins at her home institute, she explained that her collaborator on this study - Dr Mads Peter Heide-Jorgensen, from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources - contacted her to see if her tags could be used on wild narwhals. "His research allowed him to work with hunters; instead of the animals being killed, he releases them with satellite tags," Dr Williams explained. "So this was an incredible opportunity to look at the biology of a deep-diving whale." The tags she developed incorporate a heart monitor with depth and acceleration measurement, as well as a satellite tracking device. "We're riding the back of a narwhal for days with this technology and it's just astounding to me," she told BBC News.

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