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ATHEISM and HUMANISM

12-13-18 America has a problem with proportionality
And we almost never talk about it. ne of the police officers who ripped 1-year-old Damone from his mother's arms in a Brooklyn social services office really put his back into it. He searched for a good grip on the baby's body and, having acquired it, started jerking his own body up and out, making a yanking motion I've used to tear a stubborn weed from my garden. This is not a motion I can imagine using on a child. Perhaps if Jazmine Headley, the woman desperately holding on to Damone, were not his mother but his kidnapper, the yanking would have made sense. But reality is not so dramatic. Headley is Damone's mom, and her violent treatment at the hands of New York City police officers was reportedly initiated over the piddling "offense" of insisting she could sit on the waiting room floor because all the chairs were full. The encounter was filmed and Facebooked, picking up views and outrage as a ghastly new example of police brutality. And beyond the visceral reaction the video engenders, what makes this story so instinctively galling is the lack of proportionality. Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez communicated as much when he announced Tuesday that he would not pursue any charges against Headley because the "consequences this young and desperate mother has already suffered as a result of this arrest far outweigh any conduct that may have led to it." She is not the only one to suffer this way. America has a problem with proportionality. Our criminal justice system excels at making that failing obvious, because proportionality is integral to justice. It's particularly important in retributive justice systems like our own (whether retribution is our best option is a question I'll leave for another day), where without proportionality we may find ourselves exacting punishments that go well beyond "an eye for an eye. Proportionality is also vague and debatable. We can agree on the principle while differing on the details, and our use of punishments with no restitutionary connection to the crime exacerbates this confusion. It is easy to see the proportion, say, in requiring a thief to repay his victim for a stolen item. But how should a theft be measured in jail time? How many months or years are proportionate to taking a television or burning down a house? We can't convert crimes to prison sentences like inches to centimeters, so we argue about what's proportionate.

12-13-18 Hungary 'slave labour' law sparks protest on parliament steps
Protests have broken out in Hungary after the country's parliament passed new labour laws, which have been labelled "slave labour" by opponents. New rules mean companies can demand up to 400 hours of overtime a year and delay payment for it for three years! Police used tear gas against crowds on the steps of the parliament building on Wednesday night as crowds gathered. Opposition politicians had created chaos inside, blocking stairways and blowing whistles to disrupt the votes. They were also angry over a second vote to create a new system of administrative courts controlled by the minister of justice, which critics fear will not be independent. The parliamentary speaker, unable to reach his podium, was forced to open the session from the floor instead. Despite the disruption, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's overwhelming majority in parliament pushed the change through. Hundreds of protesters - one estimate suggested up to 2,000 - gathered outside the building late on Wednesday to protest against the "slave labour" amendment, while hundreds of police protected the entrance. Police in riot gear, forming a human barrier, used tear gas against the crowd when a small number of protesters attempted to push their way past. It followed a weekend protest over the proposed change, where crowds gathered calling for higher minimum wages, rather than an increase in overtime. In Hungary, the law previously allowed for companies to demand a maximum of 250 hours of overtime in a given year. But for someone who works eight-hour days, the new amount of 400 hours is the equivalent of an hour of extra labour every day, an extra day's work every week, or 50 extra days each year.

12-12-18 2018 'worst year for US school shootings'
This year, 113 people have been killed or injured in school shootings in the United States. That's the sobering finding of a project to count the annual toll of gun attacks in schools. At the beginning of 2018, Education Week, a journal covering education in the US, began to track school shootings - and has since recorded 23 incidents where there were deaths or injuries. With many parts of the US having about 180 school days per year, it means, on average, a shooting once every eight school days. Another database recording school shootings says 2018 has had the highest number of incidents ever recorded, in figures going back to 1970. That database, from the US Center for Homeland Defense and Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), uses a different way of identifying gun incidents in school, and says this year there have been 94. The idea behind the year-long Education Week project was to mark each shooting - so that attacks should never come to seem "normal" and that every victim should be remembered. But it was also an attempt to fill in the gaps in knowledge, because while there was intense media coverage of multiple-casualty shootings, there was much less clarity about the attacks happening across the country each month. Lesli Maxwell, assistant managing editor of Education Week, said this year has "definitely been an outlier" with two large-scale school shootings, which have contributed to such a high annual loss of life. Seventeen people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. At Santa Fe High School near Houston, Texas, there were 10 killed, with both gun attacks carried out by teenage boys. "This year also stands out because of all the activism that followed Parkland, with students leading the charge," says Ms Maxwell. These included a shooting at a primary school in Virginia last month, when a parent collecting their child was shot in the leg when a gun in the pocket of another parent was accidentally fired. Or in March in a high school in Maryland, when a 17-year-old teenager shot and injured two students and then, after he was confronted, killed himself. One of the injured, a 16-year-old girl, died a few days later. The shootings are a bleak list of teenagers, guns and innocent victims. The perpetrators are as young as 12 but are mostly 16 or 17. (Webmaster's comment: The slaughter of the innocent continues!)

12-12-18 Pope demotes two cardinals over sexual abuse scandals
Two cardinals facing allegations linked to sexual abuse have been removed from Pope Francis's inner circle, the Vatican said. Australia's George Pell and Chile's Francisco Javier Errazuriz will no longer sit on the Council of Cardinals, set up by the pope as an international advice body. The pair were absent from the last meeting of the group in September. A spokesperson said the Pope wrote to them both in October to thank them. Cardinal Pell, who remains the Vatican treasurer, faces trial on sexual abuse charges in Australia - accusations the cardinal strenuously denies. His Chilean colleague, Francisco Javier Errazuriz, faces accusations that he covered up alleged child abuse while serving as Archbishop of Santiago, claims he also denies. Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya has also left the group, spokesman Greg Burke said. The 79-year-old recently retired from his role as archbishop of Kinshasa, and has not been implicated in any scandals. The group, known as C9, has no plan to immediately fill its three empty seats, Mr Burke reportedly said.

12-11-18 Trump rolls back decades of Clean Water Act protections
The Trump administration has taken aim at removing environmental federal protections for wetlands and isolated streams from pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a proposal redefining US waters under the Clean Water Act. Farm and agriculture lobbyists have pushed for these changes since 2015. But environmentalists say they could result in contaminating millions of acres of waters with pesticides and other agricultural pollutants. The proposal seeks to remove protections on "ephemeral streams" - which only appear after rainfall - and wetlands not directly connected or adjacent to large bodies of water. The replacement regulation would not change protections for large bodies of water and neighbouring wetlands, and any state-imposed rules will also be unaffected. The changes would replace an Obama-era regulation, but the wetland protections impacted date back to the George HW Bush administration. Announcing the proposal on Tuesday, Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler described it as "an end to the previous administration's power grab". Mr Wheeler said the changes clarified what waters the federal government had jurisdiction over while respecting "the primary role of the states" in managing environmental resources. He added that the Obama-era definition of federal waters was "about power over farmers, developers, landowners". "Our goal is a more precise definition that gives the American people the freedom and certainty to do what they do best: build homes, grow crops, and develop projects that improve the environment and the lives of their fellow citizens."

12-11-18 Trump's border wall broken promise
The president promised to make Mexico pay for his ridiculous wall. He failed. Now he's holding the government hostage. It was one of the first promises Donald Trump made when he declared his candidacy for president, one he kept repeating as an applause line to raucous crowds throughout his campaign: He was going to build a wall along the Mexico border. And not only that: He promised Mexico would pay for it. "I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I'll build them very inexpensively," he said in 2015. "I will build a great great wall on our southern border and I'll have Mexico pay for that wall." It was a bad promise back then. It's a broken promise now. Two years into Trump's presidency, the wall still doesn't exist — though he keeps lying about that simple fact — and Mexico is understandably no closer to picking up the tab. So now, President Trump is looking to the American taxpayers to do the job that Mexico won't, asking Congress to pony up $5 billion so he can finally start building his precious border barrier. If he doesn't get what he wants, Trump says he'll shut down the government when funding expires Dec. 21. Let him. Trump thinks he holds all the cards with voters on the immigration issue, and it's true that his base responds positively to calls for increased border security. But his attempt to pressure House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) into helping him secure the $5 billion is failing — liberal Democrats might go into open rebellion if they did so. Trump simply doesn't have the leverage he thinks he does. (Webmaster's comment: He's nothing but a big mouth!)

12-11-18 Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018 honours journalists
Killed and imprisoned journalists - "The Guardians'" - have been named 2018's "Person of the Year" by Time. Four different Time covers feature journalists from around the world. Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi embassy in Turkey earlier this year, appears alone in one, while staff from the Capital Gazette, the US newspaper where five people were killed this year, feature in another. Pictures of Maria Ressa, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo appear on the final two. Ms Ressa is the editor of Rappler, a Philippine news website critical of the country's leadership, while Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were imprisoned in Myanmar for investigating the massacre of Rohingya Muslims. According to Time, they were chosen "for taking great risks in pursuit of greater truths, for the imperfect but essential quest for facts, for speaking up and for speaking out". Last year, the magazine named "the Silence Breakers" - women and men who spoke out against sexual abuse and harassment - as its "Person of the Year". (Webmaster's comment: Journalists are now under full-blown assaults for free speech reporting. The assaults are encouraged by nation's autocratic leaders like Trump.)

12-11-18 Two nuns admit embezzling cash for Vegas gambling trips
Two nuns who worked at a Catholic school in California have admitted embezzling about $500,000 (£396,000) and using it to gamble in Las Vegas. Sisters Mary Kreuper and Lana Chang took the money from St James' Catholic School in the city of Torrance, near Los Angeles, to spend in casinos. The pair, who are said to be best friends, took funds from an account holding tuition fees and donations. The sisters, who recently retired, have expressed remorse for their actions. Mary Kreuper was the school principal for 29 years, while Lana Chang worked as a teacher for about 20 years. They are thought to have stolen the money over a period of at least a decade to spend on travel and gambling. On Monday, St James' Catholic Church said the nuns had expressed "deep remorse" over their actions, adding that while the police had been informed, no criminal charges would be brought against the pair. (Webmaster's comment: Why Not? They are just as guilty of a major crime as any punk kid who steals $500,000. Being sorry is not enough!)

12-11-18 Why are so many countries now saying cannabis is OK?
Around the world attitudes towards the use of cannabis are shifting. Mexico's new government plans to legalise recreational cannabis use, as does the incoming government of Luxembourg. Meanwhile, New Zealand's leaders are considering a referendum on what their approach should be. As public opinion - and that of governments - changes, it seems increasingly likely that other countries will follow, raising questions about how they work together to manage the use and supply of cannabis. What has led one country after another to move towards a relaxation of their laws and, in many cases, outright legalisation? It was only in 2012 that Uruguay announced it would be the first country in the world to legalise recreational cannabis use. In large part, the move was aimed at replacing links between organised crime and the cannabis trade with more accountable state regulation. Later the same year, voters in Washington State and Colorado became the first in the US to support legalisation of the drug for non-medical use. Under President Barack Obama, a critic of the US-led war on drugs, the US government stepped back from enforcing federal laws and effectively gave states a green light to explore alternatives. Eight more states and Washington DC have since supported the legalisation of recreational cannabis and penalties are softening elsewhere. The use of the drug for medical reasons is allowed in 33 of the 50 states. In many ways the jury is still out on the effects of legalisation on society and individuals' health, but there is no question that public opinion and government policy has softened. The tide has crept across the Americas, with Canada legalising the sale, possession and recreational use of cannabis nationwide in October.

12-10-18 'Troubling' video shows NY police grabbing child from mum
New York City police are investigating an incident in which officers grabbed a baby from a mother during an arrest in Brooklyn. The video, shared on Facebook on Friday, shows police dragging 23-year-old Jazmine Headley across a floor as she yells: "They're hurting my son." She was arrested for refusing to leave a social services centre, police say. City public officials have condemned the actions and demanded answers from the police department. The New York Police Department (NYPD) confirmed that the department and Human Resources Administration (HRA) police have opened a review into the incident, in a statement emailed to the BBC. NYPD said the footage was "troubling" and the review will "include examination of all available video of the incident". The Facebook video has since received over 200,000 views and sparked public outrage over yet another case of alleged police brutality. The incident began on Friday at an HRA office in Brooklyn, where residents can apply for public assistance services like food stamps. Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, told reporters on Monday that Ms Headley had been waiting at the office for four hours to sort out daycare for her son. Ms Headley took a seat on the floor with her baby as there were no chairs, Ms Schreibersdorf said. A security guard asked her to move but there was nowhere to go. The two broke into a row and the guard called the cops. The NYPD officers on scene also asked Ms Headley to leave "numerous times", the police statement said. When she refused again, HRA peace officers dragged her to the floor as police attempted to arrest her. In the recording, officers can be seen grabbing at Ms Headley's baby, trying to pull him out of her arms as they restrain her. She shouts repeatedly: "They're hurting my son." An officer then points what appears to be a taser at Ms Headley as she says, "I'm begging you." (Webmaster's comment: She's black! She has no rights! No one cares!)

12-10-18 Anti-Semitism pervades European life, says EU report
Anti-Semitism is getting worse and Jews are increasingly worried about the risk of harassment, according to a major survey of 12 EU countries. Hundreds of Jews questioned by the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency said they had experienced a physical, anti-Semitic attack in the past year, while 28% said they had been harassed. France is identified as having the biggest problem with anti-Semitism. Germany, the UK, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands also saw incidents. The Vienna-based FRA paints a picture of synagogues and Jewish schools requiring security protection; of "vicious commentary" on the internet, in media and in politics; and of discrimination at school and work. The report comes weeks after a gunman murdered 11 people at a synagogue in the US city of Pittsburgh. (Webmaster's comment: The United States probably tops all EU countries for hatred of Jews.) Six years after its initial report, the FRA has surveyed Jews in the 12 EU states where most Jews live. The report says anti-Semitic abuse has become so common that most victims do not bother reporting the incidents. Among the findings:

  1. 89% of the 16,395 Jews surveyed considered anti-Semitism online a problem in their country
  2. 28% experienced some form of harassment for being Jewish in the past 12 months; 2% were physically attacked
  3. 47% worry about anti-Semitic verbal insult or harassment and 40% about physical attack in the next 12 months
  4. 34% have avoided Jewish events at least occasionally because of safety fears
  5. 38% have considered emigrating in the past five years over safety fears

A startling 95% of French Jews see anti-Semitism as either a fairly or very big problem. France has been subject to a string of jihadist attacks, including the killing of hostages at a Jewish supermarket in Paris. This year alone 85-year-old Mireille Knoll, who escaped the Holocaust, was murdered in her Paris flat and an eight-year-old boy wearing a kippah (skullcap) was attacked in the street by teenagers. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has spoken of a 69% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the country, which has Europe's biggest Jewish population of around half a million. He said a national network of investigators would be created to fight hate crime, and a school taskforce would be sent to help teachers tackle anti-Semitism in the classroom. Over 80% of those surveyed saw anti-Semitism as a serious problem in Germany, Belgium, Poland and Sweden. Last month, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germans had become almost accustomed to Jewish institutions requiring police guards or special protection. Sweden, meanwhile, has seen one of the sharpest increases in perceptions of anti-Semitism in the past six years, along with the UK and Germany.

12-7-18 Life expectancy: A nation afflicted by despair
America remains a rich and powerful nation, but millions of our citizens are “wracked with grief and despair,” said David French in NationalReview.com. Stark evidence of that paradox was provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest annual report on American life expectancy, which showed our average span either falling or stagnating for the third consecutive year. The last time we saw a downward trend in life expectancy, America was fighting World War I and suffering through a flu pandemic that killed 675,000. Now drugs and suicide are mostly to blame. The overdose rate is up 356 percent since 1999, and the 2017 death toll—70,237—“far outstrips the total American fatalities in Vietnam.” For a large swath of our population, the family structure has broken down, amid rampant divorce, children being raised out of wedlock, and young men unable to find jobs that support a family. “We’re facing not so much a drug problem as a heartbreak problem,” said Mona Charen, also in NationalReview.com. With families and social bonds crumbling, an AARP study found one-third of Americans reported chronic loneliness. Isolation is a state “about as deadly as smoking.” The life-expectancy decline is far worse in rural America, said Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post. There—where unemployment and poverty rates are higher—the suicide rate is almost twice that of urban counties. President Trump “owes his presidency to rural Americans,” but other than offering them cultural resentment and scapegoats, he’s done nothing for them. In fact, he’s further hurt them with a devastating trade war that shut Chinese markets to U.S. farm products and cost farmers billions.

12-7-18 Trump’s GOP: The party of white grievance?
Before Donald Trump, Republicans primarily appealed to racially bigoted whites through code words and symbols, said Jelani Cobb in NewYorker.com. “With Trump, the racism is out in the open.” Consider the victory last week of Mississippi Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith in the state’s runoff election for a U.S. Senate seat. Hyde-Smith won over Democrat Mike Espy, who is black, despite a video showing her telling a supporter she’d gladly sit “in the front row” of a public hanging. Voters also learned that Hyde-Smith—who was enthusiastically endorsed by Trump—graduated from a private “segregation academy” set up to circumvent Brown v. Board, and called Jefferson Davis’ old home “Mississippi history at its best!” Outside Mississippi, said Samuel Sinyangwe in Vox.com, other Republicans also “ran on racism.” Florida Gov.–elect Ron DeSantis warned that his black opponent, Andrew Gillum, would “monkey up” the state. In Georgia, Gov.-elect Brian Kemp boasted that he drives a pickup truck so he can round up “criminal illegals.” Deny the obvious if you like, said Max Boot in The Washington Post, but “neocons” are taking over the GOP. Not neoconservatives, mind you—“neo-Confederates.” Hyde-Smith may seem like an extreme case, having once dressed as a Confederate general and waved a Confederate battle flag. But Corey Stewart, the defeated GOP candidate for Senate in Virginia, called Confederate history “what makes us Virginia”; Kemp recently refused to take down “the biggest Confederate monument in the world,” and the flagrantly racist Rep. Steve King of Iowa—a state that fought for the Union—has displayed a Confederate flag on his desk. Even when not waving the Dixie flag, Republicans have signed on to Trump’s strategy of “pandering to white grievances.”

12-7-18 Wisconsin GOP aims to weaken incoming Democrats
Lame-duck Republican state lawmakers in Wisconsin approved sweeping legislation this week that will strip the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general of key powers, in what Democrats called an assault on democracy. The bills passed by the GOP-dominated legislature limit the ability of Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General–elect Josh Kaul to fulfill campaign promises to protect the Affordable Care Act and boost infrastructure spending. The legislation will also restrict early voting, prohibit Evers from unilaterally making the Capitol a gun-free zone, and lock in a work requirement for Medicaid recipients. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the moves were necessary because Republicans “don’t trust Tony Evers right now,” while Assembly Speaker Robin Vos added that “we are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.” Evers promised to challenge the bills in court if outgoing Republican Gov. Scott Walker signs them into law. “We’re not going backwards in time to revote this election,” he said. “I won.” As lawmakers debated and voted on the legislation, hundreds of protesters streamed to the Capitol chanting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” and carrying signs reading “GOP Grinch Stealing Democracy.” Activists accused the Wisconsin GOP of attempting to preserve one of America’s most lopsided gerrymanders: Republicans secured 63 of 99 assembly seats in the Nov. 6 election, even though Democrats won 54 percent of votes.

12-7-18 The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War
Though Andrew Delbanco’s new history of the run-up to the Civil War is “a truly great book,” one reads it with “rising horror,” said Alan Jacobs in The Weekly Standard. The Columbia University historian forces us to look directly at our young nation’s original sin—slavery—and imagine what it was like to witness and recognize its evil effects in real time when easily half your fellow citizens were blind to that evil. In Delbanco’s telling, the problem of runaway slaves exposed a profound division in the country that existed from the nation’s founding. While the South had no monopoly on racism, it’s unlikely there ever would have been a “United States” if Northerners hadn’t accepted a clause in the Constitution establishing that no slave could escape slavery by fleeing to a free state. And then the compromises got worse. Little of the information revisited by The War Before the War is new, said Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times. “The light it sheds, however, most definitely is.” How and when, after all, should a nominally united people reconcile irreconcilable values? And when is compromise wise and when is it cowardice? Congress’ passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it difficult for white Northerners to ignore the costs of compromise, because it obliged them to turn in runaways. Because it also denied captives normal trial rights, it also made free blacks vulnerable to slave catchers. The strength of Delbanco’s book lies in its evocation of the human cost of these policies, said David S. Reynolds in The Wall Street Journal. Though he includes many “thrilling” escape-and-rescue episodes, he also shares stunning tragedies. One fugitive slave, Margaret Garner, slit her 2-year-old’s throat rather than allow the girl to be captured and returned to slavery.

12-7-18 Poll watch
Offered a list of traits defining what it means to be a “real American,” 90% of respondents picked “treating people equally,” 88% chose “taking responsibility for one’s actions,” 81% picked “accepting those of different racial backgrounds,” and 80% said “supporting the U.S. Constitution.” Having been born in America, at 49%, and having lived most of one’s life here, at 45%, came in lowest.

12-7-18 Migrant camp shut
The city of Tijuana shuttered a migrant camp close to the U.S. border this week and moved its 6,000 occupants some 10 miles south, because the sports complex housing them had become overcrowded, flooded, and unhygienic. Health experts said respiratory diseases, chicken pox, and lice were rampant at the shelter, which was a temporary home for many of the Central Americans who recently trekked to the U.S. border in a caravan. They are being relocated to a former concert venue that will be run by the federal government and is further from the border. In one of his first acts since taking office this week, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador signed a pact with Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to create jobs in Central America, which they hope will help stop residents from fleeing north.

12-7-18 Murder charges for a cop
Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was indicted on a murder charge last week for fatally shooting an unarmed black man in his own apartment. In September, Guyger, 30, returned from her shift dressed in uniform and went into 26-year-old Botham Jean’s unit, directly above her own, where she shot him in the torso. Guyger, who is white, claims she mistook the apartment for her own and thought Jean was a burglar. Lawyers for Jean’s family say his neighbors heard someone banging on the door before shots were fired. Guyger was dismissed from the police force after initially being charged with manslaughter, which sparked citywide protests demanding harsher charges. An attorney for Guyger said the murder charge resulted from “a tremendous amount of outside political pressure” and “a tremendous outpouring of vindictive emotion towards my client.”

12-7-18 Officers convicted
A Philippine court sentenced three police officers to 40 years in prison each last week for the 2017 murder of a 17-year-old boy, the first such convictions for killings explicitly encouraged by President Rodrigo Duterte as part of his war on drugs. Nearly 5,000 people are thought to have been murdered by the police, and many more by unofficial militias, since Duterte came to office in 2016 telling citizens and police to “go ahead and kill” drug users and dealers. Officers routinely claim their victims pulled guns and resisted arrest. But in the slaying of teenager Kian Lloyd delos Santos, surveillance camera footage and forensic evidence proved they were lying. Human rights activists aren’t celebrating the convictions yet: Duterte has promised to pardon any officer convicted of murder during the crackdown.

12-7-18 Wiccans outnumber Presbyterians
Wiccans, who now outnumber Presbyterians in the U.S., according to a report in ChristianPost.com. Wicca, which encompasses a number of pantheistic belief systems, including witchcraft, now has 1.5 million adherents, compared with 1.4 million Presbyterians.

12-7-18 New Mexico not a state
A New Mexico couple who applied for a marriage license in Washington, D.C., were delayed because the clerk thought New Mexico was a foreign country. Gavin Clarkson says the clerk refused to accept his driver’s license as ID and asked instead for his “New Mexico passport.” The marriage bureau later apologized for the clerk’s failure to recognize “New Mexico’s 106-year history as a state.”

12-7-18 Road accidents biggest killer of young people - WHO
Road injuries are now the biggest killer of children and young adults worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The organisation published figures that also reveal Africa has the worst rate of road traffic deaths in the world. Its report says many African and South American countries still do not have sufficient speed limit laws. But it also highlights that global road death rates relative to the size of the world's population are stabilising. Car accidents are now the leading global cause of death amongst children and young adults aged five to 29 years old, the report says. It contends that says more people die from road-related injuries than from HIV/Aids, tuberculosis or diarrhoeal diseases. "These deaths are an unacceptable price to pay for mobility," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's director-general. "There is no excuse for inaction. This is a problem with proven solutions." (Webmaster's comment: And the United States is running 50% higher at 15/100,000 than Europe at 10/100,000.)

12-7-18 Consecrated virgins: 'I got married to Christ'
Jessica Hayes bought herself a wedding gown, a veil and a ring. But when she stood at the altar facing the bishop during a solemn religious ceremony, there was no groom by her side. She was getting married to Jesus Christ. Ms Hayes, 41, is a consecrated virgin - a vocation taken by women within the Catholic Church who wish to give themselves as brides to God. Even within Catholicism, consecrated virgins are little-known - partly because the vocation was only publicly sanctioned by the Church less than 50 years ago. During the consecration ceremony, the candidate - who wears a bride-like, white dress- makes life-long chastity vows and promises never to engage in sexual or romantic relationships. The women also wear a wedding ring - a symbol of their betrothal to Christ. "I often get asked: 'So, are you married?'" says Ms Hayes, who is one of this year's BBC 100 Women. "I usually just reply with a really brief explanation that I am similar to a religious sister, that there's a total commitment to Christ, but that I live out in the world." She is one of 254 "brides of Christ" in the US, according to the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins (USACV) - whose day jobs range from nurses and psychologists to accountants, business women and fire fighters. There are at least 4,000 consecrated virgins in the world, according to a 2015 survey, and the Vatican says there has been an upsurge of vocations "in very diverse geographic areas and cultural contexts". Unlike nuns, consecrated virgins do not live in enclosed communities or wear special clothes; they lead a secular life, have jobs and support themselves. There is no such male equivalent in the Catholic Church. (Webmaster's comment: And they complain about same sex marriage. What about No Sex Marriage?)


FEMINISM

12-13-18 US recall after women say tampons 'unravel' during use
A US tampon manufacturer has announced a recall of some products after complaints of tampons unravelling and becoming stuck inside women's bodies. Kimberly-Clark said they had received reports of Kotex Sleek tampons "coming apart", causing some users to require medical help removing the pieces. The press release on Tuesday said any women with vaginal pain, bleeding or irritation should see a doctor at once. Toxic shock can sometimes occur if tampons are left inside for too long. According to a statement from Kimberly Clark, there have been "a small number of reports of infections, vaginal irritation, localised vaginal injury and other symptoms" due to the "quality-related defect". The specific products under recall are only regular absorbency U by Kotex Sleek tampons manufactured between 7 October, 2016 and 16 October 2018, distributed between 17 October, 2016 and 23 October, 2018. Kimberly-Clark also urged any women experiencing hot flashes, abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting after using the tampons to seek medical attention immediately. The company statement includes product codes consumers can look for to ensure they do not use any recalled tampons. Retailers are pulling the faulty tampons from shelves and including notices in stores. In a FAQ on the U by Kotex website, the company said they "are putting systems in place to prevent the occurrence of similar issues in the future". The recall sparked concerns about toxic shock syndrome (TSS) - a condition largely attributed to faulty tampons that affected hundreds and killed dozens of US women in the early 1980s. The highly absorbent tampon materials used at the time led to women developing a serious bacterial infection. According to Mayo Clinic, TSS can cause high fevers, rashes, liver and kidney problems, difficulty breathing, and even death.

12-12-18 'Every day I go to work and pray I'm safe'
Hotel room cleaners have long battled sexual harassment by guests. Now a group of them in New York City are hitting back.

12-12-18 Babies born in opioid withdrawal have unusually small heads
A new study suggests the drugs may impair brain growth. Babies born dependent on opioids have smaller heads than babies not exposed to the drugs in the womb. The finding, published online December 10 in Pediatrics, raises concerns that the drugs are impairing brain growth during development. And it highlights questions about the safest approach to managing opioid addiction during pregnancy, researchers say. Pregnant women who use opioids — or the drugs methadone or buprenorphine, opioids taken to treat addiction — pass the drugs through the bloodstream to babies. Infants can become dependent on the drugs in the womb, and experience withdrawal symptoms after birth. The disorder, marked by excessive crying, tremors or difficulty sleeping or feeding, is called neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS (SN: 6/10/17, p. 16). In the new study, researchers compared the head sizes of close to 860 babies born from 2014 to 2016, half with NAS and half from mothers who had not taken opioids while pregnant. Newborns with NAS had a head circumference nearly 1 centimeter smaller, on average, than babies not exposed to the drugs, the team found. And of the NAS babies, 30 percent had especially small heads. That was true for only 12 percent of babies without the condition. A smaller head is a possible sign of a smaller brain. The new work suggests that for those NAS babies who later have learning and behavioral problems, a contributing factor may be the effect of opioids on brain growth and development, says neonatologist Jonathan Davis.

12-12-18 Australian prisoner gave birth alone in 'degrading' cell incident
A woman in Australia was forced to give birth alone in a locked prison cell in a "degrading and high risk" incident, a report has found. The woman, identified only as Amy, had told staff two hours earlier that she believed she might be in labour. There were no complications at the birth. The March incident was in a maximum security cell in Western Australia's only women's prison. A review found the event had exposed a series of failures. One of them was that no alarm had been raised. Amy had been sent to Bandyup Women's Prison in the late stages of pregnancy after failing to meet the conditions of her bail, Australian media reported. At 17:30 local time (09:30 GMT) on 11 March, she called from her cell to inform staff that she was distressed and possibly in labour. After being taken for a health assessment, she reported abdominal pain but did not say she was in labour. Nurses were not informed of her earlier statement. She was given paracetamol and returned to her cell, but became "audibly distressed" about 18:30 and began pleading for help. Amy gave birth about 19:40. Nursing staff had arrived about five minutes earlier, but could not gain access to her cell because the only staff member with keys was not nearby. The nurses had been forced to communicate with her through a hatch in the door, said the review by the state Inspector of Custodial Services Neil Morgan. Amy and her baby were taken to hospital later that night.

12-12-18 The India girl who took her dad to the police over a toilet
A seven-year-old Indian girl went to the police after her father broke his promise to build her a toilet. Hanifa Zaara told the police in a letter that her father had "cheated" her and should therefore be arrested. She said that she was "ashamed" to defecate outside. Many Indians do no have access to toilets and nearly 500 million defecate in the open, according to Unicef. (Webmaster's comment: Yet their government can afford to build rockets, satellites, and nuclear bombs.) Even where toilets have been built, many do not use them. (Webmaster's comment: Because they are raped when they go outside!) Hanifa who lives with her parents in Ambur, a town in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, has never had a toilet in her house. She told BBC Tamil's Krithiika Kannan that a few people in her neighbourhood did have the facility. So she asked her father to build a toilet in their house too. She was in nursery at the time. "I was ashamed to go outside and I felt bad when people looked at me," Hanifa said. And she was especially motivated after learning in school about the health problems caused by open defecation. In her letter to the police, she wrote that her father told her he would build the toilet if she topped her class. "I have been topping my class since nursery," she wrote. "I am in the second grade now. And he is still only saying he will do it. This is a form of cheating, so please arrest him." If not arrest, she added, she wanted the police to at least force him to provide her with a signed letter saying by when he would get her the toilet. Her father, Ehsanullah, told BBC Tamil he had actually begun building the toilet, but did not have enough money to complete it. He is currently unemployed. "I asked Hanifa to give me more time but she stopped talking to me because I couldn't keep my promise," he added.

12-12-18 Pope demotes two cardinals over sexual abuse scandals
Two cardinals facing allegations linked to sexual abuse have been removed from Pope Francis's inner circle, the Vatican said. Australia's George Pell and Chile's Francisco Javier Errazuriz will no longer sit on the Council of Cardinals, set up by the pope as an international advice body. The pair were absent from the last meeting of the group in September. A spokesperson said the Pope wrote to them both in October to thank them. Cardinal Pell, who remains the Vatican treasurer, faces trial on sexual abuse charges in Australia - accusations the cardinal strenuously denies. His Chilean colleague, Francisco Javier Errazuriz, faces accusations that he covered up alleged child abuse while serving as Archbishop of Santiago, claims he also denies. Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya has also left the group, spokesman Greg Burke said. The 79-year-old recently retired from his role as archbishop of Kinshasa, and has not been implicated in any scandals. The group, known as C9, has no plan to immediately fill its three empty seats, Mr Burke reportedly said.

12-12-18 Letter from Africa: Why Kenyan men don't want to share power with women
In our series of letters from African journalists, media and communications trainer Joseph Warungu reflects on gender inequality in Kenyan politics. The Kenyan parliament is a tough playground. And just like any other playground, the bigger ones tend to play rough and keep the toys to themselves. The "boys" in parliament have been doing exactly that, by refusing to share their play area and their toys - or their seats and their political power. For eight years, women have been pushing for a bigger role in politics through the enactment of a law that would fulfil the requirements of the 2010 constitution, which states that "not more than two-thirds of the members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender". But the latest attempt to pass the bill has failed, and now the "boys" and "girls" have gone home on a long holiday, stretching to February. Gone too is the opportunity - at least for now - to reform the playground, meaning Kenya's parliament continues to lag behind other East African countries in terms of gender balance. In Rwanda, more than 61% of MPs are women; in Tanzania it is 37%, while the figure for Uganda is 34%. In Kenya only 22% of legislators are women. (Webmaster's comment: In the United States IT IS ONLY 19%! Less than in Kenya. Western Civilization is a JOKE!) So what is getting in the way of giving women a bigger voice in government? There is one key reason: MALE FEAR!

12-11-18 Baylor University sexual assault suspect walks free after plea deal
A woman who watched the man she accused of repeatedly raping her walk free from a Texas court has said the justice system failed her. Jacob Walter Anderson, 24, faced charges of sexual assault after allegedly attacking the woman at a fraternity party two years ago. But after agreeing to a plea deal on a lesser charge, the former Baylor University student was given three years' deferred probation. The woman said she was "devastated". "He stole my body, virginity and power over my body and you let him keep it all for eternity," the woman told Judge Ralph Strother in a Waco courtroom after he agreed the deal, NBC News reported. "I not only have to live with his rape and the repercussions of the rape, I have to live with the knowledge that the McLennan County justice system is severely broken," the woman added, according to a family statement. "I have to live with the fact that after all these years and everything I have suffered, no justice was achieved." This is the third time Judge Strother has approved probation for sexual assaults of Baylor students in the last two years, news agency AP says. However, District Attorney Abel Reyna has defended the deal, which saw four counts of sexual assault dropped in return for a "no contest" plea to unlawful restraint, as achieving "the best result possible with the evidence at hand". The woman, who has not been named, alleged she was repeatedly raped at a party by Jacob Walter Anderson in February 2016. She accused him of attacking her after she was given a drink which made her feel ill. He had offered to take her outside for some fresh air, where she alleges he assaulted her until she passed out. (Webmaster's comment: Looks like rape is now almost legal and you can get away with it in the United States. Male brutes win again over their female victims.)

12-9-18 Why our Western biases about arranged marriages are wrong
We must not be quick to judge how other people experience love. In his book In Praise of Love (2009), the French communist philosopher Alain Badiou attacks the notion of "risk-free love," which he sees written in the commercial language of dating services that promise their customers "love, without falling in love." For Badiou, the search for "perfect love without suffering" signifies a "modern" variant of "traditional" arranged-marriage practices — a risk-averse, calculated approach to love that aims to diminish our exposure to differences: "Their idea is you calculate who has the same tastes, the same fantasies, the same holidays, wants the same number of children. [They try] to go back to arranged marriages," writes Badiou. The philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj ?i?ek subscribes to similar ideas about arranged marriages, referring to them as a "pre-modern procedure." When it comes to the view of arranged marriage in the West, Badiou and ?i?ek offer relatively genteel criticisms. Popular and learned representations of the practice almost always associate it with honor killings, acid attacks, and child marriages. It's often presumed to be the same thing as a forced marriage; coerced, dutiful, predictable — the very opposite of individual agency and romantic love. Due to the growth of international migration, the question of how Western states treat arranged marriages bears very serious consequences in terms of how we perceive the emotional lives of migrants and diasporic community members. The prevalent Western perception of illegitimacy is unwarranted, based both on ignorance of arranged marriage and on a lack of insight into Western norms. (Webmaster's comment: Love has nothing to do with marriage. Marriage is an partnership arrangement to provide for successful breeding and raising of the results.)

12-8-18 The sexual assault case that shook Ancient Rome
"You say that he raped an actress," Cicero told the court. "And this is said to have happened at Atina, while he was quite young." There was a low, subdued chuckle from the crowd. They were all men — women weren't allowed inside the courtroom — most from the town of Atina themselves. They'd made the 80-mile trip to support a man they respected, whom they believed had been unfairly accused. His name was Gnaeus Plancius, and in the year 54 B.C., he was one of the most powerful men in Rome. It was more than 2,000 years before the #MeToo movement, but a scene similar to the ones we've witnessed so often lately was already playing out. A prominent politician was on trial for corruption and bribery, charges bolstered by dirt his enemies had dug up from his past: the violent sexual assault of a young girl. Those charges of corruption and bribery were a serious matter, but to the men in the court, the rape charge was nothing. It was harmless boys-will-be-boys misbehavior — something half the men there were guilty of themselves. His lawyer, Cicero, didn't even bother to deny it. He just threw up his arms in a mock flourish and, to the gleeful delight of the men who surrounded him, declared: "O how elegantly must his youth have been passed! The only thing which is imputed to him is one that there was not much harm in." And that was it. Nobody bothered to bring it up again. Raping an actress, as Cicero assured them, was nothing more than following "a well-established tradition at staged events." It was hardly a crime, every man in the courtroom agreed. It was mudslinging; a cheap attack on a decent man's character, bogging down the process of something that actually mattered: a trial over bribery. (Webmaster's comment: Over 2000 years and hardly anything has changed. The rape goes on!)

12-7-18 Media: More details on a predatory CEO
CBS’s disgraced former chief, Les Moonves, repeatedly lied to investigators as new misconduct allegations emerged, said Rachel Abrams and Edmund Lee in The New York Times. The powerful executive was forced to step down in September, as CBS hired outside investigators to look into claims of sexual harassment. Investigators have compiled a 59-page report for CBS’s board, which found that Moonves had “transactional” sexual relationships with at least four CBS employees and kept a woman employee “on call” for oral sex. It also alleges that Moonves “engaged in multiple acts of serious nonconsensual sexual misconduct in and outside of the workplace.” “It looks like CBS might now have grounds to deny Les Moonves his $120 million severance package,” said Laura Bradley in Vanity Fair. CBS hired the outside investigators, in part, to determine whether it can withhold his whopping severance, and the “damning report” says the network had cause to fire him. The report says he deleted incriminating text messages and gave investigators his son’s iPad instead of his own. One of the most powerful responses to Moonves’ behavior came from CBS This Morning anchor Norah O’Donnell: “Women cannot achieve equality in the workplace or society until there is a reckoning and a taking of responsibility.”

12-7-18 A wrist slap for a serial sex abuser
A massive pedophile scandal has reached into the Trump administration, said Liz Mair, and it should cost Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta his job. In a major exposé, the Miami Herald last week detailed how the criminal justice system let a serial sex abuser, the billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, off the hook after he’d recruited and molested more than 80 girls, mostly between the ages of 13 and 16. Epstein, a politically connected slimeball who befriended both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump and hired famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz to defend him, faced a life sentence for his many crimes, which included an international effort to recruit underage girls for his sex ring. But Acosta, then the U.S. attorney in Miami, somehow let Epstein plead guilty to just two felony prostitution charges and gave him a mere 13 months in a county jail. Epstein was permitted to spend most of that sentence in work-release at his Palm Beach office. And Acosta and Epstein’s lawyers agreed to keep the whole plea deal secret. Why? “At best,” Acosta thought the rich and powerful deserved special treatment. “At worst,” he may be “crooked” and was bought off. Either way, he should not be heading up a federal agency.

12-7-18 Billionaire sex criminal settles
Jeffrey Epstein maintained for nearly a decade that attorney Bradley Edwards coaxed dozens of underage women to accuse him of sexual assault, but this week he abruptly settled a defamation suit brought by Edwards. Epstein, 65, a powerful hedge fund manager with extensive political ties, apologized to Edwards but not to his clients, who were slated to testify in a jury trial. Epstein pleaded guilty in 2008 to procurement of minors for prostitution and was sentenced to 13 months in jail. Federal prosecutors found that up to 40 minors were sexually abused at Epstein’s mansion. According to Edwards, the victims were forced to recruit other underage girls, forming “a spider web of child molestation.” Epstein claims he believed the women were of age, and says they consented. He avoided federal prosecution in a deal that drew revived scrutiny last week after a Miami Herald investigation.

12-7-18 Neil deGrasse Tyson
Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has denied allegations of sexual misconduct by three women. A former assistant, Ashley Watson, said she quit her job after Tyson, host of the TV series Cosmos, called her to his home and made inappropriate sexual advances. Another accuser, Bucknell University astronomer Katelyn Allers, said Tyson reached into her dress and groped her while supposedly looking at her tattoo of the solar system. A third accuser, musician Tchiya Amet, said Tyson drugged and raped her while they were graduate students at the University of Texas. In a Facebook post, Tyson said he had a brief consensual relationship with Amet and that he hadn’t recognized Watson’s and Allers’ discomfort when those incidents occurred. The married father of two promised to be more mindful of “personal space.” Fox Broadcasting and National Geographic, which air Cosmos, said they would conduct a full investigation.

12-7-18 U.S. abortion rate has dropped
The U.S. abortion rate has dropped to the lowest level on record, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 188 abortions for every 1,000 live births in 2015, a 26 percent decline from 2005. Experts say better access to more effective contraception, such as IUDs and implants, and restrictive laws in some states are driving the continuing decline.


SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

12-13-18 Climate change: Failure to tackle warming 'suicidal'
The UN secretary-general has warned negotiators at a major meeting that failing to increase efforts on climate change would be "not only immoral but suicidal" for the planet. Antonio Guterres has flown back to Poland to try and push COP24 to a successful conclusion. At the UN talks, a group of countries have said they will enhance their climate plans before 2020. The EU and others say they are responding to the urgency of science. Some observers believe that the return of Mr Guterres to these talks is a sign that significant progress is not being made. In his remarks to the conference, he underlined that fact, imploring the delegates to speed up the pace of negotiations and to be open to compromise. He said that key political issues here in Poland remain unresolved. "To waste this opportunity would compromise our last best chance to stop runaway climate change," Mr Guterres said. "It would not only be immoral, it would be suicidal." What's worrying many delegates and observers here is the complexity of the task of delivering a strong rulebook on the Paris pact. There is a fear among some delegates that ministers who are here to make the final political decisions on the outstanding issues may oversimplify the situation. There are still outstanding questions over how to have a single set of rules for every country that is flexible enough to not overwhelm poorer nations with huge amounts of red tape. As well as an effective rulebook, the negotiators here are also pushing for countries to increase the level of their ambition, their plans to cut carbon emissions. To that end the EU in an alliance with Canada, the UK, Norway, many small island states as well as the least developed countries group, is to push for greater efforts in their enhanced national plans to be submitted by 2020. The "high ambition coalition" says that this has to be done to ensure an adequate response to the risks and impacts of climate change that were highlighted in the IPCC special report on 1.5C issued in October.

12-12-18 Climate change is 'shrinking winter'
Snowy mountain winters are being "squeezed" by climate change, according to scientists in California. Researchers who studied the winter snowfall in the mountains there revealed that rising temperatures are reducing the period during which snow is on the ground in the mountains - snow that millions rely on for their fresh water. They presented their findings at the American Geophysical Union meeting - the world's largest gathering of Earth and space scientists. "Our winters are getting sick and we know why," said Prof Amato Evan, from the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, who carried out the investigation. "It's climate change; it's rising temperatures." Prof Evan studied the annual cycle of snow and melt in the western US from the early 1980s to 2018. He found that the length of time snow is on the ground there is continually "being squeezed" into a shorter period. And the early arrival of summer, he explained, is a driving force behind sometimes devastating wildfires. "Particularly in a place like California where we get all of our precipitation during the winter time, that means that our summers are growing longer," he told BBC News. "And really what that means is our fire seasons are growing longer. "We've got less snow, we've got a longer fire season, we've got infestations [of pests that thrive in warmer temperatures] - these ecological issues; it's a kind of perfect storm of really bad outcomes, which then result in - in some cases - these massively dramatic fires." Donal O'Leary from the University of Maryland, who presented his research on what he called the "significant relationship" between snow and wildfire, agreed. Earlier snowmelt, he said, "is leading to more wildfires, particularly in places like the Sierra Nevada in California". Mountain snow is also what millions of people rely on for fresh water supplies - in California, particularly, the reservoirs are refilled by annual snowmelt.

12-12-18 Climate change is happening, but how fast? This is what we really know
From past temperature change to future sea level rise, climate science is full of conflicting numbers. Here’s our guide to the ones you can and can’t trust. TWELVE years to save the planet. Warming of 3°C, or perhaps 5°C if we don’t take drastic action now. Sea level rise of 0.3 metres by 2100 – or is it 3 metres? Just about every article you’ll read about climate change is full of numbers, starting with 1.5°C, the number that we are told represents the maximum temperature rise we can allow and still avoid the worst effects of global warming. Except it isn’t – and that is just the beginning of the confusion. No two numbers from climate change studies ever seem to agree. Even climate scientists are often baffled by the figures other researchers come up with. Climate change deniers seize on the uncertainty as evidence that the underlying science is wrong. It’s not. It is just complex, as messy, real-world science is. The biggest uncertainty by far is us, namely what exactly we do over the next century. And the uncertainty cuts both ways: we could be underestimating how fast the world will warm and what the effects will be.

  1. How much has the planet warmed already? As part of the Paris climate accord of December 2015, nearly every country in the world agreed to try to limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
  2. What is the safe limit for warming? Not 1.5°C. That was picked not because it is the right number, but because it was convenient.
  3. When are we set to pass the 1.5°C limit? On current trends, the first year to exceed 1.5°C above the 1850 to 1900 average will probably occur in the 2020s.
  4. How much warming does CO2 cause? This is the perhaps the toughest question in all of climate science. Carbon dioxide directly warms the planet by trapping more of the sun’s heat.
  5. How much more CO2 can we emit? Even if we are unsure of the exact value of the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, it is clear that what matters is how much is in the atmosphere.
  6. How high will the seas rise? During the warm period between ice ages about 120,000 years ago, temperatures were around 1°C warmer than from 1850 to 1900, and sea level was 6 to 9 metres higher.
  7. How long do we have to turn things around? “Scientists Say We Have 12 Years to Save the World.” That is the message many seem to have taken from the latest IPCC report – but that is not quite what the report says.

12-12-18 Jellyfish offer a sticky solution to the problem of plastic pollution
Our oceans are full of microplastics and unnatural swarms of jellyfish. Could these beautiful animals possess a secret weapon to help clean up the environment? OUR hunt has got off to a slow start. When the sea is choppy, spotting our quarry is hard. But as the sun rises higher, our efforts are finally rewarded. Shielding her eyes against the light bouncing off the water, Tjaša Kogovšek points to a faint dark blob. Our boat moves closer, and she plunges her net in to scoop the creature into a white bucket. We have bagged our first trophy of the day. I am in the Gulf of Trieste off the coast of Slovenia catching jellyfish with researchers from the country’s National Institute of Biology. Knowing their catch will ultimately die, Kogovšek has mixed feelings about the hunt. “At the beginning it was very difficult,” she says, “because their destiny is not nice after they are in my hands.” But she is also well aware that an explosion in jellyfish numbers in recent years is a serious problem, both for us and for the marine environment. And the international project Kogovšek is part of, called GoJelly, sees that as an opportunity. It believes it can tap these ethereal creatures to tackle another environmental scourge of our time: microplastic pollution. If successful, it will be a win-win. Jellyfish are among a select group of organisms that seem to thrive as humans trash Earth. Exactly why isn’t known, but one factor could be fewer competitors due to overfishing. Others may be the spread of jellyfish in ships’ ballast tanks, and the fact that jellies can live in oxygen-depleted, polluted waters. Whatever the causes, larger, more frequent jellyfish blooms – dense swarms of the creatures – are occurring in many parts of the world. That is bad news for tourism when they force beaches to shut. The blooms can play havoc with vital services, too, from power stations to water treatment plants, if they are sucked into water intakes. And they are also a problem for other marine life, and for fisheries, because jellyfish feed on fish larvae, so a rising population upsets the balance of already fragile ecosystems.

12-12-18 Climate change: Arctic reindeer numbers crash by half
The population of wild reindeer, or caribou, in the Arctic has crashed by more than half in the last two decades. A new report on the impact of climate change in the Arctic revealed that numbers fell from almost 5 million to around 2.1 million animals. The report was released at the American Geophysical Research Union meeting. It revealed how weather patterns and vegetation changes are making the Arctic tundra a much less hospitable place for reindeer. Reindeer and caribou are the same species, but the vast, wild herds in northern Canada and Alaska are referred to as caribou. It is these herds that are faring the worst, according to scientists monitoring their numbers. Some herds have shrunk by more than 90% - "such drastic declines that recovery isn't in sight", this Arctic Report Card stated. Prof Howard Epstein, an environmental scientist from the University of Virginia, who was one of the many scientists involved in the research behind the Arctic Report Card, told BBC News that warming in the region showed no signs of abating. "We see increased drought in some areas due to climate warming, and the warming itself leads to a change of vegetation." The lichen that the caribou like to eat grows at the ground level. "Warming means other, taller vegetation is growing and the lichen are being out-competed," he told BBC News. Another very big issue is the number of insects. "Warmer climates just mean more bugs in the Arctic," said Prof Epstein. "It's said that a nice day for people is a lousy day for caribou. "If it's warm and not very windy, the insects are oppressive and these animals spend so much energy either getting the insects off of them or finding places where they can hide from insects." Rain is a major problem, too. Increased rainfall in the Arctic, often falling on snowy ground, leads to hard, frozen icy layers covering the grazing tundra - a layer the animals simply cannot push their noses through in order to reach their food.

12-11-18 The list of extreme weather caused by human-driven climate change grows
From droughts to deluges, scientists link 16 events in 2017 to global warming. A months-long heat wave that scorched the Tasman Sea beginning in November of 2017 is the latest example of an extreme event that would not have happened without human-caused climate change. Climate change also increased the likelihood of 15 other extreme weather events in 2017, from droughts in East Africa and the U.S. northern Plains states to floods in Bangladesh, China and South America, scientists reported December 10 at a news conference at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. The findings were also published online December 10 in a series of studies in a special issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. One study, of wildfires in Australia, was inconclusive on whether climate change influenced the event. And for the first time, none of the extreme events studied was determined to be the product of natural climate variability. The findings mark the second year in a row — and only the second time — that scientists contributing to this special issue have definitively linked human-caused climate change with specific extreme weather events (SN: 1/20/18, p. 6). To the editors of the special issue, this latest tally is representative of the new normal in which the world finds itself.

12-11-18 A new way to turn saltwater fresh can kill germs and avoid gunk buildup
The key to the improvement is keeping device components high and dry. A new design for sun-powered desalination technology may lead to longer-lasting devices that produce cleaner water. The trick boils down to preventing a device’s components from touching the saltwater. Instead, a lid of light-absorbing material rests above a partially filled basin of water, absorbing sunlight and radiating that energy to the liquid below. That evaporates the water to create pure vapor, which can be condensed into freshwater to help meet the demands of a world where billions of people lack safe drinking water (SN: 8/18/18, p. 14). This setup marks an improvement over other sun-powered desalination devices, where sunshine-absorbing materials float atop the saltwater (SN: 8/20/16, p. 22). In those devices, salt and other contaminants left behind during evaporation can degrade the material’s ability to soak up sunlight. Having water in contact with the material also prevents the material from getting hotter than about 100° Celsius or producing steam above that temperature. That limits the technology’s ability to purify the final product; killing pathogenic microbes often requires temperatures of at least 121° C. In the new device, described online December 11 in Nature Communications, the separation between the light-absorbing lid and the water’s surface helps keep the lid clean and allows it to generate vapor tens of degrees hotter than the water’s boiling point.

12-11-18 East Antarctica's glaciers are stirring
Nasa says it has detected the first signs of significant melting in a swathe of glaciers in East Antarctica. The region has long been considered stable and unaffected by some of the more dramatic changes occurring elsewhere on the continent. But satellites have now shown that ice streams running into the ocean along one-eighth of the eastern coastline have thinned and sped up. If this trend continues, it has consequences for future sea levels. There is enough ice in the drainage basins in this sector of Antarctica to raise the height of the global oceans by 28m - if it were all to melt out. "That's the water equivalent to four Greenlands of ice," said Catherine Walker from Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The glaciologist has been detailing her work here at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). Dr Walker has been making the most of a new initiative at the agency to process huge numbers of satellite images to get a more resolved and more timely view of what is happening in East Antarctica. Previously, scientists had been aware that the region's Totten Glacier was experiencing melting, most probably as a result of its terminus being affronted by warm water coming up from the deep ocean. Pretty much everything else in that part of the continent was considered stagnant, however. The new satellite elevation and velocity maps change this view. They make it clear that nearby glaciers to Totten are also starting to respond in a similar way.

12-10-18 Himalayan and other Asian glaciers put the brakes on
The glaciers that flank the Himalayas and other high mountains in Asia are moving slower over time. Scientists have analysed nearly 20 years of satellite images to come to this conclusion. They show that the ice streams which have decelerated the most are the ones that have also thinned the most. The research has implications for the 800 million people in the region for whom the predictable meltwater from these glaciers is a key resource. The study is being presented at this week's American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in Washington DC - the world's largest annual gathering of Earth and space scientists. Led by the US space agency (Nasa), the assessment draws on one million pairs of pictures acquired by the Landsat-7 spacecraft between 2000 and 2017. Automated software was used to track surface features on glaciers in 11 areas of High Mountain Asia, from Pamir and Hindu Kush in the West, to Nyainqêntanglha and inner Tibet and China in the East. As the markers were observed to shift downslope, they revealed the changing speed of the ice streams. The research team, headed by Dr Amaury Dehecq from Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says nine of the surveyed regions show a sustained slowdown during the study period.

12-10-18 The Great Barrier Reef is fighting back by losing weak species
Aerial surveys show that the Great Barrier Reef survived last year’s extreme summer better than the previous year’s, hinting that it is becoming more resilient. However, some coral species are faring better than others, meaning the reef is likely to look very different in years to come. The 2300-kilometre-long reef was severely bleached by back-to-back heatwaves in early 2016 and early 2017, causing half the coral to die. Terry Hughes at James Cook University in Australia and his colleagues flew aircraft over the reef to visually assess the level of coral bleaching after the heatwaves of 2016 and 2017. They found that even though the reef was exposed to more extreme temperatures in 2017, less bleaching occurred. It took about twice the amount of heat stress to cause the same level of coral damage in the second year as in the first, they calculated. One reason may be that corals are gradually adapting to the warmer climate by switching on different genes or other biochemical mechanisms, says Hughes, but this needs to be experimentally verified. Another reason may be that the corals that survived the first heatwave were tougher species, meaning they were better able to cope with the second assault, says Hughes. His team previously found that dome-shaped corals were more likely to survive after the 2016 heatwave than branched and table corals. “The mix of species has already changed substantially and that trend is likely to continue,” he says.

12-10-18 Climate change: Trump coal event overshadowed at COP24
White House representatives arrive at climate talks in Poland on Monday to promote coal and other fossil fuels. It's expected that President Donald Trump's energy adviser, Wells Griffith, will take part in the COP24 event. The controversial meeting occurs as investors managing $32tn (£25tn) in assets call for an end to coal as a source of energy. Meanwhile, ministers from around 130 countries arrive here to try and steer the talks to a successful conclusion. Just as at last year's gathering in Bonn, the Trump White House is keen to show strong support for fossil fuels. According to a statement from the US State Department, the event will "showcase ways to use fossil fuels as cleanly and efficiently as possible, as well as the use of emission-free nuclear energy". Last year's event was disrupted by singing protesters keen to point out that the pro-coal and gas lobby were not welcome at the UN event. This year's meeting has environmentalists questioning its relevance. "The event is going to further undermine the credibility of the US as a party in these talks," said Lou Leonard with WWF. "It is going to have virtually no impact on the actual talks - it's a sideshow, it's a side event, its not something related to what the parties are negotiating right now." The White House-endorsed event does indeed seem to be out of step with the wider conference, where green campaigners are likely be cheered by the news that 415 investors with around $32tn of assets under management are calling for greater action on climate change and an end to coal as a source of energy. (Webmaster's comment: The conference should throw the United States representives out!)

12-9-18 Climate change: Why are governments taking so long to take action?
A UN conference is being held in Poland to discuss how the world is going to stop climate change. Last month a report by leading climate scientists found progress is way off track, and the world is heading towards 3C of warming this century rather than 1.5C. With the impacts of climate change already being felt in severe weather events like floods and wildfires, why is it taking so long to take action?

12-8-18 Climate change: COP24 fails to adopt key scientific report
Attempts to incorporate a key scientific study into global climate talks in Poland have failed. The IPCC report on the impacts of a temperature rise of 1.5C, had a significant impact when it was launched last October. Scientists and many delegates in Poland were shocked as the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait objected to this meeting "welcoming" the report. It was the 2015 climate conference that had commissioned the landmark study. The report said that the world is now completely off track, heading more towards 3C this century rather than 1.5C. Keeping to the preferred target would need "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society". If warming was to be kept to 1.5C this century, then emissions of carbon dioxide would have to be reduced by 45% by 2030. The report, launched in Incheon in South Korea, had an immediate impact winning praise from politicians all over the world. But negotiators here ran into serious trouble when Saudi Arabia, the US, Russia and Kuwait objected to the conference "welcoming" the document. Instead they wanted to support a much more lukewarm phrase, that the conference would "take note" of the report. Saudi Arabia had fought until the last minute in Korea to limit the conclusions of the document. Eventually they gave in. But it now seems that they have brought their objections to Poland. The dispute dragged on as huddles of negotiators met in corners of the plenary session here, trying to agree a compromise wording. None was forthcoming. (Webmaster's comment: Why should anyone listen to the opinions of the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait? They do not believe in science. They only wish to sabotage the conference and should be thrown out of it. They are only concerned about making more money for already rich executives. They care nothing about the rest of world's people.)

12-7-18 Missing emissions targets
Countries are nowhere near to reducing their carbon dioxide emissions to levels promised in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, according to a damning United Nations study. The annual Emissions Gap Report found that emissions rose in 2017, after remaining relatively flat in the three previous years. Based on current trends, the world will warm 5.8 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial temperatures by 2100—far more than the 3.6-degree goal in the Paris pact. To hit that lower target, the U.N. says, the world will have to reduce emissions by 25 percent by 2030. To keep temperature rises to under 1.5 degrees, which is increasingly what scientists think will be necessary to keep the planet habitable in the long term, emissions will need to be 55 percent lower by 2030. The report confirms fears raised by last month’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study, which said countries are failing to act fast enough to avoid dire climate consequences, such as extreme droughts, floods, and sea level rises. “If the IPCC report represented a global fire alarm,” the U.N.’s environment deputy executive director, Joyce Msuya, tells Reuters.com, “this report is the arson investigation.”

12-7-18 Attenborough warning
Beloved British nature documentarian David Attenborough issued a dire warning for the planet this week at the United Nations’ annual climate-change conference. “We are facing a man-made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change,” Attenborough said. “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.” Attenborough, 92, was once a climate skeptic but said the scientific evidence is now overwhelming. Some 30,000 people, including world leaders and business executives, met in Katowice to discuss how to achieve the emissions-reduction goals agreed on in Paris in 2015. The U.S. pulled out of the Paris climate agreement last year and sent only a small delegation to Poland.

12-7-18 Taking Nuclear Power offline.
A third of America’s nuclear power plants could be taken offline in the next several years, with competition from natural gas driving down energy prices and making nuclear power a money loser. Nuclear power currently generates 20 percent of the country’s electricity. Replacing the electricity produced by a single nuclear reactor would require building more than 800 average-size wind turbines or 15.8 million solar panels.


SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

12-13-18 Childhood hormone treatments may have spread Alzheimer’s proteins
Growth hormones given to children decades ago appear to have spread proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The finding adds to evidence that Alzheimer’s proteins can be transmitted between people. Between 1958 and 1985, approximately 30,000 children around the world received injections of human growth hormone extracted from dead bodies to treat genetic disorders and growth deficiencies. Three years ago, while examining the brains of eight people who had received such injections and later died of the rare brain disorder Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (CJD), John Collinge at University College London and his colleagues noticed they all had beta-amyloid proteins in their brains. Beta-amyloid is known to accumulate and form sticky plaques in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. These eight people didn’t have this condition, as they all died from CJD at a young age, but Collinge says that had they lived, it’s possible that they would have gone on to develop it. “That led us to hypothesise that the reason they got this [amyloid] is because those growth hormone batches that were prepared many years ago with human tissue were contaminated with this protein,” says Collinge. Before synthetic alternatives were available, human growth hormone was extracted from the pituitary glands of cadavers. “Another suggestion was maybe it’s the growth hormone itself that stimulates the amyloid beta pathology, and not any contaminant,” he says. To investigate, Collinge and his team used samples of the human growth hormone that were given to these eight people, which had been archived by a health body in the UK.

12-13-18 Here’s a rare way that an Alzheimer’s protein can spread
When injected, amyloid-beta from vials of growth hormone built up in mice brains. An Alzheimer’s protein found in contaminated vials of human growth hormone can spread in the brains of mice. That finding, published online December 13 in Nature, adds heft to the idea that, in very rare cases, amyloid-beta can travel from one person’s brain to another’s. Decades ago, over a thousand young people in the United Kingdom received injections of growth hormone derived from cadavers’ brains as treatment for growth deficiencies. Four of these people died with unusually high levels of A-beta in their brains, a sign of Alzheimer’s disease (SN: 10/17/15, p. 12). The results hinted that A-beta may have been delivered along with the growth hormone. Now researchers have confirmed not only that A-beta was in some of those old vials, but also that it can spark A-beta accumulation in mice’s brains. Neurologist John Collinge of University College London and colleagues found that brain injections of the contaminated growth hormone led to clumps of A-beta in the brains of mice genetically engineered to produce the protein, while brain injections with synthetic growth hormone did not. Amyloid-beta (brown) accumulated inside brain blood vessels (No. 1) and formed plaques in the cerebellum (No. 2) in the brains of mice injected with growth hormone that came from cadavers. The results suggest that A-beta can “seed” the protein in people’s brains, under the right circumstances. Still, that doesn’t mean that Alzheimer’s disease is transmissible in day-to-day life.

12-13-18 We’ve been using CRISPR for years – now we know how it really works
A storm of criticism met the claimed creation of the first genome-edited children in China last month. One reason is that the twin girls have unpredicted new mutations whose effects are unknown. But it now appears there’s a really easy way to ensure the CRISPR genome editing technique makes far more precise, predictable mutations. DThe term “CRISPR genome editing” is really a bit of a misnomer. The method is most commonly used to disable genes by cutting the DNA in a specific site. When the cell repairs the cut, it typically adds or removes one or more DNA letters. But Paola Scaffidi of the Francis Crick Institute in London suspected that these mutations might not be as random as they appear. To find out, her team induced mutations in 1500 target sites in human cells growing in a dish. They found a stunningly simple pattern. “We started with machine learning but we did not need it,” Scaffidi says. It appears the sequence of the RNA that guides the CRISPR Cas9 protein to its target is crucial. If the fourth DNA letter from the end is a G, the resulting mutation is indeed relatively random. But if it’s an A, T or C the outcome is more predictable. If it’s a T, for instance, in 9 out of 10 cells a single extra T will be inserted at the target site. If the findings are confirmed, it means the thousands of biologists around the world using CRISPR for research can make it far more precise and powerful simply by altering the guide RNAs they use. It also greatly boosts the prospects for using CRISPR to treat all kinds of disorders by correcting disease-causing mutations inside the body.

12-13-18 Some people have slightly squashed heads thanks to Neanderthal DNA
People with two Neanderthal genes have heads that are flatter on top and more elongated – like those of Neanderthals themselves. The effect is too small to be seen with the naked eye, but shows up on brain scans. The modern versions of the genes seem to make certain parts of the brain work more effectively. Neanderthals were not the direct ancestors of our own species, but our distant cousins. They were already living in Europe by the time our ancestors arrived, about 40,000 years ago, and there seems to have been interbreeding, as most Europeans have some Neanderthal genes lurking in their DNA – between 1 and 2 per cent of the total. Simon Fisher of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands wondered if these genes would have any effect on head shape, as both Neanderthal skulls – and those of our last common ancestors with Neanderthals – are less ball-shaped than the skulls of people living today. “It’s one of the most distinctive anatomical differences,” says Fisher.

12-13-18 50 years ago, armadillos hinted that DNA wasn’t destiny
Excerpt from the November 30, 1968, issue of Science News. Armadillos come in fours, quadruplet offspring from a single egg, and are endowed with identical genes. Yet, the quadruplets are often not identical, a fact that calls into question the assumption that genes encased in the nucleus of the cell are the sole determinants of heredity. — Science News, November 30, 1968. What comes naturally to the nine-banded armadillo, the species that baffled scientists 50 years ago, is rare in other mammals. Polyembryony, producing many offspring from a single fertilized egg, does result in genetically identical armadillo pups. But scientists now know that other factors also stir the developmental pot. For example, epigenetic marks, the chemical tags that control a gene’s activity level, can make identicals look very different. Though genetically fascinating, armadillos never topped rodents as research subjects?—?possibly due to their fresh insect diet and long time between litters. Scientists do use the tanklike creatures to study leprosy, a disease the animals can pick up and pass on to humans (SN: 5/21/11, p. 9).

12-13-18 Bizarre fossil that baffled us for years is early starfish ancestor
A mysterious group of ancient animals may have been the ancestors of starfish, according to a study of newly discovered fossils. “It’s the first time that soft parts have been found in this group of fossils,” says Bertrand Lefebvre of Claude Bernard University Lyon 1 in France. “It was the only clue to put an end to a very old debate.” Stylophorans are a group of early complex animals. They appeared in the Cambrian period, which began 541 million years and saw the first explosive flowering of animal diversity, and disappeared during the Carboniferous, which ended 299 million years ago. Each fossil looks a little like an arrow, if the arrowhead was disproportionately large compared to the shaft. They do not fit neatly into any existing group of animals, so the question has been where they fit into the tree of life. One interpretation is that the “shaft” is a tail, in which case they looked a bit like tadpoles. That would suggest they were closely related to backboned animals like fish and humans. This idea has been defended for many years by the British palaeontologist Richard Jefferies. However, the fossils also look a bit like echinoderms, the group that includes starfish. In that interpretation, the shaft is not a tail but a feeding arm. The difficulty with this is that stylophorans only had one arm, whereas starfish typically have five. Some have also argued that they were hemichordates, a group of worm-like creatures closely related to echinoderms.

12-12-18 First direct evidence that later school day really does help teenagers
Pushing back high school start times not only improves the quality of students’ sleep, it also boosts attendance and academic performance, according to a study of US school attenders. The study is the first to show this objectively – using wrist-worn activity monitors to measure sleep duration – rather than by relying on self-reported information on sleeping habits. Teenagers naturally prefer late nights and lie-ins due to body clock shifts that occur during puberty. However, this preference does not align with the early start times of most schools. “You’re basically chopping off the last chunk of sleep they need,” says Horacio de la Iglesia at the University of Washington. To address this problem, schools in Seattle decided to delay their start time from 7:50 to 8:45am from mid-2016 onwards. De la Iglesia and his colleagues decided to measure the impact by studying students before and after the change. To make the comparison as objective as possible they compared students taking a tenth-grade biology class in 2016 with their younger peers taking the same class in 2017. There were 94 students in the 2016 group and 84 in the 2017 group. According to activity monitors worn on their wrists, the students in 2016 and 2017 went to bed at around the same time. But because they were able to sleep in later, the 2017 students snoozed for an extra 34 minutes per day on average. This extra sleep was correlated with greater daytime alertness and 5 per cent higher second-semester grades on average. This may be because sleep plays a key role in learning and laying down memories, says de la Iglesia. At one of the schools, class attendance also improved. Students in 2017 were late on two fewer days and had two fewer absences per year on average than the students in 2016.

12-12-18 Babies born in opioid withdrawal have unusually small heads
A new study suggests the drugs may impair brain growth. Babies born dependent on opioids have smaller heads than babies not exposed to the drugs in the womb. The finding, published online December 10 in Pediatrics, raises concerns that the drugs are impairing brain growth during development. And it highlights questions about the safest approach to managing opioid addiction during pregnancy, researchers say. Pregnant women who use opioids — or the drugs methadone or buprenorphine, opioids taken to treat addiction — pass the drugs through the bloodstream to babies. Infants can become dependent on the drugs in the womb, and experience withdrawal symptoms after birth. The disorder, marked by excessive crying, tremors or difficulty sleeping or feeding, is called neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS (SN: 6/10/17, p. 16). In the new study, researchers compared the head sizes of close to 860 babies born from 2014 to 2016, half with NAS and half from mothers who had not taken opioids while pregnant. Newborns with NAS had a head circumference nearly 1 centimeter smaller, on average, than babies not exposed to the drugs, the team found. And of the NAS babies, 30 percent had especially small heads. That was true for only 12 percent of babies without the condition. A smaller head is a possible sign of a smaller brain. The new work suggests that for those NAS babies who later have learning and behavioral problems, a contributing factor may be the effect of opioids on brain growth and development, says neonatologist Jonathan Davis.

12-12-18 The disorientated ape: Why clever people can be terrible navigators
The human sense of direction is extraordinarily variable. Now we know why some people are so good at getting lost. IT IS autumn in New York City and a monarch butterfly is setting off on a 4000-kilometre journey to a fir tree on a mountainside in central Mexico, where it will spend the winter. It is autumn in New York City and you come out of a café, set off for your hotel just a few blocks away, take a wrong turn and get utterly lost. Perhaps it is unfair to compare the navigational skills of a human to those of the legendary monarch butterfly but, however you look at it, our sense of direction isn’t up there with the greats. Despite our stunning cognitive abilities, we can be dunces when it comes to finding our way around, and some of us are very good at getting lost indeed. Why we are so bad at navigating has been a mystery for centuries, but now, at last, we have some answers. For a start, the mechanisms of the brain’s GPS are being laid bare. We are also discovering why some people have a better sense of direction than others. The latest findings even address the stereotype of men as better navigators than women. They also show how we can all become better navigators. Although we will never match a monarch butterfly, there are ways we can help ourselves make it back to that hotel. First things first: your sense of direction is not, of course, an actual single sense. What we are talking about here is your ability to get to a destination as quickly and efficiently as possible, without getting lost. To do this, you need to know where you are in relation to landmarks. You must also be able to update your position if you turn a corner, or decide to take a shortcut, say.

12-12-18 Hybrid rice engineered with CRISPR can clone its seeds
The research raises hopes of making bigger crop yields more affordable After more than 20 years of theorizing about it, scientists have tweaked a hybrid variety of rice so that some of the plants produce cloned seeds. No plant sex necessary. The feat, described December 12 in Nature, is encouraging for efforts to feed an increasingly crowded world. Crossing two good varieties of grain can make one fabulous one, combining the best versions of genes to give crops desirable traits such as higher yields. But such hybrid grain marvels often don’t pass along those coveted genetic qualities to all seeds during reproduction. So farmers who want consistently higher yields have to pay for new hybrid seeds every year. This new lab version of hybrid rice would preserve those qualities through self-cloning, says study coauthor Venkatesan Sundaresan, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis. Though 400 kinds of plants, including some blackberries and citruses, have developed self-cloning seeds naturally, re-creating those pathways in crop plants has “been harder than anyone expected,” Sundaresan says. He and his colleagues got the idea for the new research while studying “how a fertilized egg becomes a zygote, this magical cell that regenerates an entire organism,” as Sundaresan puts it. The researchers discovered that modifying two sets of genes caused the japonica rice hybrid called Kitaake to clone its own seeds. First the team found that in a fertilized plant egg, only the male version of a gene called BABY BOOM1 found in sperm triggered the development of a seed embryo. So the scientists inserted a genetic starter switch, called a promoter, that let the female version of the same gene do the same job. No male would be necessary to trigger an embryo’s development.

12-12-18 Australia’s ‘marsupial lion’ was a meat-ripping, tree-climbing terror
The most detailed reconstruction yet of Australia’s extinct “marsupial lion” shows it was unlike any animal living today, shredding its prey like a Tasmanian devil, biting like a lion, and climbing like a koala. The first partial remains of the fearsome predator – which went extinct about 45,000 years ago – were discovered in Victoria in the 1850s. British naturalist Richard Owen named it Thylacoleo carnifex – meaning “meat-cutting marsupial lion” – based on its large blade-like teeth and cat-like skull. Other remains of T. carnifex were found in the 1960s and 70s, but it was only in 2002 that the first complete skeleton was discovered in a cave beneath the Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia. In 2005, another two mostly complete skeletons were found in a cave in Naracoorte, South Australia. Since then, Rod Wells at Flinders University and his colleagues have carefully studied the skeletons to better understand the mysterious creature. Their reconstruction shows that T. carnifex would have measured over a metre long and over half a metre tall while standing on all four feet, with a weight of about 100 kilograms. “It was probably the size of a big pig,” says Wells. Like other marsupials, it carried its young in a pouch. Comparisons with living Australian marsupials suggest that T. carnifex was most similar in appearance to the Tasmanian devil, but would have been about 10 times bigger. It had the same stiff back and strong, rigid tail that Tasmanian devils use for balance while tearing apart prey with their paws and teeth, says Wells.

12-12-18 'Planet of the chickens': How the bird took over the world
A study of chicken bones dug up at London archaeological sites shows how the bird we know today has altered beyond recognition from its ancestors. With around 23 billion chickens on the planet at any one time, the bird is a symbol of the way we are shaping the environment, say scientists. Evolution usually takes place over a timescale of millions of years, but the chicken has changed much more rapidly. The rise of the supermarket chicken mirrors the decline in wild birds. "The sheer number of chickens is an order of magnitude higher than any other bird species that's alive today," said Dr Carys Bennett, a geologist at the University of Leicester, who led the study. "You could say we are living in the planet of the chickens." 65.8 billion - the number of chickens slaughtered in 2014, compared to 1.5 billion pigs and 0.3 billion cattle. The researchers used the archaeological record to look at how chickens have changed over the years - and say they are a symbol of this geological era. We are entering the Anthropocene, the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. "Human activities have altered the Earth's landscapes, the oceans, atmosphere and land surface," said Dr Bennett. "As the most numerous terrestrial vertebrate species on the planet, with a biology shaped by humans, modern chickens are a symbol of our changed biosphere." She said when future generations examine rocks from our time, they will probably see "tin cans, glass bottles, and bits of material that were once plastic, and amongst that will be bones of chickens". Domesticated animals now make up the majority of animal species on land, shaping the natural world.

12-12-18 When humans are wiped from Earth, the chicken bones will remain
When humans have vanished from the planet, one of the most enduring marks of our impact on Earth will be the sudden appearance in the fossil record of copious chicken bones. Geologists have proposed that the age of humans constitutes a new epoch in Earth’s history, known as the Anthropocene. The explosion in chicken farming and the rapid changes in the form of chickens due to selective breeding make them an ideal sign of our time. “We think they are a really important symbol and potential future fossil of this age, and man’s impact on the planet,” says Carys Bennett at the University of Leicester, UK. The 20th century saw an explosion in the numbers of domesticated chickens all over the world. The current population is now 21.4 billion – more than any other land vertebrate and an order of magnitude greater than any other bird. Over 60 billion are slaughtered every year – a rate of carcass accumulation that is unprecedented in the natural world. The modern broiler chicken – the variety farmed for meat – is now unrecognisable from its wild ancestor, the red jungle fowl. Though chickens were domesticated around 8000 years ago, they have undergone especially marked changes since intensive farming took off in the middle of the 20th century. Today’s chickens grow to become four or five times as heavy as birds from 1957. The leg bone of a juvenile broiler is triple the width and double the length of a red jungle fowl equivalent. The timing of these changes in chickens coincides with other proposed signs of the Anthropocene, such as plastics, fertilisers, fossil fuels and radioactive deposits from nuclear weapons.

12-12-18 Many babies are crummy sleepers, confirming what millions of parents already know
I love to hate the phrase “sleep like a baby.” It’s a beautiful example of a saying that’s based on the exact opposite of what it’s intended to convey. Babies (many of them, anyway) are rotten sleepers. During my last pregnancy, I wondered if I might luck out with a good sleeper. Or at least an average sleeper. But my third little sweetie didn’t deliver. At nearly 8 months, he (and I) still wake up several times a night. That’s a drag, but not a surprising or big one. This time around, I had very low expectations. A recent survey of 388 Canadian mothers supports those rock-bottom expectations. It found that many babies don’t sleep through the night. At 6 months of age, 43 percent of infants were sleeping an uninterrupted 8 hours during the night. That means that 57 percent of these babies — more than half — were not. When researchers relaxed their “overnight” definition to mean 6 hours of blissful slumber, 62.4 percent of babies hit the mark; 37.6 percent did not. That’s 1 in 3 babies not sleeping 6 hours at a go — a large chunk of the infant population. The researchers found some differences among the sleepers and nonsleepers. Breastfed babies were much less likely to sleep in long, solid blocks than formula-fed babies. And baby boys seemed to be slightly worse sleepers than baby girls, with fewer sleeping 6 hours or more at a stretch at age 6 months. The results raise a question: Are all of those night wakings bad for the baby or the mother? Follow-up tests didn’t find any ill effects, the researchers report. Sleepers and nonsleepers performed similarly on mental and physical tests. And moms of sleepers and nonsleepers scored similarly on mood tests.

12-12-18 Monkeys chill out just from seeing their friends being groomed
Monkeys become more relaxed if they simply watch one monkey grooming another. “If you walk down a street and see someone being nice to someone else, it gives you a warm feeling inside,” says Stuart Semple of the University of Roehampton in London, UK. It seems monkeys experience the same thing. With his student Juliette Berthier, Semple studied 20 female Barbary macaques living in a semi-free ranging group in a Safari park-like environment in a UK forest. When a macaque saw another being groomed, the observer started performing fewer “self-directed” behaviours such as scratching and yawning. These behaviours are thought to be signs of anxiety, so it seems the observer macaques became less anxious after seeing another macaque being groomed. “Merely watching grooming is in itself relaxing for monkeys,” says Semple. The observer macaques also became more likely to participate in grooming themselves, either as groomer or groomee. Furthermore, they displayed more friendly behaviours in general, such as cuddling other macaques or feeding with them. The phenomenon is similar to “emotional contagion”: humans become more cheerful if we meet someone cheerful, even online, and some parrots start playing when they hear other parrots making playful sounds. But in this case the effect lasted longer, in some cases 30 minutes. The finding may help explain the phenomenon of “ASMR” (autonomous sensory meridian response). Some people experience a pleasant, calming tingle when watching videos of other people whispering or performing actions like tapping their fingers on surfaces.

12-12-18 Acne study reveals genes for hair follicles are partly to blame
A large genetic study of people with acne could pave the way for new treatments. The study looked at the DNA of 27,000 people, including over 5000 with severe acne, and identified genetic differences that were more common in people with the condition. It found that many of these genetic variants influenced the formation of hair follicles, making it a significant but previously unknown risk factor in developing acne. There have been few advances in acne treatment for decades, says Jonathan Barker at the National Institute for Health Research, UK, who led the study. He hopes that using the new genetic information could lead to much more effective drugs and treatment for the condition. Acne is a common skin condition affecting 80 per cent of people aged 11-30, causing spots, oily skin and sometimes skin that is hot or painful to touch. In severe cases it can cause significant discomfort and distress and can lead to permanent scarring. The most effective current treatment for acne is isotretinoin, but the team said this has significant side effects including muscle aches and dry skin as well as birth defects if taken by pregnant women.

12-12-18 ‘Little Foot’ skeleton analysis reignites debate over the hominid’s species
Researchers disagree over resurrecting a defunct species name. A nearly complete hominid skeleton known as Little Foot has finally been largely freed from the stony shell in which it was discovered in a South African cave more than 20 years ago. And in the first formal analyses of the fossils, researchers say the 3.67-million-year-old Little Foot belonged to its own species. In four papers posted online at bioRxiv.org between November 29 and December 5, paleoanthropologist Ronald Clarke of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and colleagues assign Little Foot to a previously proposed species, Australopithecus prometheus, that has failed to gain traction among many researchers. Clarke has held that controversial view for more than a decade (SN: 5/2/15, p. 8). He found the first of Little Foot’s remains in a storage box of fossils from a site called Sterkfontein in 1994. Excavations of the rest of the skeleton began in 1997. Many other researchers, however, regard Little Foot as an early member of a hominid species called Australopithecus africanus. Anthropologist Raymond Dart first identified A. africanus in 1924 from an ancient youngster’s skull called the Taung Child. Hundreds of A. africanus fossils have since been found in South African caves, including Sterkfontein. One of those caves, Makapansgat, produced a partial braincase that Dart assigned to A. prometheus in 1948. But Dart dropped that label after 1955, assigning the braincase and another Makapansgat fossil to A. africanus.

12-12-18 Coral likes to make its ocean home in places with noisy neighbours
Corals seem to appreciate noisy neighbours. Free floating coral larvae are more likely to settle on a surface – where they then begin growing into a stony reef – if the water is alive with the rumbling noise of a healthy fish population. The finding could be useful for efforts to restore damaged reefs to health. Tiny coral larvae drift with the ocean currents, looking for a place to settle down by sensing multiple environmental cues including light, temperature and the chemicals released by other marine organisms. Previous research suggests that coral larvae may also be picky about the sound condition underwater. To investigate further, Amy Apprill at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and her colleagues collected 990 mustard hill coral larvae (Porites astreoides) and placed equal numbers of them in 18 sealed boxes filled with filtered seawater. Nine of the boxes were transparent and the other nine were blackened to prevent light exposure. The team placed the boxes in the Caribbean: six on a healthy, fish-abundant reef, another six on a less robust reef and the last six at a barren site. All three sites have similar light exposure but differ significantly in the level and quality of sound. An environment with a healthy population of large fish and coral has louder low frequency sounds, such as deep grunting and chirping noises. In contrast, the barren site lacks these and is much quieter overall, save for the high-frequency sounds from snapping shrimp.

12-11-18 Nearly 200 Great Barrier Reef coral species also live in the deep sea
The unexpected coral bounty means deep reefs have a richer biodiversity than thought. Nearly 200 species of Great Barrier Reef corals have found a second home in the deep ocean. That’s six times as many species as previously thought to be living in the dark, cold waters off northeastern Australia, researchers report December 11 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Perhaps more important than the number of species cataloged at those depths is the fact that every coral evolutionary family is represented, offering a potential boon for conservation efforts. “The deep reef is a lot more diverse and interesting than we thought,” says coauthor Paul Muir, a coral biologist at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville, Australia. “It’s a bit of a good news story, and there aren’t many of those around at the moment.” As climate change makes some ocean waters warmer, corals are experiencing more frequent severe bleaching events than they did just a few decades ago (SN: 2/3/18, p. 16). Scientists are trying to learn which species might be able to survive, and where, as ocean conditions change.

12-11-18 Here’s what was surprising about Kilauea’s 3-month-long eruption
Scientists have learned new things about how craters collapse and life rebounds under the sea. After a stunningly explosive summer, Kilauea, the world’s longest continuously erupting volcano, finally seems to have taken a break. But the scientists studying it haven’t. Reams of new data collected during an unprecedented opportunity to monitor an ongoing, accessible eruption are changing what’s known about how some volcanoes behave. “It was hugely significant,” says Jessica Larsen, a petrologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and “a departure from what Kilauea had been doing for more than 35 years.” The latest eruption started in May. By the time it had ended three months later, over 825 million cubic meters of earth had collapsed at the summit. That’s the equivalent of 300,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, Kyle Anderson, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geologic Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., said December 11 in a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. As the summit crater deflated, magma gushed through underground tunnels, draining out through fissures along an area called the lower eastern rift zone at a rate of roughly 50 meters per day. That lava eventually covered 35.5 square kilometers of land, Anderson and his colleagues reported in a study published December 11 in Science. The volcano also taught scientists a thing or two.

12-11-18 Gene study unravels redheads mystery
Eight genes linked to red hair have been discovered by scientists, helping to shed light on how redheads inherit their distinctive locks. The Edinburgh University-led research has been described as the largest genetic study of hair colour to date. It had been thought red hair was controlled by a single gene, MC1R, with versions passed on from both parents. However, not everyone carrying two red-haired versions is a redhead, meaning that other genes had to be involved. The team examined DNA from almost 350,000 people who had taken part in the UK Biobank study. When they compared redheads with people with brown or black hair, scientists identified eight previously-unknown genetic differences that are associated with ginger locks. The team also looked at the functions of the genes they identified and found some of them work by controlling when MC1R is switched on or off. The researchers also uncovered differences in almost 200 genes associated with blondes and brunettes. Prof Albert Tenesa, of the university's Roslin Institute, said: "We are very pleased that this work has unravelled most of the genetic variation contributing to differences in hair colour among people." Prof Ian Jackson, of the medical research council human genetics unit at the university, said: "We were able to use the power of UK Biobank, a huge and unique genetic study of half a million people in Britain, which allowed us to find these effects." The study, published in Nature Communications, was funded by the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

12-11-18 Biologists are one step closer to creating snake venom in the lab
Researchers have grown organoids that mimic the venom glands of snakes. Labs growing replicas of snakes’ venom glands may one day replace snake farms. Researchers in the Netherlands have succeeded in growing mimics of venom-producing glands from multiple species of snakes. Stem cell biologist Hans Clevers of the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, the Netherlands, reported the creation of these organoids on December 10 at a joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization. If scientists can extract venom from the lab-grown glands, that venom might be used to create new drugs and antidotes for bites including from snakes that aren’t currently raised on farms. Up to 2.7 million people worldwide are estimated to be bitten by venomous snakes each year. Between about 81,000 to 138,000 people die as a result of the bite, and as many as roughly 400,000 may lose limbs or have other disabilities, according to the World Health Organization. Antivenoms are made using venom collected from snakes usually raised on farms. Venom is injected into other animals that make antibodies to the toxins. Purified versions of those antibodies can help a bitten person recover, but must be specific to the species of snake that made the bite. “If it’s a fairly rare or local snake, chances are there would be no antidote,” Clevers says.

12-11-18 Getting goose bumps could boost hair growth
The same nerves, muscles and hormones work together to stimulate hair follicles. Getting goose bumps doesn’t just make hairs stand on end; it may also help hair grow. Nerves and muscles that raise goose bumps also stimulate stem cells in the skin to make hair follicles and grow hair. Ya-Chieh Hsu, a stem cell researcher at Harvard University, reported the unpublished findings December 9 at the joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization. Getting goose bumps when it’s cold may encourage animals’ fur to grow thicker, Hsu said. Nerves that are part of the sympathetic nervous system — which controls pupil dilation, heart rate and other automatic processes — nestle next to stem cells that will create hair follicles, Hsu and her colleagues found. Usually nerves are wrapped in a protective coating called myelin, like electrical wire sheathed in plastic. But Hsu’s group found that the nerves’ ends were naked where they meet hair follicle stem cells, like wires stripped at the tips to make contacts with electrical nodes. The nerves secrete the hormone norepinephrine. That hormone is necessary for hair growth, the researchers found. Those findings might help explain why hair loss is a side effect of drugs known as beta-blockers, which interfere with norepinephrine’s action.

12-10-18 Spray-on gel slows down the regrowth of tumours after cancer surgery
A way of destroying cancers with our own immune system is a long-held goal of medicine. Now a new twist on such immunotherapy has given promising results in mice. The treatment is a gel sprayed on to the wound left when a tumour is cut out. The targeted delivery means nearby immune cells start killing cancer cells, both at the wound and elsewhere in the body – but it doesn’t cause a potentially harmful body-wide immune reaction. Several kinds of immunotherapy have been developed into treatments in the past few years. Most give people just a few extra months of life rather than being a cure. But the immune system has many different arms, so the search continues for an approach that more effectively harnesses its power. Several ongoing trials are looking at ways to block a molecule called CD47, which is present on many tumour cells and helps them evade the immune system by giving off a “don’t eat me” signal. But antibodies against this molecule lead not only to death of tumour cells but also to destruction of red blood cells, which normally have CD47 on their surface. Zhen Gu at the University of California, Los Angeles and colleagues have found a way to make the immune reaction more targeted. They took mice with skin cancer and cut out most but not all of the tumour, as can happen when human patients have cancer surgery. Then they sprayed the wound with a gel containing antibodies against CD47, as well as a chemical that makes the tissue less acidic, a way of revving up immune cells called macrophages.

12-10-18 The most comfortable running shoes may actually increase injury risk
Highly-cushioned running shoes are meant to protect against injuries, but they may actually do the opposite by changing the way we run, research suggests. Every year, it’s estimated that at least one-third of runners get stress fractures, shin splints or muscle or joint injuries caused by repeated pounding of the pavement. Many shoe manufacturers have added extra padding to try to soften the impact on the legs, but injury rates have not decreased as a result. A new study suggests this is because the extra cushioning changes the spring-like mechanics of the legs as they run, which actually means we experience more tissue damage with every stride. Juha-Pekka Kulmala at the University of Helsinki in Finland and his colleagues studied the biomechanics of 12 healthy men aged 22 to 32 as they ran in two shoe types – a regular sneaker with 33 millimetres of cushioning under the heel and 22 millimetres under the forefoot, and a highly-cushioned “maximalist” sneaker with a 43-millimetre heel and 37-millimetre forefoot height. The participants ran at two different speeds – 10 and 15 kilometres per hour – along a 30-metre platform that measured how hard their feet hit the ground. They also wore reflective stickers that allowed video cameras to capture their motion. At both speeds, the runners landed on their feet harder when they wore the maximalist sneakers than the regular kind. The peak impact force was 6 per cent higher on average at the slower running speed and 11 per cent higher at the faster speed.

12-10-18 City living makes urban male frogs far more attractive to females
Male frogs that live in cities make more complex mating calls than their forest-dwelling cousins, and that makes them much more attractive to female frogs. As animals move into urban environments, they face different pressures from natural selection, resulting in rapid evolution of different behaviours. Previous research has found that birds, frogs and grasshoppers sing or call differently in noisy urban areas, but few studies have addressed in detail how this affects their needs to attract a mate and avoid predators and parasites. Male túngara frogs gather at night in puddles to call and attract females. The main part of their call, the “whine”, sounds like a sci-fi laser beam, but some add elements called “chucks”, which sound like very short duck quacks. However, making a more elaborate call raises the risk of attack by bats or biting midges. Wouter Halfwerk of the Free University Amsterdam and colleagues recorded males in urban and forest locations in Panama. The urban males called more often and made more complex sounds than the forest males, with more and louder chucks. These complex calls proved to be irresistible to females. When the researchers played recordings of an urban male and a forest male from two speakers, three quarters of the females approached the one playing the urban call. To explain why a different call evolved in the city, the researchers tried playing the same recorded call from a speaker in different locations. At urban sites, the calls attracted fewer female frogs, bats and midges. This suggests that in cities, the pressure to attract mates is stronger and the pressure to avoid predators and parasites is lower.

12-10-18 Amount of deep life on Earth quantified
Scientists have estimated the total amount of life on Earth that exists below ground - and it is vast. You would need a microscope to see this subterranean biosphere, however. It is made up mostly of microbes, such as bacteria and their evolutionary cousins, the archaea. Nonetheless, it represents a lot of carbon - about 15 to 23 billion tonnes of it. That is hundreds of times more carbon than is woven into all the humans on the planet. "Something like 70% of the total number of microbes on Earth are below our feet," said Karen Lloyd from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, US. "So, this changes our perception of where we find life on Earth, from mostly on the surface in things like trees and whales and dolphins, to most of it actually being underground," she told BBC News. PROF Lloyd is part of the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) project, a near-decade long effort to identify how the ubiquitous element is cycled through the Earth system. The consortium is reporting its latest discoveries here at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual Fall Meeting in Washington DC. The mass numbers it quotes can only be a rough estimate. They are derived from multiple studies that have dug or drilled several kilometres into the crust, both on the continents and at sea. Scientists will routinely pull up rock and other sediment samples and count the number living cells in a given volume. The DCO teams have taken these inventories and used models to construct a broader picture of Earth's total biomass.

12-9-18 'Digital museum' brings millions of fossils out of the dark
The bid to create a "global digital museum" has been welcomed by scientists, who say it will enable them to study valuable specimens that are currently "hidden" in museum drawers. Museums including London's Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian in Washington DC are involved. They have set out ambitious plans to digitise millions of specimens. Digitally recording the 40 million fossils at the Smithsonian will take an estimated 50 years. But five years into the project, the team says it is "bringing dark data into the light" for crucial research. Kathy Hollis from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, who is leading the project there, explained: "We are trying to make our entire collection available digitally for researchers to use online from anywhere in the world. "And we're pretty sure that this is the largest fossil collection in the world. "We have over 40 million specimens in the collection - it records the entire history of life, so if it has a fossil representative, it's likely here within the collection." Items on public display in museums represent only a tiny fraction of the collections stored away in drawers. "And there are drawers here in the museum that haven't been opened for decades," said Kathy Hollis. That is problematic if scientists want to use all of those specimens - the collective evidence of millions of years of evolution on our planet - to understand how life works and changes. (Webmaster's comment: All the missing links and transitional fossels are all there. All the evidence for evolution one could ever want.)

12-8-18 The evolution of punishment
It's not always about the common good. Imagine someone gets caught cheating at a poker game. What's next? After the accusations and denials, the cheater usually suffers some form of harm — confiscated winnings, ridicule, maybe ostracism. Perhaps justifiably so: Most people think that cheaters deserve punishment. This is a familiar sentiment. Humans are quick to recognize wrongdoing and to mete out penalties in response. Sometimes, we seem to enjoy the act of retribution. Punishment takes diverse and complex forms, ranging from mocking laughter to imprisonment. Sometimes, the affronted party does the punishing; other times it's a third party. Yet it's also costly to give someone their just deserts. When an adult confiscates a child's toy for bad behavior, both are in for a rough afternoon. Which raises the question: Why do we punish in the first place? One answer is that punishment evolved to promote the greater good and prevent tragedies of the commons. This is the altruistic approach. Yes, punishment might be costly for the punisher, but (so the theory goes) it generates downstream benefits for others — stabilizing cooperation, enforcing just rules, deterring free-riders. Punishment is probably essential for maintaining and enforcing norms, laws, and customs. Yet its origins appear to trace back to a time before robust human societies, perhaps even before we had language to articulate the rules. Recent research has identified contexts where dominant chimps seem to punish freeloaders. So perhaps punishment preceded the benefits it generates. After all, punishment doesn't always promote the greater good. It's been used to oppress minorities, foster discrimination, exploit disadvantaged groups, maintain sexist and racist social norms, and keep subjugated populations in line. In experimental setups, "antisocial punishment" has been observed, in which cooperative individuals are punished by others because they contributed to a public good. Punishment can be detrimental, even in the long run. These observations suggest that altruism is, at best, only a small part of the story. Moreover, even if punishment is crucial for achieving some forms of social cooperation, it might not have originated for that reason. Instead, perhaps it came about for another reason entirely, and only later assumed a socially beneficial role. So, if not for the greater good, just how did punishment evolve?

12-7-18 The threat of genetically edited babies
“Gene editing is here,” said Marc Thiessen, and it poses “an enormous threat” to humanity. A Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, last week claimed that he used the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR to alter the DNA of two embryos to make them resistant to HIV, and then implanted these edited human beings in their mother’s womb, leading to their live birth. The scientific community has reacted to He’s work with outrage, essentially saying it’s “premature.” But the real question is “Should we be doing this at all?” Unlike gene therapy, in which doctors use CRISPR to treat individual patients suffering from genetic diseases, gene editing permanently changes the genetic code of a human being, so that the new code is passed on to future generations. This opens “a Pandora’s box,” in which scientists could produce “made-to-order babies” with superior intellect and athletic skills, tall stature, and whatever color hair, skin, and eyes the parents deemed beautiful. In a genetically modified future, the rich could pay to “lock in their privilege” by buying super-offspring pruned of imperfections, while the poor would go “unenhanced.” If science continues down this road, we will cross “a moral line from which there may be no return.” (Webmaster's comment: It's going to happen. Get used to it!)

12-7-18 Editor’s letter
The age of the designer baby isn’t here yet, but it’s getting close. Chinese researcher He Jiankui triggered outrage last week with his announcement that he’d created the world’s first genetically altered infants, having tweaked their embryos to make them resistant to HIV. (See Best Columns: The U.S.) Whether or not He’s claim of a breakthrough is true—his data hasn’t been published or peer reviewed—the vital point is that it could be. For the past decade, scientists around the world have been modifying the blueprint of human life with the genome-editing tool CRISPR. A U.S. team last year altered the DNA of embryos to replace defective genes that cause a hereditary heart condition. (Unlike He, they did not implant their experimental embryos in a woman’s womb.) This technology could eventually wipe out all hereditary diseases, including Alzheimer’s and cystic fibrosis. But you don’t have to be a science-fiction writer to see how prospective parents might use it to gift their offspring with other advantages in life. Gene editing could be used to boost IQ and athleticism. Discrimination against the short of stature and dark of skin is still rife, and so parents might choose to make their children tall and light-skinned. In a genetically modified future, society could be even more divided between the rich, who would be able to afford “perfect” designer offspring, and the unenhanced poor. The bonds between parent and child could also be irrevocably changed. When I look at my son and daughter, I get a small thrill when I spot hereditary traits: my wife’s eyes, my hair, my mother’s quiet stubbornness. Familiar imperfections are no less endearing. How will it feel to look at your child and instead recognize features you’ve ordered from the Acme Super Kid catalog: Husky-blue eyes with guaranteed 20/20 vision, Michael Jordan’s leaping ability and wingspan, Einstein’s brainpower. Would you feel the pride of a parent, or the pride of an engineer marveling at his latest creation?

12-7-18 Brain scans reveal why your brain forgets details
Our brains are much better at recalling vague pieces of information than precise details, according to two studies. One possible evolutionary explanation is that abstract ideas could be more helpful than specifics for getting through daily life. “Imagine you get bitten by a dog in the park. If you want to prevent being bitten again, it doesn’t help to just remember that this particular cute, little, white dog in this particular park has bitten you. What you want to memorise is that if you meet a free running dog in a park, it can bite,” says Maria Wimber at the University of Birmingham in the UK, who presented her teams’ findings in November at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego. To find out how information is prioritised when we reconstruct a memory in our brain, she and her team set up studies to determine where in the brain we store different information, and in what sequence we recall bits of memories from those different places. Wimber’s colleague Catarina Ferreira found that our brains emphasise categorical information. She asked 22 people to memorise 128 pairs of objects they were shown on a screen, consisting of a scene and an unrelated object – such as a mountain paired with a kiwi fruit. Two days later, the team showed the participants just the images of the scenes and asked them to recall the associated object, whilst having their brains MRI scanned. On average, participants could correctly recall the general category the associated object fell into 79 per cent of the time.

12-7-18 Football and children’s brains
Just a single season of football can damage the brain development of young players, a new study suggests. Researchers fitted 60 youth and high school football players with a telemetry system to measure the impacts they received to the head. The players were split into two groups—those who received a lot of knocks on the head and those who received relatively few—and were given a resting-state functional brain scan before and after the season. From those scans, the researchers found that in the high-impact group the “pruning” process in the brain—when unneeded synapses are removed to make room for new and important neural connections—had been markedly disrupted. “Pruning is an essential part of brain development,” study co-author Gowtham Krishnan Murugesan, from UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, tells ScienceDaily.com. “By getting rid of the synapses that are no longer used, the brain becomes more efficient with aging.” Murugesan recommends that youth teams replace high-impact practice drills with low- or no-impact drills to reduce the number of hits kids receive.

12-7-18 Kids gain weight like mom
Children are more likely to pile on the pounds if their moms do the same, new research has found. Scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology examined the activity levels of more than 4,400 kids and their parents over an 11-year period. They found that mothers whose exercise levels dropped as their children were growing up were more likely to have overweight teenagers. But when a mom’s weight went down, so did their children’s body mass index. No such correlation was found when fathers shed pounds. That could be because mothers still tend to be responsible for planning activities in the home and what’s eaten day to day, although the researchers note that they didn’t study these issues. “Parents have a major impact on their children’s health and lifestyle,” co-author Marit Naess tells The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). “Behaviors that lead to obesity are easily transferred from parent to child.”

12-7-18 A gut-brain link for Parkinson’s gets a closer look
The misfolded proteins may start with microbes in the digestive system. Martha Carlin married the love of her life in 1995. She and John Carlin had dated briefly in college in Kentucky, then lost touch until a chance meeting years later at a Dallas pub. They wed soon after and had two children. John worked as an entrepreneur and stay-at-home dad. In his free time, he ran marathons. Almost eight years into their marriage, the pinky finger on John’s right hand began to quiver. So did his tongue. Most disturbing for Martha was how he looked at her. For as long as she’d known him, he’d had a joy in his eyes. But then, she says, he had a stony stare, “like he was looking through me.” In November 2002, a doctor diagnosed John with Parkinson’s disease. He was 44 years old. Carlin made it her mission to understand how her seemingly fit husband had developed such a debilitating disease. “The minute we got home from the neurologist, I was on the internet looking for answers,” she recalls. She began consuming all of the medical literature she could find. With her training in accounting and corporate consulting, Carlin was used to thinking about how the many parts of large companies came together as a whole. That kind of wide-angle perspective made her skeptical that Parkinson’s, which affects half a million people in the United States, was just a malfunction in the brain. “I had an initial hunch that food and food quality was part of the issue,” she says. If something in the environment triggered Parkinson’s, as some theories suggest, it made sense to her that the disease would involve the digestive system. Every time we eat and drink, our insides encounter the outside world.

12-7-18 Two new books explore the science and history of the 1918 flu pandemic
‘Pandemic 1918’ and ‘Influenza’ chronicle the flu’s devastating history and uncertain future. The U.S.S. Leviathan set sail from Hoboken, N.J., on September 29, 1918, carrying roughly 10,000 troops and 2,000 crewmen. The ship, bound for the battlefields in France, had been at sea less than 24 hours when the first passengers fell ill. By the end of the day, 700 people had developed signs of the flu. The medical staff tried to separate the sick from the healthy, but that soon proved impossible. The poorly ventilated bunkrooms filled with the stench of illness. The floor grew slippery with blood from many nosebleeds, and the wails of the sick and dying echoed below deck. Bodies piled up and began decomposing, until finally the crew was forced to heave them into the sea. It was the stuff of nightmares. This is just one of the grisly scenes in Pandemic 1918 by historian Catharine Arnold. The book details how the movement of troops during World War I helped drive the spread of a deadly strain of influenza around the globe — from the American Midwest to Cape Town, South Africa, to New Zealand and beyond. Scientists have yet to conclusively determine where that flu originated; Arnold suggests it was on a massive military base in Étaples, France. But all agree that the pandemic that became known as the Spanish flu didn’t begin in Spain. And the disease, which ultimately killed more than 50 million people, wasn’t caused by any ordinary influenza strain. Grim eyewitness accounts chronicle the gory details of how this virus differed. Victims often bled from the nose or mouth, writhed in pain and grew delirious with fever. Their faces turned dusky blue as their lungs filled with pus. Healthy men and women in their prime were dying, sometimes within days of falling ill.


ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

12-12-18 Australia’s ‘marsupial lion’ was a meat-ripping, tree-climbing terror
The most detailed reconstruction yet of Australia’s extinct “marsupial lion” shows it was unlike any animal living today, shredding its prey like a Tasmanian devil, biting like a lion, and climbing like a koala. The first partial remains of the fearsome predator – which went extinct about 45,000 years ago – were discovered in Victoria in the 1850s. British naturalist Richard Owen named it Thylacoleo carnifex – meaning “meat-cutting marsupial lion” – based on its large blade-like teeth and cat-like skull. Other remains of T. carnifex were found in the 1960s and 70s, but it was only in 2002 that the first complete skeleton was discovered in a cave beneath the Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia. In 2005, another two mostly complete skeletons were found in a cave in Naracoorte, South Australia. Since then, Rod Wells at Flinders University and his colleagues have carefully studied the skeletons to better understand the mysterious creature. Their reconstruction shows that T. carnifex would have measured over a metre long and over half a metre tall while standing on all four feet, with a weight of about 100 kilograms. “It was probably the size of a big pig,” says Wells. Like other marsupials, it carried its young in a pouch. Comparisons with living Australian marsupials suggest that T. carnifex was most similar in appearance to the Tasmanian devil, but would have been about 10 times bigger. It had the same stiff back and strong, rigid tail that Tasmanian devils use for balance while tearing apart prey with their paws and teeth, says Wells.

12-12-18 Endangered relative of the hedgehog may be thriving in Vietnam
The Hainan gymnure is a bizarre, poorly understood hedgehog-like mammal, previously thought to live only on the island of Hainan off China’s southern coast. But recently, scientists found the mammal in Vietnam – hundreds of kilometres away – where it may actually be relatively common. Gymnures and moonrats are close relatives of the winsome spiky hedgehogs. But, lacking prickles, they resemble rats or opossums. They often reek strongly of garlic or ammonia due to their potent, territory-marking scent glands. Native to Southeast Asian forests, the animals are nocturnal and reclusive. The Hainan gymnure (Neohylomys hainanensis) is the most elusive of all. “In the world’s scientific collections, there are only a few specimens of N. hainanensis,” says Alexei Abramov, a zoologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg and lead author on the study. “I know of ten specimens.” Earlier this year, Abramov and his colleagues conducted a small mammal biodiversity survey in Cao Bang Province in northern Vietnam. During this survey, the team obtained five gymnures from local villagers. After measurement of their physical features, the team identified the gymnures as the rare Hainan species, suggesting that the island dweller is more widespread than realised. “There’s been work done on the mammal fauna of Vietnam in the past, and these are apparently not particularly rare animals,” he says, offering that gymnure preference for earthworms and insects rather than typical bait may have kept them undetected. The gymnure’s presence in Vietnam also implies that Hainan and Vietnam were physically connected millennia ago, when glacial expansion lowered sea levels by 120 metres.

12-11-18 The beauty of the Christmas Bird Count
Counting birds for science is one of the most fulfilling ways to end the year. The ash tree I'm anchored to is laced with poison ivy vines, one as thick as my arm. The childhood adage, don't be a dope, don't touch the rope, is loud in my mind because although I'm no "dope" I'm definitely touching the rope — the ash is the only thing keeping me from falling into the icy creek below. I embrace the ash with my left arm and through a layer of fresh snow, I dig in and plant myself. With my right hand I bring binoculars to my eyes and scan the plowed cornfield beyond the creek for movement. I'm looking for a flock of Horned Larks, small little brown birds with two tufts of feathers on either side of their head that resemble horns. Against a backdrop of tilled earth they are cryptic but, lucky for me, it snowed last night and not much can stay hidden on the field. My desire to find a flock of larks sprouts from a kernel of hope that a Lapland Longspur might be embedded among them, or maybe a Snow Bunting. Both birds are as exquisite-looking as they sound. The longspur is sparrow-like, but fairer, with a sweet round face. The bunting is white and in its winter plumage its cheeks are decked out in chic buff-colored feathers. The cornfield is empty. There are no chattering larks, no longspurs mixed in, and there are certainly no buntings. The field is host only to a rolling wind that carries with it a chill of -10 degrees Fahrenheit and the smell of Christmas in the country — a peppery mix of soot, smoke, and decay. My eyes sting. It's been a while since I've blinked. I let my binoculars hang at my side for a moment. It's the last day of the year and I'm looking for birds in subzero temperatures. Of course, I am. It's the annual Christmas Bird Count. The bird count is important to me — I've done it every year for the past four years. Nothing can stop me, not the cold, rain, the flu, or even poison ivy. Birders — don't call us birdwatchers — are a robust and growing group of professionals, enthusiasts, students, and everything in between. In the U.S. we are 45 million strong and along with other wildlife-lovers and conservationists, we contributed close to $80 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016. The data collected by citizen scientists like me during the Christmas Bird Count helps ornithologists, biologists, environmental scientists, analysts, and others understand species diversity, movement, and dispersal. The information also helps them gauge how birds are surviving a warming planet. Spoiler alert: It's not going well for coastal species. A bunch of other species are in decline, too.

12-10-18 City living makes urban male frogs far more attractive to females
Male frogs that live in cities make more complex mating calls than their forest-dwelling cousins, and that makes them much more attractive to female frogs. As animals move into urban environments, they face different pressures from natural selection, resulting in rapid evolution of different behaviours. Previous research has found that birds, frogs and grasshoppers sing or call differently in noisy urban areas, but few studies have addressed in detail how this affects their needs to attract a mate and avoid predators and parasites. Male túngara frogs gather at night in puddles to call and attract females. The main part of their call, the “whine”, sounds like a sci-fi laser beam, but some add elements called “chucks”, which sound like very short duck quacks. However, making a more elaborate call raises the risk of attack by bats or biting midges. Wouter Halfwerk of the Free University Amsterdam and colleagues recorded males in urban and forest locations in Panama. The urban males called more often and made more complex sounds than the forest males, with more and louder chucks. These complex calls proved to be irresistible to females. When the researchers played recordings of an urban male and a forest male from two speakers, three quarters of the females approached the one playing the urban call. To explain why a different call evolved in the city, the researchers tried playing the same recorded call from a speaker in different locations. At urban sites, the calls attracted fewer female frogs, bats and midges. This suggests that in cities, the pressure to attract mates is stronger and the pressure to avoid predators and parasites is lower.

12-10-18 Amount of deep life on Earth quantified
Scientists have estimated the total amount of life on Earth that exists below ground - and it is vast. You would need a microscope to see this subterranean biosphere, however. It is made up mostly of microbes, such as bacteria and their evolutionary cousins, the archaea. Nonetheless, it represents a lot of carbon - about 15 to 23 billion tonnes of it. That is hundreds of times more carbon than is woven into all the humans on the planet. "Something like 70% of the total number of microbes on Earth are below our feet," said Karen Lloyd from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, US. "So, this changes our perception of where we find life on Earth, from mostly on the surface in things like trees and whales and dolphins, to most of it actually being underground," she told BBC News. PROF Lloyd is part of the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) project, a near-decade long effort to identify how the ubiquitous element is cycled through the Earth system. The consortium is reporting its latest discoveries here at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual Fall Meeting in Washington DC. The mass numbers it quotes can only be a rough estimate. They are derived from multiple studies that have dug or drilled several kilometres into the crust, both on the continents and at sea. Scientists will routinely pull up rock and other sediment samples and count the number living cells in a given volume. The DCO teams have taken these inventories and used models to construct a broader picture of Earth's total biomass.

12-7-18 The bluebirds’ best friend.
Al Larson is the bluebirds’ best friend. Since 1978, the 96-year-old former sawmill worker has built and maintained some 350 nest boxes across southern Idaho for western and mountain bluebirds, helping the species rebound from near-extinction. He started nest building to keep himself busy in retirement, and now checks in on the rustic abodes every nine days, banding any residents. This year, he’s banded more than 900 bluebirds. “I got carried away,” Larson said. “I kept adding more boxes, and these birds responded.”