Zebrafish made to grow pre-hands instead of fins

PERHAPS the little fish embryo shown here is dancing a jig because it has just discovered that it has legs instead of fins. Fossils show that limbs evolved from fins, but a new study shows how it may have happened, live in the lab.

Fernando Casares of the Spanish National Research Council and his colleagues injected zebrafish with the hoxd13 gene from a mouse. The protein that the gene codes for controls the development of autopods, a precursor to hands, feet and paws.

Zebrafish naturally carry hoxd13 but produce less of the protein than tetrapods - all four-limbed vertebrates and birds - do. Casares and his colleagues hoped that by injecting extra copies of the gene into the zebrafish embryos, some of their cells would make more of the protein.

One full day later, all of those fish whose cells had taken up the gene began to develop autopods instead of fins. They carried on growing for four days but then died (Cell, DOI: 10.1016/j.devcel.2012.10.015).

"Of course, we haven't been able to grow hands," says Casares. He speculates that hundreds of millions of years ago, the ancestors of tetrapods began expressing more hoxd13 for some reason and that this could have allowed them to evolve autopods.

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2,500 needy families to get help with childcare costs

SINGAPORE: Some 2,500 low-income families will benefit from a S$250,000 initiative to help their children.

The five Commmunity Development Councils will help identify eligible families with monthly household incomes of less than S$3,500.

OCBC Bank will also contribute S$100 when a low-income family deposits the first S$50 into their Child Development Account (CDA).

Under the existing Baby Bonus scheme, the government will match the contributions to the CDA dollar for dollar.

The money in the account can then be used at approved institutions for the child's development and healthcare needs.

Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said: "This year, we have also expanded the kinds of things that you can spend the CDA money (on). For example, it will also include early intervention programmes, visits to the doctor, medical insurance and purchase of healthcare-related products. We hope that in this small way, we can help families to defray the cost of bringing up the children, especially for the needy families."

Under the initiative, parents can also attend financial literary talks by OCBC Bank staff volunteers to learn more about money management.

- CNA/xq

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Investigators trying to learn more about gunman in deadly school shooting

Chicago Tribune associate managing editor George Papajohn compares Friday's school shooting in Connecticut to Laurie Dann's 1988 school shooting in Winnetka, Ill. (Posted Dec. 14, 2012)


The massacre of 26 children and adults at a Connecticut elementary school elicited horror and soul-searching and raised more basic questions about why the gunman, a 20-year-old described as brilliant but remote, would have been driven to such a crime and how he chose his victims.

Investigators were trying to learn more about the gunman, Adam Lanza, and questioned his older brother, who is not believed to have been involved in the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary. Police shed no light on the motive for the nation's second-deadliest school shooting.

In tight-knit Newtown on Friday night, hundreds of people packed St. Rose of Lima church and stood outside in a vigil for the 28 dead — 20 children and six adults at the school, the gunman's mother at home, and the gunman himself, who committed suicide. People held hands, lit candles and sang "Silent Night."

"These 20 children were just beautiful, beautiful children," Monsignor Robert Weiss said. "These 20 children lit up this community better than all these Christmas lights we have. ... There are a lot brighter stars up there tonight because of these kids."

Lanza is believed to have suffered from a personality disorder and lived with his mother, said a law enforcement official who was briefed on the investigation.

Lanza shot his mother, Nancy Lanza, drove to the school in her car with at least three guns, including a high-powered rifle that he apparently left in the back of the vehicle, and shot up two classrooms around 9:30 a.m. Friday, law enforcement officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A custodian ran through the halls, warning of a gunman, and someone switched on the intercom, perhaps saving many lives by letting them hear the chaos in the school office, a teacher said. Teachers locked their doors and ordered children to huddle in a corner or hide in closets as shots echoed through the building.

The well-liked principal, Dawn Hochsprung, was believed to be among the dead. A woman who worked at the school was wounded. An update on victims' identities was possible Saturday morning, state police Lt. Paul Vance said Friday evening.

A law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity said investigators believe Lanza attended the school several years ago but appeared to have no recent connection to it.

At least one parent said Lanza's mother was a substitute teacher there. But her name did not appear on a staff list. And the official said investigators were unable to establish any connection so far between her and the school.

Lanza's older brother, 24-year-old Ryan Lanza, of Hoboken, N.J., was questioned, but a law enforcement official said he was not believed to have had a role in the rampage. Investigators were searching his computers and phone records, but he told law enforcement he had not been in touch with his brother since about 2010.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the unfolding investigation.

At one point, a law enforcement official mistakenly identified the gunman as Ryan Lanza. Brett Wilshe, a friend of Ryan Lanza's, said Lanza told him the gunman may have had his identification. Ryan Lanza apparently posted Facebook page updates Friday afternoon that read, "It wasn't me" and "I was at work."

For about two hours late Friday and early Saturday, clergy members and emergency vehicles moved steadily to and from the school. The state medical examiner's office said bodies of the victims would be taken there eventually for autopsies.

At least three guns were found — a Glock and a Sig Sauer, both pistols, inside the school, and a .223-caliber rifle in the back of a car, authorities said. A law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity said some of the guns used in the attack may have belonged to Lanza's family. His mother had legally registered four weapons, his father two.

Authorities also recovered three other guns — a Henry repeating rifle, an Enfield rifle and a shotgun. It was not clear exactly where those weapons were found.

Adam Lanza and his mother lived in a well-to-do part of prosperous Newtown, about 60 miles northeast of New York City, where neighbors are doctors or hold white-collar positions at companies such as General Electric, Pepsi and IBM.

Lanza's parents filed for divorce in 2008, according to court records. His father, Peter Lanza, lives in Stamford, Conn., and works as a tax director for General Electric.

The gunman's aunt Marsha Lanza, of Crystal Lake, Ill., said her nephew was raised by kind, nurturing parents who would not have hesitated to seek mental help for him if he needed it.

"Nancy wasn't one to deny reality," Marsha Lanza said, adding her husband had seen Adam as recently as June and recalled nothing out of the ordinary.

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Space Pictures This Week: Frosty Mars, Mini Nile, More

Photograph by Mike Theiss, National Geographic

The aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, illuminates the Arctic sky in a recent picture by National Geographic photographer Mike Theiss.

A storm chaser by trade, Theiss is in the Arctic Circle on an expedition to photograph auroras, which result from collisions between charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere and gaseous particles in Earth's atmosphere.

After one particularly amazing show, he wrote on YouTube, "The lights were dancing, rolling, and twisting, and at times looked like they were close enough to touch!" (Watch his time-lapse video of the northern lights.)

Published December 14, 2012

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School Shooting: Officials Seek Details on Gunman

The FBI is in at least three states interviewing relatives and friends of the elementary school gunman who killed 20 children, seven adults and himself, trying to put together a better picture of the shooter and uncover any possible explanation for the massacre, ABC News has learned.

The authorities have fanned out to New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts to interview relatives of Adam Lanza, 20, and his mother, who was one of Lanza's shooting victims.

The victims died Friday when Lanza invaded Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and sprayed staff and students with bullets, officials said. Lanza also was found dead in the school.

Lt. Paul Vance said 18 children died in the school and two more died later in a hospital.

Six adults also were slain, bringing the total to 26. Among them was the school's principal, Dawn Hochsprung, multiple sources told ABC News. Another adult victim was teacher Vicki Soto, her cousin confirmed.

In addition to the casualties at the school, Lanza's mother, Nancy Lanza, was killed in her home, federal and state sources told ABC News.

According to sources, Lanza shot his mother in the face, then left his house armed with at least two semi-automatic handguns, a Glock and a Sig Sauer, and a semi-automatic rifle. He was also wearing a bulletproof vest.

READ: Connecticut Shooter Adam Lanza: 'Obviously Not Well'

Lanza then drove to the elementary school and continued his rampage, authorities said.

Newtown Teacher Kept 1st Graders Calm During Massacre Watch Video

Newtown School Shooting: What to Tell Your Kids Watch Video

It appeared that Lanza died from what was believed to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The rifle was found in his car.

"Evil visited this community today," Gov. Dan Malloy said at a news conference Friday evening.

CLICK HERE for more photos from the scene.

In the early confusion surrounding the investigation, federal sources initially identified the suspect as Adam's older brother Ryan Lanza, 24. Identification belonging to Ryan Lanza was found at the shooting scene, federal sources told ABC News.

Ryan Lanza soon took to Facebook to say he was alive and not responsible for the shooting. He later was questioned by police.

During the rampage, first-grade teacher Kaitlin Roig, 29, locked her 14 students in a class bathroom and listened to "tons of shooting" until police came to help.

"It was horrific," Roig said. "I thought we were going to die."

She said that the terrified kids were saying, "I just want Christmas. ... I don't want to die. I just want to have Christmas."

A tearful President Obama said Friday that there was "not a parent in America who doesn't feel the overwhelming grief that I do."

The president had to pause to compose himself after saying these were "beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10."

As he continued with his statement, Obama wiped away tears from each eye. He has ordered flags flown as half staff.

It is the second worst mass shooting in U.S. history, exceeded only by the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 when 32 were killed before the shooter turned the gun on himself. The carnage in Connecticut exceeded the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in which 13 died and 24 were injured.

Friday's shooting came three days after masked gunman Jacob Roberts opened fire in a busy Oregon mall, killing two before turning the gun on himself.

The Connecticut shooting occurred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, which includes 450 students in grades K-4. The town is located about 12 miles east of Danbury, Conn.

The massacre prompted the town of Newtown to lock down all its schools and draw SWAT teams to the school, authorities said.

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Bell tolls for Beijing's Drum Tower homes

BEIJING - China's capital is to destroy swathes of ancient courtyard homes surrounding a 13th-century landmark in what is being called an effort to preserve Beijing's historical legacy, residents said Friday.

Large numbers of hutong homes, some of them dating back to the Qing dynasty, will be demolished around the Drum and Bell Towers -- a tourist hotspot in Beijing's historic centre -- to make way for a large plaza, they said.

Notices for the "destroy and evict" project are plastered throughout the quarter, dated Wednesday and saying the work was due to be completed by February 24.

Besides protecting the historic legacy of the capital, the project is also aimed at restoring and repairing old and dilapidated buildings, the notices said.

Forced evictions are a major source of unrest in China. Ordinary citizens routinely accuse local officials and developers of cashing in on a property boom by clearing away longstanding residents to pave the way for new projects.

Destroying old homes in central Beijing has particular sensitivity. Critics say new development projects rob the capital of its cultural legacy.

"We have been hearing this was going to happen for years, but now that the notices are up there is not much you can do but leave," said souvenir shop seller Ma Yong.

"When I first saw the notices I felt nothing but despair."

Besides having her rented shop torn down, Ma's small home nearby, where she lives with her retired husband, will also be flattened.

Residents must negotiate compensation with the newly set up "destroy and evict" office near the Bell Tower, with compensation beginning at around 40,000 yuan (US$5,800) per square metre.

Between 130 and 500 homes are to be destroyed, state press reports said.

Officials refused to answer questions when approached by AFP.

"A lot of people are opposed to the campaign, 40,000 yuan per square metre is too cheap, especially with the price of housing in Beijing sky-rocketing," said the manager of a coffee shop near the Drum Tower, who gave her surname only as Wang.

"People are already asking for 150,000 yuan per square metre," she said.

Others said they were happy with the compensation.

"We took the money," said Zhou Li, 51, who was to move out to the suburbs with his elderly parents this weekend after living most of his life near the Bell Tower.

- AFP/ir

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Cook Co. state's attorney: '60 Minutes' report distorted truth

After days of scathing reviews of her "60 Minutes" interview on false confessions, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez fired off a letter to the venerable news program calling its Sunday report "one-sided and extremely misleading" and vowing to set the record straight.

The segment titled "Chicago: The False Confession Capital" featured two infamous Chicago-area cases in which teenage boys allegedly confessed to brutal murders but were later exonerated when DNA excluded them as the killers.

In her letter, addressed to CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, Alvarez called the story "an offensive display" and accused reporter Byron Pitts of using only snippets of a 6-month-old interview to distort her record and make it appear she was still trying to prosecute the cases.

"Had I known that this story would completely distort my position and intentionally omit critical facts, I would never have agreed to your interview," Alvarez wrote.

One particularly damaging portion of the interview involved the Dixmoor Five case in which five men were convicted as teens of the 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl whose body was found on a path. DNA linked a serial rapist to the crime and undermined confessions from the teens. They were cleared in 2011 after spending years in prison.

Alvarez explained in the interview that one possible explanation for the DNA was necrophilia — that the rapist had sex with the girl after she'd already been killed.

That answer — which was roundly mocked in blogs and news critiques — was misconstrued, Alvarez said in the letter. She wrote that the necrophilia theory was used at trial years before she had any involvement in the case.

"I have never advanced that theory or argument, but simply responded, when asked by Mr. Pitts, that we can't say with certainty what had occurred," Alvarez wrote. "This story was not designed to inform, it was designed to undermine me and mislead the public."

Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Alvarez, said the reaction to the piece has been vitriolic. "She's gotten hate mail, things you couldn't even publish," Daly said.

CBS News representatives did not return phone calls seeking comment.


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Global Checkup: Most People Living Longer, But Sicker

If the world's entire population went in for a collective checkup, would the doctor's prognosis be good or bad? Both, according to new studies published in The Lancet medical journal.

The vast collaborative effort, called the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2010, includes papers by nearly 500 authors in 50 countries. Spanning four decades of data, it represents the most comprehensive analysis ever undertaken of health problems around the world.

It reveals that, globally, we're living longer but coping with more illness as adults. In 1990, "childhood underweight"—a condition associated with malnutrition, measles, malaria, and other infectious diseases—was the world's biggest health problem. Now the top causes of global disease are adult ailments: high blood pressure (associated with 9.4 million deaths in 2010), tobacco smoking (6.2 million), and alcohol use (4.9 million).

First, the good news:

We're living longer. Average life expectancy has risen globally since 1970 and has increased in all but eight of the world's countries within the past decade.

Both men and women are gaining years. From 1970 to 2010, the average lifespan rose from 56.4 years to 67.5 years for men, and from 61.2 years to 73.3 years for women.

Efforts to combat childhood diseases and malnutrition have been very successful. Deaths in children under five years old declined almost 60 percent in the past four decades.

Developing countries have made huge strides in public health. In the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Iran, and Peru, life expectancy has increased by more than 20 years since 1970. Within the past two decades, gains of 12 to 15 years have occurred in Angola, Ethiopia, Niger, and Rwanda, an indication of successful strategies for curbing HIV, malaria, and nutritional deficiencies.

We're beating many communicable diseases. Thanks to improvements in sanitation and vaccination, the death rate for diarrheal diseases, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases has dropped by 42 percent since 1990.

And the bad:

Non-infectious diseases are on the rise, accounting for two of every three deaths globally in 2010. Heart disease and stroke are the primary culprits.

Young adults aren't doing as well as others. Deaths in the 15 to 49 age bracket have increased globally in the past 20 years. The reasons vary by region, but diabetes, smoking, alcohol, HIV/AIDS, and malaria all play a role.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is taking a toll in sub-Saharan Africa. Life expectancy has declined overall by one to seven years in Zimbabwe and Lesotho, and young adult deaths have surged by more than 500 percent since 1970 in South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

We drink too much. Alcohol overconsumption is a growing problem in the developed world, especially in Eastern Europe, where it accounts for almost a quarter of the total disease burden. Worldwide, it has become the top risk factor for people ages 15 to 49.

We eat too much, and not the right things. Deaths attributable to obesity are on the rise, with 3.4 million in 2010 compared to 2 million in 1990. Similarly, deaths attributable to dietary risk factors and physical inactivity have increased by 50 percent (4 million) in the past 20 years. Overall, we're consuming too much sodium, trans fat, processed meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages, and not enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fiber, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Smoking is a lingering problem. Tobacco smoking, including second-hand smoke, is still the top risk factor for disease in North America and Western Europe, just as it was in 1990. Globally, it's risen in rank from the third to second leading cause of disease.

To find out more and see related charts and graphics, see the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which led the collaboration.

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Critics Faulted Rice's Work on Benghazi, Africa

United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice removed herself from possible consideration as secretary of state after becoming yet another player in the divide between the left and right.

Rice, who withdrew her name Thursday, has faced months of criticism over how she characterized the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. She also has come under fire for her approach to dealing with African strongmen.

Rice became a target for conservatives when she went on Sunday morning current affairs shows such as ABC News' "This Week" following the Benghazi attack and failed to characterize it as a pre-meditated act of terror. Instead, she said it was a spontaneous response to an anti-Islam film produced in the United States and cited in the region as an example of anti-Islamicism in the West.

After it became clear that Rice's assertions were untrue and elements of the Obama administration may have known that to be the case, Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Kelly Ayotte said they would do whatever they could to block Rice's possible nomination to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.

GOP Senators 'Troubled' After Meeting With Ambassador Rice Watch Video

President Obama to Senator McCain: 'Go After Me' Watch Video

Susan Rice: U.S. Not 'Impotent' in Muslim World Watch Video

"This is about the role she played around four dead Americans when it seems to be that the story coming out of the administration -- and she's the point person -- is so disconnected to reality, I don't trust her," Graham said. "And the reason I don't trust her is because I think she knew better. And if she didn't know better, she shouldn't be the voice of America."

Members of the administration defended Rice. At his testimony before Congress, Gen. David Petraeus, the former CIA director, said Rice was speaking from unclassified talking points given to her by the CIA.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., reiterated what Petraeus said outside his closed-door hearing before the Senate.

"The key is that they were unclassified talking points at a very early stage. And I don't think she should be pilloried for this. She did what I would have done or anyone else would have done that was going on a weekend show," Feinstein said. "To say that she is unqualified to be secretary of state, I think, is a mistake. And the way it keeps going, it's almost as if the intent is to assassinate her character."

Minutes after she announced her withdrawal from the process, Graham tweeted, "I respect Ambassador Rice's decision."

McCain's office released a paper statement saying, "Senator McCain thanks Ambassador Rice for her service to the country and wishes her well. He will continue to seek all the facts surrounding the attack on our consulate in Benghazi that killed four brave Americans."

Over the last few weeks, criticism of Rice had grown beyond her response to Benghazi to include a closer scrutiny of her work in Africa, where she had influence over U.S. policy during the Clinton administration.

Critics of her Africa dealings were not partisan -- but included human rights workers, journalists and some Africans themselves.

Among the most serious critiques was the accusation that she actively protected Rwandan President Paul Kagame and senior members of his government from being sanctioned for funding and supporting the rebels that caused Eastern Congo's recent violence.

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Search for aliens poses game theory dilemma

SENDING messages into deep space could be the best way for Earthlings to find extraterrestrial intelligence, but it carries a grave risk: alerting hostile aliens to our presence. Game theory may provide a way to navigate this dilemma.

So far the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has mostly been restricted to listening for signs of technology elsewhere. Only a few attempts have been made to broadcast messages towards distant stars. Many scientists are against such "active" SETI for fear of revealing our presence. If all aliens feel the same way then no one will be broadcasting, and the chance of detecting each other is limited.

To weigh up the potential losses and gains, Harold de Vladar of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria in Klosterneuburg turned to the prisoner's dilemma, a game-theory problem in which two prisoners choose between admitting their shared crime or keeping quiet, with different sentences depending on what they say. An individual prisoner gets off scot free if they rat on a partner who remains silent, with the silent partner getting a maximum sentence. If they both rat on each other, each gets a medium sentence. By contrast, if both stay silent, both get token sentences - the best overall result.

De Vladar reasoned that the SETI dilemma is essentially the same, but reversed. Mutual silence for prisoners is equivalent to mutual broadcasting for aliens, giving the best results for both civilisations. And while a selfish prisoner rats, a selfish civilisation is silent, waiting for someone else to take the risk of waving "Over here!" at the rest of the universe.

This led de Vladar to apply the mathematics of the prisoner's dilemma to SETI (International Journal of Astrobiology (IJA), doi.org/jx7). In the classic version of the prisoner's dilemma, each selfishly rats on the other. But as we do not know the character of any aliens out there, and as it is difficult to put a value on the benefits to science, culture and technology of finding an advanced civilisation, de Vladar varied the reward of finding aliens and the cost of hostile aliens finding us. The result was a range of optimal broadcasting strategies. "It's not about whether to do it or not, but how often," says de Vladar.

One intriguing insight was that as you scale up the rewards placed on finding aliens, you can scale down the frequency of broadcasts, while keeping the expected benefit to Earthlings the same. Being able to keep broadcasts to a minimum is good news, because they come with costs - rigging our planet with transmitters won't come cheap - and risk catastrophic penalties, such as interstellar war.

Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, says that game theory is a good approach but that there are too many unknowns. Perhaps aliens are not actively broadcasting because they don't need to. Shostak has recently shown that a civilisation even slightly more advanced than ours could use its sun as a "gravitational lens". Such a lens could detect the lights of New York City from up to 500 light years away, once the light has had time to travel that far (IJA, doi.org/jx8). And there are certainly alien star systems that are closer to us than that.

Earth has also been accidently leaking radio and TV signals for the past century, which may have already been picked up. "Any society at least a few centuries beyond the invention of radio will recognise that deliberate transmissions are not the way they will be found," says Shostak. Quick, turn off those lights!

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Cricket: Clarke vows no complacency against Sri Lanka

HOBART, Australia: Skipper Michael Clarke has vowed there will be no complacency in the Test series with Sri Lanka, insisting Australia will improve on their recent performances against South Africa.

The Australians had the better of the opening two Tests against the world number one Proteas only to be crushed by 309 runs in the series decider in Perth last week.

Sri Lanka are ranked sixth in the world, have not won in 10 Tests in Australia over 25 years and are rated outsiders to upset Clarke's team in the three-Test series, beginning in Hobart on Friday.

Former Australian quick Rodney Hogg has rubbished the Sri Lankan attack as the "worst ever" to come to Australia, with Nuwan Kulasekara, Shaminda Eranga and Chanaka Welegedara only having 38 Tests and 99 wickets between them.

Clarke said the third-ranked Australia were focused only on beating Sri Lanka in the first Test since 168-Test great Ricky Ponting's retirement.

"The opposition is irrelevant to how you judge yourself as players," he said.

"Our goal is not to come out and play the same way against Sri Lanka as we did against South Africa.

"We have to learn from that series, take the positives - and I thought there were a lot of positives - and the areas where we need to get better, we need to make sure we do that.

"I'm sure that if we improve on the series against South Africa, we'll continue to have success."

Mitchell Johnson has been left out for the Hobart Test with Australia opting for the pace attack of Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle and left-armer Mitchell Starc, supplemented by swing bowler Shane Watson and spinner Nathan Lyon.

Recalled Phil Hughes will bat at number three with Watson at four while Clarke and veteran Mike Hussey stay at five and six in the Australian line-up now missing Ponting.

"The strength and advantage we now have in our top four is that all four have opened the batting for Australia," Clarke said.

"So against the new ball they will be very well suited and if we lose early wickets we're still very capable against the new ball which is a real positive."

Clarke also defended the daredevil batting style of opener David Warner, whose second innings dismissal for 29 against South Africa in Perth triggered criticism.

"The one thing we have to understand about Davey, is that the same ball that got him out in Perth, we were all applauding in Adelaide when it went over slips for four. That's the way he plays," he said.

"The only thing I continue to say to Davey is to make sure his intent is there. When the intent is there, his defence is better, his shot selection is better.

"Sometimes it's not going to look great when he gets out, but on the other hand he has the X-factor. He takes the game away from the opposition in the first session of a Test match ... there's not many players in the world that have that talent."

Clarke rated Warner's unbeaten 123 in last year's Hobart Test against New Zealand as among the dashing left-hander's finest.

"I think one of Davey's greatest innings was the hundred he scored here against New Zealand in really tough batting conditions. He still had that intent, even though the wicket was doing a lot. His shot selection was perfect. "In a perfect world, you'd love to bottle that, but you have to have a bit of give and take with Davey."

- AFP/de

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Man dies after falling from Mag Mile hotel while taking photos

A man trying to take a photo from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel on Michigan Avenue fell 22 feet down a smokestack and died, according to authorities.

The 23-year-old man, from Minnesota, was pronounced dead at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, a spokesman for the Cook County medical examiner's office said.

He was wheeled into an ambulance inside the basement garage of the Intercontinental Hotel, at 505 N. Michigan Ave., about 5:05 a.m. and taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in "extremely critical" condition, according to the fire department. A white sheet had been draped over him.

The man fell 22 feet into an angled portion of the 6-foot wide smokestack and was wedged in, Fire Department Spokeswoman Meg Ahlheim said. After the angle, the chimney is vertical for about 42 floors.

Fire crews had cut into the wall adjacent to the angled portion and used wood boards to block the man's fall, in case his position adjusted at all, Ahlheim said.

"We had to send members from the top down on ropes to assess his condition, the whole time we’re monitirong the situation for toxic gases," said Special Operations Chief Michael Fox. " We found the best way to get out him was to go about two floors below and we had to cut the ductwork for the chimeny, which was made out of steel. And eventually we ended up sliding the victim down into the hole and removing him from the building"

The man was able to communicate with his girlfriend, either with phone calls or text messages, Ahlheim said, but firefighters lost contact with him about 3:15 a.m.

The Chicago Fire Department had responded to the hotel about 1:10 a.m. after someone called and reported a person threatening to jump.

Firefighters later learned the man fell into a smokestack, Ahlheim said. A "confined space" rescue, bringing 30 department companies and about 100 firefighters and paramedics, was called about 2 a.m.

More than two dozen department vehicles, including two department rescue squads, a hazardous materials truck, at least two ambulances and a department command van lined Michigan Avenue during the rescue.

A spokesperson for the hotel wasn't immediately available and employees at the hotel hung up twice when reached by phone for comment. 

Twitter: @peternickeas

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Hubble Discovers Oldest Known Galaxy

The Hubble space telescope has discovered seven primitive galaxies formed in the earliest days of the cosmos, including one believed to be the oldest ever detected.

The discovery, announced Wednesday, is part of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field campaign to determine how and when galaxies first assembled following the Big Bang.

"This 'cosmic dawn' was not a single, dramatic event," said astrophysicist Richard Ellis with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Rather, galaxies appear to have been formed over hundreds of millions of years.

Ellis led a team that used Hubble to look at one small section of the sky for a hundred hours. The grainy images of faint galaxies include one researchers determined to be from a period 380 million years after the onset of the universe—the closest in time to the Big Bang ever observed.

The cosmos is about 13.7 billion years old, so the newly discovered galaxy was present when the universe was 4 percent of its current age. The other six galaxies were sending out light from between 380 million and 600 million years after the Big Bang. (See pictures of "Hubble's Top Ten Discoveries.")

Baby Pictures

The images are "like the first ultrasounds of [an] infant," said Abraham Loeb, a specialist in the early cosmos at Harvard University. "These are the building blocks of the galaxies we now have."

These early galaxies were a thousand times denser than galaxies are now and were much closer together as well, Ellis said. But they were also less luminous than later galaxies.

The team used a set of four filters to analyze the near infrared wavelengths captured by Hubble Wide Field Camera 3, and estimated the galaxies' distances from Earth by studying their colors. At a NASA teleconference, team members said they had pushed Hubble's detection capabilities about as far as they could go and would most likely not be able to identify galaxies from further back in time until the James Webb Space Telescope launches toward the end of the decade. (Learn about the Hubble telescope.)

"Although we may have reached back as far as Hubble will see, Hubble has set the stage for Webb," said team member Anton Koekemoer of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. "Our work indicates there is a rich field of even earlier galaxies that Webb will be able to study."

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McAfee Returns to US, Admits Playing 'Crazy Card'

John McAfee's month-long international run from police through two Central American nations ended with a flight to Miami, where the businessman who says he abandoned his fortune admitted to playing the "crazy card."

As a gaggle of media waited near several exit doors at the airport Wednesday night, federal authorities whisked the founder of McAfee anti-virus software off the plane and into a van.

"They said, 'Mr. McAfee, please step forward,'" McAfee, 67, later told ABC News exclusively overnight at a Miami Beach hotel. "I was met by a dozen or maybe fewer officers. I said, 'Am I arrested?' They said, 'No, sir, I am here to help you.' That felt the best of all."

He eventually snuck out of the airport in a cab and headed to South Beach. After walking down famed Ocean Drive to the bewilderment of tourists and eating sushi, his first meal in three days, he sat down with ABC News and admitted to playing the "crazy card" and says he is broke.

"I have nothing now," McAfee said. He claims he left everything behind in Belize, including $20 million in investments and about 15 properties. "I've got a pair of clothes and shoes, my friend dropped off some cash."

Just hours earlier, the self-made millionaire was deported by Guatemalan police who forced him aboard his U.S.-bound flight away from the home and the two women he said he loves. After he arrived on South Beach, he said, a mysterious "Canadian friend" ordered another man he'd never met to drop off a wad of fresh $5 bills that McAfee later displayed to ABC News, pulling them from his coat pocket.

John McAfee Arrested in Guatemala Overnight Watch Video

Software Founder Breaks Silence: McAfee Speaks on Murder Allegations Watch Video

He says he left his fortune, including a beachfront compound, behind after his neighbor Greg Faull was found shot to death in Belize on Nov. 10.

Belize officials said he isn't a suspect, but when they asked to question him, McAfee disguised himself and ran.

After three weeks ducking authorities in Belize, by hiding in attics, in the jungle and in dingy hotels, he turned up in Guatemala Dec. 3.

Barely a day later he was detained for entering the country illegally. As Guatemala officials grappled with how to handle his request for asylum and the Belize government's demand for his deportation, McAfee fell ill. The mysterious illness, described by his attorney alternately as a heart ailment or a nervous breakdown, led to a scene with reporters chasing his ambulance down the narrow streets of Guatemala City and right into the emergency room, where McAfee appeared unresponsive.

He now says it was all a ruse:
"It was a deception but who did it hurt? I look pretty healthy, don't I?"

He says he faked the illness in order to buy some time for a judge to hear his case and stay his deportation to Belize, a government he believes wants him dead. When asked whether he believes Belize officials where inept, he didn't mince words.

"I was on the run with a 20-year-old girl for three and a half weeks inside their borders and everyone was looking for me, and they did not catch me," he said. "I escaped, was captured and they tried to send me back. Now I'm sitting in Miami. There had to be some ineptness."

The man who many believe only wants attention answered critics who called his month-long odyssey and blog posts a publicity stunt by simply saying, "What's a better story, millionaire mad man on the run. You [the media] saved my ass. Because you paid attention to the story. As long as you are reporting, it is hard to whack somebody that the world is watching."

He denies any involvement in his neighbor's death but adds that he is not particularly concerned about clearing his name. He is focused on getting his 20-year-old and 17-year-old girlfriends out of Belize and says he has no idea what he'll do next, where he'll live or how he'll support himself.

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A deliberate language barrier

THE United States and Britain are two countries "divided by a common language", George Bernard Shaw allegedly quipped.

This statement, amusingly paradoxical on the face of it, might be more accurate than it seems. On "War of words: The language paradox explained", evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel argues that languages proliferate to differentiate competing groups.

If so, a shared tongue is not what the transatlantic rivals would have wanted. Sure enough, they quickly diverged; some of the differences between US and British spellings seem to have arisen as part of a knowing attempt to widen the gulf.

So perhaps it was Shaw's fellow wit Oscar Wilde who got closer to the mark when he observed in his 1887 story The Canterville Ghost that "we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language".

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Asia shares gain, unmoved by North Korea rocket launch

HONG KONG: Asian markets rose on Wednesday as dealers welcomed signs of progress in US fiscal cliff talks and upbeat data from Germany and Spain, while shrugging off news of North Korea's rocket launch.

With investors becoming more confident the safe-haven yen came back under pressure ahead of a general election in Japan on Sunday and expectations of more monetary easing by the country's central bank.

Tokyo rose 0.59 percent, adding 56.14 points to 9,581.46, Seoul was up 0.55 percent, gaining 10.82 points to 1,975,44, and Sydney climbed 0.17 percent to a 17-month high, adding 7.8 points to 4,583.8.

Hong Kong ended up 0.80 percent, adding 179.41 points to close at 22,503.35, while Shanghai was 0.39 percent, or 8.03 points, higher at 2,082.73

US President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner have swapped new offers to avoid the fiscal cliff of huge tax hikes and spending cuts due to come into effect on January 1, according to sources on both sides.

It fuelled hopes that the two, who have been at loggerheads over plans to increase taxes on the rich and slashing aid to Medicare, could come to an agreement.

If a deal is not reached by the New Year, the package currently in place is widely expected to send the economy into recession.

Markets are also eyeing a meeting of the Federal Reserve policy committee, which is to decide on what action to take as the end approaches of its "Operation Twist" -- selling short-term debt to buy longer-term debt.

There are expectations that policymakers will replace it with more outright bond purchases, or "quantitative easing", aimed at lowering interest rates to encourage businesses to invest and hire.

Buying support was also provided by positive numbers from Germany, where investor sentiment in Europe's key economic machine hit a seven-month high on hopes it will dodge recession.

The confidence index from the ZEW economic institute surged to 6.9 points in December from minus 15.7 in November. Forecasts had been for a reading of minus 11.3.

It was the highest reading since May and the first time since then that the index has been in positive territory.

Spain also enjoyed a successful Treasury bond auction, easing fears over its ability to raise cash to pay its bills.

Traders on Wall Street ended on a positive note. The Dow rose 0.60 percent, a fifth straight day of gains, while the S&P 500 added 0.65 percent and the Nasdaq climbed 1.18 percent.

Confidence in "riskier" assets hit the yen, usually the go-to unit in times of uncertainty, in US trade on Tuesday and it remained under pressure in Asia Wednesday.

The dollar rose to 82.77 yen, compared with 82.51 yen in New York, while the euro was at 107.70 yen from 107.28 yen. That compares with 82.36 yen and 106.68 yen in Asia Tuesday.

The euro bought $1.3010 Wednesday, from $1.3003 in New York.

The yen has come under pressure in recent weeks ahead of Sunday's polls widely expected to see Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's Democratic Party of Japan beaten by the Liberal Democratic Party, which is headed by Shinzo Abe.

Abe, a former prime minister, has promised to push a more aggressive monetary easing policy to jumpstart the economy.

Investors shrugged off news that North Korea had fired its rocket, which critics insist was being used as a disguised ballistic missile test.

Previous launches and nuclear tests have led to an initial asset sell-off owing to geopolitical fears, but regional markets remained up in early trade.

"Frankly, it was almost a non-event," Norihiro Fujito, senior investment strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities, told Dow Jones Newswires.

On oil markets New York's main contract, West Texas Intermediate for delivery in January, edged up 23 cents to $86.02, and Brent North Sea crude for January added 44 cents at $108.45.

Gold was at $1,713.23 at 0805 GMT compared with $1,709.35 late on Tuesday.

In other markets:

-- Taipei rose 1.0 percent, or 76.5 points, to 7,690.19.

HTC rose 4.05 percent to Tw$282.5 while TSMC was 0.1 percent higher at Tw$98.4.

-- Manila closed 0.20 percent lower, dipping 11.71 points to 5,819.79.

Ayala Corp. fell 3.22 percent to 510 pesos while Philippine Long Distance Telephone slipped 1.29 percent to 2,596 pesos.

-- Wellington ended 0.77 percent, or 30.92 points, lower at 3,995.26.

Telecom fell 2.0 percent to NZ$2.19, Fletcher Building also lost 2.0 percent to NZ$8.28 and Contact Energy was down 2.1 percent at NZ$5.10.

- AFP/lp

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3 dead after masked gunman opens fire at Portland mall

HAPPY VALLEY, Oregon -- A gunman opened fire inside an Oregon shopping mall on Tuesday in the middle of the busy holiday season, killing two people, critically wounding a young woman and terrorizing shoppers before shooting himself to death, police said.

The afternoon shooting rampage at the crowded Clackamas Town Center in the Portland suburb of Happy Valley touched off panic inside the mall, sending thousands of shoppers streaming out as police and fire crews arrived on the scene.

Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts said the lone gunman died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound and that law enforcement officers who descended on the scene had not fired a single shot inside the mall. A single weapon was recovered.

"The mall is supposed to be a place where we can take our families. He took the lives of two people and a young lady is at the hospital fighting for her life right now," Roberts said.

The wounded victim was taken by helicopter to a hospital where a spokeswoman said she was in serious condition.

The shooting started around 3:30 p.m. It was not clear how long it lasted, but some shoppers and employees hid in fear for at least two hours as teams of police checked to see whether there might be another shooter.

Police and SWAT teams established a perimeter around the scene and worked to evacuate the mall as they searched for the gunman. Video footage from inside the mall, aired on CNN, showed shoppers heading toward exits with their arms raised above their heads.

Roberts said that police, assisted by agents from the FBI and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were still combing through the mall for evidence late on Tuesday night.

A mall spokeswoman directed calls to law enforcement authorities. Clackamas Town Center is one of the Portland area's biggest and busiest malls, with 185 stores and a 20-screen movie theater.

"My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families," Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber said in a statement released by his office. "I appreciate the work of the first responders and their quick reaction to this tragic shooting."

Man in Santa suit: 'Hit the floor'

The mall Santa was waiting for the next child's Christmas wish when shots rang out, causing the shopping mall to erupt into chaos.

About to invite a child to hop onto his lap, Brance Wilson instead dove for the floor and kept his head down as he heard shots being fired upstairs in the mall Tuesday afternoon.

"I heard two shots and got out of the chair. I thought a red suit was a pretty good target," said the 68-year-old Wilson. Families waiting for Santa scattered. More shots followed, and Wilson crept away for better cover.

Wilson was among hundreds of horrified people who ducked or ran for cover when a gunman, dressed in camouflage and a mask and possibly wearing body armor, fired dozens of rounds.

Kayla Sprint, 18, was interviewing for a job at a clothing store when she heard shots.

"We heard people running back here screaming, yelling '911,'" she told the AP.

Sprint barricaded herself in the store's back room until the coast was clear.

Jason DeCosta is a manager of a window-tinting company that has a display on the mall's ground floor. When he arrived to relieve his coworker, he heard shots ring out upstairs.

DeCosta ran up an escalator, past people who had dropped for cover and glass littering the floor.

"I figure if he's shooting a gun, he's gonna run out of bullets," DeCosta said, "and I'm gonna take him."

DeCosta said when he got to the food court, "I saw a gentleman face down, obviously shot in the head."

"A lot of blood," DeCosta said. "You could tell there was nothing you could do for him."

He said he also saw a woman on the floor who had been shot in the chest.

Austin Patty, 20, who works at Macy's, said he saw a man in a white mask carrying a rifle and wearing a bulletproof vest. There was a series of rapid-fire shots in short succession as Christmas music played. Patty said he dove for the floor and then ran.

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Best Space Pictures of 2012: Editor's Picks

Photograph courtesy Tunç Tezel, APOY/Royal Observatory

This image of the Milky Way's vast star fields hanging over a valley of human-made light was recognized in the 2012 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition run by the U.K.’s Royal Observatory Greenwich.

To get the shot, photographer Tunç Tezel trekked to Uludag National Park near his hometown of Bursa, Turkey. He intended to watch the moon and evening planets, then take in the Perseids meteor shower.

"We live in a spiral arm of the Milky Way, so when we gaze through the thickness of our galaxy, we see it as a band of dense star fields encircling the sky," said Marek Kukula, the Royal Observatory's public astronomer and a contest judge.

Full story>>

Why We Love It

"I like the way this view of the Milky Way also shows us a compelling foreground landscape. It also hints at the astronomy problems caused by light pollution."—Chris Combs, news photo editor

Published December 11, 2012

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Cops Have Identity of Gunman in Oregon Shooting

A masked gunman who opened fire in the crowded Clackamas Town Center mall in suburban Portland, Ore., killing two individuals and seriously injuring a third before killing himself, has been identified by police, though they have not yet released his name.

The shooter, wearing a white hockey mask, black clothing, and a bullet proof vest, tore through the mall around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, entering through a Macy's store and proceeding to the food court and public areas spraying bullets, according to witness reports.

"We have been able to identify the shooter over last night," Sheriff Craig Roberts told "Good Morning America" today.
"At this point in time, because of the investigation, we're actually doing supplemental search warrants, we're not able to release the name of the individual at point in time for the reason being that we don't want to jeopardize the investigation."

Police have not released the names of the two deceased. Clackamas County Sheriff's Department Lt. James Rhodes said authorities are in the process of notifying victims' families.

The injured victim has been transported to a local hospital, according to Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts.

PHOTOS: Oregon Mall Shooting

Nadia Telguz, who said she was a friend of the injured victim, told ABC News affiliate KATU-TV in Portland that the woman was expected to recover.

"My friend's sister got shot," Teleguz told KATU. "She's on her way to (Oregon Health and Science University hospital). They're saying she got shot in her side and so it's not life-threatening, so she'll be OK."

Christopher Onstott/Pamplen Media Group/Portland Tribune

911 Calls From New Jersey Supermarket Shooting Watch Video

Witnesses from the shooting rampage said that a young man who appeared to be a teenager ran through the upper level of Macy's to the mall food court, firing multiple shots, one right after the other, with what is believed to be a black, semi-automatic rifle.

More than 10,000 shoppers were at the mall during the day, police said. Roberts said that officers responded to the scene of the shooting within minutes, and four SWAT teams swept the 1.4 million-square-foot building searching for the shooter. He was eventually found dead, an apparent suicide.

"I can confirm the shooter is dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound," Rhodes said. "By all accounts there were no rounds fired by law enforcement today in the mall."

Roberts said more than 100 law enforcement officers responded to the shooting, and at least four local agencies were working on the investigation, including the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which is working to trace the shooter's weapon.

READ: Guns in America: A Statistical Look

"For all of us, the mall is supposed to be a place where we can take our families, especially during the holiday season," Roberts said. "Things like this are not supposed to happen."

Roberts also said that shoppers, including two emergency room nurses and one physician who happened to be at the mall, provided medical assistance to victims who had been shot. Other shoppers helped escort individuals out of the mall and out of harm's way, he said.

"There were a huge amount of people running in different directions, and it was chaos for a lot of citizens, but true heroes were stepping up in this time of high stress," Roberts said. "E.R. nurses on the scene were providing medical care to those injured, a physician on the scene was helping provide care to the wounded."

Mall shopper Daniel Martinez told KATU that he had just sat down at a Jamba Juice inside the mall when he heard rapid gunfire. He turned and saw the masked gunman, dressed in all black, about 10 feet away from him.

"I just saw him (the gunman) and thought, 'I need to go somewhere,'" Martinez said. "It was so fast, and at that time, everyone was moving around."

Martinez said he ran to the nearest clothing store. As he ran, he motioned for another woman to follow; several others ran to the store as well, hiding in a fitting room. They stayed there for an hour and a half until SWAT teams told them it was safe to leave the mall.

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AC/DC's Highway to Hell sent via a drone's laser beam

Paul Marks, senior technology correspondent


(Image: David Thorpe/Rex Features)

What is it about technology and Aussie rock band AC/DC? In July a computer hack led to the band's track Thunderstruck belting out at top volume in an Iranian nuclear power plant. Now AC/DC's signature hit Highway to Hell is riding on a laser beam that's being bounced off a drone in mid-flight. When the beam is reflected to a ground sensor the full glory of the music is reconstructed without a cymbal crash out of place.

Don't worry, it's not a new sonic weapon. To make drones lighter and and operate longer reconnaissance missions without refuelling, Yoann Thueux and colleagues at EADS Innovation Works in Newport, UK, eschew the heavy radio equipment and antennas used to beam acquired video back to base. Instead, they are developing a laser reflector called Dazzle that can simply add the drone's acquired video data to a laser beam bounced off the craft's belly by a tracking system up to 2 kilometres away.

After the laser beam enters the reflector, it passes through a transparent switch, called a light modulator, that adds the digital zeroes and ones of the video data to the beam. The light then hits a mirror and is reflected back to the spot it came from - carrying the video data. The tech will allow a speed boost to 1 gigabit per second - easily allowing faster delivery of HD video, which struggles to top 20 megabits per second with radio frequencies.

The reflector and its ground UAV tracking system began tests on a disused runway at a former Royal Air Force base in Pershore, UK, last week. The first test aimed to see if the system could simply reflect an encoded laser beam from a moving eight-rotor helicopter drone, the Okto from Mikrocopter of Germany.

Thueux thought Highway to Hell a great choice of data to stream on the laser. "It was on my iPod and I thought it would be a good song to go first because I know it completely by heart. I'd be the first to tell if the technology was not working properly on playback."

So what tunes might will fly are next? "I happen to be in a band, so maybe one of our tracks," says Thueux. "But a colleague is also suggesting Fly Me To The Moon."

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Malaysian customs seize record 24 tonnes of ivory

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian customs have seized 24 tonnes of unprocessed elephant tusks worth almost US$20 million, the largest haul in the country to date, officials said Tuesday.

Some 1,500 tusks hidden in two containers were discovered by customs officials at the country's main port of Klang, in the western state of Selangor.

The tusks had been hidden within pieces of timber inside the containers, which had originated from the west African nation of Togo.

State customs director Azis Yaacub said in a statement that the cargo had been transferred from one ship to another in Spain and was believed to be headed to China.

"The two containers were found to be filled with sawn timber. Inside the wood there were secret compartments that were filled with elephant tusks," he said.

The haul is worth 60 million ringgit, which amounts to US$19.6 million. Officials said that the seizure on December 7 was the fourth in the past year and was larger than the other three combined.

Wildlife trade-monitoring network TRAFFIC has described Malaysia as a major hub for illicit wildlife products.

International trade in elephant ivory was banned in 1990 with rare exceptions, such as auctions of tusks from elephants that have died naturally, or that have been seized from poachers in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.

However, the ivory trade has grown globally since 2004, largely due to demand in China, where it is used in traditional medicine.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, African elephant populations may have been as high as five million in the first part of the 20th century, but their numbers could now be as low as 470,000.

- AFP/ir

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Pilot, 2 nurses killed in medical helicopter crash

A medical helicopter crashed Monday night on its way to a hospital in Mendota, Ill., killing its three occupants, who were all crew members, officials said.

No patients were on board the flight.

The helicopter, which took off in Rockford, reportedly crashed about 8:30 p.m. in a field in the small town of Compton, near the city of Rochelle.

The helicopter was destroyed in the crash, according to the FAA.

It had been registered to Rockford Memorial Hospital.

The hospital identified the helicopter's occupants as pilot Andy Olson and flight nurses Jim Dillow and Karen Hollis.

"At Rockford Health System, our hearts are heavy," hospital spokesman Wester Wuori said in an early-morning news release. "We grieve the loss of three heroes who dedicated their careers to serving others."

On the hospital's Facebook page, hundreds of people, many of them paramedics and other emergency responders, offered their condolences to the victims' families.

Authorities established a staging area near the intersection of U.S. Route 30 and Illinois Route 251, a dispatcher with the Lee County Sheriff's Office said. The intersection lies between Rochelle and Mendota.

The National Transportation Safety Board will lead the investion into what caused the crash, according to the FAA.

The nurses and pilots who work in air ambulances are among the best trained in their fields, said Stephen Richey, a former flight respiratory therapist who lives in Indianapolis.

Pilots must be able to land on improvised landing sites on short notice, and the flight nurses on board often must deliver advance medical care to critically injured trauma patients.

The work draws those with years of experience and a deep commitment to helping patients, Richey said.

"You’ll never find a more dedicated group of professionals in your entire life," Richey said.

But medical flight crews also face daily risks. Richey became an aviation safety researcher after losing several friends in crashes, he said.

In October 2008, a medical helicopter crashed after striking a radio tower in Aurora, killing three crew members and a 1-year-old girl.

Check back for more information.

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U.K. Dash for Shale Gas a Test for Global Fracking

Thomas K. Grose in London

The starting gun has sounded for the United Kingdom's "dash for gas," as the media here have dubbed it.

As early as this week, a moratorium on shale gas production is expected to be lifted. And plans to streamline and speed the regulatory process through a new Office for Unconventional Gas and Oil were unveiled last week in the annual autumn budget statement by the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne.

In the U.K., where all underground mineral rights concerning fossil fuels belong to the crown, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could unlock a new stream of government revenue as well as fuel. But it also means that there is no natural constituency of fracking supporters as there is in the United States, birthplace of the technology. In the U.S., concerns over land and water impact have held back fracking in some places, like New York, but production has advanced rapidly in shale basins from Texas to Pennsylvania, with support of private landowners who earn royalties from leasing to gas companies. (Related: "Natural Gas Stirs Hope and Fear in Pennsylvania")

A taste of the fight ahead in the U.K. came ahead of Osborne's speech last weekend, when several hundred protesters gathered outside of Parliament with a mock 23-foot (7-meter) drilling rig. In a letter they delivered to Prime Minister David Cameron, they called fracking "an unpredictable, unregulatable process" that was potentially toxic to the environment.

Giving shale gas a green light "would be a costly mistake," said Andy Atkins, executive director of the U.K.'s Friends of the Earth, in a statement. "People up and down the U.K. will be rightly alarmed about being guinea pigs in Osborne's fracking experiment. It's unnecessary, unwanted and unsafe."

The government has countered that natural gas-fired power plants would produce half the carbon dioxide emissions of the coal plants that still provide about 30 percent of the U.K.'s electricity. London Mayor Boris Johnson, viewed as a potential future prime minister, weighed in Monday with a blistering cry for Britain to "get fracking" to boost cleaner, cheaper energy and jobs. "In their mad denunciations of fracking, the Greens and the eco-warriors betray the mindset of people who cannot bear a piece of unadulterated good news," he wrote in the Daily Telegraph. (Related Quiz: "What You Don't Know About Natural Gas")

Energy Secretary Edward Davey, who is expected this week to lift the U.K.'s year-and-a-half-old moratorium on shale gas exploration, said gas "will ensure we can keep the lights on as increasing amounts of wind and nuclear come online through the 2020s."

A Big Role for Gas

If the fracking plan advances, it will not be the first "dash for gas" in the U.K. In the 1980s, while Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher battled with mining unions, she undercut their clout by moving the nation toward generating a greater share of its electricity from natural gas and less from coal. So natural gas already is the largest electricity fuel in Britain, providing 40 percent of electricity. (Related Interactive: "World Electricity Mix")

The United Kingdom gets about 10 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, and has plans to expand its role. But Davey has stressed the usefulness of gas-fired plants long-term as a flexible backup source to the intermittent electricity generated from wind and solar power. Johnson, on the other hand, offered an acerbic critique of renewables, including the "satanic white mills" he said were popping up on Britain's landscape. "Wave power, solar power, biomass—their collective oomph wouldn't pull the skin off a rice pudding," he wrote.

As recently as 2000, Great Britain was self-sufficient in natural gas because of conventional gas production in the North Sea. But that source is quickly drying up. North Sea production peaked in 2000 at 1,260 terawatt-hours (TWH); last year it totaled just 526 TWh.

Because of the North Sea, the U.K. is still one of the world's top 20 producers of gas, accounting for 1.5 percent of total global production. But Britain has been a net importer of gas since 2004. Last year, gas imports—mainly from Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands—accounted for more than 40 percent of domestic demand.

The government hopes to revive domestic natural gas production with the technology that has transformed the energy picture in the United States—horizontal drilling into deep underground shale, and high-pressure injection of water, sand, and chemicals to create fissures in the rock to release the gas. (Related Interactive: "Breaking Fuel From the Rock")

A Tougher Road

But for a number of reasons, the political landscape is far different in the United Kingdom. Britain made a foray into shale gas early last year, with a will drilled near Blackpool in northwest England. The operator, Cuadrilla, said that that area alone could contain 200 trillion cubic feet of gas, which is more than the known reserves of Iraq. But the project was halted after drilling, by the company's own admission, caused two small earthquakes. (Related: "Tracing Links Between Fracking and Earthquakes" and "Report Links Energy Activities To Higher Quake Risk") The April 2011 incident triggered the moratorium that government now appears to be ready to lift. Cuadrilla has argued that modifications to its procedures would mitigate the seismic risk, including lower injection rates and lesser fluid and sand volumes. The company said it will abandon the U.K. unless the moratorium is soon lifted.

A few days ahead of Osborne's speech, the Independent newspaper reported that maps created for Britain's Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) showed that 32,000 square miles, or 64 percent of the U.K. countryside, could hold shale gas reserves and thus be open for exploration. But a DECC spokeswoman said "things are not quite what it [the Independent story] suggests." Theoretically, she said, those gas deposits do exist, but "it is too soon to predict the scale of exploration here." She said many other issues, ranging from local planning permission to environmental impact, would mean that some tracts would be off limits, no matter how much reserve they held. DECC has commissioned the British Geological Survey to map the extent of Britain's reserves.

Professor Paul Stevens, a fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said the U.K. is clearly interested in trying to replicate America's shale gas revolution. "That's an important part of the story," he said, but trying to use the American playbook won't be easy. "It's a totally different ballgame." In addition to the fact that mineral rights belong to the crown, large expanses of private land that are commonplace in America don't exist in England. Just as important, there is no oil- and gas-service industry in place in Britain to quickly begin shale gas operations here. "We don't have the infrastructure set up," said Richard Davies, director of the Durham Energy Institute at Durham University, adding that it would take years to build it.

Shale gas production would also likely ignite bigger and louder protests in the U.K. and Europe. "It's much more of a big deal in Europe," Stevens said. "There are more green [nongovernmental organizations] opposed to it, and a lot more local opposition."

In any case, the U.K. government plans to move ahead. Osborne said he'll soon begin consultations on possible tax breaks for the shale gas industry. He also announced that Britain would build up to 30 new natural gas-fired power plants with 26 gigawatts (GW) of capacity. The new gas plants would largely replace decommissioned coal and nuclear power plants, though they would ultimately add 5GW of additional power to the U.K. grid. The coalition government's plan, however, leaves open the possibility of increasing the amount of gas-generated electricity to 37GW, or around half of total U.K. demand.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that Europe may have as much as 600 trillion cubic feet of shale gas that could be recovered. But Stevens said no European country is ready to emulate the United States in producing massive amounts of unconventional gas. They all lack the necessary service industry, he said, and geological differences will require different technologies. And governments aren't funding the research and development needed to develop them.

Globally, the track record for efforts to produce shale gas is mixed:

  • In France, the EIA's estimate is that shale gas reserves total 5 trillion cubic meters, or enough to fuel the country for 90 years. But in September, President Francois Hollande pledged to continue a ban on fracking imposed last year by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
  • Poland was also thought to have rich shale gas resources, but initial explorations have determined that original estimates of the country's reserves were overstated by 80 percent to 90 percent. After drilling two exploratory wells there, Exxon Mobil stopped operations. But because of its dependence on Russian gas, Poland is still keen to begin shale gas production.
  • South Africa removed a ban on fracking earlier this year. Developers are eyeing large shale gas reserves believed to underlie the semidesert Karoo between Johannesburg and Cape Town.
  • Canada's Quebec Province has had a moratorium on shale gas exploration and production, but a U.S. drilling company last month filed a notice of intent to sue to overturn the ban as a violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
  • Germany's Environment Ministry has backed a call to ban fracking near drinking water reservoirs.
  • China drilled its initial shale gas wells this year; by 2020, the nation's goal is for shale gas to provide 6 percent of its massive energy needs. The U.S. government's preliminary assessment is that China has the world's largest "technically recoverable" shale resources, about 50 percent larger than stores in the United States. (Related: "China Drills Into Shale Gas, Targeting Huge Reserves")

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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Closing Tax Loopholes Not Enough to Avert 'Cliff'?

Closing "corporate tax loopholes" sure sounds good to the average, non-corporate American -- so good, in fact, that politicians talk about it all the time.

House Speaker John Boehner's fiscal-cliff proposal purports to raise $1.6 trillion in revenue by "clos[ing] special-interest loopholes and deductions while lowering rates."

The White House, meanwhile, has complained that Boehner hasn't offered specific loopholes to cut.

On the other side of the aisle, House Democrats have repeatedly offered up "closing overseas tax loopholes" as a means to pay for spending bills -- a plan Republicans routinely reject. In the last two and a half years, President Obama has often been heard griping about writeoffs for corporate jets.

For both Republicans and Democrats, "corporate tax loopholes" are an old saw. But, like most things in politics, raising revenue from "loopholes" gets a bit stickier when the specifics are hashed out.

A misconception about tax "loopholes," some experts say, is that they're loopholes -- gaps in the tax law that corporations have exploited against the law's intent.

Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo; Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

Fiscal Cliff Battle: President Obama vs. Speaker John Boehner Watch Video

"Most of these proposals were not 'loopholes,' these were incentives," said Eric Toder, co-director of the left-leaning Tax Policy Center.

For example, take the research-and-development tax credit. During the campaign, both Obama and Mitt Romney suggested making it permanent.

"One wouldn't call the research credit a loophole," Toder said.

Cashing in by closing the biggest "loopholes" could be a politically fraught endeavor. To generate meaningful revenue, House Republicans would have to sign off on measures that raised it from taxing the overseas profits of multinational corporations, from ending immediate writeoffs of equipment purchases, or from ending a credit for domestic manufacturing.

When the Joint Committee on Taxation scored some of these provisions, as part of a tax-reform bill pushed by Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and then-GOP-senator Judd Gregg, it found the government could save significantly:

Savings Over 10 Years: 2011-2021

Taxing Overseas Profits of Multinational Corps: $582.7 billion. In other words, the "overseas tax loophole" Democrats are fond of trashing. While most countries with large economies tax only profits made at home, the U.S. code taxes all income everywhere. To offset the different, U.S. multinational corporations receive credits to prevent double taxing. They also can defer paying any tax on foreign income, until they transfer the money back to the United States.

Taxing that profit could generate significant revenue. But this could be controversial, and large corporations would fight it. A senior aide to one business lobbying group said ending foreign-income deferral would amount to double-taxing U.S. companies and put them at a disadvantage to foreign competitors; one supporter of ending deferral suggested U.S. companies have been able to hide profits overseas, avoiding taxes altogether.

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Morsi gives Egypt army police powers before referendum

CAIRO: President Mohamed Morsi has ordered Egypt's army to take on police powers from Monday -- including the right to arrest civilians -- in the run-up to a divisive constitutional referendum that has triggered mass street protests.

The decree, published in the government gazette, takes effect on the eve of mass rival protests on the referendum and follows street clashes that have left seven people dead and hundreds injured.

It orders the military to fully cooperate with police "to preserve security and protect vital state institutions for a temporary period, up to the announce of the results from the referendum," according to a copy obtained by AFP.

The military, which ruled Egypt between the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the election of Morsi in June this year, has sought to remain neutral in the political crisis.

It has warned it "will not allow" the situation to deteriorate, and urged both sides to dialogue.

Army tanks and troops have since Thursday deployed around Morsi's presidential palace but they have not confronted thousands of protesters who have gathered there every night.

The opposition, made up of secular, liberal, leftwing and Christian groups, has said it will escalate its protests to scupper the referendum.

It views the draft constitution, largely drafted by Morsi's Islamist allies, as undermining human rights, the rights of women, religious minorities, and curtailing the independence of the judiciary.

Morsi, though, has defiantly pushed on with the new charter, seeing it as necessary to secure democratic reform in the wake of Mubarak's 30-year autocratic rule.

Late Sunday, the main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, called for huge protests in Cairo to reject the December 15 referendum.

It dismissed a key concession Morsi made rescinding another decree giving himself near-absolute powers as too late, saying he had already used it to railroad through the draft constitution.

"We do not recognise the draft constitution because it does not represent the Egyptian people," National Salvation Front spokesman Sameh Ashour told a news conference.

Going ahead with the referendum "in this explosive situation with the threat of the Brothers' militias amounts to the regime abandoning its responsibilities," he said.

In recent days, the protesters have hardened their slogans, going beyond criticism of the decree and the referendum to demand Morsi's ouster.

The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, shot back that it and allied Islamist movements would counter with their own big rallies in the capital in support of the referendum.

"We are calling for a demonstration Tuesday, under the slogan 'Yes to legitimacy'," the Brotherhood's spokesman, Mahmud Ghozlan, told AFP.

Morsi's camp argues it is up to the people to accept or reject the draft constitution.

If the charter is rejected, Morsi has promised to have a new one drawn up by 100 officials chosen directly by the public rather than appointed by the Islamist-dominated parliament.

But analysts said still-strong public support for Morsi, and the Brotherhood's proven ability to mobilise the grassroots level, would likely help the draft constitution be adopted.

"The Muslim Brotherhood believes that it has majority support so it can win the constitutional referendum," said Eric Trager, analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

If that happens, he warned, it would "set up the country for prolonged instability".

- AFP/ir

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