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Egypt on Edge

A Scenario for Elections and Civil Unrest in Egypt

May 18th 2012

Egyptian protest

Egypt's presidential elections are set to be held on 23 May 2012, with a run-off round on June 16-17. According to Exclusive Analysis, a specialist intelligence firm based in the UK, Firas Abi Ali - who is Deputy Head of Middle East Forecasting for the firm - said in a note to clients, “No candidate is likely to win elections in the first round.” He continued, “A key indicator of the level of civil unrest risks stemming from the election is the 2 June scheduled verdict for President Mubarak's trial. In the unlikely event that Mubarak is acquitted, there would be an increased risk of mass civil unrest disrupting the elections."

In the event of such turbulence, the firm forecasts that protesters in Cairo would likely attempt to break into the Ministry of Defence building at Abassiya Square and the Ministry of the Interior, as well as the public media buildings (Maspero) near Tahrir Square. In a news release, Abi Ali warned that as a result, "there would be a collateral damage risk to property and individuals in the immediate vicinity of these buildings. The police would likely use live rounds, which would lead to even more protests." Read more ..

The Archaeologial Edge

Archaeologists Discover Lost Language in Southeastern Turkey

May 18th 2012

Lost Language

A list of women’s names written in cuneiform is the only remnant of this unidentified language, which was spoken 2,500 years ago.

Found in the remains of an enormous palace that was destroyed by a fire around 700 BCE, the clay tablet pictured  holds the only remnants of a language previously unknown to modern scholars. The language could contribute to our understanding of the ethnic groups who lived in the area thousands of years ago, and help map their interactions with the Assyrian Empire.

On the banks of the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey are the magnificent ruins of Ziyaret Tepe, probable site of the ancient Assyrian frontier city of Tušhan. The site has been under excavation for the past 15 years, with special attention paid to the palace, which may have been built by the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II (883 — 859 BCE). The tablet seems to be a list of all the women associated with the palace and the local Assyrian administration. Of 144 names on the table, just 59 are legible. One or two are Assyrian, a few are from other languages spoken in the Assyrian Empire, and 45 belong to the mysterious language. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Years of Climate Data Confirms Australia's Warming

May 18th 2012


In the first study of its kind in Australasia, scientists have used 27 natural climate records to create the first large-scale temperature reconstruction for the region over the last 1000 years. The study was led by researchers at the University of Melbourne and used a range of natural indicators including tree rings, corals and ice cores to study Australasian temperatures over the past millennium and compared them to climate model simulations.

Lead researcher, Dr Joelle Gergis from the University of Melbourne said the results show that there are no other warm periods in the last 1000 years that match the warming experienced in Australasia since 1950. "Our study revealed that recent warming in a 1000 year context is highly unusual and cannot be explained by natural factors alone, suggesting a strong influence of human-caused climate change in the Australasian region," she said. The study was published May 16, 2012 in the Journal of Climate and will form the Australasian region's contribution to the 5th IPCC climate change assessment report chapter on past climate. Read more ..

Edge of Environment

Drought-Stricken Southwest Faces a Bi-National Problem

May 17th 2012

Arid Desert

For the second year in a row, residents of New Mexico and neighboring Chihuahua, Mexico, find themselves in the throes of severe drought. On May 15, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez issued an emergency drought declaration, citing in part a forecast from the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center that warned of persistent or intensified drought in the state.

As an example of deepening water woes, Martinez noted the water shortage in the northern town of Las Vegas. Martinez’s office stated that 2011 was the second driest year ever recorded in New Mexico.

“In addition to the work we’re doing at the state level to assist communities facing serious drought conditions, I’m hopeful this declaration will assist them in securing any available federal funding as well,” Martinez said.

Martinez’s counterpart in Chihuahua, Governor Cesar Duarte, also recently reached out to his own federal government for help in coping with drought. Last month, Duarte requested about $200 million from the Calderon administration for water infrastructure projects, emergency food aid and agricultural subsidies to help rural communities under environmental stress. According to Duarte, natural water supplies for 300 communities in the Sierra Tarahumara region have dried up and stopped giving the essential ingredient of life.

“According to the National Water Commission, Chihuahua is the state confronting the severest drought in the country..,” Duarte said. Under the circumstances, rain normally might be welcome relief in New Mexico and Chihuahua. But unseasonal storms accompanied by high winds lashed through the region last week and left minor flooding, some power outages and a tree crashed into a house in Albuquerque. In Socorro County, New Mexico, a highly unusual tornado startled the small town of Magdalena. “And we were so scared we had to run to the closet,” resident Monique Baca was quoted; no significant damages were immediately reported from the twister. Read more ..

The Environmental Edge

Trashing Unused Medications Best for Reducing Environmental Impact

May 16th 2012


A new study suggests that dumping old or unneeded medications in the trash can may be the best way to reduce the environmental impact of the 200 million pounds of pharmaceuticals that go unused in the U.S. each year.  Stephen J. Skerlos and colleagues explain that to avoid the risks of abuse and accidental poisoning, as well as other problems that unused, unwanted or expired pharmaceuticals pose, they shouldn't be kept in homes. If thrown away or flushed down a toilet, however, antibiotics, hormones and other drugs can get into lakes, rivers and other water supplies, where they can affect humans and animals. Some places in the U.S. have recently started take-back programs, in which pharmacies collect unneeded drugs and incinerate them with other medical waste, but this burning and transportation produces greenhouse gases and other pollution. The authors wanted to assess the different disposal methods to see which might make the most sense for U.S. households. Read more ..

The Anthropology Edge

Earliest Evidence of Wall Art Discovered in France

May 16th 2012

Wall art

Anthropologists working in southern France have determined that a 1.5 metric ton block of engraved limestone constitutes the earliest evidence of wall art. Their research, reported in the most recent edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows the piece to be approximately 37,000 years old and offers rich evidence of the role art played in the daily lives of Early Aurignacian humans.

The research team, comprised of more than a dozen scientists from American and European universities and research institutions, has been excavating at the site of the discovery—Abri Castanet—for the past 15 years. Abri Castanet and its sister site Abri Blanchard have long been recognized as being among the oldest sites in Eurasia bearing artifacts of human symbolism. Hundreds of personal ornaments have been discovered, including pierced animal teeth, pierced shells, ivory and soapstone beads, engravings, and paintings on limestone slabs.

"Early Aurignacian humans functioned, more or less, like humans today," explained New York University anthropology professor Randall White, one of the study's co-authors. "They had relatively complex social identities communicated through personal ornamentation, and they practiced sculpture and graphic arts."

Aurignacian culture existed until approximately 28,000 years ago. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

Senator Feinstein Reveals Taliban Assassination Plans

May 15th 2012

Pakistani Taliban

The United States and NATO-led international forces have condemned the assassination of a top Afghan peace negotiator. The Taliban denied responsibility for the attack, but a high-ranking U.S. senator says the killing of Afghan High Peace Council member Arsala Rahmani is further evidence of Taliban intentions as American force levels are reduced. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein says the Rahmani assassination is the latest incident in a pattern of violence gripping Afghanistan. “What this does is demonstrate to many of us that the Taliban are just waiting to come back," she said.

Feinstein recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan, and made headlines when she challenged the Obama administration’s assertion that a U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan had halted Taliban momentum in the country. Speaking on the U.S. television program Fox News Sunday on May 13, the senator described what she sees as the Taliban’s strategy.

“Militarily, I think, the Taliban are not going to beat us. But what the Taliban has done is insinuate itself in a shadowy presence, with shadow governors. They control over a third of the land in which people live. They have expanded into the north and the northeast," she said. Read more ..

America and Russia

Tit-for-Tat Snubs from Obama and Putin

May 15th 2012

Obama Putin

Eyebrows have been raised in both Washington and Moscow following the announcement that President Barack Obama will not attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. The official reason for Obama's absence at the annual conclave, which is to be held in the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok on September 1-6, clashes with the Democratic Party's convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is expected to accept his party's presidential nomination.

Nonetheless, the timing of the announcement is bound to cause ripples given that it follows less than two days after newly inaugurated Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he would not to attend a Group of Eight (G8) meeting in Camp David, Maryland, later this week. Even though both the United States and Russia stressed that this pronouncement should not be interpreted as a snub, it did give rise to all sorts of speculation, especially as the White House had switched the G8 meeting from thes longstanding Chicago venue to the  Camp David retreat, seemingly to appear more welcoming to Putin and other leaders. Read more ..

Greece on Edge

Nazi Nostalgia in Greece Abets Holocaust Denial

May 15th 2012

Nikos Michaliakos
Nikos Michaliakos of Golden Dawn party.

Members of the Greek government, along with community leader, condemned remarks made by Nikos Michaloliakos - the leader of the nationalist Golden Dawn party - for denying that Nazis had exterminated 6 million Jews during the Holocaust era in Europe. Michaloliakos, whose party won nearly 7 percent of the vote in the May 6 election, said "There were no ovens, this is a lie...there were no gas chambers either," while speaking in a May 13 televised interview.

The party leader went on to say that the documented murder of 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, was an "exaggeration" and that "many people from different nations" perished in the death camps as did Japanese died in U.S. camps. "I most categorically condemn such views, which distort history and offend the memory of millions of Holocaust victims," said Michaloliakos.

Greece once had a vibrant Jewish community, many of whom were Sephardim who settled in the northern city of Salonika (Thessaloniki) after being expelled from Spain in the late 1400s. The area was then ruled by the Ottoman Turks, who remained in power until the early 1800s independence movement. Approximately 70,000 Greek Jews were murdered in Nazi concentration camps, many of whom were sent directly from Salonika to death camps in Central Europe during the Second World War. Read more ..

The Edge of Sport

US Fencers Prepare for Olympics

May 14th 2012


The United States is the only country to have qualified the maximum of 16 fencers for the London Olympic Games that begin in late July.  U.S. fencers are preparing for the competition not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. ​​

Nzingha Prescod trains at the Fencers Club in New York City.  The Columbia University student began fencing at the age of nine, and is trying to contain her excitement about going to the Olympics. "I don't think I want to think of it as the Olympics, because I feel like the nerves would overwhelm me," said Prescod.  "But if I just think of it as another competition that I've done a million times, then I can just fence like normal." Prescod's teammate James Williams says the Olympics magnify the psychological aspects of sports, because the games are so infrequent. "Everybody is pretty much on the level of parity physically at this point," said Williams.  "So it's mostly mental tenacity and mental fortitude that you're hoping to improve." Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Climate Scientists Discover New Weak Point of the Antarctic Ice Sheet

May 14th 2012

Glacier calving

Bremerhaven, 9 May 2012. The Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf fringing the Weddell Sea, Antarctica, may start to melt rapidly in this century and no longer act as a barrier for ice streams draining the Antarctic Ice Sheet. These predictions are made by climate researchers of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association. They refute the widespread assumption that ice shelves in the Weddell Sea would not be affected by the direct influences of global warming due to the peripheral location of the Sea.

The results of the climate modelers from the Alfred Wegener Institute will come as a surprise to the professional world with the majority of experts assuming that the consequences of global warming for Antarctica would be noticeable primarily in the Amundsen Sea and therefore in the western part of Antarctica. "The Weddell Sea was not really on the screen because we all thought that unlike the Amundsen Sea its warm waters would not be able to reach the ice shelves. But we found a mechanism which drives warm water towards the coast with an enormous impact on the Fichner-Ronne Ice Shelf in the coming decades", says Dr. Hartmut Hellmer, oceanographer at the Alfred Wegener Institute and lead author of the study. Read more ..

China on Edge

“Shading” The Truth In China

May 14th 2012

Chen Guangcheng

The twists and turns of the fate of blind lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng have had much of China’s online community in thrall.

On April 27, Chen arrived in the US embassy from his native Shandong, where he had escaped from house arrest. Despite news of the event being censored, Chinese internet users quickly became aware of his situation. This was especially true on Weibo – the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. To bypass the censors, netizens used nicknames concocted for Chen Guangcheng, including “Shawshank” and “Sunglasses.” But even these terms were soon blocked.

On May 2, things took a dramatic turn when he left the embassy under the guidance of U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke to seek medical treatment at Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital. It was said that he had left of “his own volition”.

Charles Custer, who runs blog site ChinaGeeks, explored in the post “Sina’s Softer Censorhip” how “on your own volition” had become a online meme by that evening. In the post, he says that instead of blocking the term, Sina Weibo simply stopped indexing any new posts that used the term. Custer said the maneuver created what he calls “an artificial silence”, where users may think no one is talking about the issue even though there were many posts discussing the matter. Read more ..

Inside Israel

An Israel Megalopolis

May 14th 2012

Tel Aviv Skyline

The future shape of the State of Israel may have been glimpsed via an article published in Saturday's YNet, and it seems like something out of a science-fiction film: In short, many experts believe that Israel is already on its way to becoming a mega-city or "megalopolis," which will one day compass the entire center of the country.

This model, known as megalopolis, would see Israel turning into an urban city-state, similar to Singapore and Hong Kong. According to proposal, the entire area between Haifa in the north and Beersheba in the south will become a continuum of urban communities, moving agricultural lands to Negev and Galilee frontiers. While this conjures up visions of a Blade Runner or Metropolis-style dystopia, advocates of the megalopolis idea believe that it offers certain important and perhaps essential advantages.

First, it would solve the housing crisis that is currently causing deep social unrest in the country, creating enough living space for "up to 10 million people without raising housing prices." Read more ..

The Environmental Edge

Time, Place and How Wood is Used are Factors in Carbon Emissions from Deforestation

May 13th 2012

Trees burning in Amazon

A new study from the University of California, Davis, provides a deeper understanding of the complex global impacts of deforestation on greenhouse gas emissions. The study reports that the volume of greenhouse gas released when a forest is cleared depends on how the trees will be used and in which part of the world the trees are grown. When trees are felled to create solid wood products, such as lumber for housing, that wood retains much of its carbon for decades, the researchers found. In contrast, when wood is used for bioenergy or turned into pulp for paper, nearly all of its carbon is released into the atmosphere. Carbon is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. "We found that 30 years after a forest clearing, between 0 percent and 62 percent of carbon from that forest might remain in storage," said lead author J. Mason Earles, a doctoral student with the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. "Previous models generally assumed that it was all released immediately."

The researchers analyzed how 169 countries use harvested forests. They learned that the temperate forests found in the United States, Canada and parts of Europe are cleared primarily for use in solid wood products, while the tropical forests of the Southern hemisphere are more often cleared for use in energy and paper production. "Carbon stored in forests outside Europe, the USA and Canada, for example, in tropical climates such as Brazil and Indonesia, will be almost entirely lost shortly after clearance," the study states. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

House Lawmakers Face Renewed Fight over Detainee Provisions

May 13th 2012

US Marines capture Iraqis DoD photo 2003

The House will re-ignite a debate this week that last year sparked public outrage and a White House veto threat: Can terror suspects on U.S. soil be detained indefinitely?

Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans are planning to push an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill on the House floor next week that would strip out provisions allowing the military to hold terror suspects captured in the U.S. The amendment would undo language from last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and go one step further to change the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).

Opponents of the detention laws warn that U.S. citizens are at risk of indefinite military detention if the law is not changed. Proponents claim the detention laws are a necessary tool in the fight against terror and last year’s bill merely codified current U.S. law. House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) offered a fix to this year’s authorization bill granting habeas corpus rights to terror detainees. Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Iran Filters Khamenei's Fatwa On Antifiltering

May 13th 2012

Assaholah Ali Khameini

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has apparently become the latest victim of Iran's Internet censorship regime -- to which he himself has given his blessing and approval.

The website Tabnak reports that Khamenei's "fatwa" on the illegality of using antifiltering tools in Iran was itself blocked in the country, some 30 hours after it was published on Iranian websites. The ruling was seemingly filtered because it contained the word "antifiltering," which triggered the country's censorship system to automatically block it. The misfire prompted the conservative website to write, "The filtering of a [religious] order is so ugly for the executive [branch] that it can bring into question the whole philosophy of filtering."

Tabnak has close ties to Mohsen Rezai, the current secretary-general of the Expediency Council and former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters in the Islamic republic, issued the ruling after being asked about inaccessible websites by the semiofficial Mehr news agency. Mehr wrote to Khamenei's office to say that some Iranians, because of their jobs -- including journalists -- need to visit blocked websites for news and information that is "usually not available on authorized websites." Mehr then asked what the religious ruling would be in such cases. Read more ..

The Environmental Edge

Old Habitats Re-Emerge After Chile 2010 Eathquake

May 13th 2012

Chile Earthquake Results Credit: Mario Manzano
Habitat Revealed After Chile Earthquake Credit: Mario Manzano

The reappearance of long-forgotten habitats and the resurgence of species unseen for years may not be among the expected effects of a natural disaster. Yet that's exactly what researchers found in a study of the sandy beaches of south central Chile, after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami in 2010. Their study also revealed a preview of the problems wrought by sea level rise--a major symptom of climate change. In a scientific first, researchers from Southern University of Chile and the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) were able to document the before-and-after ecological impacts of such cataclysmic occurrences. The study is said to be the first-ever quantification of earthquake and tsunami effects on sandy beach ecosystems along a tectonically active coastal zone.

"So often you think of earthquakes as causing total devastation, and adding a tsunami on top of that is a major catastrophe for coastal ecosystems," said Jenny Dugan, a biologist at UCSB. "As expected, we saw high mortality of intertidal life on beaches and rocky shores, but the ecological recovery at some of our sandy beach sites was remarkable. "Plants are coming back in places where there haven't been plants, as far as we know, for a very long time. The earthquake created sandy beach habitat where it had been lost. This is not the initial ecological response you might expect from a major earthquake and tsunami." Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syrian Kurds Could Tip Scales of Conflict

May 12th 2012

Ciwan and son, Syrian Kurdish refugees
Ciwan and son, Syrian Kurdish refugees (credit: M. Aksakal, VOA)

A tent city among the ruins of a former tobacco factory along the Turkish-Syrian border is home to Syrian refugee Ciwan and his four-year-old son. The Yayladagi camp is swarming with Syrians fleeing the bloodshed of their homeland. But for Ciwan, a Syrian Kurd, it’s unfamiliar living among the predominantly Arab population.

“Over there I lived mostly with my people, but here I am with them, it’s not very easy but slowly I am getting used to it,” he said. His unease defines the struggle of Syria’s largest ethnic minority, the Kurds. The violent year-long political and social upheaval in Syria has left the country’s estimated two million Kurds reeling.

Lodged between decades of oppression and the uncertainty of a future Syria ruled by the Arab-Sunni majority, Kurds have approached the uprising with caution. They say they want to see President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal reign end, but they also see this as an opportunity to reverse their suffering under the hand of an Arab nationalist regime. The Kurds fear a post-Assad, Sunni majority government might enact conservative Muslim policies curtailing a secular state. Read more ..

Significant Lives

Vidal Sassoon, Streetfighter

May 11th 2012

Vidal Sassoon

Rabbi Israel Elia, head of the venerable Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London’s Maida Vale district, remembers the day when he met Vidal Sassoon, one of the congregation’s most celebrated sons. Elia had been quietly working in his office on a spring morning two years ago when an anxious colleague relayed the news that a film crew had gathered outside the building. The rabbi went to investigate.

“At the head of the crew, there was a smartly dressed man with delicate, graceful features,” Rabbi Elia recalled yesterday. “He walked over to me and introduced himself as Vidal Sassoon. He was making a film about his life and career.” Pointing to an annex at the side of the synagogue, Sassoon explained that the building had housed the orphanage where he spent his childhood. “So, I took him inside,” Elia said. “He told me, ‘I want to show you where my dormitory was.’ We entered a room and he looked around. He was excited: ‘Yes, this was it, this was the dormitory.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Vidal, your dormitory is now my office.’ He threw his arms around me and hugged me, telling me about the kindness of our community, how his accomplishments would not have been possible without that generosity.” Read more ..

Bolivian Bondage

The Value of American Citizenship Today

May 11th 2012

Ostreicher Rally
Supporter holds a sign for Jacob echoing Nelson Mandela 

There is a prison in Santa Cruz, Bolivia that is commonly referred to as a ghetto.  There are walls surrounding a huge complex, and there are buildings within it, and in the center, a large open courtyard.  Prison guards apply little controls over the lives of the prisoners; it is the prisoners of Palmasola who run the show.  They even created an organization called the Disciplina Interna that governs their affairs; if you can even use the term govern.  There are few rules, and “stay alive” is on top of that list.

No food is served; lucky prisoners are permitted to receive visitors bearing gifts.  Those who have no one outside usually fight, steal, beg or die.  There are small grocery stores run by inmates for anyone who can pay. Most of the 3000 inmates do not live in cells, so they sleep on the streets; if they are spiritual enough, or crafty, they can go to morning prayers at the church run by clergy who are themselves prisoners and be granted permission to stay the night.

Prisoners with money on the outside can buy a private five square-foot cell, and be the envy of those who want the same.  The poorest of the prisoners who cannot support their families outside have their wives and children join them on the streets, inside the walls of Palmasola.  Those visitors can come, get a full body search and be granted access.  They get a stamp on their arms, and only if they can produce that stamp on the way out do they get to leave. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Revenue-Driven Surgery Drives Patients Home Too Early

May 11th 2012

Face Transplant Surgery

Revenue-driven surgery and poor planning drive some surgical patients home too early, concludes a pair of logistical studies conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. The studies show a correlation between readmission rates and how full the hospital was at the time of discharge, suggesting that patients went home before they were healthy enough.

The researchers recommend better planning and other logistical solutions to avoid these problems. "Discharge decisions are made with bed-capacity constraints in mind," says University of Maryland Professor Bruce Golden, the Smith School's France-Merrick Chair in Management Science, who conducted the research with Ph.D. student David Anderson and other colleagues.

"Patient traffic jams present hospitals and medical teams with major, practical concerns, but they can find better answers than sending the patient home at the earliest possible moment," Golden adds. In the studies, Golden and Anderson tracked patient movement at a large, academic medical center located in the United States. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Vitamin K2--New Hope for Parkinson's Patients?

May 11th 2012


Neuroscientist Patrik Verstreken, associated with VIB and KU Leuven, succeeded in undoing the effect of one of the genetic defects that leads to Parkinson's using vitamin K2. His discovery gives hope to Parkinson's patients. This research was done in collaboration with colleagues from Northern Illinois University (US). "It appears from our research that administering vitamin K2 could possibly help patients with Parkinson's. However, more work needs to be done to understand this better," says Patrik Verstreken.

Malfunctioning power plants are at the basis of Parkinson's. If we looked at cells as small factories, then mitochondria would be the power plants responsible for supplying the energy for their operation. They generate this energy by transporting electrons. In Parkinson's patients, the activity of mitochondria and the transport of electrons have been disrupted, resulting in the mitochondria no longer producing sufficient energy for the cell. This has major consequences as the cells in certain parts of the brain will start dying off, disrupting communication between neurons. The results are the typical symptoms of Parkinson's: lack of movement (akinesia), tremors and muscle stiffness.

The exact cause of this neurodegenerative disease is not known. In recent years, however, scientists have been able to describe several genetic defects (mutations) found in Parkinson's patients, including the so-called PINK1 and Parkin mutations, which both lead to reduced mitochondrial activity. By studying these mutations, scientists hope to unravel the mechanisms underlying the disease process. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

NASA Space Telescope Sees the Light from an Alien Super-Earth

May 11th 2012

comet garradd

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has detected light emanating from a "super-Earth" beyond our solar system for the first time. While the planet is not habitable, the detection is a historic step toward the eventual search for signs of life on other planets. "Spitzer has amazed us yet again," said Bill Danchi, Spitzer program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The spacecraft is pioneering the study of atmospheres of distant planets and paving the way for NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to apply a similar technique on potentially habitable planets."

The planet, called 55 Cancri e, falls into a class of planets termed super Earths, which are more massive than our home world but lighter than giant planets like Neptune. The planet is about twice as big and eight times as massive as Earth. It orbits a bright star, called 55 Cancri, in a mere 18 hours. Previously, Spitzer and other telescopes were able to study the planet by analyzing how the light from 55 Cancri changed as the planet passed in front of the star. In the new study, Spitzer measured how much infrared light comes from the planet itself. The results reveal the planet is likely dark, and its sun-facing side is more than 2,000 Kelvin (3,140 degrees Fahrenheit), hot enough to melt metal. Read more ..

The Political Edge

Tea Party Bachmann Recants, and is No Longer a Swiss Miss

May 10th 2012

Michelle Bachmann paramilitary

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) no longer wants to be a Swiss citizen, releasing a statement on May 10 that emphasized she is “a proud American citizen.” According to Bachmann’s office, the former GOP presidential candidate sent a letter on May 10 to the Swiss Consulate office asking it to officially withdraw her Swiss citizenship.

“I took this action because I want to make it perfectly clear: I was born in America and I am a proud American citizen,” Bachmann said in a statement. “I am, and always have been, 100 percent committed to our United States Constitution and the United States of America. As the daughter of an Air Force veteran, stepdaughter of an Army veteran and sister of a Navy veteran, I am proud of my allegiance to the greatest nation the world has ever known."

Bachmann’s office noted that she actually became a citizen by marrying Marcus Bachmann in 1978, though it first gained mass attention this week with reports that said she recently gained the citizenship. The Bachmann children reportedly sought to exercise their eligibility for dual citizenship fairly recently, but Bachmann's office declined to comment on their status out of respect for their privacy. Read more ..

The Mind's Edge

Ancient Math Problem Could Improve Medicine, Microelectronics

May 10th 2012


A hidden facet of a math problem that goes back to Sanskrit scrolls has just been exposed by nanotechnology researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Connecticut. It turns out we've been missing a version of the famous "packing problem," and its new guise could have implications for cancer treatment, secure wireless networks, microelectronics and demolitions, the researchers say.

Called the "filling problem," it seeks the best way to cover the inside of an object with a particular shape, such as filling a triangle with discs of varying sizes. Unlike the traditional packing problem, the discs can overlap. It also differs from the "covering problem" because the discs can't extend beyond the triangle's boundaries. "Besides introducing the problem, we also provided a solution in two dimensions," said Sharon Glotzer, U-M professor of chemical engineering.

That solution makes it immediately applicable to treating tumors using fewer shots with radiation beams or speeding up the manufacturing of silicon chips for microprocessors. The key to solutions in any dimension is to find a shape's "skeleton," said Carolyn Phillips, a postdoctoral fellow at Argonne National Laboratory who recently completed her Ph.D. in Glotzer's group and solved the problem as part of her dissertation. Read more ..

The World on Edge

Can Science and Technology can Help Solve Global Challenges

May 10th 2012

Sumatra village after tsunami

National science academies from 15 countries issued joint statements today calling on world leaders who are about to meet at the upcoming G8 Summit and other international gatherings this year to give greater consideration to the vital role science and technology could play in addressing some of the planet's most pressing challenges. The "G-Science" statements recommend that governments engage the international research community in developing systematic, innovative solutions to three global dilemmas: how to simultaneously meet water and energy needs; how to build resilience to natural and technological disasters; and how to more accurately gauge countries' greenhouse gas emissions to verify progress toward national goals or international commitments.

It is generally well-understood that water and energy are key considerations in global food security given the large demand agriculture places on both. However, one of the G-Science statements says, insufficient attention is being paid to the links between energy and water or, in other words, to the fact that energy requires water and water requires energy. Without considering water and energy together, inefficiencies will occur, increasing shortages of both, the statement warns. It recommends that policymakers recognize the direct interaction between water and energy by pursuing policies that integrate the two, and emphasize conservation and efficiency. Regional and global cooperation will also be required. Read more ..

Islam on Edge

Tortured Afghan Bride Defies Odds, Embarks On New Life

May 10th 2012

Sahar Gul
Sahar Gul, mostly recovered after ordeal (credit: RFE/RL)

Sahar Gul, the young Afghan bride whose harrowing ordeal at the hands of her in-laws attracted international media attention, has received some solace after authorities handed down lengthy prison sentences against her tormentors.

When police in northern Baghlan Province followed a tip and rescued Gul in December, she was lying unconscious on the floor of a dark basement. Her fingers were broken, some of her nails had been torn out, patches of hair were missing, and her frail body was covered with bruises and scars. She was so feeble and traumatized that for weeks she could barely speak.

The Kabul Sessions Court delivered 10-year sentences against Gul's father-in-law, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law, who had been accused of imprisoning and brutally abusing the 15-year-old newlywed. Police are still looking for Gul's husband and brother, both of whom are suspects in the case. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Step aside, Gutenberg: Israel is about to Revolutionize Printing—Again

May 10th 2012

Replica of Gutenburg's printing press

For Benny Landa, it wasn’t enough that his Indigo digital commercial printers revolutionized the industry—making it possible to digitally print everything from photo albums to wine-bottle labels—after Indigo’s 2002 acquisition by Hewlett-Packard.

An American transplant to Israel, Landa (“the Steve Jobs of the printing world”) just unveiled his latest game-changer: a trademarked Nanographic line of sheet-fed and web presses for commercial, packaging and publishing markets. The six printers use Israeli-developed NanoInk to print on any kind of material at high speed and low cost.

“We wanted to help the planet reduce its energy use, and we spent the past 10 years working on that,” Landa announced to Israeli reporters during a May 2 teleconference from Drupa 2012 in Germany, the largest printing equipment exhibition in the world. “On the way, we found nanotechnology. It is a true breakthrough that enables our presses to achieve amazing results.”

By offering a whole new way to apply ink, Israel is now positioned to displace Germany as the king of the multibillion-dollar digital printing industry, he added. It was in Germany that Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1450. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Income Inequality Leads to More U.S. Deaths

May 8th 2012

Unemployment Line in California
Unemployment Line

A new study provides the best evidence to date that higher levels of income inequality in the United States actually lead to more deaths in the country over a period of years. The findings suggest that income inequality at any one point doesn’t work instantaneously - it begins increasing mortality rates 5 years later, and its influence peaks after 7 years, before fading after 12 years. “This finding is striking and it supports the argument that income inequality is a public health concern,” said Hui Zheng, author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

Many other studies have examined the impact of income inequality on mortality and have come up with mixed results, according to Zheng. But he thinks that this study overcomes problems in previous research by using a different data structure and statistical model (called a discrete-time hazard model). Zheng used data from the U.S. National Health Interview Survey from 1986 to 2004 with mortality follow-up data from 1986-2006. His final sample included more than 700,000 people aged 30 and up. Read more ..

Broken Government

ALEC Exempted from Lobbyist Status in Three Separate States

May 8th 2012


This spring has brought constant controversy for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the conservative group of legislators and corporations that pushes model legislation in the states—but it may not be over yet.

The tumult began with pressure from progressive groups Common Cause and Color of Change that caused 14 ALEC members, including Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and Procter & Gamble, to drop out of the group. Thirty-four legislators have also quit.

Then ALEC announced in April it would shelve the task force that approved controversial voter identification laws and “stand your ground” gun laws that spread quickly in the states. And on April 20, Common Cause submitted a whistleblower complaint to the IRS, claiming ALEC is “a corporate lobbying group masquerading as a charity” that promises its donors a tax deduction. Read more ..

China on Edge

South Korea Uncovers 'Stamina' Capsules made of Human Fetal Tissue and Babies from China

May 8th 2012

Lots of Pills

Officials in South Korea seized thousands of pills featuring the powdered flesh of babies and aborted fetuses. Customs agents discovered a shipment of the grim material that brought from China and billed as a ‘cure-all.’ The SBA news service of South Korea reported that the corpses of the dead babies and fetuses are sold by medical staff to companies which then process them into products for sale outside of China. Stored in refrigeration in the homes of the perpetrators, the corpses are then dried by microwave. Then, they are ground into powder and turned into capsules with the admixture of herbs, according to health inspectors and customs agents.

The finding was publicized on May 7, but seizures have been ongoing since August 2011. Veteran customs agents were shocked and troubled by the discoveries. Hospitals and abortion-providers are apparently providing the raw material for the trade. South Korean has detained a number of smugglers who claim that they did not know the ingredients of the offending capsules. Chinese officials now claim that an investigation into this use of human issue is going forward. Read more ..

Environment Edge

Bleak News for Irrigation-Dependent Agriculture in Southwestern U.S.

May 8th 2012

New Mexico irrigation
New Mexico irrigation canal.

Dependent on melting snowpack in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico for much of their water, Rio Grande irrigators in the Paso del Norte borderland are in for more bad news. In their just-released water supply forecast for New Mexico, the National Weather Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service noted that spring runoff forecasts for the Rio Grande into New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir are only 21 percent of normal flows. The large man-made lake supplies water to farmers in southern New Mexico, west Texas and the Juarez Valley in Mexico.

The latest news followed April’s water supply outlook that gauged Elephant Butte storage at 385,800 acre-feet of water in comparison with 466,400 acre-feet at the same time in 2011. For the second year in a row, irrigators below the gates of Elephant Butte are up against the reality of very limited water from the Rio Grande, forcing them to rely on expensive groundwater pumping. The word has gone out to expect only one Rio Grande water delivery this year, just as in 2011.

Last month, the Juarez Valley and Lower El Paso Valley received their water while the Hatch Valley, the farming belt closet to Elephant Butte, was delivered its supply in recent days. According to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District website, irrigators in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley near Las Cruces south to the Texas border should expect their water on May 15. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Increasing Speed of Greenland Glaciers Gives New Insight for Rising Sea Level

May 7th 2012

Antarctic Ice flow
Greenland Glaciers

Changes in the speed that ice travels in more than 200 outlet glaciers indicates that Greenland's contribution to rising sea level in the 21st century might be significantly less than the upper limits some scientists thought possible, a new study shows.

"So far, on average we're seeing about a 30 percent speedup in 10 years," said Twila Moon, a University of Washington doctoral student in Earth and space sciences and lead author of a paper documenting the observations published May 4 in Science.

The faster the glaciers move, the more ice and meltwater they release into the ocean. In a previous study, scientists trying to understand the contribution of melting ice to rising sea level in a warming world considered a scenario in which the Greenland glaciers would double their velocity between 2000 and 2010 and then stabilize at the higher speed, and another scenario in which the speeds would increase tenfold and then stabilize.

At the lower rate, Greenland ice would contribute about four inches to rising sea level by 2100 and at the higher rate the contribution would be nearly 19 inches by the end of this century. But the researchers who conducted that study had little precise data available for how major ice regions, primarily in Greenland and Antarctica, were behaving in the face of climate change. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Black Hole Caught in a Feeding Frenzy

May 7th 2012

Click to select Image

When it comes to scary things in the universe, it's hard to get much scarier than supermassive black holes. These gigantic, invisible menaces lurk in the centers of galaxies, hungrily vacuuming up everything within reach - or so we think. But the truth is more benign. Supermassive black holes snack infrequently, making the recent discovery of a black hole in the act of feeding all the more exciting to astronomers.

"Black holes, like sharks, suffer from a popular misconception that they are perpetual killing machines," said Ryan Chornock of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). "Actually, they're quiet for most of their lives. Occasionally a star wanders too close, and that's when a feeding frenzy begins."

Chornock and his colleagues, led by Suvi Gezari of Johns Hopkins University, reported their discovery of a feeding supermassive black hole in the May 3 issue of the journal Nature. If a star passes too close to a black hole, tidal forces can rip it apart. Its constituent gases then swirl in toward the black hole. Friction heats the gases and causes them to glow. By searching for newly glowing supermassive black holes, astronomers can spot them in the midst of a feast. Read more ..

After the Holocaust

The Legacy of a Chinese Diplomat who Saved Thousands of Jewish Refugees

May 7th 2012

Shanghai memorial Yitzhak Rabin
Memorial to rescuers of Shanghai, signed by Yitzhak Rabin.

Tens of thousands of Jews living in Austria wanted to leave their country after Germany annexed Austria in March 1938 and started persecuting the Jews. The persecution of Jews in Austria (and in Europe in general) came to a peak on November 9-10, 1938 with a series of attacks on Jews known as “Kristallnacht” (also known as the Night of Broken Glass). During Kristallnacht, Jewish homes, shops, towns and villages were ransacked, as SA stormtroopers and civilians destroyed buildings with sledgehammers, leaving the streets covered in pieces of smashed windows—the origin of the name “Night of Broken Glass.”

In Vienna alone, 95 synagogues or houses of prayer were destroyed. However, in order for Jews to leave Austria, they needed to have a visa from a foreign country. This was not easy, especially after the July 6-13, 1938 Evian Conference.

This was a conference initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to discuss the issue of increasing numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, but the result of the conference was that 31 countries (out of a total of 32, with the Dominican Republic as the only exception) refused to increase or even allow Jewish immigrants due to their fear of Nazi Germany.

Dr. Ho Feng-Shan, the young Chinese consul-general in Vienna from May 1938 to May 1940, risked his life and career and acting against the orders of his superior, Chen Jie, the Chinese ambassador to Germany, issued visa to any Jew who requested one. Read more ..

Greece on Edge

More Uncertainty for Greece after an Uncertain Election

May 7th 2012

Golden Dawn - Greece
Flag of Golden Dawn party of Greece.

Greek voters have pushed the country into more political uncertainty after no party garnered enough votes to form a government. Results on May 7 from parliamentary elections the day before show the New Democracy party winning about 19 percent of the votes. That is the most of any single party, but the percentage falls far short of the number needed to form a government on its own.

The Socialist PASOK party won less than 14 percent of the vote, after taking 44 percent just three years ago to take power in Greece. The leftist, anti-EU bailout Syriza party won about 17 percent in Sunday May 6 election.

New Democracy party leader Antonis Samaras now has three days to form a coalition government. He is expected to begin coalition talks later on May 7. Failure to form a coalition after three days leaves the task up to smaller groups. New Democracy has long been identified with business and military leaders associated with the dictatorship of the 1970s, while it has also been an ally to NATO and the U.S.  Relations between PASOK and the U.S./NATO have historically been more fractious, especially during the period in the late 1980s and into the 1990s under Prime Minister Andreas Papandreas. Papandreas was the son and father of Greek premiers. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Climate Change ‘Time Machine' Experiment Opens In Australia

May 6th 2012

mexico drought

One of the world’s most complex experiments on the impact of rising levels of carbon dioxide is taking shape in eastern Australia, where giant steel frames nine stories high have been built on native woodland.  The project near Sydney will mimic future climatic conditions by simulating higher atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is pumped into an environmental “time machine” on the outskirts of Sydney, aiming to predict how vegetation will react to future climate change.

The experiment features giant cylindrical steel frames 28 meters tall that rise above native woodland, called bushland.  They will simulate elevated levels of CO2 that the planet could experience in the next half century. Professor David Ellsworth from the University of Western Sydney is in charge of this unique project. “We have six of these arrays of pipes up in the woodland designed to emit carbon dioxide in a computer-controlled system so we can study how this ecosystem responds a rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration,” he said. Read more ..

The War in Afganistan

Obama's Pull-Out Pledge puts DoD on Edge in Afghanistan

May 6th 2012

US 10 MT departing
Members of 10 Mountain Division Infantry

President Obama's pledge to not build any permanent military outposts in Afghanistan could throw a wrench in the Pentagon's postwar plans for the country, once U.S. troops leave in 2014. The president's promise, made during Tuesday's nationally televised speech from Afghanistan, is an integral piece of a postwar agreement between Washington and Kabul.

President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai formally agreed to the plan on Tuesday, which lays the foundation for future American involvement in Afghanistan for the next decade.

Roughly 23,000 American soldiers are scheduled to leave Afghanistan this summer. The remaining 68,000 U.S. troops are expected to completely withdraw from the country by 2014. The postwar deal signed on May 1 will govern U.S-Afghan operations from 2014 until 2024. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Waking Embryos Before They Are Born

May 6th 2012

Chicken Flock

Under some conditions, the brains of embryonic chicks appear to be awake well before those chicks are ready to hatch out of their eggs. That's according to an imaging study published online on May 3 in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, in which researchers woke chick embryos inside their eggs by playing loud, meaningful sounds to them. Playing meaningless sounds to the embryos wasn't enough to rouse their brains. The findings may have implications not only for developing chicks and other animals, but also for prematurely born infants, the researchers say. Pediatricians have worried about the effects of stimulating brains that are still under construction, especially as modern medicine continues to push back the gestational age at which preemies can reliably survive. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Higher Risk of Birth Defects from Assisted Reproduction

May 5th 2012


A University of Adelaide study has identified the risk of major birth defects associated with different types of assisted reproductive technology. In the most comprehensive study of its kind in the world, researchers from the University's Robinson Institute have compared the risk of major birth defects for each of the reproductive therapies commonly available internationally, such as: IVF (in vitro fertilization), ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) and ovulation induction. They also compared the risk of birth defects after fresh and frozen embryo transfer.

The results are being presented in Barcelona, Spain at the World Congress on Building Consensus in Gynecology, Infertility and Perinatology. "While assisted reproductive technologies are associated with an increased risk of major birth defects overall, we found significant differences in risk between available treatments," says the lead author of the study, Associate Professor Michael Davies from the University of Adelaide's Robinson Institute and School of Paediatrics and Reproductive Health.

Researchers linked a census of more than 6100 assisted reproductive technology births in South Australia to a registry of more than 300,000 births and 18,000 birth defects. They compared risks of birth defects across all infertility treatments to pregnancies in women with no record of infertility. They also compared successive pregnancies for women.


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