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ATHEISM and HUMANISM

1-22-20 Architect of CIA's 'enhanced interrogation' testifies at Guantánamo tribunal
A US psychologist who helped develop the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" techniques has given evidence before a military tribunal in Guantánamo Bay. James Mitchell said he had only agreed to testify there because families of the 9/11 victims were present. Dr Mitchell and fellow psychologist Bruce Jessen developed the controversial interrogation methods, which included waterboarding. Five men held at Guantánamo are due to go on trial over the 9/11 attacks. The five include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged architect of the operation that targeted Washington and New York in 2001. Mr Mohammad has alleged he was repeatedly tortured during his detention in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. CIA documents confirm he was subjected to waterboarding - simulated drowning - 183 times. The four others - Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi and Mustafa al-Hawsawi - were also interrogated by the CIA in a network of overseas prisons, known as "black sites", before they were passed on to the US military. At a pre-trial hearing in Guantánamo, lawyers for the accused are seeking to have evidence statements that their clients made to the FBI thrown out because of the CIA interrogation methods used to extract them. A group of relatives of 9/11 victims are observing the hearing in the court's spectator's gallery, although hidden from view by a curtain, the New York Times reported. Dr Mitchell, appearing as a witness, told one of the defence lawyers that he had agreed to testify "for the victims and families. Not you". "You folks have been saying untrue and malicious things about me and Dr Jessen for years," he added, according to the New York Times. The defendants looked on without showing emotion, reporters said. The hearing is expected to last two weeks. The full trial has been scheduled to start on 11 January 2021. All five defendants are charged with war crimes including terrorism and the murder of almost 3,000 people. If found guilty, they face the death penalty.

1-22-20 Holocaust row seethes as leaders gather in Israel
Peter Feuerman's birth certificate showed nothing of his real background. His Jewish parents escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto while his mother was pregnant with him during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The couple survived only after being smuggled into a gardener's building at the home of a contact they had made in the Polish underground. Dr Feuerman was born in 1944 with what he described as "false so-called Aryan documents" to hide his Jewish identity. His parents escaped before the Nazis demolished the ghetto, where at its height an estimated 400,000 Jews were trapped inside a 3.4 sq km (1.3 sq mile) area. Most were murdered at death camps or died of starvation or disease, among up to 3 million Polish Jews murdered by the Nazis. Now he speaks of a "political game" over the legacy of the Holocaust - because as he nears his 80s the stories of mass murder and survival from the start of Feuerman's life are at the centre of a row about the distortion of history by rival nationalist leaders in Europe. They ordered coffees but some sipped vodka and the talk turned to the Polish President Andrzej Duda. Mr Duda has said he will not attend this week's Holocaust remembrance ceremony at Yad Vashem, the official memorial centre in Jerusalem. His decision has threatened to overshadow the event which will bristle with world leaders and bring parts of Jerusalem to a standstill. It marks the 75th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. More than a million people, mostly Jews, were murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz. The event is one of the biggest political gatherings in Israel's history - President Macron of France, US Vice-President Mike Pence and Britain's Prince Charles are due to speak. It will also focus on fighting anti-Semitism today, taking place four days before the annual remembrance service at Auschwitz itself, hosted by Poland.

1-22-20 South Korea transgender soldier to sue over dismissal
A transgender soldier in South Korea says she will sue the army after it dismissed her for violating regulations following her sex change. Byun Hui-soo, 22, joined the army as a man but had gender reassignment surgery last year after suffering from gender dysphoria and mental health issues. She accused the military of "deep-rooted intolerance" of sexual minorities. South Korea remains conservative on matters of sexual identity. Ms Byun's case has led to debate over the treatment of transgender soldiers as well as those from the wider LGBT community. All able-bodied South Korean men are required to carry out military service for nearly two years. During an emotional 45-minute appearance, the staff sergeant said she had wanted to stay in the army after her operation, which took place in Thailand in November. "I will continue to fight until the day I can remain to serve in the army. I'll challenge the decision until the end, to the Supreme Court," she said. She had not planned on having gender reassignment surgery, she said, but was recommended to do so by doctors at a military hospital where she was sent after suffering mental health problems. They arose from gender dysphoria - defined as distress from the internal conflict between physical gender and gender identity. "It was an extremely difficult decision to let my base know of my identity, but once I did, I felt much better," she said. "I thought I would finish serving in the army and then go through the transition surgery and then re-enter the army as a female soldier. But my depression got too severe," she added. Ms Byun said she had not expected to be forced to leave the army. Her superior officers had visited her in hospital and had been discussing where she would be redeployed after her treatment, she said. They had suggested she could become a role model for LGBT people in the armed forces, she said. "Apart from my gender identity, I want to show everyone that I can also be one of the great soldiers who protect this country," she added.

1-20-20 Virginia gun rally: Thousands converge on Richmond
Thousands of gun rights supporters have converged on the centre of the US city of Richmond to protest against tighter gun laws in the state of Virginia. Many arrived in the state capital openly carrying an assortment of firearms including assault rifles. Security is tight and a cordon is in force round the state legislature, where guns cannot be carried. Virginia's gun laws had been seen as permissive, but Democratic lawmakers passed restrictions in January. This angered gun-rights activists, many making long trips from other US states to attend the rally. The protest has raised fears of a repeat of the clashes seen in 2017 in the Virginia city of Charlottesville. A woman was killed there when a neo-Nazi drove his car into a protest against a white nationalist rally. President Donald Trump, with an eye on this year's presidential election, again tweeted support for the Richmond protesters and a defence of the US Constitution's 2nd Amendment on the right to bear arms. The organisers of the rally, the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), said they expected up to 50,000 people to attend. Democratic Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency, allowing him to ban guns from Capitol Square. Queues could be seen at entrances to the "pen". Police are using metal detectors to check for weapons. But elsewhere in the city, many activists proudly displayed them. Seven members of a neo-Nazi extremist group known as The Base, at least three of whom planned to travel to the rally on Monday, were arrested last week, the FBI announced. Armed militia members and right-wing extremists were expected at the rally. But the local Antifa, or anti-fascist movement, urged its followers not to go, citing safety issues, and said no counter-demonstration was planned. However, some Antifa activists who agree with some of the aims of the gun lobby, are attending.

1-20-20 Virginia gun rally: Authorities gear up for unrest in Richmond
Pro-gun campaigners are gathering in the US city of Richmond for a rally that the Virginia authorities fear could turn violent. State governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency ahead of the protest, banning firearms from the area around the Capitol building. The Lobby Day rally is an annual event, but several gun-control bills passed in January by the Democrat-led Virginia legislature - in a state where gun rights have historically been permissive - have angered gun owners and activists. The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group which organised the rally, said it expected as many as 50,000 people. Many of the buses laid on from neighbouring states were sold out before the weekend. Various groups including armed militia, right-wing extremists and local Antifa, or anti-fascist movement, were expected to attend. Christian Yingling, who led the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia during the violent clashes in Charlottesville in 2017, told the BBC he was hoping for a big turnout. "I'd like to see a lot of people, I really would. I know from chatter online that a lot of militia types are coming in from some distance... Texas, Illinois, elsewhere," he said. He said he hoped the rally would pass peacefully but feared it would not. "I think there's enormous potential for something to go wrong." At a rural community hall about 20 miles south of Richmond, dozens of people from different militia groups gathered on Sunday night to talk about tactics for the following day and about the broader threat to gun rights they see in Virginia. When Greg Trojan, one of the founders of the VCDL, asked how many people had travelled in from outside the state, more than half raised their hands. Many at the meeting said they hoped for a peaceful day. Some said they anticipated violence. (Webmaster's comment: You sell guns to white male brutes and you will get what they really want to do: Be Violent and Kill.)

1-20-20 What happens to the American-born children of asylum-seekers in Canada?
For mixed-nationality families, it can mean a painful choice: take their American children back to the parents' home country or have them return to the United States. t age 13, Sandra Morales traveled with her sister from Guatemala to Detroit where she eventually met her husband, Daniel Roblero. Like her, he'd left Guatemala as a teenager. The couple didn't have legal status in the U.S., but their six kids are all American citizens. They had never thought about leaving the country until President Donald Trump took office. "When Trump started to say there would be tougher laws against immigrants," Morales said, her husband, who had already been deported from the U.S. twice, told her: "I'm afraid. If I get caught again, what's going to become of the children if they catch you? What will the children do, and where will they be sent?" she said. Daniel Roblero had brothers living in Ontario who had managed to regularize their status — they encouraged him to come north. He and Morales also heard news stories about the country's welcoming attitude toward refugees, and ultimately decided to travel to Canada in March 2017, leaving a network of friends and extended family in Detroit. Their oldest son, Gimder Roblero, now 18, took it especially hard. "I'm not going to lie, but I cried when I came here because I'm so used to living in Detroit," Gimder Roblero said. Despite living so close to the border for most of his life, he said, "It was my first time coming here, and it felt weird for me." Now, as the family seeks asylum in Canada — which hasn't been favorable thus far — they face a difficult decision about whether to keep the family together or send their children back to the U.S. to live with other relatives. They're not alone. It was around the time that the Morales-Roblero family arrived in Ontario that Canada began to see a rise in requests for asylum from people who previously lived in the United States. As a part of that, said Andrew Brouwer, a refugee attorney at Legal Aid of Ontario, "We've seen more U.S.-citizen kids, of course, coming to Canada together with their non-U.S.-citizen parents."

1-19-20 Doris Miller: US Navy aircraft carrier to honour black sailor
The US Navy is to name its new aircraft carrier after a black sailor who fought in World War II. Doris Miller earned the Navy Cross for his actions during the Japanese attack on Hawaii's Pearl Harbor in 1941. At the time, the US military was strictly segregated on racial grounds. Miller became an icon for black Americans in the conflict. Naming the ship after the heroic sailor comes more than 78 years after the events that made his name. It will be the first time an aircraft carrier has been named after an African American. Until now, they have been named after famous battles, military leaders and US presidents. The official announcement is scheduled for Monday - Martin Luther King Jr's birthday - at Pearl Harbor. The bay is the site of a massive US naval station and the base of the country's Pacific Fleet. Miller was born in 1919 in Texas, the third of four sons. He was named Doris, as his mother had thought she was having a girl, but often went by the nickname "Dorie". Jim Crow laws - a system of policies that denied black Americans their rights and segregated them from their white neighbours - dominated in the south at the time. After dropping out of high school and struggling to find work, Miller joined the Navy in 1939 at the age of 20. "Navy policy at that time limited blacks to those duties that were manual, that they thought didn't require a whole lot of intellect," historian Regina Akers told CBS News. After training, Miller was made a mess attendant - someone who took care of the white officers - and in 1940 was assigned to the battleship West Virginia. Miller ran to help his fellow sailors. He first moved his mortally wounded captain to shelter, before manning an anti-aircraft gun - strictly against regulations, as a black sailor - and firing back at the hundreds of Japanese aircraft overhead. "It wasn't hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine," he said afterwards, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command website. He fired until he ran out of ammunition, before helping his wounded shipmates. He abandoned ship with the survivors as the West Virginia sank to the bottom of the harbour.

1-17-20 Boasting about war crimes
“Donald Trump is the war crimes president,” said Andrew Sullivan. During the 2016 campaign, he brazenly vowed to bring back torture as a military strategy and “exulted” in telling war crimes stories, such as an apocryphal tale about a general who used bullets dipped in pig’s blood to kill Muslims. Once in office, Trump nominated Gina Haspel as CIA director, ignoring objections that she oversaw torture of suspected terrorists under the Bush administration. Trump recently pardoned war criminal Eddie Gallagher, a rogue Navy SEAL called “freaking evil” by his SEAL colleagues, who turned him in for allegedly shooting and stabbing Iraqis—including civilians—for fun. Trump called Gallagher “one of the ‘great fighters’ in the U.S. military,” invited him to a party at Mar-a-Lago, and is likely to trot him out at campaign events. Before Trump, it was “unimaginable” for a president to exalt a war criminal—or to threaten to commit war crimes himself. Last week, the commander-in-chief warned he’d destroy cultural sites in Iran—a violation of international law—and backed down only after Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the military wouldn’t comply with such an order. For Trump, “military honor and the laws of war” are for chumps.

1-17-20 Letting Trump court cases drag on
Why are the courts taking so long to decide cases crucial to President Trump’s impeachment and chances of winning the 2020 election? asked Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick. Federal courts have proven they can act “very quickly when circumstances demand it.” During Watergate, the Supreme Court even came back into session in July to rule on Congress’ demand for President Richard Nixon’s Oval Office tapes, ruling unanimously against Nixon. During the legal battle over the 2000 presidential election, the Supreme Court moved at “warp speed” to award the election to George W. Bush. But now that Trump is trying “to run out the clock” on court cases about his financial records and his refusal to let anyone who served in his administration testify before Congress, the courts—especially the Supreme Court—seem to be in no rush. Had the courts quickly ruled on the congressional subpoena issue, the House impeachment hearings might have included witnesses whose testimony would be badly damaging to Trump. Americans might also know by now why Trump is so desperate to hide his tax returns. Are Republican-appointed judges moving so slowly on crucial Trump cases for a reason? “Sometimes, not resolving a case in time for relief is a decision.”

1-17-20 Please leave
Iraq has asked the U.S. to develop a plan to withdraw its 5,300 troops from the country, but the Trump administration is refusing to do so. After a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad earlier this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and asked him to send representatives to Iraq to discuss withdrawal. “There are American forces entering Iraq and American drones in its sky without permission from the Iraqi government,” Mahdi said. Pompeo said Mahdi had mischaracterized the call, and insisted that the U.S. would continue its anti-ISIS mission. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the State Department and Pentagon are preparing to cut some $250 million in military aid to Iraq if Baghdad evicts U.S. troops. (Webmaster's comment: We have no right to have armed forces there. It is not our country!)

1-17-20 Seizing $7.2 billion to pay for the wall
President Trump is preparing to divert $7.2 billion in defense funding for border wall construction this year, five times what Congress authorized in the 2020 budget, The Washington Post reported this week. The money will again be repurposed from military construction projects and counter-narcotics initiatives. Dozens of Pentagon projects were halted last year, including the construction of schools on military bases, after the Trump administration reallocated $3.6 billion. Federal judges blocked that move, but last week the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the injunction, saying the county of El Paso, Texas and an activist group likely lack standing to challenge the diversion. Administration officials plan to build 885 miles of new fencing by spring 2022.

1-17-20 No sanctuary
Texas governor Greg Abbott said the state would no longer take in refugees, taking advantage of new federal policy letting states opt out of refugee resettlement. The policy has been challenged by pro-immigration groups, and has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge. If courts uphold the rule, it would be a marked shift for Texas, which in the past 18 years has taken in more refugees than any state except California. Though the mayors of Texas’ largest cities have urged Abbott to keep taking refugees, the governor said the state should focus on “those who are already here.” Forty-two governors have agreed to continue taking refugees; Texas is the first state to refuse. Immigration advocates said that opting out of the resettlement program wouldn’t keep refugees from moving to the state. “You can take the bus the next day and come to Texas,” one advocate said.

1-17-20 Deportees dumped
As part of its “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala, the U.S. has deported dozens of Central American asylum seekers to Guatemala with no planning for their resettlement. In some cases, families said, they were put on U.S. government flights without knowing what country they were going to or what to do once they arrived. Of the more than 143 Hondurans and Salvadorans sent to Guatemala since the deportation program started last month, only five have applied for asylum there, reports The Washington Post. Many are believed to have headed north to try to enter the U.S. again. Plagued by the same gang and drug violence that bedevils Honduras and El Salvador, Guatemala is not a safe country. Last year, some 264,000 Guatemalans were detained at the U.S. border—more than any other nationality.

1-17-20 FBI arrests three more members of right wing extremist group 'The Base'
Three more alleged members of a US neo-Nazi hate group have been arrested in Georgia, authorities say, in what appears to be a national operation. The arrests came on the same day that three suspected members of the same group were detained in Maryland and Delaware. All six men are reported members of white supremacist group The Base. One of the three was a Canadian army reservist who had been missing for several months after fleeing Canada. Patrik Matthews is believed to have illegally crossed into the US after his alleged affiliations with The Base were discovered. He was arrested alongside two others in the Maryland and Delaware operation. The FBI said Mr Matthews and two others planned to travel to a pro-gun rally on Monday in Richmond, Virginia. Virginia governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency on Wednesday ahead of the rally, to block attendees from carrying weapons near the grounds of the Capitol building, citing credible threats of violence. According to an arrest warrant from the Floyd County Police Department, the three Georgia men were arrested after an undercover FBI sting operation, and charged with attempted murder and participating in a criminal organisation. According to arrest affidavits, The Base is a racially motivated violent extremist group that sought to "accelerate the downfall of the United States government, incite a race war and establish a white ethno-state." Luke Austin Lane, Michael Helterbrand, and Jacob Kaderli were planning to "overthrow the government and murder a Bartow County couple" who they believed to be Antifa members, Floyd County police said in a statement. An unnamed member of The Base who crossed into the US illegally met with two members of those arrested in Georgia in October 2019 to discuss revenge attacks against his enemies, according to charging documents. The gang member, presumed to be Mr Matthews, is said to have called for the "death penalty" against anyone engaged in anti-fascist activities. (Webmaster's comment: Trump's support base is being arrested.)

1-17-20 Boeing: The gang that couldn’t fly straight
Amazingly, Boeing’s reputation has managed to hit a new low, said Natalie Kitroeff in The New York Times. The company released a catastrophically damning trove of documents to congressional investigators last week that included “conversations among Boeing pilots and other employees about software issues and other problems with flight simulators” for the 737 Max, the plane involved in two fatal crashes. Employees distrusted the plane and the training pilots would get to fly it. “Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft?” asked one in an email exchange. “I wouldn’t.” Another said the Max was “designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys.” The messages “further complicate Boeing’s tense relationship” with the Federal Aviation Administration, which can’t be pleased to read the disdain with which Boeing treated regulators. “I still haven’t been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year,” one employee said in 2018. The memorably incriminating quotes aren’t even the worst part here, said Dominic Gates and Steve Miletich in the Seattle Times. Boeing might say these were just employees blowing off steam, but there’s no way to explain away more “sober” internal emails that show “a culture that prioritized cost cutting over everything else.” The fact that we’re finding out about this now underlines “deep-rooted cultural problems at Boeing,” said Brooke Sutherland in Bloomberg.com. The company claims it brought these documents to the FAA in December as a “reflection of our commitment to transparency.” Please. That was nine months after the agency grounded the Max. “It defies reason that no one at Boeing knew that the company was sitting on another mountain of troubling messages.” After this episode, it’s going to be even harder to win back public confidence in the Max, said David Gelles in The New York Times. “According to Boeing’s own research, 40 percent of travelers are unwilling to fly” on the Max—if it ever returns to service. Boeing once “represented the pinnacle of engineering,” but its relentless focus on safety gave way to “obsessing over the bottom line.” Said Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the heroic pilot who landed a plane on the Hudson River, “We’ve seen this movie before, in places like Enron.” (Webmaster's comment: All corporations are the same: Profits First, Safety Second!)

1-17-20 A mugging in the hospital
A $25,000-a-year health-care plan didn’t protect me from a bad actor in an emergency situation, said Cynthia Weber Cascio. About a year ago, I developed acute appendicitis that came on rapidly overnight. “I felt so sick that we chose a nearby hospital, one we have long trusted for our family’s health,” and the ER doctor there said I would need surgery immediately. As I was about to be wheeled into the operating room, the surgeon informed me he didn’t take my insurance. “After asking about our occupations, he announced his fee for my laparoscopic appendectomy would be $15,000.” But there was no time for discussion. The surgeon’s bill later arrived totaling $17,000, and our insurance company suggested we negotiate the bill directly with the provider. That’s “akin to telling the victim of a mugging to ask the thief for her purse back. It’s uncomfortable and intimidating.” And emergency situations are “fertile ground for the opportunistic and unscrupulous. What if I had told the surgeon I thought his fee was too high? What would have happened?” Ultimately, I went to the Maryland attorney general’s office, which wrote a letter to the hospital, and we eventually settled on a payment of $3,000—an out-of-pocket cost that was still $670 above the customary rate for the procedure in our area.

1-17-20 Still a crime to take your life
When will Malaysia stop persecuting those who attempt suicide? asked M. Veera Pandiyan. Indonesia and the Philippines don’t lock up survivors of suicide attempts, and authoritarian Singapore this month decriminalized suicide. But while our Asian neighbors are busy treating their mentally ill citizens, Malaysia keeps incarcerating them. In 2017, just two weeks after trying to end her life, a 24-year-old woman had to appear in court, where a judge told her sternly that she must pay a $500 fine or go to jail for three months. The government says it is looking at changing the law, but the process is painfully slow. In the meantime, people are suffering. Ten percent of teens contemplated suicide in 2017, up from 8 percent in 2012. That might be because Malaysia currently has only 7,000 psychiatrists for a population of 32 million, and we’d need 20 times as many to reach the ratio that doctors say is necessary. Those Malaysians who can find a shrink often can’t afford one, because mental-health treatment isn’t covered by most health-insurance plans. But most Malaysians won’t even try to seek help, because of “stigma, discrimination, and neglect.” Depression is seen here as shameful. To help the mentally ill, the government needs to start at the top—first, by repealing our “archaic laws.”

1-17-20 Finding religion in the fine print
“How did God make it into millions of consumer contracts?” asked David Lazarus in the Los Angeles Times. Consider the one-year extended warranty offered by the eyewear chain LensCrafters. It excludes “‘damage from abuse’ as well as damage from ‘fire, collision, vandalism, theft, etc.’” But apparently that’s not enough: It also exempts damage resulting from “acts of God.” That would seem to include, “well, everything.” The roots of this clause can be traced as far back as a property-related case decided by an English court in 1581, which ruled that an “act of God”—a death—made the deal in question “null and void.” In recent years, it has evolved into “legal shorthand for unanticipated events beyond human control.” But according to one legal scholar, “there’s a reluctance to use a different phrase” because that one “has come to be well understood.”

1-17-20 Iran: An uprising over downed plane
Iranians have staged massive demonstrations against their oppressive theocratic regime in the past, said Jim Geraghty in NationalReview.com, but “this latest round of protests feels a little different.” After initially blaming mechanical problems, the government was forced to admit last week that its military—on high alert because it had just launched a retaliatory missile attack against U.S. bases in Iraq—accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane shortly after it took off from Tehran’s airport, killing 176 people, including 82 Iranians. Protesters took to the streets across the country, shouting “Death to liars!” and calling Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a “murderer.” They tore up photos of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani—whose death Iran was avenging with its missile attack—and replaced them with images of dead passengers. The regime predictably blamed “U.S. adventurism,” and “yet a lot of Iranians are calling that nonsense—even after being subjected to anti-American propaganda for a decade.” Clearly, they’ve reached “their breaking point.”

1-17-20 Putin’s shake-up
The entire Russian government resigned this week after President Vladimir Putin announced sweeping constitutional changes that could secure his hold on power long after his presidential term ends in 2024. The proposed constitutional amendments would strengthen the powers of the parliament and prime minister at the expense of the presidency. Putin’s critics claim he is looking for ways to retain control after his presidency ends, one option being to become prime minister with greater powers. He previously swapped places with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 to get around the constitution’s two-term limit for the presidency. The new scheme will “allow Putin to remain in charge for an indefinite period,” said analyst Kirill Rogov. Putin said the new constitution will be ratified by referendum.

1-17-20 Being Moral
63% of Americans say that people can be moral without having a belief in God, while 36% think that people must have a belief in God to behave morally.

1-17-20 Pope vs. pope
A fight inside the Vatican took an unexpected turn this week after retired Pope Benedict XVI demanded his name be taken off a book that is widely seen as a critique of his successor. From the Depths of Our Hearts, co-written with Cardinal Robert Sarah, offers a staunch defense of priestly celibacy. It is being released just weeks before Pope Francis is expected to announce whether married men may be ordained in the Amazon to combat a shortage of priests there. Francis’ supporters claim that conservative clerics manipulated the 92-year-old Benedict into putting his name to the book. Following the outcry, Benedict said he no longer wished to be credited as co-author of the volume.

1-17-20 Brazil's culture minister sparks outrage by echoing Goebbels
A video in which Brazil's culture minister uses parts of a speech by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany's propaganda boss, has sparked outrage. In the clip posted on the ministry's Twitter page, Roberto Alvim details an award for "heroic" and "national" art. Lohengrin by Wagner, Hitler's favourite composer, plays in the background. Reacting to the controversy, Mr Alvim said the speech was a "rhetorical coincidence". Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been urged to fire him. Mr Bolsonaro, a former army captain with a conservative social agenda, has frequently accused Brazil's artists and cultural productions including schoolbooks and movies of "left-wing bias". He has not commented. In the six-minute video detailing the National Arts Awards, Mr Alvim says: "The Brazilian art of the next decade will be heroic and will be national, will be endowed with great capacity for emotional involvement... deeply linked to the urgent aspirations of our people, or else it will be nothing." Parts of it are identical to a speech quoted in the book Joseph Goebbels: A Biography, by German historian Peter Longerich, who has written several works on the Holocaust. "The German art of the next decade will be heroic, it will be steely-romantic, it will be factual and completely free of sentimentality, it will be national with great Pathos and committed, or it will be nothing." There was widespread condemnation on social media. But there were others who praised the video. In a post on his Facebook page, Mr Alvim said "the left was doing a fallacious remote association" between the two speeches, and that "there was nothing wrong with his sentence". "The whole speech was based on a nationalistic ideal for the Brazilian art and there was a coincidence with ONE sentence of a speech by Goebbels. I didn't quote him and I'd NEVER do it... But the sentence itself is perfect." He did not comment on the music that plays in the video. (Webmaster's comment: The Nazi culture and beliefs are are permeating the world's political leaders.)

1-17-20 Panama: Seven people found dead after suspected exorcism
The bodies of seven people have been found in a mass grave in an indigenous area of Panama where members of a religious sect were believed to be performing exorcisms, officials say. The victims included a pregnant woman, 32, and five of her children, aged one to 11. The sixth was a neighbour, 17. Fifteen other people were freed. Ten people have been arrested on suspicion of murder. The suspects and all victims were thought to belong to the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous community. The grave was discovered after three villagers escaped and made their way to a local hospital last weekend, prosecutor Rafael Baloyes said. They then alerted authorities about several families being held by an indigenous-run sect. On Wednesday, police raided the community, located in a jungle region in north-west Panama some 250km (155 miles) from the capital Panama City. "They were performing a ritual inside the structure. In that ritual, there were people being held against their will, being mistreated," said Mr Baloyes. "All of these rites were aimed at killing them if they didn't repent their sins". Inside the makeshift church, officers found a naked woman, machetes, knives and a ritually sacrificed goat, Mr Baloyes said. The site was controlled by a religious sect called the New Light of God, believed to have been operating in the region for about three months. According to Mr Baloyes, the kidnapping and torture started last Saturday after one of the members claimed to have received "a message from God". The victims were then kidnapped from their homes, beaten and killed. The suspects, who include a minor, are expected to appear in court on Friday or Saturday. One of them is the father of the pregnant woman found in the grave, located some 2km from the makeshift church. Those rescued had bodily injuries and reportedly included at least two pregnant women and some children. Exorcism is a religious or spiritual ritual carried out to supposedly cure people of demonic possession. It remains controversial, in part due to its depiction in popular culture and horror films.

1-17-20 Chinese birth rate falls to lowest in seven decades
China's birth rate has fallen to its lowest since the formation of the People's Republic of China 70 years ago - despite the easing of the much criticised one-child policy. The birth rate was 10.48 per 1,000 in 2019 - the lowest since 1949, the National Bureau of Statistics said. The number of babies born in 2019 dropped by 580,000 to 14.65 million. The country's birth rate has been falling for years - posing a challenge for the world's second-biggest economy. Despite the birth rate falling, a lower death rate meant China's population hit 1.4bn in 2019, inching up from 1.39bn. But the falling birth rate is raising fears of a "demographic timebomb" - that is, a smaller working-age population having to support a bigger, retired population. China's birth rate is lower than the US, which stood at 12 per 1,000 people in 2017 (the most recent data available), but higher than Japan's figure of 8. In England and Wales, the birth rate was 11.6 in 2019, compared with 9 in Scotland. In Northern Ireland the figure was 12.1 in 2018 (the most recent data available). The overall global birth rate was 18.65 in 2017, according to the World Bank. In 1979, the Chinese government introduced a nationwide "one-child policy" - with various exceptions - to slow population growth. Families that violated the rules faced fines, loss of employment and sometimes forced abortions. But the policy has been blamed for a severe gender imbalance - with males still outnumbering females by more than 30 million in the 2019 figures. In 2015, the government ended its one-child policy, allowing couples to have two children. But that reform has failed to reverse the country's falling birth rate - despite a two-year increase immediately afterwards. Experts say this is because the relaxing of the policy did not come with other relevant changes that support family life - such as monetary support for child care and increased paternity leave. Most people can't afford more than one child, they say.

1-17-20 The Goop Lab on Netflix shows how easy it is to fall for bad science
Psychic readings, energy healing and vampire facials are just a few of the adventures had by actor and alternative health guru Gwyneth Paltrow and her team in her forthcoming Netflix series The Goop Lab. Goop, Paltrow’s natural health company, has already become a byword for unrestrained woo, but the TV series takes things to the next level. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can stick your fingers in your ears and pretend it isn’t happening. There is unlikely to be any escape from The Goop Lab after it is released on 24 January, judging by the current explosion of interest in Goop’s latest offering, a candle scented like Paltrow’s vagina, which has reportedly sold out. (Webmaster's comment: A absolute obscenity! The guys love it!) Like a car-crash unfolding in front of me, once I started watching The Goop Lab I couldn’t look away. In fact, it is so bad it is good – a masterclass in how to defend pseudoscience with a few logical fallacies, non-sequiturs and bit of cherry picking. Take the episode on energy healing, also known as Reiki healing. Practitioners say they can see energy fields around people’s bodies that are invisible to the rest of us and manipulate them with their hands. This looks as outlandish as it sounds. While the “patient” lies on a massage table, the practitioner, Paltrow’s personal healer, lightly touches or waves his hands over their body to twiddle their fields into place. Members of the Goop team jerk and arch their backs theatrically – they are either true believers or are going to heroic lengths to suck up to their boss. Most say they feel better afterwards, although one says it felt like an exorcism. As proof that it works, the show wheels out a 57-year-old man who says the technique cured him of numbness in his legs after cancer treatment. But this kind of nerve damage often fades with time, and the show doesn’t say how many people try it without success.

1-16-20 US officials ground drones over espionage fears
US officials may put an end to a civilian drone programme because of their concerns about the unmanned aerial vehicles that are made in China. The officials are apparently worried that the Chinese-made drones could be used to spy on people in the US. After a volcano exploded in Hawaii in May 2018, US scientists used drones to save a man from the lava: "Follow the drone," they said. He made it through the jungle. Drones save people. They also map terrain, survey land and inspect pipelines. The scientists use drones for these and other purposes on a daily basis, and they have bragged about their successes in the field. Many of the aircraft are made by Chinese companies, though. They are now grounded because of concerns about espionage. The drones had been deployed for years by the scientists and others at the US Department of the Interior, a federal agency that manages national parks and other duties. But the head of the federal agency, David Bernhardt, is apparently now worried that the drones could be used for espionage. He is examining the agency's civilian drone programme in an effort to determine whether or not it should be continued. During this time, many of the drones are grounded, according to an agency spokeswoman, Melissa Brown. "Until this review is completed, the secretary has directed that drones manufactured in China or made from Chinese components be grounded," according to a statement she sent to the BBC. Drones that are used to fight fires and help rescue people are still allowed to fly, she added. News of the fleet's grounding was first reported in the Financial Times. Mr Bernhardt's review of the drone programme reflects a growing concern among US officials about Chinese technology and espionage. President Donald Trump has spoken in dark terms about China, saying that its leaders have "cheated" the US and that its intelligence agents spy on people here. Chinese officials deny the accusations. Despite the rhetoric, US-China relations have improved.


FEMINISM

1-22-20 Blood test can predict when women will have their last period
For some women, reaching the menopause can be one of life’s milestones, but when it will happen is a big unknown. Now a blood test can help predict when a woman’s last menstrual period is likely to be. The test, called MenoCheck, can’t give a firm date, but it can tell women who are over 47 if they are likely to stop having periods within the next year. It would be most useful for those considering being sterilised or having surgery for painful or heavy periods, says Nanette Santoro at the University of Colorado Medical School in Aurora. “They may be wondering how much longer they have to put up with this.” The average age at which menopause occurs is 51, but in most cases, it can happen any time from a person’s forties to early sixties. Periods usually become more infrequent before stopping for good. They stop because the ovaries run out of functioning eggs, which leads to lower levels of anti-Mullerian hormone – a chemical made by eggs – in blood. Previous tests haven’t been able to measure the very low levels of anti-Mullerian hormone present in the year or two before menopause. But MenoCheck, which has been on sale for about a year, is more sensitive. To see how well it does, Santoro’s team used it on blood samples taken at yearly intervals from about 1500 women taking part in a different menopause study. Santoro is a consultant for MenoCheck’s manufacturer Ansh Labs. The team found that those over 47 whose anti-Mullerian hormone level was below a certain cut-off had a 67 per cent chance of having their last period within the next year, and an 82 per cent chance of having it within two. Most women wouldn’t need to take the test to know that they are nearing the menopause, says Esther Eisenberg at the US’s National Institutes of Health.

1-22-20 Dissatisfaction With U.S. Abortion Laws at New High
Fifty-eight percent of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the nation's policies on abortion, marking a seven-percentage-point increase from one year ago and a new high in Gallup's trend. On the flip side, 32% are now satisfied, a new low. The percentage wanting the laws to be less strict has increased to the point that roughly equal percentages of U.S. adults now are dissatisfied and favor less strict laws (22%) as are dissatisfied and want stricter laws (24%).

  • Nearly six in 10 Americans not content with nation's abortion laws
  • The dissatisfied are split between wanting stricter vs. less strict laws

1-21-20 How a boy from Vietnam became a slave on a UK cannabis farm
It was a horrifying death for the 39 Vietnamese nationals found in the back of a trailer in an industrial park in Essex, in October last year. The story shone a light on the subterranean world of people smuggling and human trafficking, reports Cat McShane, specifically the thriving route between Vietnam and the UK. Ba is slight for 18. His body shrinks into a neat package as he recalls his experiences. We're sitting in a brightly lit kitchen, a Jack Russell dog darting between us under the table. Ba's foster mum fusses in the background, making lunch and occasionally interjecting to clarify or add some detail to his account of his journey here from Vietnam. She wants to make sure his story is understood. Ba's lived here for nearly a year. He was placed with his foster parents after being found wandering, confused and scared, around a train station in the North of England, with just the clothes he was wearing. "You feel safe now though, don't you?" his foster mum asks, needing affirmation that the mental and physical scars Ba wears will heal with enough care. His story is one both extraordinary, and typical of the growing number of Vietnamese men and women recognised as being potential victims of trafficking in the UK. For several years, Vietnamese have been one of the top three nationalities featured in modern slavery cases referred to the National Crime Agency, with 702 cases in 2018. The Salvation Army, which supports all adult victims of modern slavery in the UK, says the number of Vietnamese nationals referred to them over the last five years has more than doubled. It's estimated 18,000 people make the journey from Vietnam to Europe each year. Ba believes it was a Chinese gang that trafficked him to the UK. He was kidnapped off the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, where he was a street child, an orphan who slept in the bend of a sewage pipe. He sold lottery tickets for money, although older men sometimes beat him and grabbed his takings. A 2017 Unicef report described Ho Chi Minh City as "a source location, place of transition and destination of child trafficking". And a 2018 report by anti-trafficking charities said numerous trafficked Vietnamese children had reported being abducted while living on the streets.

1-19-20 When sexual abuse was called seduction: France confronts its past
An 83-year-old French writer once feted by the Paris intellectual set now finds himself ostracised because of his writings about sex with teenage boys and girls. From the 1960s onwards, Gabriel Matzneff made no secret of his passion for seducing adolescents. But a new book by one of the teenagers he slept with in the 1980s has led to a criminal investigation for rape of a minor. And now debate is raging in France about who is more to blame: Matzneff himself or the world he moved in. The moment that Gabriel Matzneff realised that the moral wind was turning against him came on 2 March 1990 when he appeared on France's famous TV book programme Apostrophe to discuss the latest of his published diaries. The footage can easily be found on the internet. In a jocular tone the programme's respected presenter, Bernard Pivot, asks Matzneff (then aged 53) what it is like to be a serial "collector of young chicks". All bald-headed suaveness, Matzneff explains how he prefers school-age girls who have yet to be "hardened" by disillusionment over men. He says they come to him because he listens and takes them seriously. The panel nods understandingly. A Catholic woman who is there to defend fidelity in marriage laughs, as if at a charmingly naughty child. But then Pivot turns to a woman who has so far been silent, a Canadian writer called Denise Bombardier, and the atmosphere suddenly changes. "I feel like I am living on a different planet," says Bombardier coldly. And she launches into a devastating attack on her neighbour. Does he not understand anything about the rights of children, she asks. Has it never occurred to him that these young girls may end up damaged? "For me, Mr Matzneff is abject. We all know how some girls can become besotted by men with a certain literary aura," says Bombardier. "Some older men like to attract little children with sweets. Mr Matzneff does it with his reputation."

1-17-20 Alphabet: Top lawyer leaves after misconduct claims
Google parent company Alphabet said this week that its controversial chief legal officer, David Drummond, will step down, said Jillian D’Onfro in Forbes. “One of the most long-tenured, influential employees at the company,” which he joined in 2002, Drummond was being investigated by the board over claims that he had inappropriate relationships with other employees. The board is also looking into Drummond’s handling of complaints against former Android chief Andy Rubin, “who reportedly received a $90 million exit package” despite credible allegations of sexual assault. Drummond will receive no exit package but has sold more than $200 million in stock in the past few months.

1-17-20 Kill your ex, get soccer contract
Brazilian soccer clubs are falling all over themselves to sign a vicious murderer, said Renata Mendonça. Bruno Fernandes de Souza was a successful goalkeeper before he was convicted of ordering the gruesome 2010 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Eliza Samudio, whose body he had chopped up and fed to his rottweilers. Bruno, the court heard, wanted to avoid paying child support for his then 4-month-old son. Sentenced to 22 years in prison, he was released in 2017 on a technicality and was promptly showered with multiple offers from eager teams before being sent back to prison two months later. Now that he has been transitioned to house arrest and given leave to play pro soccer, he is again being pursued by interested teams. Fluminense de Feira announced it wanted to sign Bruno, only to backtrack after a huge outcry by female fans and women’s groups. Moral issues aside, we’re talking about a player “who hasn’t played in 10 years” and is surely out of shape. So why the rush to sign this brute? Clubs say they believe in second chances, but we don’t see them hiring ex-cons to work as janitors or office staff, do we? The real reason is that teams know his hiring will generate publicity, and it’s disgusting. Let Bruno have his second chance, sure, but “not on the pitch.”

1-17-20 Oregon woman sues church
An Oregon woman is suing the Mormon church for informing the police that her husband was molesting their daughter. The woman, unnamed to protect her daughter, says her husband confessed to a church group to “repent for his sins.” A group member told police, and her husband was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The woman wants $9.5 million to compensate for her husband’s lost earnings, “companionship, society, love, [and] affection.”

1-17-20 Economy: Is income inequality overstated?
New research is poking holes in the conventional wisdom about income inequality, said The Economist. The idea that the richest 1 percent has “detached itself from everyone else” is a rallying cry for populists like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But some economists have “recrunched the numbers” and are calling out the research behind this “almost universally held” belief. They note, for example, that Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, the economists most responsible for the uproar over inequality, built their estimates by focusing on household income rather than individual income, even though “marriage rates have declined disproportionately among poorer Americans.” That means that the data is spread over more lower-income households, “even as the top incomes remain pooled.” Then there is the misreading of the effects of the Ronald Reagan–era 1986 tax reform, which “created strong incentives for firms to operate as ‘pass-through’ entities, where owners register profits as income on their tax returns,” thereby inflating some top-income shares after 1987. Accounting for flaws such as these, the income share of the top 1 percent actually “may have little changed since as long ago as 1960.” Enough, said Annie Lowrey in The Atlantic. We just finished a decade in which “the middle class shrank, longevity fell, and it became clear that a whole generation was falling behind.” And now we’re being told “the decade went so well,” thanks to free shipping and cheap stuff on Amazon? Look around you: Middle-income families are facing “a cost-of-living crisis,” thanks to “an egregious housing shortage that led to ballooning rents and long commutes, sky-high child-care prices, spiraling out-of-pocket health-care fees, and heavy educational debt loads.”

1-17-20 Women hold 50% of Jobs
Women held 50.04 percent of jobs last month, surpassing men on nonfarm payrolls for the first time since 2010, thanks to growth in health care and education. (Webmaster's comment: But are still 20-25% behind on compensation.)

1-17-20 Iranian athlete defects
Iran’s only female Olympic medalist has fled to the Netherlands, saying she will no longer be “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran.” Kimia Alizadeh, 21, took bronze in tae kwon do at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and she is now training with the Dutch team, but it’s unclear whether she has applied for asylum. “Of course she is welcome here,” said Dutch tae kwon do trainer Mimoun El Boujjoufi. “We know her qualities.” Alizadeh’s announcement comes just months after Iranian judo champ Saeid Mollaei defected and took Mongolian citizenship. He was angered at being ordered to throw a semifinal bout in last year’s World Judo Championships to avoid facing an Israeli in the final.

1-17-20 White boys are lagging behind
British educational institutions routinely offer scholarships to black Britons from deprived backgrounds, said Miranda Green, yet singling out disadvantaged white youths for special help is seen as racist. Prominent academic Sir Bryan Thwaites discovered that recently when he tried to endow a $1.3 million scholarship to send working-class white boys to two posh boarding schools. The schools turned the gift down, thinking it looked bad for their brands. Yet Thwaites, a scholarship boy himself, has identified a real need. The educational underperformance of Britain’s white working-class males is “desperate.” Fewer than 10 percent of poor white boys go to university—the lowest share of any demographic group. Boys lag behind girls at all stages of schooling, simply “tuning out of what goes on in the classroom.” This may be because boys don’t want to be “catapulted out of their own social context” into college, which many think is only for toffs and eggheads. There is a range of possible remedies: We could combat boys’ perception of university study “as passive and dull,” or expand vocational colleges, which “have been allowed to wither.” The government should refocus British education on “those who don’t go to university”—which, after all, is most of us. (Webmaster's comment: Helping the most ignorant is a lost cause.)

1-17-20 How to raise money
A Los Angeles model raised more than $500,000 for Australian wildfire victims by offering nude selfies in exchange for proof of a $10 donation. Kaylen Ward, 20, made her self-pledge on Instagram on Jan. 3 under the name “The Naked Philanthropist” and was soon deluged with 50,000 charitable receipts made to accredited charities. But her amazing success also had unintended consequences when her family and boyfriend saw her online pledge. “My family disowned me, and the guy I like won’t talk to me,” she said. “But f--- it, save the koalas.”

1-17-20 Andrew Yang's wife says gynaecologist sexually assaulted her
The wife of Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang has said she was sexually assaulted by her gynaecologist while she was pregnant with their first child. Evelyn Yang has accused Robert Hadden of assaulting her at his New York practice in 2012. Speaking to CNN, Ms Yang said she didn't tell her husband at first. Ms Yang is one of 32 women suing Hadden and the university where he practised. Hadden has denied the allegations in a court document. He was convicted of sexual assault in 2016 and surrendered his medical licence, but did not serve any jail time after accepting a plea deal. Ms Yang, 38, said she was encouraged to speak out by the warm reception she and her husband had received when talking to voters about their son's autism. "Something about being on the trail and meeting people and seeing the difference that we've been making already has moved me to share my own story about it, about sexual assault," Ms Yang revealed to CNN. She said "everyone has their own Me Too story", referencing the global movement against sexual assault, but added "not everyone has the audience or platform to tell their story". When victims of abuse come forward, they deserve our belief, support, and protection," Mr Yang said in a statement on Thursday. "I hope that Evelyn's story gives strength to those who have suffered and sends a clear message that our institutions must do more to protect and respond to women." Ms Yang has accused Hadden of assaulting her in his examination room when she was seven months pregnant with her first child. "I was dressed and ready to go," she told CNN. "Then, at the last minute, he kind of made up an excuse. He said something about 'I think you might need a C-section' and he proceeded to grab me over to him and undress me and examine me internally, ungloved." Ms Yang said she told her husband about the alleged assault after the birth of their child, Christopher. Ms Yang said she was prompted to do so after reading about a woman who had accused Hadden of sexual assault. Other women came forward and a case against Hadden was opened by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

1-16-20 Allison Donahue: US lawmaker Peter Lucido probed for comments to reporter
A US lawmaker is facing investigation for telling a reporter schoolboys "could have a lot of fun" with her. Allison Donahue, 22, said she felt "humiliated" by the comment Michigan state senator Peter Lucido made when she went to him for comment on a story. His remark was "belittling and it came from a place of power", she said. Mr Lucido, 59, initially told US media the incident was "blown out of proportion", and tweeted an apology for what he called "the misunderstanding". Two state senate leaders have called for an investigation into whether his remarks amounted to sexual harassment. In a report for her newspaper, the Michigan Advance, Ms Donahue said she was seeking comment from Mr Lucido, a Republican, about claims he was a member of a since-deleted Facebook group targeting Michigan's Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Members of that group had also posted messages advocating violence against Democrats and Muslims, local media reported. Ms Donahue wrote that Mr Lucido told her he would speak to her after honouring a group of students from an all-boys' high school, who were standing just behind him. As she turned to leave, she said that he told her: "You should hang around! You could have a lot of fun with these boys, or they could have a lot of fun with you." Ms Donahue added: "The teenagers burst into an Old Boys' Network-type of laughter, and I walked away knowing that I had been the punch line of their 'locker room' talk. "Except it wasn't the locker room; it was the senate chamber. And this isn't high school. It's my career." On Wednesday morning Mr Lucido didn't dispute the quotes, but told the Detroit Free Press that he didn't feel he owed Ms Donahue an apology. He then tweeted: "I apologise for the misunderstanding yesterday and for offending Allison Donahue." Later the same day, he alleged that he was misquoted - telling local broadcaster WDIV-TV that he had actually said "we're going on the [senate] floor to have some fun, you're welcome to join us". (Webmaster's comment: LIAR!)

1-16-20 'I was sexually abused by a shaman at an ayahuasca retreat'
The psychedelic powers of a traditional Amazonian plant medicine called ayahuasca are attracting more and more tourists. It's said to bring spiritual enlightenment and to help with addiction, depression and trauma. But a string of allegations suggests there's a darker side to the ayahuasca scene. Rebekah first tried ayahuasca on a "complete whim" when she was travelling in Peru in 2015. "I thought it sounded interesting and I thought I might as well give it a try," says Rebekah, a New Zealander in her 20s who asked the BBC not to use her surname. "So I found a retreat centre that I felt was good and I just went for it and it was amazing." Ayahuasca can induce visions of things like serpents, palaces, and alien beings - and bring up long-forgotten memories. Like many who've drunk the brew, Rebekah has a wide-eyed distant look as she reminisces about the experience. "It was like being guided very gently and very kindly through some really awful experiences that I'd had in the past," Rebekah says. "And returning back home after that, I felt like my relationships were a lot stronger. I felt it was a lot easier to share and receive love. "They do say that ayahuasca is like 20 years of psychotherapy. And I completely believe that." Ayahuasca is usually taken in ceremonies at night, led by a healer - sometimes called a shaman. He or she will drink the sticky brown liquid - a brew of two Amazonian plants - then dole out helpings to the participants. It's been used by tribes in the Amazon region for centuries but now there's a boom in what's become known as "ayahuasca tourism", with ever more specialist retreat centres opening. Travellers often come for help dealing with mental health problems - and a growing body of scientific research suggests ayahuasca could be an effective treatment.


SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

1-22-20 Space mission to reveal 'Truths' about climate change
The UK is going to lead a space mission to get an absolute measurement of the light reflected off Earth's surface. The information will be used to calibrate the observations of other satellites, allowing their data to be compared more easily. Called Truths, the new spacecraft was approved for development by European Space Agency member states in November. Proponents of the mission expect its data to help reduce the uncertainty in projections of future climate change. Scientists and engineers met on Tuesday to begin planning the project. Industry representatives from Britain, Switzerland, Greece, the Czech Republic and Romania gathered at Esa's technical centre in Harwell, Oxfordshire. The agency has allocated €32.4m (£27.7m) for the initial design phase, with the scientific lead on the mission to be taken by Britain's National Physical Laboratory. NPL is the UK's "keeper of standards". It holds references for the kilogram, the metre, the second and all other units used in the international system (SI) of measurement. The lab is the place you go, for example, if you want a precise description of the intensity of a light source - something it's able to gauge using a device called a cryogenic radiometer. And the aim of the Truths mission is to get one of these instruments into orbit. Working in tandem with a hyperspectral camera, the radiometer will make a detailed map of the sunlight reflected off Earth's surface - off its deserts, snowfields, forests and oceans. The map should be of such exquisite quality that it's expected to become the standard reference against which all other imaging spacecraft will want to adjust and correct their own observations. This ought to make it a much simpler task to compare the pictures from different satellites, not just from those missions flying today but also from the ones that have long since been retired and whose data now sits in archives.

1-22-20 Weathering With You's climate change love story is a little too easy
Makoto Shinkai's protagonists find love in the midst of climate catastrophe — but we don't see what happens next. Makoto Shinkai's new anime film Weathering With You offers love and magic in a world ravaged by climate change. But, despite the beauty the film finds in destruction, it never fully answers the question of what happens to love in a world that's sinking. In Weathering With You, Shinkai's followup to the critically acclaimed record-breaking box-office success Your Name, a high-school student named Hodaka runs away from home to try to make a living in Tokyo, but the city is plagued by seemingly endless rain. Getting a job with a small publishing company that deals in conspiracy theories and the occult, he learns about weather maidens, girls who have the ability to change the weather, and then meets one, a teenage girl named Hina. Together, Hodaka and Hina form a business where they take requests from people who want the touch of sunshine that Hina can summon — for weddings, parties, outdoor markets — for payment. But when the two get tailed by cops and Hina reveals that her body is transforming as a result of her powers, the weather in Tokyo turns apocalyptic, and our protagonists struggle to find shelter from the authorities and the natural disaster brewing outside. Though climate change is never explicitly mentioned in the film, the issue is unquestionably part of the story's DNA. Shinkai himself has stated that he created this film with our climate crisis in mind. But the film adheres to its central component of magic as the cause and resolution of the disaster. A priest reveals that the strange weather attacking the city is not as unique an occurrence as people would believe; it is perhaps a singular event in recorded history, but there exists a long history before that, when the weather went wild. In those instances, the priest reveals, weather maidens, who are linked to the skies, served as sacrifices, and the weather returned to normal. Later in the film, as the streets flood and it starts to snow — despite it being late summer — Hina decides to sacrifice herself to fix the weather, and the skies immediately clear, and the sun comes out. Magic is everywhere — not simply in the movie's narrative but in its design: drops of water glisten and sparkle, the sun breaks through the clouds with impossibly bright slivers of light, a prism of colors in brisk pinks, purples, and blues. And we see the world of the sky, a kind of inverse mirror world of liquid sea creatures and a spring green field of grass.

1-22-20 'Mops and buckets' won't do anything to save us from climate disaster
Hurricane Sandy brought a 14-foot tide of water through the streets of New York City and devastation along the coast of New Jersey in 2012. Over 50 people were killed. FEMA estimated a cost of $70.2 billion, making it at the time the second costliest hurricane is U.S. history. In the seven years since, the recovery has progressed slowly. Many homeowners have struggled to navigate a complex and inadequate system of government aid and insurance money. In the wake of Sandy, many have considered the future climate change-driven risks to the city, including rising seas and the potential for more destructive storms. Proposals to mitigate these dangers have ranged from wetland restoration, buy-out programs, and oyster reefs that could protect New York City from flooding. In a nation that loves big infrastructure projects, one proposal has captured significant attention: building a six-mile long barrier to protect the city. The idea has been discussed for years but early last week The New York Times wrote an article confirming that the barrier is one of five projects being considered by the Army Corps of Engineers. Presumably it was this article that led President Trump to tweet his own plan for protecting the largest city in America: "mops and buckets." There's plenty to parse in the tweet. The $200 billion price tag is an exaggeration from the $119 billion reported by the Times. He denies the city's increasing flood risk. And concerns about the aesthetics of a wall are intriguing given his propensity for other walls, not just at the U.S.-Mexico border but also a sea wall to protect his golf course in Ireland. This doesn't mean there aren't valid and very serious questions about the most effective and just approach to protecting New York and New Jersey from flooding. But these serious questions deserve to be answered with serious solutions. "Mops & buckets" is dismissive and reminiscent of the president throwing paper towels at Puerto Ricans in the wake of Hurricane Maria. It is also a dangerous return to the antiquated, reactive approach historically taken to emergency management.

1-21-20 Davos billionaires are happy to let the world burn
Everyone's favorite rally of neoliberal oligarchs is taking place this week in Davos, Switzerland. The World Economic Forum, "known for preaching the gospel of touchy-feely stakeholder capitalism against a backdrop of $43 hot dogs, $10,000 hotel rooms, and several hundred trips by private plane," as Lionel Laurent writes at Bloomberg, is struggling to maintain its #brand while global politics descends into fascism and the climate crisis gathers strength. The Davos conference demonstrates only one thing: If the billionaire stranglehold over global politics is not broken, we are all going to fry in a future climate hell. For one thing, President Trump is getting a distinctly more friendly reception this time than at previous Davos conferences. Sure, the man may be a boorish, corrupt accused rapist who was just impeached for trying to rig the 2020 election, but taxes are low, the markets are booming, and Wall Street is largely free from burdensome regulators. Oligarchs can accommodate themselves to just about anything that doesn't directly threaten their pocketbooks. Nevertheless, a few still have some glimmerings of a conscience — which probably explains why somebody arranged for climate activist Greta Thunberg to attend one of the discussion panels. Oligarchs always want to have some well-scrubbed youth at their conferences to talk about the importance of "raising awareness" about "the issues," preferably in order to gather some private charity donations. The ultra-wealthy are happy to kick a few pennies to supplicant nonprofit organizations to eradicate guinea worm or whatever. It makes their near-chokehold over global politics seem softer and more reasonable. But Thunberg offered the Davos robber barons no such moral alibi. Instead she attacked the attendees like she always does at such events. She said world leaders are "cheating and fiddling around with numbers" with untested schemes to get emissions down by scrubbing carbon out of the atmosphere. She correctly scoffed at a new plan joined even by Trump to supposedly plant 1 trillion trees (so as to absorb carbon) as inadequate. "Planting trees is good of course, but it’s nowhere near enough," she said. "It cannot replace mitigation."

1-21-20 Davos: Trump decries climate 'prophets of doom' with Thunberg in audience
US President Donald Trump has decried climate "prophets of doom" in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where sustainability is the main theme. He called for a rejection of "predictions of the apocalypse" and said America would defend its economy. Mr Trump did not directly name the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was in the audience. Later, she excoriated political leaders, saying the world "in case you hadn't noticed, is currently on fire". Environmental destruction is at the top of the agenda at the annual summit of the world's decision-makers, which takes place at a Swiss ski resort. In his keynote speech, Mr Trump said that it was a time for optimism, not pessimism, in a speech that touted his administration's economic achievements and America's energy boom. Speaking of climate activists, he said: "These alarmists always demand the same thing - absolute power to dominate, transform and control every aspect of our lives." They were, he said, "the heirs of yesterday's foolish fortune tellers". He was speaking hours before his impeachment trial gets under way in the US Senate. Soon after he spoke, Ms Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish climate activist who has led a global movement of school strikes calling for urgent environmental action, opened a session on "Averting a Climate Apocalypse". "I wonder, what will you tell your children was the reason to fail and leave them facing... climate chaos that you knowingly brought upon them? That it seemed so bad for the economy that we decided to resign the idea of securing future living conditions without even trying? "Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fuelling the flames by the hour, and we are telling you to act as if you loved your children above all else." She strongly criticised politicians and business leaders for what she said were continuous "empty words and promises". "You say: 'We won't let you down. Don't be so pessimistic.' And then, silence."

1-21-20 Davos: 'Forget about net zero, we need real zero' - Greta Thunberg
Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg has spoken as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The teenager warned that net zero carbon emissions is not enough and that while planting trees is good, much more needs to be done.

1-21-20 New solar power source and storage developed
A new form of combined solar power generation and storage is being developed for the UK. It couples thin, flexible, lighter solar sheets with energy storage to power buildings or charge vehicles off-grid. The company behind it, Solivus, plans to cover the roofs of large industrial buildings with the solar fabric. These include supermarket warehouses and delivery company distribution centres. But Solivus also plans to manufacture solar units or "arcs" for home use. The aim is to create local, renewable energy, to give people and business their own power supply and help the UK towards its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The solar material is a carbon-based sheet, which the company describes as an "organic photovoltaic" (OPV). It's a material that absorbs sunlight and produces energy. The layered film can be bent into shapes or glued on to flat or curved, vertical or horizontal, surfaces - where panels could not be used or fixed on without damaging the integrity of a building. The firm says the film is one-tenth of the weight of traditional panels in frames - 1.8kg per m2 - contains no rare earth or toxic materials, and lasts for 20 years. It puts its efficiency in a lab at about 13% but says that stays stable as temperatures rise in natural sunlight - a problem with traditional solar panels, although they can function at an average of 15-18% efficiency. The film collects a wider spectrum of light than other panels, manufacturer Heliatek says, while still working on grey days. The plan is that the energy produced will be stored locally, in an electric vehicle battery, or potentially a flywheel battery, which can quickly release its charge. The combination is the brainchild of Jo Parker-Swift, who has a background in biological sciences and has grown and sold two businesses that worked with NHS trusts.

1-20-20 People urgently fleeing climate crisis cannot be sent home, UN rules
People fleeing immediate danger due to the climate crisis cannot be forced to return home, the UN has said. The landmark ruling centres on the case of Ioane Teitiota, whose home - the Pacific Island of Kiribati - is threatened by rising sea levels. Mr Teitiota applied for protection in New Zealand in 2013. The UN rejected his claim, saying he wasn't in immediate danger, but the wording of its ruling allows others to claim asylum based on climate change. Sending asylum seekers home when their lives are threatened by the climate crisis "may expose individuals to a violation of their rights" - specifically, it said, their right to life. "Given that the risk of an entire country becoming submerged under water is such an extreme risk, the conditions of life in such a country may become incompatible with the right to life with dignity before the risk is realised," its decision added. The UN ruling - which is non-binding - is the clearest warning to countries that they may be breaching a person's human rights if they send them back to a country at immediate risk of climate-related danger. But it found against Mr Teitiota's specific claim, which was that his and his family's lives were endangered in Kiribati. Mr Teitiota told the UN's Human Rights Committee that he lived on the island of South Tarawa, which was struggling with overcrowding. The population of the island increased from 1,641 in 1947 to about 50,000 in 2010, because rising sea levels had made neighbouring islands uninhabitable. This had led to social tension, unrest and violence, he said. Mr Teitiota added that crops were already being ruined on Kiribati, and that the island was likely to become uninhabitable within the next 10 to 15 years. Speaking to BBC News in 2015, Mr Teitiota had likened his situation to that of refugees escaping conflict: "I'm the same as people who are fleeing war. Those who are afraid of dying, it's the same as me." But courts in New Zealand rejected his claim - a decision that has now been upheld by the UN.

1-20-20 Michelin sustainable rubber criticised for deforestation
Tyre giant Michelin and green group WWF have been criticised by researchers over a rubber plantation in Indonesia that was billed as protecting the environment, but which villagers say has caused deforestation, destroyed elephant habitat and resulted in land grabs. In 2015, Michelin began work on the 66,000 hectare plantation on the island of Sumatra, partnering with WWF as an adviser, to source rubber from an area that Michelin had said had been ravaged by logging and fires. The French company, one of the world’s biggest buyers of rubber, promised the plantation would be “deforestation-free”, “protect flora and fauna” by creating a buffer zone for wildlife and generate 16,000 jobs. But a visit by German researchers to the nearby village of Muara Sekalo in the province of Jambi has unearthed a very different account of the project’s impact. Farmers from the village, and women working for one of the plantation’s partners, told the team that forests had been cleared to establish the rubber trees. Villagers also reported that the plantation had destroyed the habitat of elephants, leading more of the animals to approach the village and become more aggressive, destroying farmers’ plantations. Several farmers were said to have eventually abandoned their plots as a result. Some of the villagers reported losing land to the plantation, often because they only held rights through custom, not official deeds recognised by government ministries. One village elder said of land with trees his ancestors had grown: “I feel like it is not fair to give the land to the company, but then we don’t have any proof of the ownership but the trees.” “The main point is really the mismatch between the framing of sustainable development on the one side and what’s happening on the ground on the other,” says Fenna Otten at the University of Gottingen, Germany, who visited the village at the end of 2017.

1-20-20 Our current food system can feed only 3.4 billion people sustainably
Our current food system can feed only 3.4 billion people without transgressing key planetary limits, according to an analysis of the global farming system. However, reorganising what is farmed where – along with some changes in diets – would enable us to feed 10 billion people on a sustainable basis, suggests the analysis. “We should not go any further in the direction of producing food at the cost of the environment,” says Dieter Gerten at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, an author of the study. In 2009, researchers identified nine so-called planetary boundaries: limits that we shouldn’t exceed if we want to maintain Earth’s life-support systems. Gerten’s team looked at the four boundaries that are relevant to farming: not using too much nitrogen, which causes dead zones in lakes and oceans; not taking too much fresh water from rivers; not cutting down too much forest; and maintaining biodiversity. The team’s conclusion is that half of food production today violates these limits. However, this analysis is also the first to provide insights into where, geographically, these limits are being transgressed. By changing what is farmed where, the team says it would be possible to feed 10 billion people within the four limits. This would involve rewilding farms in areas where more than 5 per cent of species are threatened; reforesting farmland where more than 85 per cent of tropical forest has been cut down; reducing water withdrawal for irrigation and other purposes where too much is taken; and decreasing nitrogen fertilisation where levels in surface water are too high. Farms could be expanded in areas where these limits are not being exceeded. It could, for example, mean restricting fertiliser use in parts of eastern China and central Europe, and expanding it in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the western US.

1-20-20 Australia fires: Storms wreak damage but bushfires 'far from over'
Storms have brought heavy rain to fire-hit regions of eastern Australia - but authorities warn the nation's bushfire crisis is still "far from over". More than 80 blazes were still burning across New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria on Monday, despite downpours. Melbourne and Canberra have been hit by heavy storms, with hail as big as golf balls falling in some areas. Hundreds of emergency calls were made as hail smashed office windows and car windshields in the nation's capital. Further severe storms were also forecast for Sydney and Brisbane late on Monday. Victoria, NSW and Queensland experienced heavy rainfall and floods in recent days, bringing relief to some blaze zones. But strong winds have also generated dust clouds, temporarily blacking out the sky in NSW towns such as Orange and Dubbo. Dozens of communities across Australia's south-east are still reeling from fires which have been described as the most destructive on record. Since September, blazes have killed at least 30 people, destroyed over 2,000 homes and burnt through 10 million hectares of land - an area almost the size of England. The crisis has been exacerbated by record temperatures, a severe drought and climate change. On Monday, Victoria's Premier Daniel Andrews said recent rain had proved "very helpful" to bushfire-affected communities. But he added that storms had also hindered some fire- fighting efforts, and caused a landslide on a highway. "Ultimately, we need to remain vigilant. It's 20 January - the fire season is far from over," Mr Andrews told reporters. Mr Andrews said there was still a "massive fire edge" of more than 1.5 million hectares from blazes which had flared up in the state's east on New Year's Eve. "We haven't yet reached the peak fire season in parts of southern Australia. History shows us that February is extremely dangerous," said Dr Richard Thornton from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre.

1-20-20 Single-use plastic: China to ban bags and other items
China, one of the world's biggest users of plastic, has unveiled a major plan to reduce single-use plastics across the country. Non-degradable bags will be banned in major cities by the end of 2020 and in all cities and towns by 2022. The restaurant industry will also be banned from using single-use straws by the end of 2020. China has for years been struggling to deal with the rubbish its 1.4 billion citizens generate. The country's largest rubbish dump - the size of around 100 football fields - is already full, 25 years ahead of schedule. In 2017 alone, China collected 215 million tonnes of urban household waste. But national figures for recycling are not available. China produced 60 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2010, followed by the US at 38 million tonnes, according to online publication Our World in Data based at the University of Oxford. The research was published in 2018 and said the "relative global picture is similar in projections up to 2025". The National Development and Reform Commission on Sunday issued the new policy, which will be implemented over the next five years. Plastic bags will be banned across all cities and towns in 2022, though markets selling fresh produce will be exempt until 2025. The production and sale of plastic bags that are less than 0.025mm thick will also be banned. The restaurant industry must reduce the use of single-use plastic items by 30%. Hotels have been told that they must not offer free single-use plastic items by 2025. This isn't China's first campaign against the use of plastics. In 2008, the country banned retailers from giving out free plastic bags, and banned the production of ultra-thin plastic bags. And in 2017, China - once the world's largest importer of plastic waste - announced that it would ban the import of foreign plastic waste.

1-20-20 China's struggle to move away from coal
China is a country caught in the middle of a global struggle: to develop but also be green. It currently uses about as much coal as the rest of the world put together but it's also a world leader in wind and solar production. According to the International Energy Agency, between 2019 and 2024 China will account for 40% of the global expansion in renewable energy. However, as its economy slows down it is now re-opening some coal mines and the country’s Premier Li Keqiang has urged energy officials to promote coal-fired power. So is China addicted to coal?

1-19-20 The tricky task of tallying carbon
More than 60 years ago, atmospheric scientist Charles David Keeling began regular measurements of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. In the heart of the Pacific and far from the largest human sources of the gas, Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory was an ideal location for these measurements. Within just two years, Keeling had detected two patterns in the data. The first was an annual rise and fall as the seasons came and went. But the second — a year-by-year increase — suggested something alarming: a rise in carbon dioxide produced by the widespread burning of fossil fuels. In 1965, Keeling's measurements were incorporated into a report for U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson that described carbon dioxide from fossil fuels as "the invisible pollutant" and warned of its dangers. Since then, global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have continued to rise, as have the concerns over the changes that such an atmospheric shift brings. Observations are still taken at Mauna Loa today, and the resulting "Keeling Curve" reveals that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased by almost a third since the first measurements were taken. The world's average temperature has already warmed by around 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since preindustrial times, driving increases in everything from sea levels to the frequency of extreme weather events. For those groups and nations striving to limit global warming, accurately tracking carbon emissions will be key to assessing progress and validating international agreements. But how do scientists do that? And how does the amount released into the air relate to what scientists end up measuring at outposts such as Mauna Loa? A comprehensive tally of carbon released is essential not just for assessing which countries are pulling their weight and meeting agreed targets. It's also key to improving understanding of carbon's natural cycle and to more precisely quantifying the link between humankind's emissions and the planet's temperature. But calculating, much less measuring, global carbon dioxide emissions remains an immense technical challenge, since almost every human activity is implicated in the molecule's release.

1-18-20 Taking climate change to the courts
In September 2009, Typhoon Ketsana dumped a foot and a half of rain on the Philippines in just 24 hours. In the capital, Manila, muddy, sewage-filled floodwater trapped Veronica "Derek" Cabe's family on the roof of their home. "My family huddled together on the rooftop of our two-story house as the floodwaters sped past," said Cabe, an environmental activist. "They could see bodies, animals, and even a coffin. It was like a horror movie." Cabe got stuck a few miles away from her family. She was getting text message updates from them, but couldn't reach them. "The fact that they were trapped in a life-and-death situation, and I had no idea how to help them was the worst nightmare that I've ever had," Cabe told The World. Since that day, the Philippines has been slammed by storms again and again. In 2012, tropical storm Washi killed about 1,300 people. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan killed 6,000 people. These kinds of storms and other disasters are expected to grow more intense as the climate warms. The bushfires raging across Australia are an example of how damages from climate change are likely to grow in the future. Cabe is among those looking for someone or something to hold accountable for the damage caused by these catastrophes. "What are we going to do, are we just going to count the dead bodies?" Cabe said. "There should be someone that should be accountable to this." In 2015, Cabe signed onto a petition that asked the Philippines Commission on Human Rights to do just that. The commission agreed to investigate whether big oil and gas companies could be held legally responsible for harm caused by climate change. And the case is not unique. Citizens, nonprofit organizations and governments around the world are increasingly turning to the courts in their search for accountability.

1-17-20 Climate change: Can Glasgow go carbon neutral?
A number of British cities aim to go carbon neutral by 2030 to fight climate change. Glasgow – which will host a major United Nations climate change summit in November 2020 – is one of them. But bringing the carbon footprint of a whole city down to zero requires big changes. So what can be done, and how quickly?

1-17-20 A tenth of a degree
Last year was the second-hottest year on record, and it trailed the hottest, 2016, by only a tenth of a degree Fahrenheit. There was above-average warming in most regions, with exceptional warming in the Arctic, Europe, southern Africa, and Australia. The five past years have been the five warmest on record.

1-17-20 Environmental regulation: A major rollback
President Trump is proposing “stark changes to the nation’s oldest and most established environmental law,” said Lisa Friedman in The New York Times. In an escalation of his three-year effort “to roll back clean air and water protections,” the president plans to revise the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to narrow the range of infrastructure projects that require an environmental impact statement for approval. Such assessments offer federal regulators detailed analyses of the environmental consequences of building a given bridge, pipeline, highway, or power plant in deciding whether to give it a thumbs-up. The revision would also “set hard deadlines of one year to complete reviews of smaller projects and two years” for larger ones. The new regulation, which requires a 60-day comment period before going into effect, will likely be challenged in court. Trump called it a necessary step to quicken “an outrageously slow” process. Yes, research has shown that the average impact statement took 4.5 years to complete between 2010 and 2017, said Yessenia Funes in Gizmodo?.com. But “considering the facts” takes time and is surely preferable to greenlighting a project that could “infringe on critical wildlife habitat, harm water resources, or destroy culturally sensitive areas.” Do we want to return to the pre-regulatory era, when the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire? Instead of wrecking this “key pillar of environmental protection,” Trump should fight for sufficient funds to hire “enough employees to finish reviews in a timely fashion.” Most Americans want a sensible middle ground on regulation, said Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post. The economy shouldn’t be “paralyzed” by “regulatory overkill.” But “broad support” remains for sensible regulation of the environment, Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, and cars. “Free market” forces don’t always produce results in the public’s best interest.

1-17-20 BlackRock: Climate change will reshape finance
T he CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest investment firm, pledged to make fighting climate change the core goal of his company’s future investment decisions, said Attracta Mooney and Owen Walker in the Financial Times. In his “annual finger-wagging letter to chief executives” this week, BlackRock head Larry Fink said that climate change would lead to “a fundamental reshaping of finance.” He vowed to increase the range of BlackRock’s sustainable investment products, begin excluding companies that rely heavily on thermal coal production, and become “more transparent over the firm’s engagement and voting at investee companies” as a way to pressure them to develop climate initiatives. Let’s see Fink put his firm’s money—more than $6 trillion—where his mouth is, said Rachel Koning Beals in MarketWatch?.com. Last year, BlackRock “supported fewer than 12 percent” of the sustainability resolutions that shareholders voted on. Fink says that will change, but climate advocates “will be watching to see if his pledge to hold companies accountable will materialize.” They also want to see just how far Fink will go in designing environmentally responsible funds. Investors have welcomed socially conscious funds but drawn the line at dropping fossil fuels. “Exiting the stocks of gunmakers has been a fairly simple move; splitting with oil has not.”

1-17-20 Can Microsoft's 'moonshot' carbon goal succeed?
Tech giant Microsoft has announced two bold ambitions: firstly, to become carbon negative by the year 2030 - meaning it will be removing more carbon from the air than it emits - and secondly, to have removed more carbon by 2050 than it has emitted, in total, in its entire history. In an interview with the BBC's Chris Fox, Microsoft president Brad Smith admitted that the plan was a "moonshot" - a very big idea with no guaranteed outcome or profitability - for the company. He stressed there was simultaneously a sense of urgency and a need to take the time to do the job properly. He also said that the tools required don't entirely exist yet. Mr Smith talked about tree planting, and direct air capture - a way of removing carbon from the air and returning it to the soil - as examples of available options. "Ultimately we need better technology," he said. But don't expect Microsoft to roll up its sleeves: "That's not a business we will ever be in but it's a business we want to benefit from," he added, announcing a $1bn Climate Innovation Fund, established with the intention of helping others develop in this space. He expects support from the wider tech sector, he said, "because it's a sector that's doing well, it can afford to make these investments and it should." But historically, isn't it also one of the worst offenders? CES in Las Vegas, the huge consumer tech show, has just ended. It was attended by 180,000 people most of whom probably flew there, to look at mountains of plastic devices clamouring to be the Next Big Thing. From gas-guzzling cars and power-hungry data centres to difficult-to-recycle devices and the constant consumer push to upgrade to new shiny plastic gadgets - the tech sector's green credentials are not exactly a blueprint for environmental friendliness despite much-publicised occasional projects.

1-17-20 Air pollution weakens bones
It could be time to add weaker bones to the list of ailments linked to air pollution, reports New Scientist. Recent studies have connected airborne pollution to problems in the lungs, heart, uterus, and eyes, as well as to mental health issues. In a new study, researchers took air quality readings at 23 locations outside the Indian city of Hyderabad, and examined the bone mass of more than 3,700 people in nearby villages. What they found, says project coordinator Cathryn Tonne, from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, was “a quite consistent pattern of lower bone mineral content with increasing levels of air pollution.” Most previous research on this issue has focused on older people in wealthy countries, which tend to have lower levels of pollution. But the participants in this study were exposed to three times the World Health Organization’s safe limit of PM2.5, a fine particulate form of pollution. Lower bone density reduces bone strength, which increases the risk for fractures. The study didn’t examine why air pollution may have this effect on bone density, but it might be a result of inflammation caused by the airborne particles.

1-17-20 Australia fires: 'Apocalypse' comes to Kangaroo Island
Kangaroo Island in South Australia has been likened to a Noah's Ark for its unique ecology. But after fierce bushfires tore through the island this week, there are fears it may never fully recover. "You see the glowing in the distance," says Sam Mitchell, remembering the fire that threatened his home, family, and animals last week. "The wind is quite fast, the glowing gets brighter - and then you start to see the flames." Sam runs Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park and lives there with his wife and 19-month-old son, Connor. As the flames approached, an evacuation warning was issued. Within 20 minutes, "everyone was gone". But Sam - and four others - stayed behind. "You can't move 800 animals including water buffaloes, ostriches and cassowaries [an ostrich-like bird]," he says. "We decided that if we can't move them we'll see if we can save them. We had the army helping us. Somehow, we were spared. It burnt right around us." The fire, on 9 January, was the second major blaze to ravage Kangaroo Island in less than a week. Two men had died in a blaze on 4 January. Authorities believe they were overrun by flames as they drove along the highway. The fires on Kangaroo Island have been shocking for their speed and extreme behaviour. After his park was spared, Sam soon realised that the eastern town of Kingscote - where he'd sent his son - was under threat. "I thought I was sending him to safety," he says. "It turns out the fire missed us and was heading in their direction." The fire came dangerously close to Kingscote but did not impact the town. While talking to me, Sam keeps a close eye on his son, who's now back in the park. "It's so hard to see him playing innocently when there are fires all around us," he says. Driving through the fire trail in Kangaroo Island, there are rows upon rows of blackened trees, some still burning from inside. The scorched earth smoulders and smoke fills the air.

1-17-20 Climate change: What can I do about it and other questions
"The moment of crisis has come" in efforts to tackle climate change, Sir David Attenborough has warned. He spoke as BBC News launched a year of special coverage on global warming. Here are our answers to a range of readers' questions. Climate change will need to be tackled by governments worldwide, through measures like the 2005 Kyoto Protocol. This brought nations together for the first time in a single agreement on tackling climate change. But everyone has a carbon footprint. This is the amount of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide - which contributes to global warming - released into the atmosphere by people's actions. This can be reduced in a number of ways. According to a recent report by a group of international scientists, transport is responsible for 34% of a household's carbon footprint in high-income countries like the UK. The report calls for a major programme of investment in the rail and bus network, with lower ticket prices and investment in safer cycling. Home heating presents another challenge and opportunity. It is responsible for 21% of a household's carbon footprint. This could be cut by turning down the thermostat, having better-insulated houses and changing to low-carbon heating systems. According to the United Nations, the current world population is about 7.7 billion and could reach 9.7 billion in 2050. This population growth drives higher demand for food, greater energy consumption and more competition for resources. And it increases the production of the gases that cause global warming. And a recent major study, by a global group of 11,000 scientists, concluded that the world needs to stabilise its population. The study has attracted quite a deal of controversy, but its authors say such action is needed if the world is to avoid what they call "a catastrophic threat" from climate change. (Webmaster's comment: Even though China as a nation has more C02 emissions, per person United States is the worst!)

1-16-20 Sir David Attenborough blasts inaction on climate change
The naturalist Sir David Attenborough has warned that "the moment of crisis has come". In an interview with the BBC, the broadcaster said the growing awareness of the emergency should force governments to act.

1-16-20 Microsoft says it will cut emissions to be carbon negative by 2030
Microsoft has big climate ambitions. On 16 January, the company announced an initiative to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it and its suppliers emit annually by 2030. Company officials said that by 2050, Microsoft intends to remove from the atmosphere the equivalent of all the carbon it has emitted since its foundation in 1975. “The world today is confronted with an urgent climate crisis,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at an event on 16 January. “Each of us is going to need to take action, and that includes businesses… As a global technology company, we have a particular responsibility to do our part.” This year, Microsoft expects to emit 16 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, said Brad Smith, the company’s president. Since 2012, Microsoft has technically been carbon neutral, meaning its emissions are balanced out by investments that counteract emissions, like preserving forests. But a post on the official Microsoft blog pointed out that “neutral is not enough to address the world’s needs”. Widespread carbon neutrality may slow climate change, but it will not stop it. Microsoft’s plan includes running all of its data centres and buildings on renewable energy by 2025, increasing internal incentives to lower emissions in each division of the business, and putting incentives in place for suppliers to become greener. The exact path to becoming carbon negative isn’t as clear. “It will start with more nature-based approaches, because that’s what is generally available and affordable today,” said Smith. “But what we’ll look forward to doing, and what the world needs, is new technology.” Planting trees isn’t enough on its own, but the technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere on a large scale hasn’t been developed yet.

1-16-20 Microsoft makes 'carbon negative' pledge
Microsoft has pledged to remove "all of the carbon" from the environment that it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975. Chief executive Satya Nadella said he wanted to achieve the goal by 2050. To do so, the company aims to become "carbon negative" by 2030, removing more carbon from the environment than it emits. That goes beyond a pledge by its cloud-computing rival Amazon, which intends to go "carbon neutral" by 2040. "When it comes to carbon, neutrality is not enough," said Microsoft president Brad Smith. "The carbon in our atmosphere has created a blanket of gas that traps heat and is changing the world's climate," he added in a blog. "If we don't curb emissions, and temperatures continue to climb, science tells us that the results will be catastrophic." The company also announced it was setting up a $1bn (£765m) climate innovation fund to develop carbon-tackling technologies. When a business says it is carbon neutral, it aims to effectively add no carbon to the atmosphere. It can do this by: 1. balancing its emissions, for example by removing a tonne of carbon from the atmosphere for every tonne it has produced. 2. offsetting its emissions, for example by investing in projects that reduce emissions elsewhere in the world. 3. not releasing greenhouse gases in the first place, for example by switching to renewable energy sources. Until now, most companies have focused on offsetting emissions to achieve neutrality. This often involves funding projects in developing economies to reduce carbon emissions there, for example building hydroelectric power plants, encouraging families to stop using wood-based stoves, and helping businesses make use of solar power. These reductions are then deducted from the main company's own output. The result of this slows carbon emissions rather than reversing them. To be carbon negative a company must actually remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits. Microsoft says it will do this using a range of carbon capture and storage technologies.

1-16-20 2019 was the second-warmest year on record
The year marked the end of the world’s hottest decade in 140 years. The year 2019 is officially the second warmest in the 140-year record of modern temperatures compiled by both NASA and the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, scientists said January 15. The five warmest years on record have all occurred since 2014 — making 2019 the end to the hottest decade ever recorded. The more important takeaway from the data is not how each of the last five years is ranked, but “the consistency of the long-term trends that we’re seeing,” climate scientist Gavin Schmidt said during a news conference. “The top five years are the last five years, [and] the last decade is the warmest,” said Schmidt, who is the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City. Furthermore, since the mid-20th century, “every decade has been warmer than the last, and not by a small amount.” From January to December 2019, the mean global temperature was 0.95 degree Celsius higher than the long-term average from 1901 to 2000, and about 0.98 degrees warmer than the average global temperature from 1951 to 1980. During the hottest recorded year, 2016, global average temperatures were 0.99 degrees above the mid-century mean. But temperatures that year were influenced by a strong El Niño Southern Oscillation weather pattern (SN: 8/21/19), which historically increases the average global temperature, the researchers noted in the news conference, held during the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting in Boston. El Niño had an impact on 2019 temperatures too, but it was much smaller than in 2016, Schmidt said. If El Niño wasn’t a factor, 2017 would have been the hottest year on record, with 2019 coming in third. The heat last year broke records in cities around the world (SN: 12/16/19) and helped fuel wildfires from the Arctic to Australia (SN: 8/2/19; SN: 1/9/20). The extent of sea ice in the Arctic was the third-lowest in records going back to 1979 in September 2019, after 2012 and 2007.

1-16-20 Sir David Attenborough warns of climate 'crisis moment'
"The moment of crisis has come" in efforts to tackle climate change, Sir David Attenborough has warned. According to the renowned naturalist and broadcaster, "we have been putting things off for year after year". "As I speak, south east Australia is on fire. Why? Because the temperatures of the Earth are increasing," he said. Sir David's comments came in a BBC News interview to launch a year of special coverage on the subject of climate change. Scientists say climate change is one of several factors behind the Australian fires; others include how forests are managed and natural patterns in the weather. Sir David told me it was "palpable nonsense" for some politicians and commentators to suggest that the Australian fires were nothing to do with the world becoming warmer. "We know perfectly well," he said, that human activity is behind the heating of the planet. He's highlighting the fact that while climate scientists are becoming clearer about the need for a rapid response, the pace of international negotiations is grindingly slow. The most recent talks - in Madrid last month - were branded a disappointment by the UN Secretary-General, the British government and others. Decisions on key issues were put off and several countries including Australia and Brazil were accused of trying to dodge their commitments. "We have to realise that this is not playing games," Sir David said. "This is not just having a nice little debate, arguments and then coming away with a compromise. "This is an urgent problem that has to be solved and, what's more, we know how to do it - that's the paradoxical thing, that we're refusing to take steps that we know have to be taken." Back in 2018, the UN climate science panel spelled out how the world could have a reasonable chance of avoiding the most dangerous temperature rises in future.

1-16-20 Our Planet Matters: Climate change explained
The 10 years to the end of 2019 have been confirmed as the warmest decade on record by three global agencies. This year, climate change has been linked to Australian bushfires, torrential rains in Indonesia and record-breaking temperatures in Europe - but just what is climate change?

1-16-20 The ‘Blob,’ a massive marine heat wave, led to an unprecedented seabird die-off
From 2015–2016, 62,000 dead common murres washed onto U.S. and Canadian Pacific coast beaches. Common murres are arguably the most successful seabirds in the Northern Hemisphere. The penguinlike seafarers can crisscross vast expanses of ocean faster than any other northern seabird, and can dive the length of two American football fields to snatch small fish. But from 2015 to 2016, this superstar bird experienced an unprecedented die-off. Over that period, about 62,000 emaciated, dead or dying murres (Uria aalge) washed onto beaches from Southern California to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, a new study finds. What’s more, colonies throughout this range failed to reproduce during and shortly after the same time. All together, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the region’s total population was wiped out, researchers report January 15 in PLOS ONE. The cause? A gargantuan, extended marine heat wave nicknamed the Blob whose impact reverberated throughout the food web, the scientists say. Warmer ocean temperatures shifted the range and makeup of plankton communities and amped up the metabolic demands of all fish, shrinking one of the ecosystem’s key food supplies and starving out murres. “This study leaves no stone unturned to see what might be affecting these birds,” says Andrew Leising, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif., who wasn’t involved in the study. The team synthesized a diverse range of data to reveal “the stressors that resulted from the heat wave that combined to really put the smackdown on the forage fish these birds rely on,” he says. When John Piatt, a biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska, first heard reports of large numbers of starving or dead murres washing ashore in Northern California and Washington in the summer of 2015, he wasn’t sure if the events were connected. Occasional die-offs of murres aren’t unusual. But within months, citizen scientists all along the U.S. and Canadian coast began encountering dead murres 10 to 1,000 times as often as normal. Piatt recalls thinking “this is too coincidental not to be related.”


SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

1-22-20 A radical idea suggests mental health conditions have a single cause
The discovery of a link between anxiety, depression, OCD and more is set to revolutionise how we think about these conditions – and offer new treatments. LIFE can be tough. All of us have experienced nagging worries, anxiety, sadness, low mood and paranoid thoughts. Most of the time this is short-lived. But when it persists or worsens, our lives can quickly unravel. Mental health conditions, including everything from depression and phobias to anorexia and schizophrenia, are shockingly common. In the UK, one in four people experience them each year, so it is likely that you, or someone you know, has sought help from a professional. That process usually begins with a diagnosis – a mental health professional evaluates your symptoms and determines which of the hundreds of conditions listed in psychiatry’s classification bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, best fits. Then you start on a treatment tailored to your condition. It seems an obvious approach, but is it the right one? “For millennia, we’ve put all these psychiatric conditions in separate corners,” says neuroscientist Anke Hammerschlag at Vrije University Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “But maybe that’s not how it works biologically.” There is growing and compelling evidence that she is correct. Instead of being separate conditions, many mental health problems appear to share an underlying cause, something researchers now call the “p factor”. This realisation could radically change how we diagnose and treat mental health conditions, putting more focus on symptoms instead of labels and offering more general treatments. It also explains puzzling patterns in the occurrence of these conditions in individuals and families. Rethinking mental health this way could be revolutionary: “I don’t think there are such things as [discrete] mental disorders,” says behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin at King’s College London. “They’re just fictions we create because of the medical model.”

1-22-20 Food allergies may be on the rise because babies start solids too late
Giving babies potentially allergenic foods early on may reduce the risk of allergies – but many parents don't as that conflicts with advice to breastfeed until six months. WHEN you have a child with food allergies, the fear of a severe reaction is always there, says Emma Amoscato. “It’s not just mealtimes, it’s going to nursery, family events, soft play. It’s not something you can ever take a day off from.” She is frustrated that some children, such as hers, could perhaps have avoided developing their allergies at all. A growing body of evidence, including findings that emerged last month, suggests that the earlier babies eat foods like peanuts and eggs, the less likely they are to develop allergies to them. But in some countries, such as the UK, weaning babies onto solid food early runs counter to official advice to avoid giving infants any solid food until they are 6 months old. Parents face conflicting information from allergy specialists and the healthcare staff they see most often such as family doctors and midwives. “You don’t know who to trust,” says Amoscato, who is author of Living with Allergies: Practical tips for all the family. The stakes are high, as was highlighted last year by two UK cases in the headlines in which teenagers died from allergic reactions, both caused by meals from a shop or restaurant they thought were safe. Food allergies are now common. In the UK, for instance, 7 per cent of children now have one, and the number of hospital admissions for severe allergic reactions has risen six-fold in the past 20 years. Changes in how babies are fed can’t be the only explanation, because other allergies such as hay fever and asthma are also on the rise. One idea is a modern take on the hygiene hypothesis, and suggests that this may be because modern life prevents us from encountering many friendly and important microbes during our childhood.

1-22-20 Some people are exceptionally good at recognising voices
Super voice recognisers, people with extraordinary abilities to remember and recognise human voices, are out there. And they could potentially transform counter-terrorism and surveillance operations, some suggest. People with an exceptional knack for recognising faces, known as super-recognisers, seized the zeitgeist more than 10 years ago, when it was discovered that about 2 per cent of the population had such an ability. London’s Metropolitan Police Service later created a specialised unit of officers with this skill, some of whom helped to identify suspects caught on CCTV during the 2011 London riots. Ryan Jenkins at the University of Greenwich in London wanted to find out whether these people also had superior abilities to recognise and match voices. To do this, he put 529 super face recognisers through a series of voice-recognition tests. One of the tests consists of 80 pairs of audio clips of someone voicing a different syllable. Participants must decide if the audio clips belong to the same person or not. Another test looked at whether people could recognise celebrity voices, and another was included to ensure that the ability was specific to human voices, and not to other types of sounds like the ringing of a bell. Jenkins found that super face recognisers were more likely to have super voice recognition abilities than the average person, but only 22 participants – just over 4 per cent – met the criteria for super voice recognition. They scored in the top 15 per cent of results for at least two tests. However, Jenkins notes that the tests he uses in the experiment are “primarily designed to test phonagnosia [an inability to recognise voices] which is the complete other end of the spectrum”. To accurately tell who a super voice recogniser is, more extensive tests need to be developed, he says.

1-22-20 Neanderthals may have climbed an active volcano soon after it erupted
A set of preserved footprints suggests that ancient humans often went scrambling on the steep slopes of an active volcano, even in the aftermath of a major eruption. The volcano may have been an important site for them. The identity of the hominins isn’t certain, but they may have been Neanderthals. The footprints can be found on the Roccamonfina volcano in southern Italy, which has been extinct for 50,000 years. Local people called them “devil’s trails”, because only a supernatural being could walk such a dangerous path. However, in 2003, archaeologists led by Paolo Mietto of the University of Padua in Italy described the footprints. They were preserved in volcanic ash, which erupted 385,000 to 325,000 years ago. That is probably before our species existed. At the time, 56 footprints were known, in three tracks. Later studies found more. The team has now found another 14 footprints, bringing the total to 81. At least five individuals made them. The first 67 footprints found all belonged to people heading downhill, but some of the new ones face uphill. This suggests the hominins walked up the volcano soon after a violent eruption produced a pyroclastic flow: a lethal cloud of hot dust and gas. They were probably regular visitors, says team member Adolfo Panarello of the University of Cassino and Southern Lazio in Italy. In line with this, the hominins weren’t running, but walking at a relaxed speed. “There was always this question of whether humans were running away from the volcano,” says Isabelle De Groote at Ghent University in Belgium. “There is at least one person that seems to be coming back.” De Groote has studied the Happisburgh footprints in the UK: the oldest hominin footprints outside Africa. She says the Roccamonfina footprints stand out because they were all made by adults. “They must have been leaving the children behind and doing activities away from wherever they were living,” she says.

1-22-20 Earth's oldest asteroid impact 'may have ended ice age'
Scientists have identified the world's oldest asteroid crater in Australia, adding it may explain how the planet was lifted from an ice age. The asteroid hit Yarrabubba in Western Australia about 2.2 billion years ago - making the crater about half the age of Earth, researchers say. Their conclusion was reached by testing minerals found in rocks at the site. The scientists say the find is exciting because it could account for a warming event during that era. The Curtin University research was published in the journal Nature Communications on Wednesday. The crater was discovered in the dry outback in 1979, but geologists had not previously tested how old it was. Due to billions of years of erosion, the crater is not visible to the eye. Scientists mapped scars in the area's magnetic field to determine its 70km (43 miles) diameter. "The landscape is actually very flat because it's so old, but the rocks there are distinctive," researcher Prof Chris Kirkland told the BBC. To determine when the asteroid hit Earth, the team examined tiny zircon and monazite crystals in the rocks. They were "shocked" in the strike and now can be read like "tree rings", Prof Kirkland said. These crystals hold tiny amounts of uranium. Because uranium decays into lead at a consistent pace, the researchers were able to calculate how much time had passed. It is at least 200 million years older than the next most ancient impact structure - the Vredefort Dome in South Africa. "We were interested in the area because the Western Australian landscape is very old but we didn't expected [the crater] to be as old as this," Prof Kirkland said. "It's absolutely possible that there's an older crater out there just waiting to be discovered, but the difficulty is in finding the crust before it erodes and you lose that early Earth history".

1-22-20 A 2.2-billion-year-old crater is Earth’s oldest recorded meteorite impact
The newly dated Yarrabubba crater is found in Western Australia. A 70-kilometer-wide crater in Western Australia has officially earned the title of Earth’s oldest known recorded impact. Yarrabubba crater is a spry 2.2 billion years old, plus or minus 5 million years, researchers report January 21 in Nature Communications. Moving tectonic plates along with erosion have wiped away much of the evidence for many craters older than 2 billion years, leaving a gap in our understanding of how long-ago meteorite impacts may have affected the planet’s life and atmosphere (SN: 12/18/18). Scientists have uncovered ancient impact material older than 2.4 billion years from sites elsewhere in Western Australia and South Africa, but no corresponding craters. Yarrabubba, located on one of Earth’s oldest patches of crust called Yilgarn craton, adds more than 200 million years to the impact record. The previous record-holder was Vredefort crater in South Africa. Scientists had estimated Yarrabubba to be between 2.6 billion and 1.2 billion years old, based on previous research dating rocks around the impact site. In the new study, researchers pinpointed the crater’s age by dating microstructures in crystallized rock that formed when the impact occurred. Dating Earth’s oldest crater was not the only exciting finding, says study coauthor Timmons Erickson, a geologist at NASA’s Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science Division in Houston. The crater’s age puts the impact at the end of an ancient glacial period. A computer simulation suggests that a Yarrabubba-sized impact would have released up to 200 trillion kilograms of water vapor into the atmosphere, which the researchers say could have warmed the planet and melted ice sheets.

1-22-20 Coronavirus: Chinese officials advise against travel to Wuhan
Chinese authorities have urged people to stop travelling in and out of Wuhan, the city at the centre of a new virus outbreak that has killed nine people. Those living in the city of 8.9 million people have also been told to avoid crowds and minimise public gatherings. The new virus has spread from Wuhan to several Chinese provinces, as well as the US, Thailand and South Korea. There are 440 confirmed cases, with the origin a seafood market that "conducted illegal transactions of wild animals". Meanwhile, in Geneva, the World Health Organization's emergency committee is meeting to assess the global risks posed by the virus and decide if it should be declared an international public health emergency - as happened with swine flu and Ebola. Such a declaration, if made, could see advice issued on travel or trade restrictions. Earlier this week, China confirmed that human-to-human transmission of the virus had taken place. The virus, known also as 2019-nCoV, is understood to be a new strain of coronavirus that has not previously been identified in humans. The Sars virus that killed nearly 800 people globally in the early 2000s was also a coronavirus. Signs of infection with the new virus include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. The first US case was confirmed on Tuesday. President Donald Trump said the situation was "totally under control" and that he trusted the information being provided by Chinese authorities. Mr Li said there was evidence that the disease was "mainly transmitted through the respiratory tract". In general, coughs and sneezes are a highly effective way for viruses to spread. But China has still not been able to confirm the exact source of the virus. "Though the transmission route of the virus is yet to be fully understood, there is a possibility of virus mutation and a risk of further spread of the epidemic," said Mr Li.

1-22-20 The first U.S. case of a new coronavirus has been confirmed
Chinese officials say the coronavirus can spread from person to person, raising global risks. A man in Seattle has been confirmed as the first U.S. case of a novel coronavirus that emerged in central China, where it has killed six people and sickened hundreds more in recent weeks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials are also ramping up health screenings at U.S. airports, after Chinese public health officials said January 20 that the virus can spread from person to person — a factor that raises concerns of an international epidemic emerging. It’s still unclear how easily the virus spreads between humans. The World Health Organization said it would convene an emergency committee on January 22 in Geneva to decide whether to declare a global health emergency. “The confirmation that human-to-human spread with this virus is occurring in Asia certainly raises our level of concern,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, during a telephone news conference on January 21. However, the agency believes the risk “to the American public at large remains low at this time.” The Seattle patient in his 30s was diagnosed after seeing a doctor for respiratory symptoms, Messonnier said. The man had returned last week from Wuhan, and is no longer “clinically ill,” she said. The first people reported to have the pneumonia-like illness became sick in December, after visiting a wild animal market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Officials soon confirmed that the outbreak was caused by a novel coronavirus (SN: 1/10/20) — the same family of viruses that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. On January 20, China’s lead scientist monitoring the outbreak, Dr. Zhong Nanshan, gave a statement on Chinese state television confirming that at least two patients who had never been to Wuhan had been infected by family members who recently had traveled to the city. At least 15 health care workers are also among at least 278 cases reported by China.

1-21-20 New China virus: US announces first case
The United States has confirmed the first case of the new coronavirus on its territory. The Centers for Disease Control said the virus, which originated in China, had been diagnosed in a US resident who arrived in Seattle from China. The virus, which spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan, has infected almost 300 people, and six have died. North Korea has temporarily closed its borders to foreign tourists in response to the threat, a tour operator says. The patient diagnosed in the US - reported to be a man in his 30s - returned from Wuhan on 15 January, the CDC said. "The patient sought care at a medical facility in the state of Washington, where the patient was treated for the illness," it added in a statement. "Based on the patient's travel history and symptoms, healthcare professionals suspected this new coronavirus." Laboratory testing of a clinical specimen confirmed the diagnosis on 20 January, the CDC statement continued. The announcement that North Korea was barring entry to foreign tourists came from Young Pioneer Tours, which is based in China and specialises in travel to North Korea. The company said in a statement that North Korea was implementing a temporary ban as a precaution. "Further details are yet to be confirmed by our travel partners in North Korea and we will continue to make all future announcements on our website," Young Pioneer Tours said. Another tour group that travels to North Korea, Koryo Tours, also tweeted about "possible limits to tourist entry". Some experts have previously warned that international sanctions on North Korea had hit the country's healthcare system, by restricting the delivery of aid and medical equipment. Last November, US doctor Kee B Park wrote in USA Today: "I have seen how the North Korean doctors have adapted to scarcity. For example, they reuse intravenous catheters, scalpels, gauze and gloves by meticulously cleaning and re-sterilising them - until they become unusable."

1-21-20 Sixth person dies as Wuhan coronavirus spreads between people
Six people are now reported to have died after being infected with a new virus spreading in China. The virus, which is of the same family as SARS and MERS, can be transmitted between people, the country’s health ministry has confirmed. The two latest reported deaths from the virus were that of a 66-year-old man and a 48-year-old woman in Wuhan, according to the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. Sixty new cases were reported in the region on 20 January. Among them, fifteen healthcare workers have been diagnosed, according to China Daily. Zhong Nanshan, head of the Chinese national health commission team investigating the outbreak, confirmed that two cases of infection in China’s Guangdong province had been caused by human-to-human transmission. “It is now clear that there is person-to-person transmission, which is a worrying development,” says Rosalind Eggo at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “We’ve got to wait and see how sustained that transmission is.” The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission has confirmed 258 people have been infected in Wuhan. Currently, 227 patients are still being treated in the hospital. Cases have also been confirmed in Guangdong province, Beijing and Shanghai, as well as Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan. In those countries, a handful of cases have been confirmed, either in people from Wuhan or people who visited the city. The World Health Organization’s director-general will hold an emergency committee meeting on Wednesday to determine whether the outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern, and issue recommendations on how to manage it. “This is a critical point in the outbreak,” says Eggo. “Although there are more signs that this outbreak is serious, we still don’t know exactly what is going on.” Over the next week or so, we will find out how easily the virus can be passed from one person to another and whether the infection is spreading in countries outside China, says Eggo.

1-21-20 Cell injections may restore fertility lost through cancer treatment
It may be possible to rejuvenate ovaries after chemotherapy without the need for surgery, after the fertility of female mice was successfully restored following injections of donor cells. The approach involves injecting either stored or donated follicles – the cells in ovaries that contain and eventually release egg cells – into the ovaries. The technique is “able to rejuvenate the potential of the ovary using donated follicles” and could “prolong the fertility of women”, says Michael Dahan at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who wasn’t involved in the work. Some cancer treatments can affect the supply of eggs, and may make it more difficult to conceive after treatment. People undergoing these treatments may have pieces of their ovary removed and frozen beforehand, in order to preserve their fertility. These tissues can then be surgically reimplanted if someone wants to get pregnant. Over 130 babies have been born following this type of procedure. But the approach is still new, and some doctors worry about the risk of reimplanting cancer cells. “If a woman has ovarian cancer or leukaemia, you wouldn’t want to put that tissue back in,” says Kyle Orwig at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. “The worst thing you can do is give cancer back to a survivor.” Orwig and his colleagues have developed a different approach. Instead of implanting ovary tissue, the team only implants the follicles. This should avoid implanting any cancer cells, says Orwig. To test the approach, the team gave four female mice varying doses of two chemotherapy drugs that Orwig says cause infertility in humans. The team then collected follicles from donor mice who hadn’t undergone chemotherapy and injected them into the ovaries of the female mice that had. Two of the four mice later gave birth to pups, some of which had features of the donor, rather than those of their parents. This led the team to be sure that it had been the injection of follicles that had resulted in pups with the same features.

1-21-20 Electrified artificial skin can feel exactly where it is touched
Electrified artificial skin made of strange orange jelly can tell when you are touching it and can heal itself. It could someday be used in prosthetics or to cover robots so that they can sense their surroundings. Many different types of “e-skin” devices have been made that can be bent, stretched or attached to a person’s skin to generate power or detect their heart rate, for example. But these devices tend to be limited because they can usually only be made in flat sheets and only attach to flat surfaces, says Kyeongwoon Chung at the Korea Institute of Materials Science in South Korea. Chung and his colleagues made an e-skin that can be 3D printed into any shape. They made rings, pyramids and a sort of cap that can fit over a finger, and Chung says that it would be possible to make a face mask out of it. The e-skin is made out of an orange, jelly-like substance composed mainly of water and acrylic acid. The gel contains both positively charged and negatively charged particles, so when it is cut or ripped those particles attract one another and it heals itself. It can also detect if you touch it, even very lightly. When a weak electric field is applied to the e-skin using a pair of wires, a touch from a finger or any other object that conducts electricity makes current flow through the gel. The difference in the intensity of that current at each of the wires makes it simple to calculate the exact point on the e-skin that is being touched. This sort of e-skin could be used on robots to help them sense environments, says Zhenan Bao at Stanford University in California. Chung says it might have even more far-reaching applications in medical sensing, where it could potentially be used as a coating on prosthetic limbs.

1-21-20 New China virus: Warning against cover-up as number of cases jumps
China's top leaders have warned lower-level officials not to cover up the spread of a new coronavirus that has now infected nearly 300 people. Anyone who concealed new cases would "be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity", the political body responsible for law and order said. The warning came as state media said six people had now died from the virus, which causes a type of pneumonia. It's been confirmed the virus can pass from person to person. The World Health Organization (WHO) will on Wednesday consider declaring an international public health emergency over the virus - as it did with swine flu and Ebola. Such a declaration, if made, will be seen as an urgent call for a co-ordinated international response. China's National Health Commission on Monday confirmed for the first time that the infection could be transmitted from human-to-human. It said two people in Guangdong province had been infected in this way. In a separate statement, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said at least 15 medical workers in Wuhan have also been infected with the virus, with one in a critical condition. The workers presumably became infected with the virus due to contact with patients. All of them are being kept in isolation while being treated. A total of 291 cases have now been reported across major cities in China, including Beijing and Shanghai. However most patients are in Wuhan, the central city of 11 million at the heart of the outbreak. The disease was first identified there late last year and the outbreak is believed to be linked to a seafood market that also sells live animals. A handful of cases have also been identified abroad: two in Thailand, one in Japan, one in South Korea and one in Taiwan. Those infected had recently returned from Wuhan.

1-21-20 How bacteria create flower art
Physical interactions between different types of microbes form delicate floral patterns. When sticky bacteria meet roaming bacteria in a petri dish, friction between the two can cause flower patterns to blossom. Escherichia coli bacteria growing on a Jello-like substance called agar tend to stick to the surface, and colonies of the microbes don’t spread very far. But colonies of Acinetobacter baylyi expand in rapidly growing circles as the bacteria crawl on hairlike pili over the agar’s surface. Neither type of microbe is very exciting to look at on its own, says Lev Tsimring, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, San Diego. But “when we mixed them together, we saw these absolutely mind-blowing structures growing.” Physical interactions between the two types of bacteria create floral patterns, he and colleagues found. Mobile A. baylyi “pushes E. coli in front it, sort of like a snowplow,” Tsimring says. But sticky E. coli dig in their heels, holding back a wave of A. baylyi like an elastic band wrapped around a balloon, he says. In some places where there are fewer E. coli forming a barrier, the more agile bacteria break through, painting petals as they shove their reluctant neighbors forward. Those breakthroughs tend to happen at fairly regular intervals, creating relatively symmetrical blossoms. The petal shape that forms depends on how fast A. baylyi bacteria move, how well E. coli is stuck to the surface and the proportions of each type of bacteria at the colony edges. (E. coli must outnumber A. baylyi or the speedy bacteria will blow right past their more sedentary partners.) Tsimring’s team described the math behind the blooms January 14 in eLife. Such equations have been used to explain how reactions between chemicals might produce Turing patterns — regular, repeating patterns found in nature, such as spots or stripes on animals’ coats (SN: 12/21/15). The new research shows that, in addition to chemicals, scientists should consider how mechanical forces help shape patterns too, Tsimring says.

1-20-20 CRISPR-edited chickens made resistant to a common virus
CRISPR genome editing has been used to make chickens resistant to a common virus. The approach could boost egg and meat production worldwide while improving welfare. The altered chickens showed no signs of disease even when exposed to high doses of the avian leukosis virus (ALV). The virus is a problem for poultry farmers around the world, says Jiri Hejnar at the Czech Academy of Sciences. Infected birds become ill, emaciated and depressed, and often develop tumours. The virus gets into cells by binding to a protein called chicken NHE-1 (chNHE-1). Hejnar’s team has previously shown that deleting three DNA letters from the chNHE-1 gene that makes this protein prevents ALV from infecting chicken cells. The challenge was to make this change in entire animals rather than just in a few cells. No strains of chickens naturally have this mutation, so it can’t be done by breeding alone. But genetically modifying chickens is more difficult than modifying other animals such as pigs. The conventional method is to extract so-called primordial germ cells, alter them outside the body and then add the modified cells to embryos inside freshly laid eggs. This approach was used to create CRISPR chickens in 2016, but the success rate is extremely low. In 2017, Hejnar developed a better method: using altered germ cells to restore semen production in sterilised cockerels. His team then went on to create a cockerel with sperm that have the precise deletion in the chNHE-1 gene. By crossing its offspring, they have produced a flock of white leghorn chickens that have this deletion in both copies of the gene. A company called Biopharm is now in discussion with poultry producers in Vietnam and China about introducing this change into commercial breeds. “It’s quite simple to do,” says Hejnar.

1-20-20 New China virus: Cases triple as infection spreads to Beijing and Shanghai
The number of people infected with a new virus in China tripled over the weekend, with the outbreak spreading from Wuhan to other major cities. There are now more than 200 cases, mostly in Wuhan, though the respiratory illness has also been detected in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Three people have died. Japan, Thailand and South Korea have reported cases. The sharp rise comes as millions of Chinese prepare to travel for the Lunar New Year holidays. Health officials have identified the infection, which first appeared in Wuhan in December, as a strain of coronavirus. They say it has led to an outbreak of viral pneumonia, but much about it remains unknown. Although the outbreak is believed to have originated from a market, officials and scientists are yet to determine exactly how it has been spreading. The outbreak has revived memories of the Sars virus - also a coronavirus - that killed 774 people in the early 2000s across dozens of countries, mostly in Asia. Analysis of the genetic code of the new virus shows it is more closely related to Sars than any other human coronavirus. Experts in the UK told the BBC the number of people infected could still be far greater than official figures suggest, with estimates closer to 1,700. Authorities in Wuhan, a central Chinese city of 11 million that has been at the heart of the outbreak, on Monday said 136 new cases had been confirmed over the weekend, with a third person dying of the virus. There had previously been only 62 confirmed cases in the city. As of late Sunday, officials said 170 people in Wuhan were still being treated in hospital, including nine in critical condition. Beijing also confirmed its first cases, with five people infected. Shanghai confirmed its first case on Monday - a 56-year-old woman who came from Wuhan.

1-20-20 Human impact on nature 'dates back millions of years'
The impact of humans on nature has been far greater and longer-lasting than we could ever imagine, according to scientists. Early human ancestors living millions of years ago may have triggered extinctions, even before our species evolved, a study suggests. A decline in large mammals seen in Eastern Africa may have been due to early humans, researchers propose. Extinction rates started to increase from around four million years ago. This coincides with the period when ancient human populations were living in the area, as judged by fossil evidence. "We are now negatively impacting the world and the species that live in it more than ever before. But this does not mean that we used to live in true harmony with nature in the past," said study researcher, Dr Søren Faurby of the University of Gothenburg. "We are extremely successful in monopolising resources today, and our results show that this may have also been the case with our ancestors." The researchers looked at extinction rates of large and small carnivores and how this correlated with environmental changes such as rainfall and temperature. They also looked at changes in the brain size of human ancestors such as Australopithecus and Ardipithecus. They found that extinction rates in large carnivores correlated with increased brain size of human ancestors and with vegetation changes, but not with precipitation or temperature changes. They found the best explanation for carnivore extinction in East Africa was that these animals were in direct competition for food with our ancestors. They think human ancestors may have stolen freshly-killed prey from the likes of sabre-toothed cats, depriving them of food. "Our results suggest that substantial anthropogenic influence on biodiversity started millions of years earlier than currently assumed," the researchers reported in the journal Ecology Letters.

1-19-20 New coronavirus 'preventable and controllable', China says
The new Chinese virus which has already spread abroad "is still preventable and controllable", China says. Its National Health Commission warned, however, that close monitoring was needed given the source, transmission and mutation methods were unknown. Two people are known to have died from the respiratory illness which appeared in Wuhan city in December. In its first statement since the outbreak, the body promised to step up monitoring during the Lunar new year. Millions of Chinese travel to their families for the holiday - also known as the Spring Festival - beginning next week. There have been more than 60 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but UK experts estimate a figure nearer 1,700. Singapore and Hong Kong have been screening air passengers from Wuhan, and US authorities have announced similar measures at three major airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. While the outbreak is centred on the central Chinese city of Wuhan, there have been two cases in Thailand and one in Japan. Chinese officials say there have been no cases of the virus spreading from one person to another. Instead, they say, the virus has crossed the species barrier and come from infected animals at a seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan. The WHO's China office said the analysis was helpful and would help officials plan the response to the outbreak. "Much remains to be understood about the new coronavirus," it said. "Not enough is known to draw definitive conclusions about how it is transmitted, the clinical features of the disease, the extent to which it has spread, or its source, which remains unknown." At the mild end they cause the common cold, but severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) is a coronavirus that killed 774 of the 8,098 people infected in an outbreak that started in China in 2002.

1-19-20 The push to boost the global nursing workforce
To take on the health challenges of the coming decade, countries must invest more in nursing. Around the world, nursing is often a thankless, yet vital profession. But in the world of health and medicine, 2020 is the year of the nurse and midwife. The World Health Organization designation signifies a concerted push to boost the global nursing workforce in the face of growing health care shortages and ambitious efforts to reach a United Nations goal of universal health coverage around the world by 2030. "It's a year to make people aware of the actual work that nurses do, to increase the profile and to get them into leadership positions," said Annette Kennedy, president of the International Council of Nurses and a former director of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organization. Nurses and midwives currently make up slightly more than half of the entire health care workforce worldwide, but WHO estimates that shortages could hit nearly 9 million by 2030. Aging populations and a surge in chronic diseases like diabetes are also creating new stressors on health care. Meanwhile, nurses continue to play a critical role in maternal and child health and disease prevention. "Yes we can celebrate, yes we can recognize, but what actions will be taken?" said James Campbell, director of the WHO's health workforce department. Campbell said to take on the health challenges of the coming decade, countries must invest more in nursing, whether that be increasing training opportunities and graduate slots or expanding the ways that nurses can actually practice. The field of nursing has "changed dramatically," since its inception nearly two centuries ago when Florence Nightingale set up the world's first nursing school in London in 1860, said Kennedy. Nightingale pushed for better sanitation in hospitals amid the Crimean war, demonstrating that more soldiers died of post-battle infections than on the battlefield itself. She also oversaw day-to-day operations.

1-18-20 New Chinese virus 'will have infected hundreds'
The number of people already infected by the mystery virus emerging in China is far greater than official figures suggest, scientists have told the BBC. There have been nearly 50 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but UK experts estimate a figure nearer 1,700. Two people are known to have died from the respiratory illness, which appeared in Wuhan city in December. "I am substantially more concerned than I was a week ago," disease outbreak scientist Prof Neil Ferguson, said. The work was conducted by the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, which advises bodies including the UK government and the World Health Organization (WHO). Singapore and Hong Kong have been screening air passengers from Wuhan, and US authorities announced similar measures starting on Friday at three major airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. The crucial clue to the scale of the problem lies in the cases being detected in other countries. While the outbreak is centred on the central Chinese city of Wuhan, there have been two cases in Thailand and one in Japan. "That caused me to worry," said Prof Ferguson. He added: "For Wuhan to have exported three cases to other countries would imply there would have to be many more cases than have been reported." It is impossible to get the precise number, but outbreak modelling, which is based on the virus, the local population and flight data, can give an idea. Wuhan International Airport serves a population of 19 million people, but only 3,400 a day travel internationally. The detailed calculations, which have been posted online ahead of publication in a scientific journal, came up with a figure of 1,700 cases. Prof Ferguson said it was "too early to be alarmist" but he was "substantially more concerned" than a week ago. Chinese officials say there have been no cases of the virus spreading from one person to another. Instead they say the virus has crossed the species barrier and come from infected animals at a seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan.

1-18-20 Exploding cancer cells can cause serious side effects in CAR-T cell therapies
Blocking a protein makes cells shrink instead, causing fewer problems. Techniques to genetically modify patient immune cells have revolutionized the fight against hard-to-treat cancers. But they can come with dangerous side effects. Now, researchers have found one reason why. A particularly messy form of cell death sparks severe inflammation in patients receiving CAR-T cell immunotherapy for blood cancers, researchers report January 17 in Science Immunology. This treatment, approved for certain patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (SN: 12/13/17), unleashes immune cells in a patient’s bloodstream, tweaked to produce artificial proteins called chimeric antigen receptors, or CAR. The proteins prime T cells to recognize cancer cells so that the immune cells can hunt down and kill the rogue cells. Normally as cells die, they shrink and break apart — a highly controlled process whose debris is easily vacuumed up by the body’s natural defenses. During CAR-T cell treatment, however, targeted cancer cells can swell and rupture in a manner typically associated with infection, Bo Huang, an immunologist at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, and colleagues found. This explosive cell death, or pyroptosis, causes dead cells to expel their contents. That, in turn, prompts the immune system to produce cytokine chemicals that trigger inflammation. Cytokine release syndrome, one of the most common side effects for CAR-T cell therapy patients (SN: 6/27/18), can cause high fever, rapid heartbeat and multi-organ failure. Although most people survive, some require intensive care. Until now, scientists didn’t know what triggered the syndrome. Pinpointing the root cause could help researchers find ways to stop the onslaught of inflammation, Huang says.

1-18-20 Hairy cells in the nose called brush cells may be involved in causing allergies
In mice, these cells trigger inflammation when exposed to mold and dust. Some hairy cells in the nose may trigger sneezing and allergies to dust mites, mold and other substances, new work with mice suggests. When exposed to allergens, these “brush cells” make chemicals that lead to inflammation, researchers report January 17 in Science Immunology. Only immune cells previously were thought to make such inflammatory chemicals — fatty compounds known as lipids. The findings may provide new clues about how people develop allergies. Brush cells are shaped like teardrops topped by tufts of hairlike projections. In people, mice and other animals, these cells are also found in the linings of the trachea and the intestines, where they are known as tuft cells (SN: 4/13/18). However, brush cells are far more common in the nose than in other tissues, and may help the body identify when pathogens or noxious chemicals have been inhaled, says Lora Bankova, an allergist and immunologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Bankova and her colleagues discovered that, when exposed to certain molds or dust mite proteins, brush cells in mice’s noses churn out inflammation-producing lipids, called cysteinyl leukotrienes. The cells also made the lipids when encountering ATP, a chemical used by cells for energy that also signals when nearby cells are damaged, as in an infection. Mice exposed to allergens or ATP developed swelling of their nasal tissues. But mice that lacked brush cells suffered much less inflammation. Such inflammation may lead to allergies in some cases. The researchers haven’t yet confirmed that brush cells in human noses respond to allergens in the same way as these cells do in mice.

1-17-20 A special kind of nose cell may trigger allergic reactions
Mice have tens of thousands of chemical sensing nose cells that can cause an allergic reaction. Researchers say this discovery could help us understand how the immune system reacts to inhaled allergens and why some people with allergies lose their sense of smell. We know that in humans and mice, breathing in allergens such as house dust mite droppings or mould can cause inflammation in the nose. This triggers a further allergic response driven by immune cells, but we don’t fully understand the process. To try to learn more, a team at Harvard University isolated cells from the noses of mice and sorted them into different types according to their shape, size and the specific proteins they displayed on their surface. By doing this, they identified chemical sensing cells that react to allergens in the air soon after they are inhaled. These cells start releasing molecules that cause inflammation in the nose even before immune cells are delivered to the nose in the bloodstream. The chemical sensing cells in the nose release “boatloads” of inflammatory molecules, says Lora Bankova, who led the work. These are the same molecules that drive allergic conditions like asthma, and are usually only produced by immune cells. Cells similar to those in the nose have been found in the lower airway and the gut in mice and humans, but they were thought to be extremely rare. Bankova says she was surprised to discover there are 20,000 to 30,000 of these nose cells in mice. There are equivalent chemical sensing cells in the human nose, says Bankova, but we don’t know if they have a similar function. The cells are also surprising because they are mostly found in the part of the nose involved in smell, says Bankova, which hadn’t previously been thought to play a role in allergic responses. This might explain why some people with chronic allergies lose their sense of smell, says Bankova. “It might be because there is so much inflammation in that area that we hadn’t previously recognised,” she says. As well as detecting allergens, these cells may also be able to sense invading microbes such as the common cold virus, says Bankova.

1-17-20 Is whole milk healthier?
Children who drink whole milk rather than low-fat milk are less likely to be overweight or obese, reports The New York Times. Canadian researchers examined 14 studies involving 20,897 children that compared kids who drank whole milk, with 3.25 percent fat, to those given milk containing less than 2 percent fat. They concluded that the children who drank whole milk had a 39 percent lower risk of being overweight or obese that their peers who drank lower-fat milk. Moreover, the kids’ risk of obesity gradually declined as their whole milk consumption increased. The authors suggest several possible explanations. Milk with more fat might make kids feel fuller and cause them to consume fewer calories from other foods. It’s also possible that parents with skinny children give them whole milk in order to beef them up. “All of the studies we examined were observational studies, meaning that we cannot be sure if whole milk caused the lower risk” of being overweight or obese, said lead author Jonathon Maguire, from St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. He says further clinical trials are needed.

1-17-20 Running to reverse aging
Training for and running a marathon for the first time could reverse some of the effects of aging, according to a new British study. Researchers examined 138 novice runners, ages 21 to 69, six months before their first marathon and within three weeks of completing the race. They found that over that period the runners experienced marked reductions in artery stiffness and high blood pressure, both of which are contributors to heart attacks and strokes. Those changes, researchers said, are equivalent to a four-year reduction in vascular age. The greatest benefits were seen among older, slower male runners. The participants weren’t exercise junkies—they were running for a maximum of two hours a week before beginning their marathon training, which for the most part involved only three runs a week. On average, they completed the 26.2-mile race about 30 minutes slower than the typical runner. Lead researcher Charlotte Manisty, from University College London, tells CNN.com that the findings show “it is possible to reverse the consequences of aging on our blood vessels with real-world exercise in just six months.”

1-17-20 Drop in deaths from cancer
The number of people dying from cancer in the U.S. fell 2.2 percent in 2017—the largest single-year drop ever reported. Since 1991, the overall cancer death rate has dropped by 29 percent, which translates to 2.9 million fewer deaths. Researchers credit the progress to fewer people smoking, new immunotherapy treatments, and “targeted” therapies that halt the action of molecules involved in cancer growth.

1-17-20 Being happy
86% of Americans report they are either “very happy” or “fairly happy,” but that’s down from 91% in 2008, and the lowest percentage polled over the past seven decades. 77% of nonwhites and 79% of those with a high school education or less report being happy.

1-17-20 The middle-aged
The middle-aged, with new data indicating that 47.2 is the precise age at which the average person hits the low point of the lifelong “happiness curve.” Tom, 47.19, told Slate.com that “suddenly, the ticking of the clock grows that much louder. Also, hemorrhoids.”

1-17-20 Ancient ‘Amazons’ unearthed in Russia
The Amazons were portrayed in ancient Greek myth as man-hating horseback warriors who chopped off their breasts to improve their archery, and were long dismissed by modern scholars as fantasies dreamed up by an overexcited male imagination. But the discovery in western Russia of a tomb containing four women and a stash of weapons suggests the legend of the Amazons was rooted in reality. The women—who range in age from early teens to late 40s—were buried some 2,500 years ago alongside arrowheads, spears, and horse-riding gear. They were members of a nomadic people called the Scythians, who roamed the Eurasian steppe from around 800 B.C. to 200 B.C. and likely had contact with ancient Greeks in the Black Sea region. While other tombs containing Scythian women and weapons have been unearthed in recent years, this is the first time that multiple generations of women have been found together. One 30-something woman was buried with her legs in a horse-riding position and with two spears at her side. The eldest woman had an iron knife and a rare forked arrowhead, and was wearing an elaborate golden headdress, an indication of status. The findings suggest that Scythian girls were trained early, just like boys, to ride horses and shoot bows and arrows—essential survival skills “on the harsh steppes,” Adrienne Mayor, a classicist and author of The Amazons, tells The Washington Post. “It confirms that these women really were warriors throughout their lives.”

1-17-20 Chinese Chang’e 4 engineer explains how to garden on the moon
China’s Chang’e 4 lunar lander captivated global attention when a cotton seed on board became the first plant ever to germinate on another world – and now the engineer behind this moon garden has revealed just how it was done. Cotton, arabidopsis, potato and rape seeds, as well as yeast and fruit fly eggs, were all inside a 2.6-kilogram mini biosphere when Chang’e 4 landed on the far side of the moon in January 2019. Months of uncertainty and planning led to the successful mission, says Xie Gengxin at Chongqing University, the experiment’s chief designer. The idea to send a biosphere to the moon was selected from 257 suggestions submitted by Chinese students in 2016. Rice and arabidopsis have been grown on China’s Tiangong-2 space lab and plants have been cultivated on the International Space Station, but those experiments were conducted in low Earth orbit, at an altitude of about 400 kilometres. The cosmic radiation on the moon – 380,000 kilometres from Earth – makes it a more challenging environment. Given limited space on the lander, the experiment had to be small and light, says Xie. The cylindrical capsule his team designed was 19.8 centimetres high with a diameter of 17.3 cm. It had a rectangular seedbed inside, measuring 800 cubic centimetres. A pipe built into the top allowed sunlight to reach the plants, and the whole chamber was kept at Earth atmospheric pressure. A replicais currently on display in the Design Museum’s Moving to Mars exhibition in London. The real chamber was powered on just under 13 hours after Chang’e 4 landed, at 11.19 pm on 3 January. The first order of business was remotely watering the seeds with a measured spritz of 18 millilitres of water. The team had to consider in advance a number of things that could go wrong during the mission, such as the possibility the water might not be released or released too early, or the pipe that let in sunlight getting blocked by moon dust, in addition to camera or data transmission failures.

1-17-20 Benzodiazepine prescriptions reach ‘disturbing’ levels in the US
Benzodiazepine drugs are prescribed at about 66 million doctor appointments a year in the US, according to a report by the US National Center for Health Statistics. This means that for every 100 adults that visit an office-based doctor over the course of a year, 27 visits will result in a prescription for a benzodiazepine. The figures, based on surveys conducted between 2014 and 2016, are “discouraging and disappointing”, says Lois Platt at Rush University in Chicago. “The statistics we have are disturbing, and everyone should be concerned about bringing them down,” she says. Benzodiazepine drugs are sedatives that tend to be prescribed for sleep disorders and anxiety. The drugs are addictive – people can become dependent on them in a matter of days, and withdrawal symptoms make it hard to quit. Overdoses can be fatal. A third of the recorded benzodiazepine prescriptions issued in the US were given alongside a prescription for an opioid painkiller. This is especially concerning, because it is easy to fatally overdose when taking the drugs together, says Rebecca McDonald at King’s College London. “Benzodiazepine deaths have gone up substantially over the past two decades in the US, increasing from just over 1,000 annual deaths in 1999 to over 11,000 deaths in 2017,” says McDonald. “Almost all cases also involved opioids.” In the US, most benzodiazepine prescriptions are made for people chronic disorders, according to the report. “At most of the [doctor] visits, benzodiazepines or opioids were continued prescriptions,” says Loredana Santo at the National Center for Health Statistics, who led the research. “Our finding suggests that most patients prescribed these medications might be long-term users of these drugs.”

1-17-20 Volcanic gas bursts probably didn’t kill off the dinosaurs
A new timeline exonerates the Deccan Traps eruptions in a mass extinction 66 million years ago. Massive gas bursts emitted by volcanoes about 66 million years ago probably couldn’t have caused a mass extinction event that spelled doom for all nonbird dinosaurs, new research suggests. Data on ancient temperatures, combined with simulations of the shifting carbon cycle in the ocean, lend support to the hypothesis that a giant asteroid impact — not toxic gases emitted by Deccan Traps eruption — was primarily responsible for the die-off, researchers report January 17 in Science. About three-quarters of Earth’s plant and animal species were killed off during the extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous Period. Sediment deposits linked to the giant asteroid impact, which struck Chicxulub in what now Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, form a layer known as the “KPg” boundary. This boundary marks the transition from the Cretaceous to the Paleogene Period, and implicates the asteroid strike in the extinction event (SN: 1/25/17). But the Deccan Traps eruptions, which spewed as much as 500,000 cubic kilometers of lava across much of what’s now western India, also occurred within a million years of the extinction. Sussing out the true killer has been challenging, because the precise timing of the Deccan Traps eruptions has been uncertain. Scientists previously have focused on dating the rocks — either zircon crystals embedded within ash layers between flows of lava (SN: 12/11/14), or outcrops of the lava itself (SN: 2/21/19). Those efforts have resulted in a range of different dates for the eruptions, some before and some after the extinction. Furthermore, the real dino killer wouldn’t have been the lava — it would have been the volcanic gases: carbon dioxide heating the planet or sulfur dioxide acidifying the oceans. “It’s the outgassing that’s important, but it’s really hard to pin that down,” says Pincelli Hull, a paleoceanographer at Yale University.

1-17-20 Dinosaur extinction: 'Asteroid strike was real culprit'
Was it the asteroid or colossal volcanism that initiated the demise of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago? This has been a bit of a "to and fro" argument of late, but now a group of scientists has weighed in with what they claim is the definitive answer. "It was the asteroid 'wot dun it'!" Prof Paul Wilson told the BBC. His team's analysis of ocean sediments shows that huge volcanoes that erupted in India did not change the climate enough to drive the extinction. Volcanoes can spew enormous volumes of gases into the atmosphere that can both cool and warm the planet. And the Deccan Traps, as the volcanic terrain in India is known, certainly had massive scale - hundreds of thousands of cubic km of molten rock were erupted onto the land surface over thousands of years. But the new research from Southampton University's Prof Wilson, and colleagues from elsewhere in Europe and the US, indicates there is a mismatch in both the effect and timing of the volcanism's influence. The group drilled into the North Atlantic seafloor to retrieve its ancient muds. "The deep ocean sediments are packed full of these microscopic marine organisms called Foraminifera," Prof Wilson explained. "You get about a thousand of them in a teaspoon of sediment. And we can use their shells to figure out the chemistry of the ocean and its temperature, so we can study in great detail the environmental changes that are occurring in the run-up to the extinction event. "And what we discovered is that the only way in which we can get our (climate) model simulations to match the observed temperature changes is to have the volcanic emissions of harmful gases done and dusted a couple of hundred thousand years before the impact event. "We find the impact event is exactly contemporaneous with the extinction."

1-16-20 AI suggests Earth has had fewer mass extinctions than we thought
The best record yet of how biodiversity changed in the distant past has been created with the help of machine learning and a supercomputer. Among other things, it confirms that one of the five great mass extinctions didn’t really happen. It was thought the oceans turned toxic around 375 million years ago, near the end of the Devonian period, wiping out many marine species including almost all trilobites. But the latest study shows no evidence of a sudden catastrophic change like the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. Instead, there was a gradual decline over an immensely long time – around 50 million years. “The late Devonian mass extinction isn’t there,” says Doug Erwin at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. “There’s a long decrease in diversity during the Devonian, as some people have suggested previously.” Fossils are used to date rocks. Because most species are only around for a few million years, if fossils of one species are present in rocks from different places, those rocks must be roughly the same age. Roughly really does mean roughly, though. Previous studies of how biodiversity has changed over time have only been able to divide the past into huge chunks around ten million years long. Now Shuzhong Shen at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology in China and his colleagues including Erwin have produced a dramatically improved record in which each chunk is just 26,000 years long. They did this by taking a statistical approach developed around a decade ago and using it to analyse 100,000 records of 11,000 marine species whose fossils have been found in China and Europe. This approach is so computationally intense it would take dozens of years to do this on a normal computer. Instead, the team developed special machine-learning procedures and ran them on the Tianhe-2 supercomputer. The record covers 300 million years overall, from the start of the Cambrian period 540 million years ago until just after the start of the Triassic period 240 million years ago.

1-16-20 Ancient shark used its teeth like the blade of a power tool
About 310 million years ago some sharks had saws for jaws – and now we know how one of those sharks, called Edestus, fed. The “saw blade” in its lower jaw glided backwards and forwards like the blade on some modern power tools, allowing the shark to cut through soft prey like fish. We know that Edestus was a very odd shark that grew to the size of a modern great white. It had what look a lot like two saw blades in its mouth – one in the upper and one in the lower jaw. The two blades, which could each be 40 centimetres long but just 3 cm wide, seem to have locked together when the shark closed its mouth, a bit like the blades on a pair of serrated scissors. But exactly how the two blades worked together to cut through flesh has been unclear. While Edestus’s saw blade teeth were likely to have contained hard layers of calcium phosphate that meant it fossilised well, the rest of the shark’s skeleton usually didn’t because it was made of cartilage rather than bone. Now, Leif Tapanila at Idaho State University and his colleagues have solved the mystery by examining a 310-million-year-old fossil that, unusually, included the crushed remains of a near-complete Edestus skull. “[It’s] the most complete skull known for the animal,” says Tapanila. A careful analysis shows that it had a distinctive hinge between the lower jaw and the rest of its skull. This allowed the lower jaw – and its saw blade – to slide back and forth relative to the upper blade, which stayed fixed in place. Tapanila says the lower jaw worked a bit like the blade on a jigsaw power tool. “It pulled backwards during the bite. This raked the upper and lower teeth past the food, slicing and splitting it in half.” Strange though Edestus was, some of its relatives were even odder. A few years ago, Tapanila and his colleagues analysed a related extinct shark called Helicoprion that had just one toothed saw blade in its lower jaw that grew into a spiral. This made it look like it had a circular saw blade mounted vertically in its mouth. Tapanila’s team showed that when Helicoprion snapped its jaws shut, the teeth on the blade rotated, which would have helped pull soft flesh snagged on the teeth towards the shark’s throat for easy swallowing.

1-16-20 Anxiety is different for kids
Here's what parents should watch for, and how to help. You know how to do CPR and have a fully stocked first aid kit. At home and in the car. But it's not enough. Today's parents need to know how to deal with their kids' mental health as well as their fevers and grazed knees. According to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, around a third of adolescents have an anxiety disorder, which can come in various guises (including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and separation anxiety disorder) and is characterized by excessive anxiety and related behavioral disturbances. In the midst of what's arguably one of the biggest public health challenges of all time, we're all more aware of the prevalence of anxiety and other mental health issues, more clued-up about how mental illness can present itself, and what we can do to help both ourselves and others. But there's an important qualifier when talking about kids with anxiety: They don't display it in the same way adults do. "Typically, when a child is anxious, you'll see a change in their behavior," says New York-based therapist Dana Carretta-Stein, M.S., LMHC, LPC. That child could be the 8-year-old who throws the epic sort of tantrums you'd expect from a toddler. Or the 10-year-old who's snappy and irritable every single day, for no apparent reason. Or the 12-year old who gets a stomach ache every morning before school, without fail. It manifests itself in a range of ways, Carretta-Stein says. "While every child is different, some kids may become more aggressive (which is the fight in the fight/flight response), whereas other children may become very shy (the flight response)," she explains. Kids with anxiety may be clingy or tearful, reluctant to go to school, take part in activities, or be separated from their parent, says Michigan-based therapist Carrie Krawiec, LMFT. They may have persistent headaches or stomach aches, or display obsessive-compulsive or rigid behaviors, like being in distress when something isn't a certain way or checking something over and over.

1-16-20 Swapping breakfast for brunch on weekends may lead to weight gain
Eating meals later on weekends than during the week may cause weight gain by messing with the body’s metabolic rhythms. We already know that shift workers and people with disrupted sleep patterns are prone to weight gain. This is probably because they are more likely to eat meals at night when our bodies aren’t used to processing food, which seems to lead to the storage of extra fat. Maria Fernanda Zerón-Rugerio and Maria Izquierdo-Pulido at the University of Barcelona in Spain and their colleagues wondered if smaller disruptions to normal eating schedules – like eating meals later on weekends – might have similar effects. “It’s common to sleep in on weekends, so we end up having breakfast later and then lunch and dinner tend to be a bit delayed too,” says Zerón-Rugerio. “We call this eating jet lag.” The team surveyed more than 1100 university students in Spain and Mexico to find out what time they normally ate breakfast, lunch and dinner on weekdays and weekends. Almost two-thirds had an hour or more of eating jet lag on weekends, meaning the midpoint between their first and last meal was at least an hour later on weekends than on weekdays. Breakfast was the most delayed meal, tending to become brunch. The greater the students’ eating jet lag, the more likely they were to be overweight. Those who reported more than 3.5 hours of eating jet lag on weekends had body mass indexes (BMIs) that were 1.3 units higher on average than those with no eating jet lag. This wasn’t related to the quality of their diet, how long they slept or how much they exercised. This suggests that eating at the same time every day may help people lose stubborn excess weight, says Zerón-Rugerio. Dropping 1.3 BMI units is equivalent to someone who is 170 centimetres tall and weighs 90 kilograms losing 4 kilograms.

1-16-20 A new drug lowers levels of a protein related to ‘bad’ cholesterol
The treatment may reduce risk of heart attack and stroke. Routine blood tests in the not-too-distant future may feature a new line item: lipoprotein(a). High levels of this fat- and cholesterol-carrying protein increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, research suggests. But there has been little anyone can do about it. How much lipoprotein(a) a person produces is largely locked in by genetics, and the level remains relatively steady throughout life. That’s in contrast to “bad” LDL — low-density lipoprotein — cholesterol, which changes depending on diet and exercise. Because lipoprotein(a) is genetically determined, “these people who have high levels have had it since birth, and so they can get heart disease earlier,” says Erin Michos, a preventive cardiologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who was not involved with the clinical trial. Now, a therapy that specifically targets lipoprotein(a) levels is on the horizon. In a clinical trial, the drug, which blocks the body’s ability to make the protein, reduced people’s levels of lipoprotein(a) by as much as 80 percent, researchers report in the Jan. 16 New England Journal of Medicine. The trial also found the drug to be safe. Another clinical trial is now underway to determine whether drastically lowering levels of lipoprotein(a) in people who already have cardiovascular disease lessens their risk of heart attack and stroke (SN: 3/15/19). Lipoprotein(a) is made up of a particle of LDL plus a protein called apolipoprotein(a). The relationship between LDL cholesterol and cardiovascular disease risk is well-established: When there is too much LDL cholesterol in the blood, it can get into the walls of arteries, stoking an inflammatory immune response that leads to thickened walls and narrowed arteries (SN: 5/3/17).

1-16-20 Uploading your brain will leave you exposed to software glitches
Think a digital version of your mind will allow you to live forever? It might, but it will also open you up to software manipulation and server problems, says Annalee Newitz. BACK in the 20th century, “the future” meant flying cars and food pills. Now, the future is all about brain uploads. The idea is that, one day, we will be able to convert all our memories and thoughts into hyper-advanced software programs. Once the human brain can run on a computer – or maybe even on a giant robot – we will evade death forever. Sounds cooler than a flying car, right? Wrong. If they ever exist, uploads will be hell. Fantasies about uploaded brains are nothing new. William Gibson wrote about them some 35 years ago in his cyberpunk classic Neuromancer, in which people could upload themselves into cyberspace; and almost a century ago, back in 1923, E. V. Odle published a novel called The Clockwork Man, about how the people of tomorrow would live inside a virtual world of clockwork technology. In recent decades, however, scientists and philosophers have also started to take a serious interest in the idea of digital versions of brains. Massive research undertakings like the Human Brain Project aim to “simulate” the human brain in software. And Anders Sandberg at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and his colleagues explore how future societies should deal ethically with uploaded minds. There are plenty of medical applications for a brain simulation. Doctors could use it to model diseases or to test therapies. Neurologists could probe it to understand how thought emerges from cellular activity. This isn’t what people like Google’s director of engineering Ray Kurzweil want, though. As he has said in multiple places, he is looking for upload tech that will make him immortal.

1-16-20 Neandertals dove and harvested clamshells for tools near Italy’s shores
Stone Age human relatives shed their reputation as one-trick mammoth hunters. Often typecast as spear-wielding mammoth killers, some Neandertals were beachcombers and surf divers, researchers say. At Moscerini Cave, located on Italy’s western coast, Neandertals collected clamshells on the beach and retrieved others from the Mediterranean Sea, say archaeologist Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Boulder Museum of Natural History and her colleagues. Our close, now extinct evolutionary relatives waded or dove into shallow waters to collect shells that they sharpened into scraping or cutting tools, the researchers report January 15 in PLOS ONE. Of 167 clamshells with sharpened edges that previously were excavated in the cave, 40 displayed shiny, smooth surfaces characteristic of living clams taken from the seafloor, Villa’s team says. The remaining shells featured dull, worn surfaces, indicating that these finds had washed up on the beach and were gradually ground down before Neandertals used them as tools. Earlier dating of animal teeth unearthed near sharpened clam shells in Moscerini Cave suggested that Neandertals lived there roughly 100,000 years ago, at a time when Homo sapiens did not inhabit the region. Consistent with the possibility that Neandertals plunged perhaps a few meters deep into Mediterranean waters to find submerged clams, another team has concluded that bony growths in the ear canals of as many as 13 of 23 European and southwest Asian Neandertal skulls look like “swimmer’s ear,” a condition in people today caused by frequent exposure to cold water and cold, moist air. Ancient humans often lived by lakes, rivers and oceans (SN: 7/29/11). Several European excavations have pointed to seaside occupations by Neandertals (SN: 9/22/08).


ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

1-22-20 Collectors find plenty of bees but far fewer species than in the 1950s
A look at global insect collections suggests bee diversity has dropped sharply since the 1990s. Far fewer bee species are buzzing across Earth today, following a steep decline in bee diversity during the last three decades, according to an analysis of bee collections and observations going back a century. About half as many bee species are turning up in current collecting efforts for museums and other collections compared with in the 1950s, when surveys counted around 1,900 species a year, scientists report December 10 at bioRxiv.org. That high diversity in collections endured for several decades, but then began to plummet around the 1990s, likely reflecting a real drop in global bee diversity, according to the study, which is under peer review. “This is the first study suggesting that bee decline is a global process, and that the most significant changes have occurred in recent years,” says Margarita López-Uribe, a bee evolutionary ecologist at Penn State who was not part of the new research. The new work evaluates global trends in bee diversity since the 1920s by tapping the database of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. This international data-sharing network holds what López-Uribe describes as “the most comprehensive dataset of insect collection records worldwide,” including photos of bees in the field and of museum specimens dating back to the 18th century. Previous bee studies have reported falling populations, but evidence has often been limited to Europe and North America. Numbers of western honeybees (Apis mellifera) have been decreasing in North America and Europe (SN: 6/20/19), for example, but have increased in Asia, Africa and South America. For bees overall, though, the global situation was unclear.

1-20-20 Man raised alongside chimps says it should never happen again
Nick Lehane's performance piece, Chimpanzee, in London for the first time, reveals how tragedy stalked the amazing achievement of raising chimps in human families The puppet, a life-sized female chimpanzee, is made out of wood, rope, carved hard foam and paper mâché. She gazes out at the audience from a raised platform and, through movement alone, weaves her tale. When she was young, she lived as part of a human family. Now she is incarcerated in a research laboratory, deprived of company, her mind slowly deteriorating. Rowan Magee, Andy Manjuck, and Emma Wiseman operate the chimpanzee, the sole actor in a puppet play running at the Barbican Centre in London. The play, Chimpanzee, by Brooklyn-based actor and puppeteer Nick Lehane, is a highlight of 2020’s London Mime. It is a moving story that is attracting attention from neurologists and cognitive scientists along with the usual performing-arts crowd. Lehane conceived the show after reading Next of Kin, a memoir by psychologist and primate researcher Roger Fouts. Fouts’s tales of experiments in fostering young chimpanzees in human homes had obvious dramatic potential. Then, as Lehane looked deeper, he discovered a much darker story. The Fouts family’s own chimps enjoyed a relatively comfortable life once they outgrew their human home. But other chimpanzees in similar programmes found themselves sold to research labs, living out almost inconceivably solitary lives of confinement and vivisection.Modern efforts to communicate with chimpanzees began in 1967 at the University of Nevada, Reno, when primatologists Allen and Beatrix Gardner set up a project to teach American Sign Language (ASL) to a chimp called Washoe. These experiments have so transformed our view of chimp culture that many of the original researchers are campaigning to end the practice of keeping primates in captivity. (It is still legal to keep primates as pets in the UK.)

1-19-20 Releasing rescued orangutans into the wild doesn’t boost populations
The number of Bornean orangutans is dwindling, and there is little evidence that efforts to relocate them from risky areas or rehabilitate those once held captive actually works to bolster their population. Between 2007 and 2017, about 1200 Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) were released into natural forests in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. Nearly 500 of those were formerly captive individuals nursed back to health before being released into the wild. But how many of these animals are still alive remains unclear. “Rescue centres do an important service by providing specialised care for a difficult-to-care-for species, but there is little publicly available evidence on the long-term survival of the reintroduced animals,” says Julie Sherman at Wildlife Impact in Oregon. Sherman and her team reviewed studies, news stories and publicly available data on conservation efforts to make these estimates. They also collected data from rescue centres, government agencies and zoos to determine the outcomes of relocation or rehabilitation for these great apes. The handful of cases where these animals were tracked for more than three years suggest that fewer than 30 per cent of the released animals may have survived. During the study period, at least 620 wild orangutans were also picked up outside protected areas in Kalimantan and released into a different wild site, mainly to prevent potential conflict with people. “The assumption translocation practitioners make is that since these are wild orangutans, they will survive anywhere in the wild,” says Sherman. Again, the fate of such animals is usually not monitored. The few studies that Sherman’s team found in which relocated orangutans were tracked suggest that most animals probably disappeared after release and may not have survived beyond a few years.

1-17-20 Cat owners
Cat owners, after a new study found evidence that cats will eat human flesh, including its owner’s corpse if there’s no other food.

1-17-20 Tortoise Adam
After helping save his species, Diego the giant—and remarkably frisky—tortoise is finally slowing down. Now more than 100 years old, Diego was shipped from San Diego Zoo to the Galapagos in 1976 to help repopulate the islands’ threatened Chelonoidis hoodensis tortoises. At the time, only 14 of the massive creatures (12 females and two males) lived on their native Española Island. Diego got straight to work, fathering more than 800 offspring at the captive-breeding program on the island of Santa Cruz. There are now some 2,000 of the giant tortoises, and Diego is retiring to Española. “There’s a feeling of happiness,” said park director Jorge Carrión, “of returning that tortoise to his natural state.”

1-17-20 A naturalist writes an homage to bird migration
A Season on the Wind shares observations of the passage of birds through northwestern Ohio. A tiny blackpoll warbler, a bird no heavier than a ballpoint pen, makes an epic journey each year. In fall, the bird flies some 10,000 kilometers from its breeding grounds in Alaska or Canada to its winter retreat in South America. In the spring, the bird undertakes the return trip. In his memoir A Season on the Wind, naturalist Kenn Kaufman shares his awe for the miraculous round-trip flight this warbler makes every year. A backdrop to the book is northwestern Ohio’s “Biggest Week in American Birding,” headquartered at Magee Marsh in Oak Harbor. As northbound birds like the blackpoll drop into the marshes that line Lake Erie’s southern shore in early May, so do the birders — who come to see the hundreds of migratory bird species that stop here to rest and feed every spring. Kaufman intertwines his personal reminiscences with stories of individual bird species and migration science. His observations are intensely personal, yet also offer insight into the shared experience of a global community of birders. Of the birders who flock from all over the world to Magee Marsh in spring, he writes, “I see people arriving here with mild curiosity and leaving with the spark of an intense, passionate interest.” His memoir reads as a love letter to bird migration, his adopted home of northwestern Ohio and his wife, Kimberly. Kaufman has authored a dozen popular guidebooks to the birds, insects and mammals of North America. In A Season on the Wind, he returns to the storytelling that won over readers of his classic 1997 memoir Kingbird Highway. That award-winning book told of his exploits hitchhiking around North America as a teenager in the 1970s in pursuit of a birding “big year” — competing with others to see the greatest number of species in a single calendar year.

1-16-20 We’ve seen wolf pups play fetch just like dogs for the first time
Fetching a thrown ball is one of the most quintessential dog behaviours, right up there with begging for scraps and tail wagging. But new research suggests that fetching may be older than dogs themselves, as some wolf pups also seem to enjoy the game. The first observations of wolf pups fetching balls for humans happened unexpectedly, says Christina Hansen Wheat at Stockholm University in Sweden. Hansen Wheat’s team studies the behavioural changes involved in domestication using dogs and wolves as a model. The team hand-reared wolf pups from three litters from the age of 10 days. When they were 8 weeks old, the team put the pups through a standardised series of tests to evaluate their behaviour. One of these tests was having an unfamiliar human toss a tennis ball across the room to see how much it captured the pup’s attention. Almost all of the pups from the 2014 and 2015 litters flatly ignored the ball. One gave it a passing glance. The next year, one pup shocked the scientists by not only chasing down the ball and snatching it up, but bringing it back to the human when coaxed. Hansen Wheat was watching from another room. “I literally got goosebumps,” she says, adding that dogs’ ability to interpret socially communicative behaviour from humans – like following a human’s cues to bring a ball back – has been considered a consequence of the domestication process. “Retrieving for a human has never before been shown in wolves,” says Hansen Wheat. In the end, three wolves from the 2016 litter fetched the balls, and one did it on all three trials of the test. Others played with the ball but wouldn’t return it. Hansen Wheat thinks the difference is likely to be rooted in the pups’ genetics, since the litters were brought up under identical conditions. Evan MacLean at the University of Arizona finds the ball retrieval particularly intriguing. “The first part – chasing, picking up in mouth – is largely within the predatory play repertoire,” says MacLean. “The returning with the object to the person is decidedly more dog-like.”