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Science News

Element 113 at Last?

Japanese researchers claim success in creating a third atom of the element, after nine years of searching
Is it in there? Researchers at RIKEN in Japan claim conclusive proof that they have created element 113.By Richard Van Noorden

 After nine years of painstaking experiment, researchers in Japan reported yesterday that they have created a third atom of the element 113. That success, according to experts in the field, could see the element officially added to the periodic table. It would be the first artificial element to be discovered in East Asia, potentially giving the Japanese team the right to name it.

But that privilege is not assured. US and Russian researchers have also been hard at work on element 113, and say that they have created 56 atoms of it since 2003.

None of these sightings has been confirmed by the independent committee of experts appointed to rule on such matters. That shows how hard it is to prove the creation of new superheavy elements, although it also highlights the bureaucratic nature of the process set up to approve findings.

A Place Where Science and Science Fiction Can Be of One Mind

Center for Science and the ImaginationBy JOHN MARKOFF

As befits a meeting ground for scientists and science fiction writers, the new Center for Science and the Imagination grew out of happenstance: a chance meeting last year between the novelist Neal Stephenson and Arizona State University’s president, Michael M. Crow.

Onstage at a technology conference in Washington, Mr. Stephenson was bemoaning the rash of dystopian visions of the future being generated by science fiction writers. (Mr. Stephenson, of course, was a founding author of the dark sci-fi genre known as cyberpunk.)

He also complained that the ambitious science and technology endeavors of the 1960s had become a thing of the past, and argued that American society had lost the vision to make great leaps into the future.

Afterward, Dr. Crow pushed back, saying the fault lay at least in part with the makers and fans of science fiction — for not thinking more ambitiously and optimistically about the future.

Back at Arizona State, Dr. Crow took steps to establish the new center with funds from the president’s office. It was inaugurated on Monday in Tempe.

Scientists face four years in prison for failing to predict earthquake

April 6, 2009: An aerial photo provided by the Italian Police shows the debris of a collapsed building in an area near L'Aquila, central Italy, after a powerful earthquake shook central Italy. (AP Photo/Italian Police)By Stephanie Pappas

Six Italian scientists and one government official could see four-year prison terms for manslaughter for allegedly downplaying the risk of an earthquake in the town of L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009.

According to prosecutors, the six researchers and the Department of Civil Protection downplayed the likelihood that a series of tremors that hit the city in early 2009 were foreshadowing a larger quake. On April 6, 2009, a magnitude-6.3 earthquake killed 309 city residents.

The trial, which began about a year ago, has worried scientists, who point out that earthquake prediction is not possible. But prosecutors insist that the trial is not about predicting the unpredictable, according to Nature News. During closing arguments on Monday and Tuesday (Sept. 24-25), the prosecution assistant told the courtroom that instead, the scientists and officials had inadequately assessed the risk of a quake and given deceptive information to the public. The prosecution is asking for four-year prison terms for the accused.

Lightning Still Largely a Mystery

Multiple cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning strokes during a night-time thunderstorm.By Natalie Wolchover

Some 44,000 thunderstorms rage worldwide each day, delivering as many as 100 lightning bolts to the ground every second. These dramatic, deafening flashes of electricity recharge the global battery by keeping the ground flush with negative electric charge and maintaining the ionosphere's positive charge. Lightning turns the Earth into an electric circuit, and it may have even delivered the spark that got life started in the primordial soup.

But for all we know, lightning might as well come from Zeus. Counting Ben Franklin's kite-and-key experiment as the starting point, 250 years of scientific investigation have yet to get to grips with how lightning works.

Atmospheric scientists have a basic sketch of the process. Positive electric charges build up at the tops of thunderclouds and negative charges build up at the bottoms (except for perplexing patches of positive charges often detected in the center-bottom). Electrical attraction between these opposite charges, and between the negative charges at the bottom of the cloud and positive charges that accumulate on the ground below, eventually grow strong enough to overcome the air's resistance to electrical flow.

Technology News

Electronics That Vanish in the Environment or the Body

A biodegradable integrated circuit during dissolution in water. (Credit: Beckman Institute, University of Illinois and Tufts University)University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

ScienceDaily (Sep. 27, 2012) — Physicians and environmentalists alike could soon be using a new class of electronic devices: small, robust and high performance, yet also biocompatible and capable of dissolving completely in water -- or in bodily fluids.

Researchers at the University of Illinois, in collaboration with Tufts University and Northwestern University, have demonstrated a new type of biodegradable electronics technology that could introduce new design paradigms for medical implants, environmental monitors and consumer devices.

"We refer to this type of technology as transient electronics," said John A. Rogers, the Lee J. Flory-Founder Professor of Engineering at the U. of I., who led the multidisciplinary research team. "From the earliest days of the electronics industry, a key design goal has been to build devices that last forever -- with completely stable performance. But if you think about the opposite possibility -- devices that are engineered to physically disappear in a controlled and programmed manner -- then other, completely different kinds of application opportunities open up."

Android Embraces, iPhone 5 Passes on Near-Field Communication Data Sharing

Conspicuously absent on the iPhone 5, near-field communication (NFC) enables smart phones to share purchasing and security data with a tap--a feature that has surged on the Android platform
NEAR FIELD COMMUNICATION (NFC): As phone-makers, retailers and credit card companies work out the feasibility of NFC as a gateway to facilitating commerce, others want smart phones that can function like the badges that many people swipe en route to their offices every morning.By Larry Greenemeier

The map rift with Google may not be Apple's biggest misstep with the iPhone 5. Instead, it might be the company's decision to exclude near-field communication (NFC). Most major smart phone–makers—including Samsung, Nokia and HTC—are backing the technology for its ability to turn their devices into mobile wallets, with which users can make purchases and digitally store boarding passes and coupons. As phone-makers, retailers and credit card companies work out the feasibility of NFC as a gateway to facilitating commerce, others see the technology as opening doors—literally.

NFC-enabled smart phones can function like the badges that many people swipe en route to their offices every morning. A key difference between NFC and the radio-frequency chips embedded in employee ID badges is NFC's two-way communication capability, making it a more versatile tool for security.

Two companies are testing how NFC might improve employee access to their facilities: Good Technology, which sells mobile data security software, and Netflix, the subscription-based entertainment content provider. The California-based companies recently wrapped up several-week-long pilot programs with HID Global, a provider of ID security technology, to see whether it makes sense to replace employee building-access photo badges and key fobs with NFC-enabled smart phones. A small sample of employees received Samsung GALAXY S III handsets loaded with an app that automatically confirmed their identities at NFC-enabled security checkpoints.

Facebook Cracks Down On Fake Likes, Accounts

Image Credit: Max Griboedov / ShutterstockMichael Harper for

When is a “Like” on Facebook not one? When it’s tied to a robot.

Now a publicly held company, Facebook has to look beyond their hooded sweatshirts and begin acting like a real company, making real dollars and cents and convincing other, real companies to do business with them. So, when businesses and news organizations began to notice that not all that glimmers is gold when it comes to these virtual thumbs ups, many waited to see what the social goliath would do about it. Facebook is now taking steps to remove these fake likes as they crack down on who is allowed to do what on their service. As a result, some companies are seeing their likes quickly diminish, revealing just how many really real likes they had to begin with.

In an August 31st blog post, the Facebook Security team announced plans to toughen their automatic efforts to remove any likes they say were gained “by means that violate…Facebook terms.”

“On average, less than 1% of Likes on any given Page will be removed, providing they and their affiliates have been abiding by our terms,” said Facebook in their blog.

“These newly improved automated efforts will remove those Likes gained by malware, compromised accounts, deceived users, or purchased bulk Likes. While we have always had dedicated protections against each of these threats on Facebook, these improved systems have been specifically configured to identify and take action against suspicious Likes.”

Angry Birds Spin-Off Released: Bad Piggies Get Their Revenge

Image Credit: RovioJohn Neumann for

Fans of Angry Birds are loyal and are always looking to kill more imaginary pigs with each swipe of the slingshot. But have you considered the feelings of the green piggies? Well now you can. Rovio has released its long-awaited spin-off game called Bad Piggies and it follows the porcine plunderers around Piggy Island as you help them build vehicles that allow them to steal eggs, reports NDTV Gadgets.

Head of Game Developing at Rovio, Petri Jarvilehto, promised a unique gaming experience. “It’s an entirely new, completely unique game play experience. We’ve approached game play this time around from a very different angle. Angry Birds games are essentially like you’re shooting birds with a sling shot and the way we see the birds destroy things whereas the pigs they are the builders.”

“So this is a game that’s completely based around the concept of the pigs building things – they see delicious eggs and start heading that way and start building all kinds of devices to reach their goal,” he said.

Bad Piggies will include more than 60 levels, as well as future free updates that makes Angry Bird fans continue their excitement of the game promising hours of “pig-crashing, exploding, and flying fun,” Rovio said. Fans will be able to unlock an additional 30 levels by getting three stars, and there are four “sandbox” levels that let players “stretch their creativity to the utmost,” writes Angela Moscaritolo for PC Mag.

Environmental News

New Clues About Ancient Water Cycles Shed Light On U.S. Deserts

Monument Valley, Utah. (Credit: (c) Beboy / Fotolia)Texas A&M University

ScienceDaily (Sep. 27, 2012) — The deserts of Utah and Nevada have not always been dry. Between 14,000 and 20,000 years ago, when large ice caps covered Canada during the last glacial cooling, valleys throughout the desert southwest filled with water to become large lakes, scientists have long surmised. At their maximum size, the desert lakes covered about a quarter of both Nevada and Utah. Now a team led by a Texas A&M University researcher has found a new water cycle connection between the U.S. southwest and the tropics, and understanding the processes that have brought precipitation to the western U.S. will help scientists better understand how the water cycle might be perturbed in the future.

Mitch Lyle, professor of oceanography, led the study with colleagues from Columbia University, University of California-Santa Cruz, Stanford University, Hokkaido University of Japan, Brown University and the U.S. Geological Survey. Their work, funded by the National Science Foundation, is published in the current issue of Science magazine.

The dry shorelines of these glacial lakes were first discovered by 19th century geologists when the west was first explored, Lyle explains, adding that the source of the additional water has been a mystery. By assembling data from ocean sediments and from dry western valleys collected over the last 30 years, Lyle and the team found a new water cycle connection between the southwest U.S. and the tropics.

Ocean Acidification Can Mess with a Fish's Mind

In more acidic waters clown fish wander too far from safety, sea snails fail to avoid prey
Photo of clownfish hiding in reefBy Mark Fischetti

 Monterey, Calif.—Mental problems at sea? Fish and mollusks could begin to have them—thanks to rising CO2 levels. Some of the resulting behaviors are odd, some compromising, and they reveal just how fundamentally carbon emissions are affecting our increasingly fragile Earth.

As humans emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more of the gas is absorbed by the oceans, gradually making the water more acidic. Numerous studies in recent years have documented how lower pH (higher acidity) can make it harder for shellfish and tiny organisms to form shells or internal skeletons and to reproduce. The acidity often forces the organisms to expend extra energy to counteract ill effects on their metabolisms as well. But now scientists are finding that lower pH can also mess with ocean animals' minds.

Small clown fish (yes, Nemo), for example, normally stay extremely close to the coral in which they spend their entire lives. But as the water becomes increasingly acidic—as in various recent experiments—they tend to wander farther and farther from home. This uncharacteristic "boldness" is not necessarily a good trait because the farther they swim, the more likely they are to get eaten by predators. Greater acidity also "impairs their ability to discriminate between the smell of kin and not, and of predators and not," according Philip Munday, a professor and research fellow at the Coral Reef Studies center at James Cook University in Australia, who conducted the experiments and presented results at a symposium here this week called The Ocean in a High-CO2 World.

Climate Change May Be Blamed For Millions Of Deaths By 2030

Image Credit: Photos.comApril Flowers for

A new report, conducted by humanitarian organization DARA, claims that over 100 million people will die and global economic growth will be cut by 3.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030 if the world fails to deal with climate change.

Greenhouse gas emissions are causing global average temperatures to rise, causing planetary effects such as melting ice caps, extreme weather, drought and rising sea levels. These threaten populations and livelihoods.

The report calculated that five million deaths a year occur from air pollution, hunger and disease as a result of climate change and carbon-intensive economies. That toll is expected to rise to six million a year by 2030 if the current patterns of fossil fuel use continue.

Developing countries will feel the hit the hardest. More than 90 percent of projected deaths will occur in these countries, states the report commissioned by Climate Vulnerable Forum.

“A combined climate-carbon crisis is estimated to claim 100 million lives between now and the end of the next decade,” the report said.

The report also claims that the effects of climate change have lowered global output by 1.6 percent of world GDP, or by about $1.2 trillion a year. Losses could double to 3.2 percent of global GDP by 2030 if temperatures are allowed to continue to rise. The cost of changing the world to a low-carbon society is estimated at about 0.5 percent of GPD this decade.

Turbines Ready for Takeoff

Makani Airborne Wind TurbineBrian Clark Howard

Like the wing of a propeller plane without a cockpit, a Makani Airborne Wind Turbine stirs the air in a California field where it is being tested to capture high-altitude wind power.

Anyone who has climbed a mountain, a tower, or even a tall tree knows that winds get stronger at greater heights. There's less drag resistance from objects on the ground. That's why wind energy prospectors typically weld their expensive turbines to high towers, because the most important factor in power production is how fast the wind blows past the blades.

But what if turbines could reel in the power whirling above the reach of those tall towers?

Airborne wind energy pioneers, from North America to Italy and Australia, aim to find out. The technology is still in its infancy, although Makani's system—pictured above—has received notable backing from Google's philanthropic arm and the U.S. government. The concept also gained support in a new study published September 9 in the journal Nature Climate Change, which focused on the steady, fast high-altitude currents, and concluded that there's enough power in Earth's winds to be a primary source of near-zero-emission electric power as the global economy continues to grow through the 21st century.

Medical News

Dioxin Causes Disease and Reproductive Problems Across Generations, Study Finds

Even if all the dioxin were eliminated from the planet, researchers say its legacy will live on in the way it turns genes on and off in the descendants of people exposed over the past half century. (Credit: iStockphoto/Dmitry Oshchepkov)Washington State University

ScienceDaily (Sep. 26, 2012) — Since the 1960s, when the defoliant Agent Orange was widely used in Vietnam, military, industry and environmental groups have debated the toxicity of one of its ingredients, the chemical dioxin, and how it should be regulated.

But even if all the dioxin were eliminated from the planet, Washington State University researchers say its legacy would live on in the way it turns genes on and off in the descendants of people exposed over the past half century.

Writing in the journal PLoS ONE, biologist Michael Skinner and members of his lab say dioxin administered to pregnant rats resulted in a variety of reproductive problems and disease in subsequent generations. The first generation of rats had prostate disease, polycystic ovarian disease and fewer ovarian follicles, the structures that contain eggs. To the surprise of Skinner and his colleagues, the third generation had even more dramatic incidences of ovarian disease and, in males, kidney disease.

"Therefore, it is not just the individuals exposed, but potentially the great-grandchildren that may experience increased adult-onset disease susceptibility," says Skinner.

Cyborg Surgeon: Hand and Technology Combine in New Surgical Tool That Enables Superhuman Precision

The CAD model and prototype of the fiber-optic-sensor-based microsurgical tool, SMART. (Credit: Courtesy Cheol Song, Johns Hopkins University.)Optical Society of America

ScienceDaily (Sep. 27, 2012) — Even the most skilled and steady surgeons experience minute, almost imperceptible hand tremors when performing delicate tasks. Normally, these tiny motions are inconsequential, but for doctors specializing in fine-scale surgery, such as operating inside the human eye or repairing microscopic nerve fibers, freehand tremors can pose a serious risk for patients.

By harnessing a specialized optical fiber sensor, a new "smart" surgical tool can compensate for this unwanted movement by making hundreds of precise position corrections each second -- fast enough to keep the surgeon's hand on target. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md., have combined the Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) imaging technique as a distance sensor with computer-controlled piezoelectric motors to actively stabilize the tip of a surgical tool.

A paper describing their new device, named SMART (Smart Micromanipulation Aided Robotic-surgical Tool), was published September 27 in the Optical Society's (OSA) open-access journal Optics Express.

Open Season on Salt: What the Science on Hypertension Really Shows

Shedding pounds may be a better way to promote cardiovascular health than avoiding the saltshaker
Image: Flickr/reallyboringBy Melinda Wenner Moyer

The latest news reports about salt are enough to make a parent ponder a household ban on pizza and cold cuts. A study published last week in Pediatrics found that children eat, on average, 3.4 grams of sodium daily—more than twice the amount recommended for adults by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). News outlets, including the Associated Press and USA Today, explained that, according to the study, the quarter of American kids who eat the most sodium are twice to three times as likely to develop high blood pressure as the quarter who eat the least. The take-home message from these stories is clear: kids need to cut down on salt or they will suffer serious health consequences.

It's a compelling argument. Problem is, it may be wrong.

The study that these articles reference, which was published by researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), did not actually find a statistically significant association between salt intake and blood pressure in kids. And the doubling or tripling of risk described by some outlets isn't an accurate portrayal of the findings either. As lead author Quanhe Yang explained to Scientific American in an interview, high salt intake doubles the odds that kids have hypertension or pre-hypertension (and again, this doubling is not statistically significant), but odds and risk are two very different things. "I am not sure the best way to convert this odds ratio into a risk ratio," Yang says, but if he had to guess, the risk would probably be lower than the odds.

Sugar Molecule Helps Egg Capture Sperm

Study identifies sugar molecule that makes outer coat of the egg 'sticky,' enabling the sperm and egg to bind together
Shutting things downNational Science Foundation

The research identifies the sugar molecule that makes the outer coat of the egg 'sticky', which is vital for enabling the sperm and egg to bind together. Researchers across the world have been trying to understand what performs this task for over thirty years.

The scientists behind this study believe their work could help address some of the previously unexplained causes of human infertility and sub-fertility and be very useful for diagnosing this problem in couples who are unable to have children. It could also provide a new target for the development of natural contraceptive agents.

The international team, from the University of Missouri, the University of Hong Kong, Academia Sinica in Taiwan and Imperial College London, discovered that the sugar chain known as the sialyl-lewis-x sequence (SLeX) is highly abundant on the surface of the human egg. After experimenting with a range of synthesised sugars in the laboratory they went on to show that SLeX specifically binds sperm to an egg, and tested their findings using the outer coats of unfertilised 'non-living' human eggs.

Space News

Pluto/Charon Poses for Sharpest Ground-Based Images Ever

Speckle image reconstruction of Pluto and Charon obtained in visible light at 692 nanometers (red) with the Gemini North 8-meter telescope using the Differential Speckle Survey Instrument (DSSI). Resolution of the image is about 20 milliarcseconds rms (root mean square). This is the first speckle reconstructed image for Pluto and Charon from which astronomers obtained not only the separation and position angle for Charon, but also the diameters of the two bodies. North is up, east is to the left, and the image section shown here is 1.39 arcseconds across. (Credit: Gemini Observatory/NSF/NASA/AURA)Gemini Observatory

ScienceDaily (Sep. 26, 2012) — Despite being infamously demoted from its status as a major planet, Pluto (and its largest companion Charon) recently posed as a surrogate extrasolar planetary system to help astronomers produce exceptionally high-resolution images with the Gemini North 8-meter telescope. Using a method called reconstructive speckle imaging, the researchers took the sharpest ground-based snapshots ever obtained of Pluto and Charon in visible light, which hint at the exoplanet verification power of a large state-of-the-art telescope when combined with speckle imaging techniques.

The data also verified and refined previous orbital characteristics for Pluto and Charon while revealing the pair's precise diameters.

"The Pluto-Charon result is of timely interest to those of us wanting to understand the orbital dynamics of this pair for the 2015 encounter by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft," said Steve Howell of the NASA Ames Research Center, who led the study. In addition, Howell notes that NASA's Kepler mission, which has already proven a powerful exoplanet discovery tool, will benefit greatly from this technique.

Astronomers Measure Black Hole Radius For The First Time

Image Credit: igartist / ShutterstockLee Rannals for

An international team of astronomers was able to measure the radius of a black hole for the first time.

Researchers measured the radius of a black hole at the center of the galaxy M87, which lies about 50 million light-years away from the Milky Way.

M87 has a black hole 6 billion times more massive than the Sun, and the team was able to observe the glow of matter near the edge of the black hole, or the “event horizon,” using radio dishes in Hawaii, Arizona and California.

These radio dishes created a telescope array known as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) that can depict details 2,000 times finer than what is visible to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Shep Doeleman, assistant director at the MIT Haystack Observatory and research associate at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, said the event horizon is like an exit door from our universe, which once you walk through, “you’re not coming back.”

At the edge of a black hole, the gravitational force is so strong that it pulls in everything from its surroundings. However, not everything is able to cross the event horizon to squeeze into the black hole, which results in gas and dust build up. This creates a flat pancake of matter known as an accretion disk.

Soil Heat Shield Concept Passes Arc Jet Testing

An artist's concept of a spacecraft using a heat shield made from the soil of another world, called regolith. (Credit: NASA)NASA

ScienceDaily (Sep. 27, 2012) — Arc jet testing under intense temperatures and pressures showed that heat shields made from the soil of other worlds will stand up to the conditions they would encounter plunging through Earth's atmosphere, researchers said this week.

Michael Hogue, a researcher at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, led a team of engineers as they exposed samples of heat shield materials to an intense plasma wind known as an arc jet at Ames research Center earlier this week. The 2-inch by 4-inch shaped blocks were made from different mixtures of soil simulating lunar and Martian regolith.

The scientists recorded no burn-through or uneven erosion of the surface on any of the samples through a series of progressively higher energy levels, Hogue said.

The test results mean the idea of making heat shields out of the soils, or regolith, of other planets and moons remains feasible, Hogue said.

Mars Rover Finds Bed of Ancient Flowing Stream

Mars-streamAnalysis by Irene Klotz

Scratch water off NASA's Mars rover Curiosity's list of things to find in a two-year quest to learn if the planet most like Earth in the solar system could have supported microbial life.

Less than two months after touching down inside a giant impact basin near the planet's equator, Curiosity has returned clear evidence of flowing water, scientists told reporters during a conference call Thursday.

The proof comes from analysis of pictures of a jagged slab of rock taken with a telephoto camera on the rover's mast.

The rock, which resembles a jackhammered chunk of broken sidewalk, is flecked with rounded pieces of gravel -- too big to have been carried by Martian winds.

Instead, Curiosity scientists are quite sure the gravel was deposited by a vigorously flowing stream, one that was between ankle- and knee-deep and likely flowed for thousands or even millions of years.

"We have now discovered evidence for water," said lead scientist John Grotzinger. "This makes a great starting point for us to do more sophisticated studies."

Odd News

Buddhist "Iron Man" Found by Nazis Is from Space

Known as the "iron man," a 24-centimeter-high sculpture was likely created from a piece of the Chinga meteorite that was strewn across the border region between Russia and Mongolia between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago
Image: Elmar BuchnerBy Daniel Cressey and Nature News Blog

A Buddhist statue brought to Germany from Tibet by a Nazi-backed expedition has been confirmed as having an extraterrestrial origin.

Known as the "iron man," the 24-cm high sculpture may represent the god Vaiśravaṇa and was likely created from a piece of the Chinga meteorite that was strewn across the border region between Russia and Mongolia between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago, according to Elmar Buchner of the University of Stuttgart, and his colleagues.

In a paper published in Metoritics & Planetary Science, the team reports their analysis of the iron, nickel, cobalt and trace elements of a sample from the statue, as well as its structure. They found that the geochemistry of the artifact is a match for values known from fragments of the Chinga meteorite. The piece turned into the iron man would be the third largest known from that fall.

Given the extreme hardness of the meteorite – "basically an inappropriate material for producing sculptures" the paper notes – the artist or artists who created it may have known their material was special, the researchers say. Buchner suggests it could have been produced by the 11th century Ben culture but the exact origin and age of the statue – as opposed to the meteorite it is made from – is still unknown. It is thought to have been brought to Germany by a Nazi-backed expedition to Tibet in 1938-39. The swastika symbol on the piece – a version of which was adopted by the Nazi party – may have encouraged the 1938 expedition to take it back with them.

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