Sioux Falls Free Thinkers

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For all those with Open Minds!

An Open Mind by Megan Godtland

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

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

Special Report

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

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

ATHEISM and HUMANISM

12-15-17 Don't fall for the scam to destroy Medicare and Social Security
The Republican tax bill is moving closer and closer to passage. If the GOP manages to ram it through, make no mistake about what's next: a pell-mell rush to eviscerate social insurance programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. It's a simple trick: You blow up the deficit with tax cuts for the rich, then feign shock at the deficits you just caused, then insist that the only way to "get the debt under control" is by slashing social programs to the bone. Don't buy this nonsense, not from Ayn Rand worshipers like House Speaker Paul Ryan, and not from the more moderate deficit scolds who make up the Beltway's spineless and squishy center. America can easily provide for a decent standard of living for retired people, and decent medical care for the elderly and those in need. All that is necessary is raising taxes a bit — mainly on the rich. The Republican line on this is so transparently duplicitous it barely requires refutation. They are trying to stuff as much money as possible into the pockets of the rich, and take as much as possible from the pockets of the middle class and poor. A distracted child could understand the theft that is taking place. However, there is a larger moderate contingent that has long advocated for cuts to Social Security and Medicare. One powerfully misleading argument towards this end is the generational warfare take, most recently presented by Eric B. Schnurer, who presents as some kind of astounding revelation the fact that Social Security and Medicare are funded by taxation of mostly young, non-retired people. Thus Social Security and Medicare is "the grandparents stealing from the grandchildren."

12-15-17 U.S. religion is increasingly polarized
Moderate forms of organized worship are losing ground while evangelicalism maintains a steady foothold. There’s both inspiring and troubling news for holiday worshippers. Unlike other historically Christian Western nations, the United States is not losing its religion, say sociologists Landon Schnabel of Indiana University Bloomington and Sean Bock of Harvard University. But America is becoming as polarized religiously as it is politically, the researchers report online November 27 in Sociological Science. Intense forms of religion, such as Christian evangelicalism, have maintained their popularity for nearly 30 years, Schnabel and Bock find after analyzing almost 30 years of U.S. survey data. At the same time, moderate forms of religion, such as mainline Protestantism, have consistently lost followers. Religious moderates’ exodus from their churches stems partly from a growing link between religion and conservative politics, exemplified by the rise of the religious right in the late 1980s, the researchers suspect. Political liberals and moderates who already felt lukewarm toward the religion of their parents increasingly report identifying with no organized religion, especially if leaders of their childhood churches have taken conservative stances on social issues. Many Americans still report that they believe in God and pray, so they haven’t turned to atheism, the scientists say. Population trends also favor intense forms of religion, Schnabel holds. Mainline Protestantism’s decline from 35 percent of the U.S. population in 1972 — about 73.5 million people — to 12 percent in 2016 — nearly 39 million people — reflects low fertility rates among these Protestants and limited numbers of new adherents from immigration and conversion. Opposite trends among U.S. evangelicals helped their form of intense Christianity surge from 18 percent of the population in 1972 to a steady level of about 28 percent from 1989 to 2016.

12-15-17 The way we were in 2017
How are we feeling? Troubled. 59% of Americans say we’re at the lowest point in our country’s history that they can remember, and 63% say concerns about the nation’s future are a major source of stress in their lives (American Psychological Association). Many fear that partisan politics is splitting the country in two: 70% say the nation’s political divide is at least as big as during the Vietnam War and 39% think this lack of unity is the new normal (Washington Post/University of Maryland). If the Founding Fathers were alive today, 79% think, they’d be disappointed with the U.S. (Fox News). Yet there are some causes for optimism. 43% believe the economy is good or excellent, the highest number in a decade (CNBC), and 58% say they’re moving closer to realizing their career and financial aspirations—the highest number since 2013.
Whom do we blame for America’s problems? For many, it’s the man in the Oval Office. 66% say he’s done more to divide than unite the country (ABC News/Washington Post). Yet his core support remains solid: 22% of Americans say they’d still approve of Trump even if he shot someone on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue (Public Policy Polling). The presidency isn’t the only institution that’s slumped in the eyes of the public. 81% have an unfavorable opinion of Congress (Gallup) and 45% say they have almost no confidence in the press (Reuters/Ipsos). Indeed, 65% think the mainstream media is filled with “fake news” produced by agenda-driven partisans on both the left and right (Harvard-Harris). But many Americans might not accept that finding: 61% say they don’t trust public opinion polls.

12-15-17 Trump faces a #MeToo moment
President Trump was pulled back into the national debate over sexual harassment this week after three women who accused him during the 2016 campaign of groping or forcibly kissing them renewed their allegations, leading New York Sen. Kirsten ­Gillibrand and other Democrats to call for the president’s resignation. The three women, among more than a dozen to accuse Trump of sexual harassment and assault during his real estate and reality-TV career, told their stories again on Megyn Kelly’s NBC show and at a joint news conference, where they asked Congress to investigate Trump’s alleged misconduct. One accuser, Jessica Leeds, said Trump had tried to put his hand up her skirt during a flight to New York some three decades ago. Another, former Miss USA contestant Samantha Holvey, said it was “heartbreaking” to watch Trump’s electoral victory last year. “Now it’s just like, ­‘Alright, let’s try round two.’ The environment’s different.” Gillibrand said the allegations were “very credible” and demanded Trump resign. The president struck back with tweets dismissing the women as fabricators and Gillibrand as a “lightweight.” He claimed the senator “would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them).” Gillibrand and other Democrats said Trump’s comment was laden with sexual innuendo and denounced it as a “sexist smear.” The White House rebuffed the criticism as well as calls for a congressional investigation, saying the accusations had already been litigated in Trump’s favor “in a decisive election.”

12-15-17 The Week Editor’s letter
Never in my lifetime, even in the 1960s, has the country felt so fractured—so close to a civil war. Our one nation, allegedly indivisible, has cracked open along fault lines of culture, class, religion, and partisan identity, creating chasms of mutual incomprehension and disdain. Politics has devolved into a winner-take-all blood sport. Virtually everything is politicized, from football to wedding cakes. In the coming year, special counsel Robert Mueller would seem likely to conclude that President Trump obstructed justice in the Russia investigation. Mueller may point to other high crimes and misdemeanors as well. It’s impossible to predict how Congress and the nation will respond—or what will happen if Trump decides to fire Mueller—except that what follows will be convulsive. Our democracy will be sorely tested; in the crucible, we will discover whether character, decency, truth, and the rule of law still matter. I’d like to think we will pass the test.

12-15-17 Kids’ health program on the brink
Congress isn’t expected to renew funding for the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program until at least January, Axios.com reported this week, leaving many state programs in imminent danger of running out of money. Funding for the joint state-federal program, which provides health insurance for 9 million low-income children, expired at the end of September. Some states, including Virginia and Colorado, have warned families that their children’s coverage will end by Jan. 31 if Congress doesn’t renew funding, and Connecticut and Utah are expected to send similar notifications this month. Congress included temporary measures to keep CHIP running for the rest of the year in its most recent stopgap spending bill, but lawmakers have yet to fund the program for 2018.

12-15-17 Police video
A graphic video of a police officer shooting an unarmed man who had been sobbing and pleading for his life sparked outrage this week, and renewed calls for excessive-force training for law enforcement. The bodycam footage was released a day after a jury acquitted the white officer, Philip Brailsford, of murder and manslaughter charges in the 2016 shooting death of 26-year-old Daniel Shaver, also a white man. The video, which was shown during Brailsford’s trial, shows police confronting Shaver, who had been drinking, in the hallway of a Mesa hotel, where guests had reported seeing a man with a gun. Shaver is seen crying and complying with commands from multiple officers, saying, “Please do not shoot me.” Brailsford then shoots Shaver five times shortly after ordering him to crawl toward him. It later emerged that Shaver had been showing off a pellet gun he used for his job as exterminator, but wasn’t carrying a weapon at the time.

12-15-17 The Democrats’ shocking win in Alabama
In a stunning setback for President Trump and the Republican Party, Democrat Doug Jones this week beat scandal-ridden former judge Roy Moore to become Alabama’s next U.S. senator. The first Democrat to win a Senate seat in the deep-red state since 1992, Jones secured just under 50 percent of the vote, about 1.5 percent more than his opponent. When he is sworn in, likely in early January, it will reduce the GOP’s Senate majority to 51-49. Alabama’s special election to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old seat burst into the national spotlight in November, when The Washington Post reported that Moore was accused of making sexual advances to teenage girls—one as young as 14, another who said he sexually assaulted her at 16—when he was in his 30s. The allegations prompted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans to drop their support and funding. But Trump, encouraged by his firebrand former strategist Steve Bannon, stuck by the controversial candidate and strongly urged his supporters to back him. After Jones’ victory, Trump claimed that he had supported incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in the GOP primary because he thought Moore would struggle in the general election. “I was right!” he tweeted. Jones, a 63-year-old former prosecutor, overcame Alabama’s deep-red demographics with a large turnout by African-Americans and strong support from affluent suburban residents. Jones, who will hold the seat until Sessions’ original term expires in 2020, said the race had been about “dignity and respect,” and “the rule of law.” Moore called for a recount and said he would “wait on God.”

12-15-17 Legalize same-sex marriage
Australia became the 26th nation in the world to legalize same-sex marriage last week. The Netherlands was the first country to take this step, in 2000.

12-15-17 First caste killing conviction
Six people were sentenced to death this week for hacking to death a low-caste Dalit man who married a Hindu woman of a higher caste. The brutal March 2016 slaying outside a shopping mall in Tamil Nadu state was captured on security cameras as the man, Sankar, 22, collapsed in a pool of blood and his wife, Kausalya, who was severely wounded, screamed for help. The footage sparked protests in Tamil Nadu and calls for punishment. Indian media said the sentence was the first time the death penalty had been imposed on those involved in a so-called honor killing of a member of the Dalit caste, formerly known as untouchables. Kausalya’s father was among those convicted.

12-15-17 Going to the movies
Saudi Arabia says it will allow movie theaters to open in the country for the first time in 35 years, part of a wide-ranging modernization push led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Theaters have been banned there since the 1980s, when the kingdom began enforcing an ultraconservative version of Islam that prohibits mixing between men and women. The government said films shown in cinemas would be censored to comply with strict moral codes, including a ban on nudity and sex, and there could be political restrictions. Wonder Woman, for example, was banned in several Arab countries because the blockbuster’s star, actress Gal Gadot, is from Israel. Prince Mohammed’s reform may face resistance. The grand mufti, Saudi Arabia’s top Islamic authority, has called cinemas “a depravity.”

12-15-17 Synagogue firebombed
A gang of masked attackers threw Molotov cocktails at a synagogue in Gothenburg this week, just hours after protests in the city against the U.S.’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Police arrested three migrants, ages 18, 20, and 21, in connection with the arson. Two of the men are reported to be from Syria and one from the Palestinian territories; all deny any wrongdoing. Firebombs were also thrown at a chapel in a Jewish cemetery in Malmo, days after 200 people protested the Jerusalem declaration in the city by chanting, “We’re going to shoot the Jews.” Muslim and Christian faith leaders condemned the attacks. “There is no place for anti-Semitism in our Swedish society,” said Prime Minister Stefan Lofven.

12-15-17 Crackdown on press
Poland’s government has fined the country’s most-watched private TV station $420,000 for its coverage of opposition protests in Parliament last year—news reports that officials said encouraged behavior that threatened the nation’s security. Critics said that the penalty, exceedingly steep by Polish standards, is intended to make the U.S.-owned TVN24 curb its criticism of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party. The channel extensively covered last year’s demonstrations, when thousands of Poles rallied outside Parliament and liberal opposition lawmakers occupied the legislature’s main chamber to protest a Law and Justice plan to ban journalists from the building. The government later dropped the proposal.

12-15-17 Net neutrality rules weakened by US regulator
Restrictions on US broadband providers' ability to prioritise one service's data over another are to be reduced after a vote by a regulator. The Federal Communications Commission voted three to two to change the way "net neutrality" is governed. Internet service providers (ISPs) will now be allowed to speed up or slow down different companies' data, and charge consumers according to the services they access. But they must disclose such practices. Ahead of the vote, protesters rallied outside the FCC's building to oppose the change. Many argue the reversal of rules introduced under President Barack Obama will make the internet less open and accessible. The decision is already facing legal challenges, with New York's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, announcing he will lead a lawsuit challenging the FCC's decision.

12-15-17 Does net neutrality mean the end of the internet as we know it?
Hyperbole and misinformation followed the US decision to end net neutrality. It's important to know what's really at stake, says Aaron Mak. After the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal net neutrality regulations on Thursday, reactions on Twitter were strong. Many despaired about the possible end of access to a free and open internet, while others urged neutrality supporters to not give up the fight by calling their representatives in Congress and keeping an eye on the various state governments and advocacy groups that are planning to sue the FCC. Even before Thursday’s vote, people were warning that you might have to pay an itemised fee to access sites like Twitter if net neutrality – the principle that internet service providers treat all content equally – ends. While technically possible, this scenario is highly unlikely. After the decision, hyperbole and misinformation were out in full force. Again, one of the most common fears was that consumers were going to have to pay extra fees to access certain websites. The initial debate over net neutrality during the Obama administration concerned regulations protecting websites. Based on prior discourse, there is little to no precedent for the idea that customers would be charged more to reach a particular site. Internet service providers, if they do change their policies after the repeal of net neutrality, are more likely to charge websites higher fees to reach consumers. This dynamic could end up prioritising more established sites that can afford higher connection speeds, while putting smaller sites at a disadvantage if they don’t have the requisite funds. (Webmaster's comment: The bottom line is that one way or another we'll have to pay more!)

12-14-17 Roy Moore says Alabama election 'tainted' by outside groups
Roy Moore says he will not accept defeat in Alabama's election, arguing the vote was "tainted" by outside groups trying to stay in power. In a four-minute video on YouTube, the hardline Republican lashed out after Democrat Doug Jones claimed victory in Tuesday's election. Mr Moore railed against gay rights, abortion, and "the right of a man to claim to be a woman and vice versa". Democrats will hold the Alabama senate seat for the first time in 25 years. "We are indeed in a struggle to preserve our republic, our civilisation and our religion," Mr Moore said in fire-and-brimstone remarks. The election race, he claimed, was "tainted by over $50 million from outside groups who want to retain power and their corrupt ideology". Mr Moore crashed to defeat after he was engulfed by multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, including child molestation. "In this race," he said, "we have not received the final count to include military and provisional ballots." He added that he was awaiting final certification of the results. Mr Jones won 49.9% of the vote compared to Mr Moore's 48.4%, a margin of nearly 21,000 votes out of 1.3 million cast, US media report. Alabama's secretary of state has said overseas ballots can continue to come in until Tuesday next week. But he said it was "highly unlikely" the Democrat will not be formally declared the winner. (Webmaster's comment: Roy Moore Is No More!)

12-14-17 How to thwart Trump's cruel crackdown on the DREAMers
President Trump is presenting lawmakers with a Sophie's Choice on the DREAMers: Acquiesce to his draconian immigration enforcement designs, or watch him banish these blameless individuals. DREAMers — immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children — were one group of immigrants whom, during the campaign, Trump had assured he would leave undisturbed. Even as he pledged to enact a travel ban targeted at Muslims, institute "extreme vetting," and restore the notorious Operation Wetback program to eject other undocumented immigrants, he promised to "take care" of the DREAMers because he had a "big heart." But apparently his heart shrank once in office, because in September, he scrapped former President Barack Obama's DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which gave about 700,000 of roughly one million DREAMers a two-year reprieve from deportation. Instead, Trump passed the buck, asking Congress to enact legislation legalizing DREAMers by March. That wouldn't have been so bad if Trump had actually meant to spur Congress to hand permanent legal status to these individuals, which only legislation can do. Instead, Trump is using his suspension of DACA to advance a sweeping anti-immigration agenda. The only way to avoid a moral stain on this country is for members of both parties to stand their ground and refuse to pass a government-funding bill that doesn't contain a clean DREAMer fix.

12-14-17 Racism row over 'Dutch only' rental ad
Picture the scene. You traipse around viewing properties with your partner. Eventually you find "the one" and submit all the necessary paperwork - only to be told the landlord only wants tenants who are of "Dutch descent". In other words... not you. This is exactly what happened to a Dutch-Moroccan couple. The estate agent's email explained: "The owner has chosen to only rent to people of Dutch descent. I am sorry to have to report this to you." One of the applicants, Ihsane Bachar, posted a screen grab of the rejection note on Facebook, accompanied by the message: "I know there is a lot of racism, but effort is done to disguise it as we often see on the labour market. "Apparently this also applies to the housing market. I'm more shocked by the fact that it has become dead normal to discriminate. Being tactical is no longer necessary, although I appreciate the honesty of the person who typed this mail." Some comments urged her to press charges. Others were surprised most by the unusually overt discrimination. The couple are Dutch citizens and hold Dutch passports. I rang the estate agent, Goedhart Makelaars, based in the village of Rijnsaterwoude between The Hague and Amsterdam, for a response. However, the instant I told them I was from the BBC they hung up. One of their representatives emailed the Dutch public broadcaster to explain why they delivered the blunt note. "Of course I can tell the couple a nonsense story but the owner said this explicitly. We did not invent that ourselves. We do not have problems with people," the representative told them.

12-14-17 The story of Colorado's first same-sex marriage
How a lovable rogue named Helen Hilsher — disguised as a man — married her sweetheart. the winter of 1911, a handsome young man arrived in Meeker, Colorado. He wore a smart suit and introduced himself to the residents as John Hill — or Jack, as he preferred to be called. No one in that small White River Valley town had ever seen him before. He was in his early 20s, and had come from the east, he said, to be revived by the bracing western winds. His first job in the town, however, was not out on the plains, but at the local saloon owned by one John Davitt. Handsome and well-mannered, Jack was instantly popular with the Davitt House's patrons, working his way up from dishwasher to barroom porter, before finally achieving the status of bartender. Though he did not join the town's men in their drinking — a quirk which soon earned him the title of "Davitt's teetotaller" — the men did not begrudge him his temperance. Jack was adept at minding his own business, turning his attention to a dirty glass or unswept floor when their profanities drifted across the bar towards him. If he heard them at all, or disapproved of their risqué talk, he did not show it, and for this he earned their unspoken respect. Jack's stoical charm was not only popular with the men of the town. Enamored of his thick curls and smooth face, tanned from his work on the ranches, the local girls looked with interest upon their newcomer. Within a week of his arrival, they had rechristened him "Handsome Jack," and within three they had collectively voted him "the most handsome and captivating" man in town, according to the Herald Democrat. The people of Meeker weren't to know — at least not yet — that this quiet youth who mixed their drinks with sober care and politely returned their blushing glances in the town's streets had, only six years previously, been living under a very different name in nearby Coal Creek, Colorado. Indeed, as recently as 1907, "Jack Hill" had been known not as a barman but as a teacher — a young woman by the name of Helen A. Hilsher.?

12-13-17 We’re homing in on the pathways that shape sexual orientation
WE’RE homing in on the pathways that shape sexual orientation – in men, at least. The latest findings reveal genes and antibodies that seem to be part of the complex biology behind homosexuality. Studies of sexuality have largely tended to focus on men, and for decades there has been evidence that sexual orientation is partly heritable in men. Genetic variations in regions of the X chromosome and chromosome 8 were linked to homosexuality in the mid-1990s, but no specific genes had been found. There was also no explanation for why men are more likely to be gay if they have older brothers, known as the “fraternal birth order effect”. Now, for the first time, two genes that may influence how sexual orientation develops have been identified, while another team’s work may explain the fraternal birth order effect. Alan Sanders at NorthShore University, Illinois, and his colleagues compared DNA from 1077 gay and 1231 straight men. Scanning the men’s entire genomes, the team spotted two genes whose variants seem to be linked to sexual orientation (Nature Scientific Reports, doi.org/cg94). One of the genes sits on chromosome 13. Other research has found that this gene, called SLITRK6, is active in the hypothalamus brain region a few days before male mice fetuses are born. “This is thought to be a crucial time for sexual differentiation in this part of the brain,” says neuroscientist Simon LeVay, who in 1991 discovered that hypothalamus size differs between straight and gay men. The other gene, TSHR, is on chromosome 14 and helps control thyroid function. TSHR function is known to be disrupted in a genetic thyroid condition called Grave’s disease, and this disorder is more common in gay men.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Thoughtlessly thoughtless
Why are the ideas that come most effortlessly to us often misguided, asks Graham Lawton. “We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think – in fact they do so” THESE words are still as true today as when Bertrand Russell wrote them in 1925. You might even argue that our predilection for fake news, conspiracy theories and common sense politics suggests we are less inclined to think than ever. Our mental lassitude is particularly shocking given that we pride ourselves on being Homo sapiens, the thinking ape. How did it come to this? The truth is, we are simply doing what people have always done. The human brain has been honed by millions of years of evolution – and it is extraordinary. However, thinking is costly in terms of time and energy, so our ancestors evolved a whole range of cognitive shortcuts. These helped them survive and thrive in a hazardous world. The problem is that the modern milieu is very different. As a result, the ideas and ways of thinking that come to us most effortlessly can get us into a lot of trouble.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Why life is more than a zero-sum game
Them-or-us fears about limited resources, fuel supplies and immigrants damage society – but do the true calculations and the result can be altogether better. Children often bicker over who got the most cake or pop. But even as adults, we are acutely sensitive to the fair allocation of resources. Say there are 500 places at a local school, dished out according to who lives closest. Just before term starts, a large immigrant family is moved into a council house near the school and takes five of the places. No matter how liberal you are, it is hard not to think “Not fair!” Plenty of evidence suggests that immigrants contribute more to an economy than they take out. Yet the intuitive belief that they are extracting an unfair share of resources is hard to shake. Blame it on our zero-sum bias. In a classic zero-sum situation, resources are finite and your loss is my gain. Many situations in life follow this pattern – but not all. Unfortunately, this subtlety tends to pass us by. At best, seeing competition where none exists can blind us to opportunity. At worst, it has very unpleasant consequences. Zero-sum thinking was an evolutionary adaptation to a time when we lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers, says neuroscientist Dan Meegan at the University of Guelph in Canada. Under those circumstances, resources such as food and mates were finite and often scarce, so more for one person meant less for another. Today, however, things are different.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Beware the voice of your inner child
The wind is alive, heat flows and the sun moves across the sky – childish intuitions shape our world, and can skew views on things like climate change. Children, it is often said, are like little scientists. What looks like play is actually experimentation. They formulate hypotheses, test them, analyse the results and revise their world view accordingly. That may be true, but if kids are like scientists, they are rubbish ones. By the time they enter school, they have filled their heads with utter nonsense about how the world works. The job of education – especially science education – is to unlearn these “folk theories” and replace them with evidence-based ones. For most people, it doesn’t work, and even for those who go on to become scientists, it is only partially successful. No wonder the world is so full of nonsense. Folk theories – also known as naive theories – have been documented across all domains of science. In biology, for example, young children often conflate life with movement, seeing the sun and wind as alive, but trees and mushrooms as not. They also see purpose everywhere: birds are “for” flying, rocks are for animals to scratch themselves on and rain falls so flowers can drink. In physics, children conclude that heat is a substance that flows from one place to another, that the sun moves across the sky, and so on. For most everyday purposes, these ideas are serviceable. Nevertheless, they aren’t true.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Why stereotyping is an evolutionary trap
Survival in the jungle dictates judging everything on first impressions – but life in the urban jungle demands a subtler set of rules. We are born to judge others by how they look: our brains come hardwired with a specific face-processing area, and even shortly after birth, babies would rather look at a human face than anything else. Within their first year, they become more discerning, and are more likely to crawl towards friendly looking faces than those who look a bit shifty. By the time we reach adulthood, we are snap-judgement specialists, jumping to conclusions about a person’s character and status after seeing their face for just a tenth of a second. And we shun considered assessments of others in favour of simple shortcuts – for example, we judge a baby-faced individual as more trustworthy, and associate a chiselled jaw with dominance. Unfair, it may be, but it makes good evolutionary sense. Ours is an ultra-social species, so being able to quickly assess whether someone is friend or foe and whether they have the power to help or hurt us is important survival information. But there is a problem. As psychologist Alexander Todorov of Princeton University points out, more often than not, our first impressions are wrong. It’s not clear why, but he suggests that poor feedback and the fact that we meet many more strangers than our prehistoric ancestors would have, both play a part.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: We’re all suckers for a celebrity
What makes Her Maj majestic? Or gives someone the X factor? The answer lies in our nomadic past, and it is leading us badly astray today. If you ever meet the queen of England, there are certain rules you are advised to follow. Do not speak until spoken to. Bow your head, or curtsey. Address her first as “your majesty”, then “ma’am”, but “your majesty” again upon leaving. Don’t make the mistake of calling her “your royal highness” – that is for other members of the royal family, pleb! And don’t expect her to thank you for the £40 million plus she gets every year from the public purse, or for paying to have her house done up. Apply some rational thought and this is all very puzzling. What has the queen done to deserve such treatment? What makes her “majestic”? Why is her family “higher” than yours? If humans were a wild species of primate, you would conclude that the queen must be the dominant female. But dominance has to be earned and kept, often by physical aggression and threats, and is always up for negotiation. Nobody defers to the queen out of fear that she will beat them up if they don’t, and nobody is secretly plotting a leadership challenge. Human societies do have dominant individuals, but what the queen possesses is something quite different: prestige. And we are suckers for it.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Why we’re all born to be status quo fans
There are no right answers in the world of politics – but whether we’re drunk or just pressed for time, the less we think, the further to the right our answers lean. If you’ve ever talked politics in the pub near closing time, chances are it wasn’t an especially enlightened or right-on discussion. When researchers in the US loitered outside a bar in New England and asked customers about their political views, they found that the drunker the punter, the more right wing their leanings. That wasn’t because right-wing people drink more, or get pissed more easily. Wherever people stood on the political spectrum when sober, alcohol shifted their views to the right. Why might that be? The researchers, led by Scott Eidelmanat the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, point out that alcohol strips away complex reasoning to reveal the default state of the mind. And that is why they were chatting to drunks: they were using drunkenness to test the hypothesis that low-effort, automatic thought promotes political conservatism. The team also found that they could push people to the right by distracting them, putting them under time pressure or simply telling them not to think too hard. Participants who were asked to deliberate more deeply, in contrast, shifted their political thinking to the left. Similar effects have been seen with the three core components of conservative ideology: preference for the status quo, acceptance of hierarchy and belief in personal responsibility. All three, the researchers say, come naturally to the human mind. We think that way without trying, without even noticing. More liberal views, in contrast, require effortful deliberation.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Adapting our need to feel part of the gang
Tribalism is a very human trait not just on the football field. But what can fuel discrimination is a force we can harness for good. Desmond Morris was 45 when he went to his first ever football match – a club game in Malta, where he lived at the time. He had no interest in football, but had been pestered into it by his young son. For the elder Morris, it was an awesome experience. Fighting between rival fans caused the match to be abandoned before half-time. Most people would have been put off for life, but Morris – the author of the bestselling books Manwatching and The Naked Ape – was captivated. What had caused people to behave so passionately over something as meaningless as a football game? On his return to England in 1977, Morris became a director of Oxford United FC so he could closely observe the culture of football – the players, directors and, above all, the fans. Four years later, he published his conclusions in The Soccer Tribe, which argued that football is essentially tribal. Each club is a tribe, with territory, elders, doctors, heroes, foot soldiers, modes of dress, allies and mortal enemies. Morris saw this as a modern expression of a deep-rooted evolutionary instinct. For thousands of years, our ancestors lived in small nomadic bands of mostly related individuals in frequent conflict – and occasional alliance – with neighbours over scarce resources. Tribes made up of individuals prepared to fight for a common good had a competitive edge over those that weren’t, so tribalism was selected for by evolution. We are one species, but we instinctively and effortlessly identify with smaller groups.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: The god-shaped hole in your brain
Is that rustle in the dark a predator, or just the wind? It pays to think something causes everything – a survival trait that makes us all hard-wired to believe. If God designed the human brain, he (or she) did a lousy job. Dogged by glitches and biases, requiring routine shutdown for maintenance for 8 hours a day, and highly susceptible to serious malfunction, a product recall would seem to be in order. But in one respect at least, God played a blinder: our brains are almost perfectly designed to believe in him/her. Almost everybody who has ever lived has believed in some kind of deity. Even in today’s enlightened and materialistic times, atheism remains a minority pursuit requiring hard intellectual graft. Even committed atheists easily fall prey to supernatural ideas. Religious belief, in contrast, appears to be intuitive. Cognitive scientists talk about us being born with a “god-shaped hole” in our heads. As a result, when children encounter religious claims, they instinctively find them plausible and attractive, and the hole is rapidly filled by the details of whatever religious culture they happen to be born into. When told that there is an invisible entity that watches over them, intervenes in their lives and passes moral judgement on them, most unthinkingly accept it. Ditto the idea that the same entity is directing events and that everything that happens, happens for a reason.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: It pays to resist revenge’s sweet taste
When people get their just deserts, it lights up our brain’s pleasure centres. But sweeter still is learning to combine this with our natural taste for forgiving. It is, according to popular wisdom, a dish best served cold. However you like yours, there’s no denying that revenge is tasty. We get a hunger for it, and feel satisfied once we’ve had our fill. You can see why if you look at what’s going on in your head. Brain scanning reveals the neural pathway of the revenge process, according to criminologist Manuel Eisner of the University of Cambridge. The initial humiliation fires up the brain’s emotional centres, the amygdalae and hypothalamus. They inform the anterior insular cortex, which evaluates whether you have been treated unfairly. If so, the prefrontal cortex steps in to plan and execute retaliation. Finally, the brain’s pleasure centre, the nucleus accumbens, swings into action to judge whether the revenge is satisfactory. Revenge appears to be a universal human trait. A study of 10 hunter-gatherer groups found that all of them had a culture of vengeance. The list of wrongs that need to be avenged is also common across all societies. It includes homicide, physical injury, theft, sexual aggression, adultery and reputational damage to oneself, loved ones or members of your tribe. The concept of “an eye for an eye” also runs deep, with punishment usually being roughly proportional to the crime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FEMINISM

12-16-17 Weinstein 'derailed my career' Sorvino says after Peter Jackson claim
Actress Mira Sorvino said she is "heartsick" after learning she may have lost out on major roles because of Harvey Weinstein. Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson said both Sorvino and Ashley Judd were "blacklisted" following conversations with Weinstein's company. Both actresses have claimed the media mogul sexually harassed them. Weinstein has denied allegations of misconduct, and of blacklisting the actresses. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was initially in development with Weinstein's Miramax company, before being passed to New Line Cinema. In an interview with Stuff.co.nz this week, Jackson said he was interested in casting both women in the blockbuster franchise. "I recall Miramax telling us they were a nightmare to work with and we should avoid them at all costs. This was probably in 1998," he told the site. "At the time, we had no reason to question what these guys were telling us." "I now suspect we were fed false information about both of these talented women - and as a direct result their names were removed from our casting list." "In hindsight, I realise that this was very likely the Miramax smear campaign in full swing," Jackson said. Sorvino said in a tweet: "Just seeing this after I awoke, I burst out crying." "There it is, confirmation that Harvey Weinstein derailed my career, something I suspected but was unsure. Thank you Peter Jackson for being honest. I'm just heartsick."

12-16-17 Swati Maliwal: Call to speed up child rape executions in India
Rapists of children should be executed within six months of their crime, a leading advocate for women's rights in India has demanded. Swati Maliwal made the appeal in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the brutal gang rape and murder of student Jyoti Singh, 23, whose death sparked national protests. "Nothing has changed in the past five years," Ms Maliwal, chief of the Delhi Commission for Women, told the BBC. "Delhi is still the rape capital. Last month, there was a brutal gang-rape of a one-and-a-half-year-old girl, and the gang-rape of a seven-year-old, and another one-and-a-half-year-old girl was raped." On average, she said, three girls and six women were raped in the capital every day. (Webmaster's comment: In the United States there are almost 900 rapes every day of women 12 years or older and over 900 rapes every day of children under 12! The United States is far worse than India! And NOBODY wants to even talk about it!) India did reform its rape laws as a result of the outcry five years ago, taking steps to speed up trials and press police officers to take allegations of rape and sexual assault more seriously, reports the BBC's South Asia regional editor. Jill McGivering. There is more awareness and increased reporting of cases, Ms Maliwal told our correspondent - "but that hasn't solved the problem". In her letter, Ms Maliwal urges the prime minister to go further and have child rapists executed within months of their crime. Jyoti Singh's mother still hadn't had justice, she said, because although the perpetrators had been convicted and sentenced to death, no-one responsible had yet been hanged.

12-16-17 Thailand's kickboxing capital
In northern Thailand, by the side of a backcountry road winding through rice paddies, there is the curious sight of a boxing ring and row of punching bags. A poster hanging above the ring features the fighters who train there — and almost all of them are girls. Even if you managed to spot Pettonpung Gym from the road, you probably wouldn't guess that it's produced some of the most renowned female fighters in Thailand and that it's been an integral part of making the nearby city of Chiang Mai the epicenter of female kickboxing in Thailand. In fact, according to seasoned kickboxer Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu, 34, it's "becoming the best female fight city in the country and very possibly in the entire world." Five years ago, Duuglas-Ittu moved from New Jersey — where she first started learning Muay Thai in the makeshift gym of her 70-year-old Thai trainer's basement — to Thailand, to continue her training there. She spent about two years practicing at Lanna Gym in Chiang Mai and has since fought nearly 200 times in the country. Duuglas-Ittu also runs a blog called 8Limbs, where she has frequently written about Pettonpung and how special Chiang Mai is for female fighters. One of those kickboxers goes by the name Phetlilaa, a 14-year-old girl who lives near Pettonpung, and is one of the most prominent female fighters in Chiang Mai. Earlier this year, Duuglas-Ittu, who has trained with Phetlilaa, wrote that she was "widely thought of as the next Thai female superstar."

12-15-17 New York police investigating Russell Simmons rape claims
New York City police are investigating rape and sexual assault allegations against music producer Russell Simmons. The former rap mogul took to Instagram to declare his innocence and dismiss allegations as an "insane pile on". "Today, I begin to properly defend myself. I will prove without any doubt that I am innocent of all rape charges," he posted on Thursday. Several women have now come forward to accuse Simmons of sexual misconduct, including claims of rape. The New York Police Department (NYPD) announced on Thursday they would look into the claims made in the US media against the 60-year-old founder of Def Jam Recordings. The announcement came a day after the New York Times reported accounts of three women and the Los Angeles Times published allegations from another five. "The NYPD has received information regarding allegations involving Russell Simmons in the NYC area and our detectives are in the process of reviewing that information," an NYPD spokesman said in a statement. Hours later, Simmons posted to social media with the hashtag #NotMe in a play on the #MeToo campaign, in which thousands of women came forward to share stories of sexual harassment and abuse. (Webmaster's comment: What's really interesting is that he's a celebrity black and being investigated while all the celebrity whites recently accused of rape and other sex crimes are not being investigated!)

12-15-17 Accusations of sexual harassment and assault against President Trump
70% of Americans think that Congress should investigate the accusations of sexual harassment and assault against President Trump, while 25% disagree. Just 39% of Republicans think Congress should investigate, compared with 86% of Democrats.

12-15-17 Franken: Why Democrats forced him out
As the sexual harassment tidal wave hits Washington, “only one party is doing the right thing,” said Paul Waldman in The Washington Post. Last week, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) announced his resignation after an eighth woman accused him of unwanted touching or kissing. In a “surprisingly defiant” speech, the former comedian said some of the allegations were “simply not true,” but that the scandal prevented him from doing an effective job. As Franken noted, said Jeet Heer in NewRepublic.com, it’s ironic that he was forced out while a man accused of groping, kissing, and assaulting more than a dozen women occupies the Oval Office, and accused child molester Roy Moore, another Republican, had his party’s support in Alabama’s Senate race. But Democrats really had little choice. It’s a party that heavily relies on the votes of women and has positioned itself as a champion of women’s rights. Republicans, meanwhile, are solidifying their role as “the party of gender reactionaries.”

12-15-17 Judge accused
Six women have accused a prominent federal appeals court judge of making sexually suggestive comments and other inappropriate behavior, The Washington Post reported this week. Most of the women, four of whom remained anonymous, are former clerks or junior staffers for Alex Kozinski, who was appointed by President Reagan and has served for 32 years on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases for a large swath of the western U.S. and Hawaii and Alaska. Two of the women said the 67-year-old jurist showed them pornography in his chambers. Heidi Bond, who clerked for the judge from 2006 to 2007, said Kozinski showed her pornography unrelated to any case at least three times and asked if the images aroused her. Another former clerk said the judge repeatedly suggested at a social function that she should exercise naked. Asked about the allegations, Kozinski told a reporter, “If this is all they are able to dredge up after 35 years, I am not too worried.”

12-15-17 Dustin Hoffman
A third woman has accused Dustin Hoffman of sexual misconduct, claiming the Hollywood star carried out a “horrific, demoralizing, and abusive” campaign against her during a 1984 Broadway production. Kathryn Rossetter, who starred with Hoffman in Death of a Salesman, said that the actor regularly put his hands under her slip and groped her when they stood in the wings. Rossetter said that she thought of reporting Hoffman to Actors Equity, but was told she would probably lose “any hope of a career” if she did. A television intern and playwright have separately accused Hoffman of groping and propositioning them. He denies the allegations.

12-15-17 Celebrity chef Mario Batali
Celebrity chef Mario Batali is taking a leave of absence from his restaurant empire and ABC show after being accused by four women of inappropriate touching over at least two decades. Three of the women worked for Batali and claimed he grabbed them from behind or ordered them to straddle him. Another woman, a chef, told Eater she was at a party talking to the restaurateur when someone spilled wine on her chest. Batali began rubbing her breasts with his bare hands, she said. “He just went to town.” A spokesman for Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group said that after the company began receiving complaints in October, it required Batali to undergo training. The chef himself said the allegations “match up” with his own memory of the incidents. “That behavior was wrong,” said Batali.

12-15-17 Australia child abuse inquiry finds 'serious failings'
A five-year inquiry into sexual abuse in Australia has released its final report, saying institutions had "seriously failed" to protect children. The royal commission, Australia's highest form of public inquiry, heard more than 8,000 testimonies from victims of abuse. The accusations covered churches, schools and sports clubs over decades. Among more than 400 recommendations, the report calls on the Catholic Church to overhaul its celibacy rules. "Tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused in many Australian institutions. We will never know the true number," the report said. "It is not a case of a few 'rotten apples'. Society's major institutions have seriously failed." Since 2013, the royal commission has referred more than 2,500 allegations to authorities. The final report, released on Friday, added 189 recommendations to 220 that had already been made public. The proposals will now be considered by legislators. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said "a national tragedy" had been exposed. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had the power to look at any private, public or non-government body involved with children. It was contacted by more than 15,000 people. More than 8,000 victims told their stories, many for the first time in private sessions. The commission also received more than 1,300 written accounts and held 57 public hearings across the nation. Allegations were raised against more than 4,000 institutions. Religious ministers and school teachers were the most commonly reported perpetrators, the report said. The greatest number were in Catholic institutions.

The scope of the inquiry

  • 2,559 allegations referred to police since the inquiry began in 2013
  • 230 prosecutions have commenced
  • 41,770 calls received from members of the public
  • 60,000 survivors may be eligible for compensation, estimates say

12-15-17 Pedophile flight ban
A convicted child molester was stopped from flying abroad from Sydney Airport this week on the first day that a new Australian law intended to curb child sex tourism in Southeast Asia went into effect. The law states that the 20,000 convicted pedophiles in Australia’s child sex offender register cannot leave the country unless law enforcement signs off on their travel plans. Australian pedophiles often take low-cost trips to Thailand, Cambodia, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, where they rape children in brothels. “For too long, these predators have traveled overseas undetected,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said, “including to countries where weaker laws mean they have opportunities to commit heinous crimes.”

12-15-17 Helpful ideas
Helpful ideas, after Australian army Capt. Sally Williamson proposed having sex workers “service” troops in combat zones to ease their loneliness and “help combat veterans with PTSD.” After complaints from outraged spouses, the suggestion was withdrawn.

12-14-17 Trudeau aide accused of inappropriate behaviour
A top aide in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office is on leave pending a third-party investigation into misconduct in the workplace. Quebec television network TVA Nouvelle was the first to report that multiple women had accused Claude-Éric Gagné of inappropriate behaviour. Mr Gagné, deputy director of operations, denies wrongdoing and says he is co-operating with the inquiry. Mr Trudeau is known for having a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment. "We were made aware of allegations involving a member of the prime minister's office. Any allegation brought forward to this office is taken extremely seriously," Trudeau's director of communications, Kate Purchase, told the BBC. "Given the investigation is ongoing, it would not be appropriate to comment further in order to protect the integrity of the process and ensure fairness for the parties." In 2015, Mr Trudeau expelled two MPs from the Liberal Party caucus after an independent report concluded they had sexually harassed females members of an opposing party. Mr Gagne told Radio-Canada that he has already told the independent investigator "my version of the facts in light of these allegations which I dispute". He had been hailed by Quebec media in the past for being the French-speaking Quebecer who had the ear of the prime minister, and for helping the Liberal Party win the province during the 2015 election.

12-14-17 Film-maker Morgan Spurlock confesses to sexual misconduct
US documentary film-maker Morgan Spurlock has publicly confessed to a history of sexual misconduct, referring to himself as "part of the problem". Spurlock, who made the hit film Super Size Me, wrote on Twitter that he had been accused of rape and had paid to settle a claim of sexual harassment. He also admitted cheating on "every wife and girlfriend I have ever had". The US entertainment industry has been rocked by claims of sexual abuse and harassment going back decades. In a lengthy statement, Spurlock said that after months of such revelations he had come to the conclusion that "I am not some innocent bystander, I am also a part of the problem". "As I sit around watching hero after hero, man after man, fall at the realisation of their past indiscretions, I don't sit by and wonder 'who will be next?' I wonder, 'when will they come for me?'," he wrote. He said the allegations of rape took place at college. It did not lead to charges or investigations but he said the woman had written about the incident in a story writing class and had named Spurlock. The settlement for alleged harassment involved a female employee and took place about eight years ago, he said. "It wasn't a gropy, feely harassment. It was verbal, and it was just as bad," he wrote. "I would call my female assistant 'hot pants' or 'sex pants' when I was yelling to her from the other side of the office. Something I thought was funny at the time, but then realised I had completely demeaned and belittled her to a place of non-existence."

12-14-17 Australia child abuse inquiry: Messages from survivors
Harrowing stories from survivors shaped a landmark Australian inquiry into child sexual abuse. The royal commission held more than 8,000 private sessions with victims and gathered about 1,300 written accounts. After revealing their experiences, survivors were invited to write about the process of coming forward. More than 1,000 anonymous contributions were released in a book on Thursday to mark the official end of the five-year inquiry. The book, titled "Message to Australia", was described by one commission lawyer as "too heavy to lift". The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, set up in 2013, investigated allegations of sexual and physical abuse across dozens of institutions in Australia, including schools, sports clubs and religious organisations. The book contains notes, many of them handwritten, speaking about some of the trauma and suffering experienced by victims. But the dominant themes are of relief and gratitude from survivors who describe feeling like the process had given them a voice. Over and over, the messages express thanks to the commissioners for listening to stories of abuse with empathy and without judgement. Many messages detail how the process inspired new feelings of validation, empowerment and freedom. Others say the experience helped them heal. (Webmaster's comment: But the victims never really heal! Their wombs, their genitals, their rectums, and their minds are damaged for LIFE!)

No Child Should have had to be abused by anyone. Whether it was in the past or it be in the future. IT HAS TO STOP NOW. THE PAIN WILL NEVER EVER GO AWAY OR THE MEMORIES.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

12-16-17 California fires: Sentinel satellite tracks wildfire smoke plume
Europe's new Sentinel-5P satellite has captured a dramatic image of the smoke billowing away from the devastating California wildfires. It is a powerful demonstration of 5P's ability to sense the atmosphere. The plume is seen to sweep westwards out over the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles and then turn north towards the State of Oregon. The image, taken on Tuesday, was shown at this week's annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. It is the first time that data from the brand new UK-Dutch-built Sentinel has been presented at a research conference. The mission was only launched on 13 October and has been engaged in calibration ever since; full operational service is still some months away. When that happens, it will be combing the atmosphere for a suite of trace gases including nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone, formaldehyde, sulphur dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide (CO) - as well as aerosols like the smoke particles from the California fires. All of these components affect the air we breathe and therefore our health. A number of them also play a role in climate change. But even though the Sentinel and its Tropomi instrument are still in a test phase, the sample data that is being acquired suggests the European spacecraft will be an extremely powerful tool for monitoring our planet.

12-15-17 Macron leads on climate
In a rebuke to President Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, French President Emmanuel Macron has awarded $70 million in grants to climate researchers under the rubric Make Our Planet Great Again. Of the 18 grants, 13 went to Americans who will be expected to conduct their research in France. Macron made the announcement at a summit this week in Paris, where business and government leaders discussed how to reduce carbon emissions. The U.S. is now the only nation to have rejected the Paris pact. “We must all act,” said Macron, “because we will all be held to account.”

12-15-17 Wildfires worsen
The biggest of five wildfires raging across Southern California consumed another 50,000 acres this week, making it the fifth-largest in the state’s history. The Thomas Fire, driven by dry conditions and high winds, has now scorched more than 230,000 acres, destroying some 700 homes and displacing 94,000 people. Nearly 8,000 firefighters are battling the blaze, which has been only 25 percent contained. After ripping through Ventura County, the flames are now threatening communities along the coast in Santa Barbara County. In the upscale town of Montecito, celebrities such as Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres joined the tens of thousands under evacuation orders. “Praying for my town,” Lowe tweeted. “Firefighters making brave stands. Could go either way. Packing to leave now.”

12-14-17 These weather events turned extreme thanks to human-driven climate change
Scientists rule out natural chance in 2016 deadly heat, ocean warming events. For the first time, scientists have definitively linked human-caused climate change to extreme weather events. A handful of extreme events that occurred in 2016 — including a deadly heat wave that swept across Asia — simply could not have happened due to natural climate variability alone, three new studies find. The studies were part of a special issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, also known as BAMS, released December 13. These findings are a game changer — or should at least be a conversation changer, Jeff Rosenfeld, editor in chief of BAMS, said at a news conference that coincided with the studies’ release at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting. “We can no longer be shy about talking about the connection between human causes of climate change and weather,” he said. For the last six years, BAMS has published a December issue containing research on extreme weather events from the previous year that seeks to disentangle the role of anthropogenic climate change from natural variability. The goal from the start has been to find ways to improve the science of such attribution, said Stephanie Herring of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information in Boulder, Colo., who was lead editor of the latest issue.

12-14-17 How Greenland would look without its ice sheet
Scientists have produced a stunning visualisation of Greenland – without its ice cover. It is made from decades of survey data that show the position and shape of the territory’s bedrock, and the surrounding seafloor. This is critical information needed to understand how the huge island might respond to a warming world. Were all the ice on Greenland to melt, it would raise global sea-levels by 7.42m (24.34ft). This is one of the refined statistics to come out of the new compilation of data. It is a simple calculation: if you know the elevation of the top of the ice sheet and you subtract from that the height of the bedrock - you get a volume: 2.9 million cubic km. The 7.42m figure is seven cm more than previous estimates. "[It's] a little bit more than we thought, but not a whole lot more," explained Dr Mathieu Morlighem from the University of California at Irvine, US. "And the reason for that is that although we do find deeper fjords and deeper valleys, they're very narrow and constrained along the sides of the ice sheet. The interior hasn't change a lot, however." For comparison, the Antarctic ice sheet has a volume of 26.5 million cu km. Greenland is currently losing about 260 billion tonnes of ice to the ocean every year. It sounds a lot - and it is, but no-one is expecting an immediate collapse - not for centuries, at least. (Webmaster's comment: Wanna Bet!)

12-14-17 Hurricane Harvey rainfall 'weighed 127bn tonnes'
Scientists have weighed the water that fell on Texas during the record-breaking Hurricane Harvey in August. They calculate, by measuring how much the Earth was compressed, that the Category 4 storm dropped 127 billion tonnes, or 34 trillion US gallons. "One person asked me how many stadia is that. It's 26,000 New Orleans Superdomes," said Adrian Borsa from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. His numbers were released as other scientists stated that this year's big hurricanes had a clear human influence. Harvey, Irma and Maria ripped through the US Gulf states and the Caribbean, leading to widespread flooding and wind damage. Researchers told the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union here in New Orleans that the heavy rainfall seen in Harvey was very likely exacerbated by the extra warming associated with increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Sea surface temperatures were particularly high in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico this hurricane season. Warm ocean water acts as a fuel for the storms. Harvey devastated parts of the Texas coastline because it stalled, concentrating its deluge in a very narrow region. It was one of the heaviest precipitation events in recorded hurricane history.

12-13-17 Why 2018 is gearing up to be a tipping point for climate action
What will next year hold for global temperatures, carbon dioxide levels, the electric car revolution and Trump's coal dream, wonders Owen Gaffney. One climate-related headline you will read in 2018 is a dead cert: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will reach levels unprecedented in at least 800,000 years. That’s an easy prediction, given emissions are non-zero and this gas stays aloft for centuries. What is more concerning is the rate of growth of carbon dioxide. It appears to be accelerating despite the recent dramatic slowing in annual emissions from human activity. The strong El Niño of 2015 and 2016 explains some of this acceleration. That’s because this vast warming of waters in the tropical Pacific leads to drought in tropical regions and natural carbon release. But in 2018, with El Niño gone, scientists will be watching for signs that land and ocean stores of carbon are adding to this. On the flipside, we are unlikely to see a repeat of global temperature records of recent years in 2018. That’s thanks to a weak La Niña, El Niño’s opposite number, which tends to have a cooling effect. More good news is that 2018 is likely to be the year electric cars become cheaper than their diesel and petrol counterparts. China is expected to announce an end to diesel and petrol engines on its roads – ultimately saving millions of lives as urban pollution falls and sending shockwaves through the car industry. More countries will follow. The question remains whether Tesla can ramp up production of its moderately priced family car – the Model 3 – fast enough to meet expected increase in demand. Some of the other big carmakers with the muscle to scale up production will be circling for a takeover.

12-13-17 Fracking linked to low birth weight in Pennsylvania babies
Study of birth records finds association between infant health and mom’s proximity to production sites. Living near a fracking site appears to be detrimental to infant health, a study eyeing the gas production practice in Pennsylvania suggests. Babies of moms living within one kilometer of a hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, site in the state had a 25 percent greater chance of being born underweight than did babies whose moms lived at least three kilometers away, researchers report online December 13 in Science Advances. The chance of having a low-birth-weight baby was 1 in 14 for the moms living closest to a fracking site, but 1 in 17 for moms three to 15 kilometers away, says Janet Currie, an economist at Princeton University. For babies born to moms living within one to three kilometers away from a site, the chance of being underweight at birth was about 8 percent greater than for babies of the more distant moms, Currie says. The study found no ill effect on infants born to moms residing farther away, an indication that fracking’s health impact may be highly local. In the study, distance of residences from the fracking sites was used as a stand-in for potential pollution exposure. But the researchers did not measure actual pollution exposure, or figure out whether people faced exposure through water, air or both. Pam Factor-Litvak, an epidemiologist at Columbia University not involved in the study, notes that it’s possible the associations between fracking and poor infant health could be due to other factors besides pollution, such as extreme levels of maternal stress, perhaps due to noise and continuous traffic to and from the sites.

12-13-17 Federal maps underestimate flood risk for tens of millions of people, scientists warn
Researchers harnessed multiple types of data to come up with a new estimate. National flood maps are underestimating the risk for tens of millions of people in the United States. That’s the conclusion of researchers presenting a new study December 11 at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that about 13 million people live in a “1-in-100-year” floodplain zone, a region that has a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year. But the agency’s risk assessment largely focuses on larger streams and rivers, and lacks assessments of risk along smaller tributaries. FEMA’s calculations “miss a lot of the risk,” says Oliver Wing, a geographer at the University of Bristol in England. Wing and his colleagues amassed a wealth of data, including the U.S. Geological Survey’s river gauge data, lidar measurements of land-surface elevation, rainfall data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and population density maps from the Environmental Protection Agency. By combining these data, the researchers found that about 40 million people in the United States live in 1-in-100-year risk zones, three times as many people as FEMA’s estimate. A paper based on this work is in review at Environmental Research Letters. As the planet continues to warm, rainfall patterns around the globe will shift — and some parts of the United States will see their flood risks rise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

12-15-17 The big scientific breakthroughs of 2017...Landmark gene therapy
The Food and Drink Administration approved the first “living drug,” a medicine that genetically reprograms patients’ immune cells to seek and destroy cancer. The gene-altering therapy, which is marketed as Kymriah, was cleared as a last-resort treatment for children and young adults with an aggressive form of leukemia. The decision came after a pivotal clinical trial in which 83 percent of 63 critically ill patients who were given the treatment rapidly became cancer-free. “We’re entering a new frontier in medical innovation,” says FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

12-15-17 Some of the things they said were good for us...Marriage
Marriage could help ward off dementia. An analysis of 15 studies involving more than 800,000 people found that those who never married had a 42 percent higher risk for this form of mental decline than those who tied the knot. Married couples tend to encourage each other to stay active, follow a healthy diet, limit alcohol consumption, and stop smoking—habits associated with a reduced risk for dementia. “Staying physically, mentally, and socially active are all important aspects of a healthy lifestyle,” says Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research U.K. “These are things everyone, regardless of their marital status, can work towards.”

12-15-17 Some of the things they said were good for us...Coffee
does more than wake you up. Two large studies involving diverse groups of adults found that people with a daily coffee habit were less likely to die from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer. Over a study period of 16 years, people who drank two to four cups of joe a day—decaf or regular—were 18 percent less likely to die. Researchers believe the drink’s health benefits stem from its complex mixture of powerful disease-­fighting antioxidants. “Drinking a couple cups of coffee a day doesn’t do you any harm,” says study author Marc Gunter, “and actually, it might be doing you some good.”

12-15-17 Some of the things they said were good for us...Chile peppers
Chile peppers may help you live longer. In a study involving 16,000 people over about two decades, University of Vermont researchers found that those who routinely ate the hot pods were 13 percent less likely to die during that period than those who didn’t. They suspect that capsaicin, the active ingredient that gives peppers their heat, might boost metabolism and help prevent obesity, high blood pressure, inflammation, and cancer. Co-author Mustafa Chopan says eating chiles, or even just spicy food, “may become a dietary recommendation.”

12-15-17 Some of the things they said were good for us...Dogs
Dogs help their owners live longer, healthier lives. A Swedish study involving more than 3.4 million participants found that people with a pooch had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death. The link was especially pronounced among people who lived alone: Those with dogs were 33 percent less likely to die early, and 11 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack. Co-author Tove Fall says dog owners are likely healthier because their pets are a “good motivation to get out and exercise.” Dogs may also strengthen the immune system; a separate study found that babies exposed to canine pets have higher levels of gut bacteria associated with a reduced risk for allergies and obesity.

12-15-17 And some of the things we were told to avoid...Social media
Social media is making people lonely. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were designed to help people connect, but a University of Pittsburgh study found that spending too much time on them could intensify feelings of isolation. When researchers surveyed 1,787 adults, ages 19 to 32, they found that those who used social media for more than two hours a day were twice as likely to report high levels of loneliness than those who did so for less than 30 minutes a day. Study leader Brian Primack describes his findings as a “cautionary tale” for social media users.

12-15-17 And some of the things we were told to avoid...Football
Football is even more dangerous than previously thought. A Boston University study found that 110 of 111 NFL players who donated their brains to science had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease that causes the brain to waste away over time, and which has been linked to aggression, depression, memory loss, and problems with speech and vision. A separate study found that children who play youth football are twice as likely to have problems with self-control, judgment, and problem solving. “Head impacts can lead to long-term consequences,” says co-author Robert Stern. “We should be doing what we can at all levels in all sports to minimize these repeated hits.”

12-15-17 And some of the things we were told to avoid...Keeping secrets
Keeping secrets can lead to stress, sleep loss, and other unhealthy consequences. Researchers at Columbia University asked 2,000 people what secrets they kept and how often they thought about them. On average, participants kept 13, including five they never revealed to anyone. The more time they spent ruminating over these secrets, the less healthy they said they were. “When people were thinking about their secrets,” says lead author Michael Slepian, “they actually acted as if they were burdened by physical weight.”

12-15-17 And some of the things we were told to avoid...Red meat
Red meat increases the risk of death from eight major diseases. In a National Cancer Institute study of 537,000 adults between ages 50 and 71 over 16 years, researchers found that those who ate the most red meat had a 26 percent greater risk of dying from cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, or lung disease. They speculate that heme iron in red meats and nitrates in cured meats trigger oxidative stress, which damages cells. “Mortality is higher with higher meat intake for every major cause of death except Alzheimer’s,” says researcher John Potter.

12-15-17 Hijacked sperm carry chemo drugs to cervical cancer cells
There’s a new use for sperm – delivering cancer drugs to tumours of the female reproductive tract. This targeted approach may avoid the side effects of chemo. There’s a new use for sperm – delivering cancer drugs. Standard chemotherapy is toxic to both cancer cells and normal cells, leading to symptoms like nausea, and limiting the dose a person can receive. But if chemotherapy drugs specifically targeted tumours, we could avoid this. Haifeng Xu at the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research in Germany and his team are experimenting with using sperm cells to take drugs to cancers in the female reproductive tract. When they loaded sperm cells with doxorubicin, a common chemo agent, and released them in a dish containing mini cervical cancer tumours, the sperm swam towards the tumours, killing 87 per cent of their cells within three days. The team then fitted sperm with tiny four-armed magnetic harnesses that allowed them to be guided by magnets. When the sperm hit a solid tumour, the arms sprung open, releasing the sperm and allowing them to swim into the tumour. As well as cancer, spermbots might be useful for treating other conditions affecting the female reproductive tract such as endometriosis or ectopic pregnancies, says Xu.

12-15-17 Even brain images can be biased
Study samples that are too rich and too well-educated may give a biased picture of brain development. An astonishing number of things that scientists know about brains and behavior are based on small groups of highly educated, mostly white people between the ages of 18 and 21. In other words, those conclusions are based on college students. College students make a convenient study population when you’re a researcher at a university. It makes for a biased sample, but one that’s still useful for some types of studies. It would be easy to think that for studies of, say, how the typical brain develops, a brain is just a brain, no matter who’s skull its resting in. A biased sample shouldn’t really matter, right? Wrong. Studies heavy in rich, well-educated brains may provide a picture of brain development that’s inaccurate for the American population at large, a recent study found. The results provide a strong argument for scientists to pay more attention to who, exactly, they’re studying in their brain imaging experiments. It’s “a solid piece of evidence showing that those of us in neuroimaging need to do a better job thinking about our sample, where it’s coming from and who we can generalize our findings to,” says Christopher Monk, who studies psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

12-15-17 Zombie fungus infects fruit flies and turns them into slaves
For the first time, a parasitic fungus has been spotted that manipulates the brains of fruit flies before they die, and might allow biologists to work out how they do it. There’s no need to travel to exotic rainforests to find mind-warping parasites. They are probably lurking in your own backyard. That, at least, is where Carolyn Elya found a “zombie fungus” that takes control of fruit flies. She took it back to her lab, where she managed to get it growing in lab fruit flies. “It was incredibly lucky,” she says. So-called parasitic fungi are well-known in the insect world. They usually infect their host, before controlling its behaviour to give it the best chance of spreading to more victims. Seeing a similar fungus attacking fruit flies should help us learn more about how they operate. Because so much is known about fruit flies, as they are one of the standard animal “models” studied in labs around the world, Elya’s team at the University of California, Berkeley, has been able to find out much about the fungus in just a short time. “It’s really cool just to work what’s going on, but we may also learn general principles about how it changes behaviour,” she says. It might also help in the hunt for treatments for brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, says David Hughes of Pennsylvania State University, whose team studies other zombie fungi. “It’s wonderful to have this now in a fully trackable model,” he says. The fungus, called Entomophthora muscae, kills fruit flies in four to seven days, Elya’s team has found. The animals appear to behave normally until the final day, when their gait becomes shaky and they won’t fly even if prodded.

12-14-17 Five science-backed tips for getting more sleep
Tossing and turning? Always tired? Here, some tips from the latest research. er have trouble getting to sleep? Or staying asleep? Or you get plenty of shut-eye but you're not refreshed? Everyone wants to get better sleep. But sleep trouble is incredibly common. And feeling tired the next day isn't the half of it. By not getting enough sleep you're reducing your IQ.

  1. Avoid smartphones and devices at night. But they're great when you're dealing with jet lag.
  2. A good nightly routine is key. No alcohol before bed, think positive thoughts, and play the alphabet game.
  3. Naps are awesome. Just keep them under 30 minutes. Drink a cup of coffee before you lay down.
  4. Sleeping in two chunks is natural. Get up and do something for a little while and then go back to bed.
  5. Remember the "90 minute rule." Think about when you need to be up and count back in increments of 90 minutes so you wake up sharp.

12-14-17 An abundance of toys can curb kids’ creativity and focus
. The holiday onslaught is upon us. For some families with children, the crush of holiday gifts — while wonderful and thoughtful in many ways — can become nearly unmanageable, cluttering both rooms and minds. This year, I’m striving for simplicity as I pick a few key presents for my girls. I will probably fail. But it’s a good goal, and one that has some new science to back it. Toddlers play longer and more creatively with toys when there are fewer toys around, researchers report November 27 in Infant Behavior and Development. Researchers led by occupational therapist Alexia Metz at the University of Toledo in Ohio were curious about whether the number of toys would affect how the children played, including how many toys they played with and how long they spent with each toy. The researchers also wondered about children’s creativity, such as the ability to imagine a bucket as a drum or a hat. In the experiment, 36 children ages 18 to 30 months visited a laboratory playroom twice while cameras caught how they played. On one visit, the room held four toys. On the other visit, the room held 16 toys. When in the playroom with 16 toys, children played with more toys and spent less time with each one over a 15-minute session, the researchers found. When the same kids were in a room with four toys, they stuck with each toy longer, exploring other toys less over the 15 minutes. What’s more, the quality of the children’s play seemed to be better when fewer toys were available. The researchers noted more creative uses of the toys when only four were present versus 16.

12-14-17 In a tally of nerve cells in the outer wrinkles of the brain, a dog wins
Comparing neuron numbers across species could provide clues to animals’ smarts. If more nerve cells mean more smarts, then dogs beat cats, paws down, a new study on carnivores shows. That harsh reality may shock some friends of felines, but scientists say the real surprises are inside the brains of less popular carnivores. Raccoon brains are packed with nerve cells, for instance, while brown bear brains are sorely lacking. By comparing the numbers of nerve cells, or neurons, among eight species of carnivores (ferret, banded mongoose, raccoon, cat, dog, hyena, lion and brown bear), researchers now have a better understanding of how different-sized brains are built. This neural accounting, described in an upcoming Frontiers in Neuroanatomy paper, may ultimately help reveal how brain features relate to intelligence. For now, the multispecies tally raises more questions than it answers, says zoologist Sarah Benson-Amram of the University of Wyoming in Laramie. “It shows us that there’s a lot more out there that we need to study to really be able to understand the evolution of brain size and how it relates to cognition,” she says. Neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel of Vanderbilt University in Nashville and colleagues gathered brains from the different species of carnivores. For each animal, the researchers whipped up batches of “brain soup,” tissue dissolved in a detergent. Using a molecule that attaches selectively to neurons in this slurry, researchers could count the number of neurons in each bit of brain real estate.

12-14-17 A family in Italy doesn’t feel pain because of a gene mutation
Six members of the same family have a reduced sensitivity to pain, meaning they don’t notice when they break bones. Now the gene responsible has been identified. An Italian family that is barely able to sense pain has had the genetic root of their shared disorder uncovered. Understanding this gene may lead to new painkiller drugs. The affected family members include a 78-year-old woman, her two middle-aged daughters, and their three children. All of them fail to sense pain in the way most of us do, and don’t notice when they are being injured. When they were assessed, the family members were found to have bone fractures in their arms and legs that they hadn’t realised were there. “Sometimes they feel pain in the initial break but it goes away very quickly,” says James Cox, of University College London. “For example, Letizia broke her shoulder while skiing, but then kept skiing for the rest of the day and drove home. She didn’t get it checked out until the next day.” To find the cause of their lack of pain sensitivity, Cox and his colleagues performed a series of tests on the family members. The team found that all six individuals had normal numbers of nerves in their skin, but that they all had a mutation in a gene called ZFHX2. When the team deleted this gene entirely in mice, they found that the animals were not as good at sensing when painful pressure was applied to their tails, but they were hypersensitive to heat sensations. This suggests the gene may play a role in controlling whether stimuli are painful or not.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Thoughtlessly thoughtless
Why are the ideas that come most effortlessly to us often misguided, asks Graham Lawton. “We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think – in fact they do so” THESE words are still as true today as when Bertrand Russell wrote them in 1925. You might even argue that our predilection for fake news, conspiracy theories and common sense politics suggests we are less inclined to think than ever. Our mental lassitude is particularly shocking given that we pride ourselves on being Homo sapiens, the thinking ape. How did it come to this? The truth is, we are simply doing what people have always done. The human brain has been honed by millions of years of evolution – and it is extraordinary. However, thinking is costly in terms of time and energy, so our ancestors evolved a whole range of cognitive shortcuts. These helped them survive and thrive in a hazardous world. The problem is that the modern milieu is very different. As a result, the ideas and ways of thinking that come to us most effortlessly can get us into a lot of trouble.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Why life is more than a zero-sum game
Them-or-us fears about limited resources, fuel supplies and immigrants damage society – but do the true calculations and the result can be altogether better. Children often bicker over who got the most cake or pop. But even as adults, we are acutely sensitive to the fair allocation of resources. Say there are 500 places at a local school, dished out according to who lives closest. Just before term starts, a large immigrant family is moved into a council house near the school and takes five of the places. No matter how liberal you are, it is hard not to think “Not fair!” Plenty of evidence suggests that immigrants contribute more to an economy than they take out. Yet the intuitive belief that they are extracting an unfair share of resources is hard to shake. Blame it on our zero-sum bias. In a classic zero-sum situation, resources are finite and your loss is my gain. Many situations in life follow this pattern – but not all. Unfortunately, this subtlety tends to pass us by. At best, seeing competition where none exists can blind us to opportunity. At worst, it has very unpleasant consequences. Zero-sum thinking was an evolutionary adaptation to a time when we lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers, says neuroscientist Dan Meegan at the University of Guelph in Canada. Under those circumstances, resources such as food and mates were finite and often scarce, so more for one person meant less for another. Today, however, things are different.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Beware the voice of your inner child
The wind is alive, heat flows and the sun moves across the sky – childish intuitions shape our world, and can skew views on things like climate change. Children, it is often said, are like little scientists. What looks like play is actually experimentation. They formulate hypotheses, test them, analyse the results and revise their world view accordingly. That may be true, but if kids are like scientists, they are rubbish ones. By the time they enter school, they have filled their heads with utter nonsense about how the world works. The job of education – especially science education – is to unlearn these “folk theories” and replace them with evidence-based ones. For most people, it doesn’t work, and even for those who go on to become scientists, it is only partially successful. No wonder the world is so full of nonsense. Folk theories – also known as naive theories – have been documented across all domains of science. In biology, for example, young children often conflate life with movement, seeing the sun and wind as alive, but trees and mushrooms as not. They also see purpose everywhere: birds are “for” flying, rocks are for animals to scratch themselves on and rain falls so flowers can drink. In physics, children conclude that heat is a substance that flows from one place to another, that the sun moves across the sky, and so on. For most everyday purposes, these ideas are serviceable. Nevertheless, they aren’t true.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Why stereotyping is an evolutionary trap
Survival in the jungle dictates judging everything on first impressions – but life in the urban jungle demands a subtler set of rules. We are born to judge others by how they look: our brains come hardwired with a specific face-processing area, and even shortly after birth, babies would rather look at a human face than anything else. Within their first year, they become more discerning, and are more likely to crawl towards friendly looking faces than those who look a bit shifty. By the time we reach adulthood, we are snap-judgement specialists, jumping to conclusions about a person’s character and status after seeing their face for just a tenth of a second. And we shun considered assessments of others in favour of simple shortcuts – for example, we judge a baby-faced individual as more trustworthy, and associate a chiselled jaw with dominance. Unfair, it may be, but it makes good evolutionary sense. Ours is an ultra-social species, so being able to quickly assess whether someone is friend or foe and whether they have the power to help or hurt us is important survival information. But there is a problem. As psychologist Alexander Todorov of Princeton University points out, more often than not, our first impressions are wrong. It’s not clear why, but he suggests that poor feedback and the fact that we meet many more strangers than our prehistoric ancestors would have, both play a part.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: We’re all suckers for a celebrity
What makes Her Maj majestic? Or gives someone the X factor? The answer lies in our nomadic past, and it is leading us badly astray today. If you ever meet the queen of England, there are certain rules you are advised to follow. Do not speak until spoken to. Bow your head, or curtsey. Address her first as “your majesty”, then “ma’am”, but “your majesty” again upon leaving. Don’t make the mistake of calling her “your royal highness” – that is for other members of the royal family, pleb! And don’t expect her to thank you for the £40 million plus she gets every year from the public purse, or for paying to have her house done up. Apply some rational thought and this is all very puzzling. What has the queen done to deserve such treatment? What makes her “majestic”? Why is her family “higher” than yours? If humans were a wild species of primate, you would conclude that the queen must be the dominant female. But dominance has to be earned and kept, often by physical aggression and threats, and is always up for negotiation. Nobody defers to the queen out of fear that she will beat them up if they don’t, and nobody is secretly plotting a leadership challenge. Human societies do have dominant individuals, but what the queen possesses is something quite different: prestige. And we are suckers for it.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Why we’re all born to be status quo fans
There are no right answers in the world of politics – but whether we’re drunk or just pressed for time, the less we think, the further to the right our answers lean. If you’ve ever talked politics in the pub near closing time, chances are it wasn’t an especially enlightened or right-on discussion. When researchers in the US loitered outside a bar in New England and asked customers about their political views, they found that the drunker the punter, the more right wing their leanings. That wasn’t because right-wing people drink more, or get pissed more easily. Wherever people stood on the political spectrum when sober, alcohol shifted their views to the right. Why might that be? The researchers, led by Scott Eidelmanat the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, point out that alcohol strips away complex reasoning to reveal the default state of the mind. And that is why they were chatting to drunks: they were using drunkenness to test the hypothesis that low-effort, automatic thought promotes political conservatism. The team also found that they could push people to the right by distracting them, putting them under time pressure or simply telling them not to think too hard. Participants who were asked to deliberate more deeply, in contrast, shifted their political thinking to the left. Similar effects have been seen with the three core components of conservative ideology: preference for the status quo, acceptance of hierarchy and belief in personal responsibility. All three, the researchers say, come naturally to the human mind. We think that way without trying, without even noticing. More liberal views, in contrast, require effortful deliberation.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Adapting our need to feel part of the gang
Tribalism is a very human trait not just on the football field. But what can fuel discrimination is a force we can harness for good. Desmond Morris was 45 when he went to his first ever football match – a club game in Malta, where he lived at the time. He had no interest in football, but had been pestered into it by his young son. For the elder Morris, it was an awesome experience. Fighting between rival fans caused the match to be abandoned before half-time. Most people would have been put off for life, but Morris – the author of the bestselling books Manwatching and The Naked Ape – was captivated. What had caused people to behave so passionately over something as meaningless as a football game? On his return to England in 1977, Morris became a director of Oxford United FC so he could closely observe the culture of football – the players, directors and, above all, the fans. Four years later, he published his conclusions in The Soccer Tribe, which argued that football is essentially tribal. Each club is a tribe, with territory, elders, doctors, heroes, foot soldiers, modes of dress, allies and mortal enemies. Morris saw this as a modern expression of a deep-rooted evolutionary instinct. For thousands of years, our ancestors lived in small nomadic bands of mostly related individuals in frequent conflict – and occasional alliance – with neighbours over scarce resources. Tribes made up of individuals prepared to fight for a common good had a competitive edge over those that weren’t, so tribalism was selected for by evolution. We are one species, but we instinctively and effortlessly identify with smaller groups.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: The god-shaped hole in your brain
Is that rustle in the dark a predator, or just the wind? It pays to think something causes everything – a survival trait that makes us all hard-wired to believe. If God designed the human brain, he (or she) did a lousy job. Dogged by glitches and biases, requiring routine shutdown for maintenance for 8 hours a day, and highly susceptible to serious malfunction, a product recall would seem to be in order. But in one respect at least, God played a blinder: our brains are almost perfectly designed to believe in him/her. Almost everybody who has ever lived has believed in some kind of deity. Even in today’s enlightened and materialistic times, atheism remains a minority pursuit requiring hard intellectual graft. Even committed atheists easily fall prey to supernatural ideas. Religious belief, in contrast, appears to be intuitive. Cognitive scientists talk about us being born with a “god-shaped hole” in our heads. As a result, when children encounter religious claims, they instinctively find them plausible and attractive, and the hole is rapidly filled by the details of whatever religious culture they happen to be born into. When told that there is an invisible entity that watches over them, intervenes in their lives and passes moral judgement on them, most unthinkingly accept it. Ditto the idea that the same entity is directing events and that everything that happens, happens for a reason.

12-13-17 Effortless thinking: It pays to resist revenge’s sweet taste
When people get their just deserts, it lights up our brain’s pleasure centres. But sweeter still is learning to combine this with our natural taste for forgiving. It is, according to popular wisdom, a dish best served cold. However you like yours, there’s no denying that revenge is tasty. We get a hunger for it, and feel satisfied once we’ve had our fill. You can see why if you look at what’s going on in your head. Brain scanning reveals the neural pathway of the revenge process, according to criminologist Manuel Eisner of the University of Cambridge. The initial humiliation fires up the brain’s emotional centres, the amygdalae and hypothalamus. They inform the anterior insular cortex, which evaluates whether you have been treated unfairly. If so, the prefrontal cortex steps in to plan and execute retaliation. Finally, the brain’s pleasure centre, the nucleus accumbens, swings into action to judge whether the revenge is satisfactory. Revenge appears to be a universal human trait. A study of 10 hunter-gatherer groups found that all of them had a culture of vengeance. The list of wrongs that need to be avenged is also common across all societies. It includes homicide, physical injury, theft, sexual aggression, adultery and reputational damage to oneself, loved ones or members of your tribe. The concept of “an eye for an eye” also runs deep, with punishment usually being roughly proportional to the crime.

12-13-17 We’re homing in on the pathways that shape sexual orientation
WE’RE homing in on the pathways that shape sexual orientation – in men, at least. The latest findings reveal genes and antibodies that seem to be part of the complex biology behind homosexuality. Studies of sexuality have largely tended to focus on men, and for decades there has been evidence that sexual orientation is partly heritable in men. Genetic variations in regions of the X chromosome and chromosome 8 were linked to homosexuality in the mid-1990s, but no specific genes had been found. There was also no explanation for why men are more likely to be gay if they have older brothers, known as the “fraternal birth order effect”. Now, for the first time, two genes that may influence how sexual orientation develops have been identified, while another team’s work may explain the fraternal birth order effect. Alan Sanders at NorthShore University, Illinois, and his colleagues compared DNA from 1077 gay and 1231 straight men. Scanning the men’s entire genomes, the team spotted two genes whose variants seem to be linked to sexual orientation (Nature Scientific Reports, doi.org/cg94). One of the genes sits on chromosome 13. Other research has found that this gene, called SLITRK6, is active in the hypothalamus brain region a few days before male mice fetuses are born. “This is thought to be a crucial time for sexual differentiation in this part of the brain,” says neuroscientist Simon LeVay, who in 1991 discovered that hypothalamus size differs between straight and gay men. The other gene, TSHR, is on chromosome 14 and helps control thyroid function. TSHR function is known to be disrupted in a genetic thyroid condition called Grave’s disease, and this disorder is more common in gay men.

12-13-17 Children are becoming problem gamblers due to a legal loophole
A report from the UK Gambling Commission reveals that children are being lured into gambling through “skin bets” in online games. Huge numbers of children are gambling online, the UK Gambling Commission reports. Around 25,000 children aged between 11 and 16 meet the definition of a problem gambler, according to a psychological questionnaire. And around 370,000 children in England, Scotland and Wales – 12 per cent of the total – have gambled in the past week. The most common forms of gambling that children participate in take place in the physical realm, involving fruit machines, scratch cards or just making wagers with friends. Now, however, a type of online gambling called “skin betting” is also taking off, and a regulatory blind spot means children are able to easily take part. Skins are cosmetic items found in some video games, which can be traded on third-party websites for cash. Some sites also let players gamble their skins to receive a more valuable one. In some cases, this gambling is built directly into the game. For example, during a shoot-’em-up players might have a chance to gamble one of their weapons by spinning a virtual fruit. Skins can normally be earned by just playing the game, but there is often also the option to pay with real money for more cracks at winning them. Nearly half of all children in the UK are aware of skin betting and 11 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds have placed a skin bet. (Webmaster's comment: Addict them early. Then you can milk them for life!)

12-13-17 TB, or not TB? At last, a urine test can diagnose it quickly
For the first time, a urine test has been developed that reliably detects tuberculosis – a valuable weapon in the fight against an infection that kills millions. A urine test for tuberculosis could make it much easier to identify the disease and treat it before it kills. There were more than 10 million new TB infections in 2016, and the condition killed 1.7 million people. In around 40 per cent of cases, the infection isn’t identified until symptoms become obvious. TB is currently diagnosed using a skin test, or by culturing bacteria from a person’s sputum. But both these methods take days to give results, and can only be performed by trained microbiologists. Now Alessandra Luchini, of George Mason University in Virginia, and her team have developed a urine test for TB that gives results in 12 hours. The test detects a certain sugar that coats the surface of TB bacteria, which usually ends up in infected people’s urine in low concentrations. The test uses tiny molecular cages embedded with a special dye that can catch and trap these sugar molecules. This makes the test capable of detecting the sugar at low concentrations, making it the technique as much as 1000 times more accurate as previous methods for detecting TB in urine. When the team tested their technique, they correctly identified 48 people with TB. Luchini now wants to make the test easier to use, and test it on thousands more people. If all goes well, it could be available within three years, she says.

12-13-17 Restarting dead people’s hearts lets doctors reuse their organs
With a growing shortage of organ donors, doctors are now considering restarting dead people's hearts or even taking organs from patients who are technically alive. ORGAN transplants may seem almost routine procedures nowadays, but they remain mired in anxieties and ethical challenges. The number of people needing a new organ vastly outweighs the supply, because less than 1 per cent of all deaths take place in a manner that makes organ donation medically possible. That’s why some doctors are now seeking ways to allow more dying patients become donors, even challenging long-held ethical principles about the boundary between life and death. Others say the methods being explored go too far, and could jeopardise organ donation all together. After all, most transplants happen only when a family, in the middle of what is often a sudden and untimely bereavement, consent to their loved one’s body being treated in ways that could be seen as unnatural and brutal. Is it ethical to push such families further, if it could save lives? “What we are doing is terribly important. But people are worried that families will get upset,” says Stephen Large of Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, UK. For most of human history, life ended when the heart stopped beating. That still applies to the majority of deaths, but as intensive care progressed in the mid-20th century, a new definition evolved: brain death. It applies to just a few people who end up in a strange twilight zone, often after a head injury or lack of oxygen. Their heart still beats; but their injuries have caused catastrophic and irreversible brain damage. They effectively have no brain function, which can be confirmed with some simple tests.

12-13-17 This is the oldest fossil of a plesiosaur from the dinosaur era
A nearly complete skeleton of an early long-necked plesiosaur has been found in a clay pit in Germany, and reveals they survived a mass extinction. The long-necked marine reptiles known as plesiosaurs are one of the icons of the dinosaur age. But all the fossil skeletons found so far come from the Jurassic period. Now we’ve found a nearly complete fossil from the earlier Triassic period. It is the oldest plesiosaur ever found. The fossil shows that, as predicted, plesiosaurs evolved in the late Triassic and survived the mass extinction that ushered in the Jurassic era 200 million years ago. All other marine reptiles, apart from the dolphin-like ichthyosaurs, died out. The 2-metre-long fossil is thought to be a juvenile. It was found in 2013 in a clay pit in Germany and acquired by a private collector, who notified authorities. Now Martin Sander of the University in Bonn and colleagues have published a full description of the find. There is no doubt that the fossil is a plesiosaur, says Sander. It has all the group’s key traits. Crucially, the team confirmed that it dates to the Triassic period. “We went to the pit and convinced ourselves that we are looking at the Triassic,” Sander says. The great diversity of plesiosaurs found in the early Jurassic suggests at least six lineages survived the end-Triassic extinction. But until now only a few bone fragments, tentatively identified as plesiosaur remains, have been found. “Very early in the Jurassic there are lots and lots of plesiosaurs, as if they appeared from nowhere. So everyone was expecting to find a plesiosaur from the Triassic,” says Roger Benson of the University of Oxford. “But until you actually find it you can’t know what it’s going to look like.”

12-13-17 Sea reptile fossil gives clues to life in ancient oceans
A new fossil is shedding light on the murky past of the sea reptiles that swam at the time of the dinosaurs. With tiny heads on long necks and four pointed flippers, plesiosaurs have been likened to Scotland's mythical Loch Ness monster. The German discovery proves that these sea creatures were alive more than 200 million years ago during the Triassic. The fossilised bones give clues to how the animal survived a mass extinction that wiped out most living things. ''We now have the proof that this extremely successful group of marine reptiles already existed during Triassic times,'' said paleontologist Martin Sander of the University of Bonn, who examined the fossil with colleague, Tanja Wintrich. ''This had been suspected for over 150 years, but it took a surprisingly long time for the hard evidence to emerge.'' The plesiosaur has been named Rhaeticosaurus mertensi. Growth marks in its bones suggest the sea creature was a juvenile, grew very quickly and was warm-blooded. By being warm-blooded, plesiosaurs were able to roam the open seas in late Triassic times. ''Warm-bloodedness probably was the key to both their long reign and their survival of a major crisis in the history of life, the extinction events at the end of the Triassic,'' said Prof Sander. Plesiosaurs were not as hard hit by the extinction as shallow water and coastal animals. Their fossils have been found all over the world in Cretaceous and Jurassic rocks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

12-15-17 In marine mammals’ battle of the sexes, vaginal folds can make the difference
Patrica Brennan has made a splash with her studies of genitalia and fit. The battle of the sexes, at least among certain ocean mammals, may come down to well-placed skin folds, suggests research by Patrica Brennan, an evolutionary biologist at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and colleagues. In some species, enhanced male-female genital fit has evolved over time in ways that make mating easier. This is an example of what scientists call congruent evolution. In other species, genital anatomy reflects a battle, as shape and form change over time to give one sex an edge in control of fertilization. Fittingly, this is called antagonistic evolution. Brennan’s recent collaboration, examining genitalia of porpoises, dolphins and seals, required extra creativity. In previous studies, her team used saline to inflate preserved penises from birds, snakes, sharks and bats. But the tough, fibroelastic penises of the cetaceans would not inflate with saline alone. So her collaborator, Diane Kelly, a penis biomechanics expert at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, suggested pressurizing the saline with a beer keg. “We looked at each other and said, ‘This could be the best or worst idea we’ve ever had,’ ” Brennan laughs. But it worked. The scientists then created vaginal endocasts with dental silicone and made 3-D mathematical models to examine male-female fit. The team, led by marine mammalogist Dara Orbach of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, described the work in the Oct. 11 Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

12-15-17 Young female monkeys use deer as ‘outlet for sexual frustration’
Adolescent female Japanese macaques mount deer and rub on their backs, perhaps as a way to practise sexual behaviour before they are old enough to mate. Just monkeying around? Adolescent female monkeys mount deer and rub themselves on the deers’ backs, apparently to practise sex when they are too young to be chosen by adult males. Earlier this year, researchers reported observations of a single male Japanese macaque mounting sika deer and trying to mate with them. In Minoo, Japan, researchers started recording monkey-deer liaisons in 2014, but there, it’s female macaques that have been observed mounting the deer. Noëlle Gunst and colleagues at the University of Lethbridge, Canada, recorded five adolescent female macaques mounting deer a total of 258 times in a two month period. In the same group of monkeys, adolescent females are sometimes seen mounting other females or males and soliciting them for sex. These relationships, known as consortships, are thought to be a way to practise and develop adult sexual behaviours. Gunst even claims the female monkeys experience sexual reward through genital stimulation by mounting other monkeys. Gunst believes the deer-mounting behaviour is related. It has only been seen during the mating season and her observations show that the form and frequency of monkey-deer interactions are similar to their consortships with other monkeys.

12-15-17 Sumatran rhino 'hanging on by a thread'
Scientists have decoded the genome of the Sumatran rhinoceros - one of the most threatened mammals on Earth. Its genetic blueprint shows that populations have been in decline for a very long time. The rhino's troubles began during the last Ice Age, when its habitat shrunk, says a US team. Since then, human pressures have caused numbers to dwindle further. There are now thought to be fewer than 250 individuals left in the wild. "This species has been well on its way to extinction for a very long time," said study researcher, Terri Roth at the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. The genome sequence data revealed the Pleistocene "was a roller-coaster ride for Sumatran rhinoceros populations," added lead researcher, Dr Herman Mays of Marshall University in West Virginia. The Pleistocene is the geological time period that lasted from about 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago, spanning the world's most recent Ice Age. The researchers sequenced and analysed the first whole Sumatran rhino genome from a sample belonging to a well-known male at Cincinnati Zoo.

12-15-17 Zombie fungus infects fruit flies and turns them into slaves
For the first time, a parasitic fungus has been spotted that manipulates the brains of fruit flies before they die, and might allow biologists to work out how they do it. There’s no need to travel to exotic rainforests to find mind-warping parasites. They are probably lurking in your own backyard. That, at least, is where Carolyn Elya found a “zombie fungus” that takes control of fruit flies. She took it back to her lab, where she managed to get it growing in lab fruit flies. “It was incredibly lucky,” she says. So-called parasitic fungi are well-known in the insect world. They usually infect their host, before controlling its behaviour to give it the best chance of spreading to more victims. Seeing a similar fungus attacking fruit flies should help us learn more about how they operate. Because so much is known about fruit flies, as they are one of the standard animal “models” studied in labs around the world, Elya’s team at the University of California, Berkeley, has been able to find out much about the fungus in just a short time. “It’s really cool just to work what’s going on, but we may also learn general principles about how it changes behaviour,” she says. It might also help in the hunt for treatments for brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, says David Hughes of Pennsylvania State University, whose team studies other zombie fungi. “It’s wonderful to have this now in a fully trackable model,” he says. The fungus, called Entomophthora muscae, kills fruit flies in four to seven days, Elya’s team has found. The animals appear to behave normally until the final day, when their gait becomes shaky and they won’t fly even if prodded.

12-14-17 Neonicotinoids at 'chronic levels' in UK rivers, study finds
Rivers across the country are "chronically polluted" with pesticides believed to pose a threat to bee populations, a report has found. The River Waveney on the Norfolk/Suffolk border was found to have the highest levels of neonicotinoids in the UK. The River Wensum in Norwich, and the River Tame in the West Midlands were also named among the most polluted. A growing number of studies have linked the pesticides to problems for bees. According to figures from UK monitoring data by the European Environment Agency, 88% of sites in Britain were contaminated with neonicotinoids. The Angling Trust, the charity Buglife, and The Rivers Trust said eight rivers in England - including the Ouse, Somerhill Stream, Wyke Beck, Ancholme, and Sincil Dyke - exceeded recommended chronic pollution limits. The River Waveney's pollution limit was exceeded for a whole month, they said. The study said the three toxins of concern were imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, which are used in farming and waste water treatment plants. Matt Shardlow, chief executive of Buglife, said: "We are devastated to discover that many British rivers have been heavily damaged by neonicotinoid insecticides. "It is vital that action is taken to ban these three toxins."

12-13-17 Sad ‘pigs’ have been filmed apparently mourning a dead friend
Famously clever animals like chimps and monkeys seem to grieve for dead comrades, but now even wild relatives of pigs called peccaries have been seen mourning. PIG-LIKE animals called peccaries have been seen apparently mourning their dead. The discovery adds to the growing list of species that have exhibited signs of grief. It came from a science fair project. Peccaries are hoofed mammals found in the Americas. Also known as javelinas or skunk pigs, they resemble pigs and wild boar. However, the two actually belong to different, albeit closely related, families. Peccaries are social animals and often live in groups. In January, 8-year-old Dante de Kort was watching a herd of five collared peccaries (Pecari tajacu) behind his house in Arizona. One of them seemed to be ill. The next day, he found a dead adult female and the rest of the herd nearby. Dante was intrigued, and he had a school science fair coming up. So on the third day after the animal’s death, he approached the body – now up a hill from the house, where it had been moved because of the smell – and set up a camera trap. Whenever an animal approached the body, the motion-sensitive camera took a video. Dante captured footage over the next two weeks and put his findings onto a poster. At the regional science fair, his poster caught the attention of Mariana Altrichter at the nearby Prescott College. Altrichter is co-chair of the Peccary Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. She left Dante a note asking to talk.

12-13-17 Electric eels provide a zap of inspiration for a new kind of power source
Battery-like devices mimic how a charge builds up in the animal’s cells. New power sources bear a shocking resemblance to the electricity-making organs inside electric eels. These artificial electric eel organs are made up of water-based polymer mixes called hydrogels. Such soft, flexible battery-like devices, described online October 13 in Nature, could power soft robots or next-gen wearable and implantable tech. “It’s a very smart approach” to building potentially biocompatible, environmentally friendly energy sources and “has a bright future for commercialization,” says Jian Xu, an engineer at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge not involved in the work. This new type of power source is modeled after rows of cells called electrocytes in the electric organ that runs along an electric eel’s body. When an eel zaps its prey, positively charged potassium and sodium atoms inside and between these cells flow toward the eel’s head, making each electrocyte’s front end positive and tail end negative. This setup creates a voltage of about 150 millivolts across each cell. The voltages of these electrocytes add up, like a lineup of AAA batteries powering a flashlight, explains Michael Mayer, a biophysicist at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. Collectively, an eel’s electrocytes can generate hundreds of volts.

12-13-17 Giant tortoises are rare today but once roamed four continents
An evolutionary tree of tortoises shows the animals have become gigantic on at least seven occasions – and that they did not do so where we thought. TORTOISES evolved into giants on at least seven occasions and on four continents. The finding undermines the long-standing idea that tortoises become enormous only if they are stranded on remote islands. There are more than 40 species of tortoise, the most spectacular being the giant tortoises. On the Galapagos islands in the Pacific and Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, these animals can have shells more than 120 centimetres long. These islands cover just a few thousand square kilometres. In contrast, Earth’s continents cover 150 million square kilometres. Yet they are home to just one truly large tortoise: the African spurred tortoise. This implies that tortoises are most likely to become huge when they live on islands, in line with a famous but controversial concept, the “island rule“. This states that, on islands, small animals tend to evolve larger bodies while large animals evolve to be smaller. But tortoise biologists suspect otherwise. Fossils show giant tortoises once roamed Africa, Eurasia and the Americas, suggesting tortoises don’t need islands to evolve to be larger. Evangelos Vlachos at the Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio in Trelew, Argentina, and Márton Rabi at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, wanted to clarify the history of gigantism. They drew the tortoise family tree using data from extinct and living species.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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