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Polar bears have seen hard times

Two genetic studies extend the Arctic icon’s lineage way back
Credit: Sergey Uryadnikov/ShutterstockBy Susan Milius

The polar bear, furry face of wildlife at risk from climate change, now looks as if it may have been around long enough to have survived past warm spells. Just how long remains to be seen, but two genetic studies published this year push the species’ origins back beyond the start of the most recent ice age.

That’s a big rewrite of polar bear history that has people thinking about the bears’ future; even if the bears survived several past warm periods, that’s no guarantee they will survive this one.

Until the genetic analyses this year, polar bears’ history as a species was thought to be short. A fossil jawbone and tooth from Norway, the oldest well-documented polar bear remnants, date back only 110,000 to 130,000 years. And preliminary genetic studies by Charlotte Lindqvist of the University at Buffalo and her colleagues traced the female polar bear line back only about 150,000 years to a junction with the brown bear lineage.

If polar bears had really evolved as a species that quickly, it would be “a miracle of rapid adaptation,” says evolutionary biologist Frank Hailer of the Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Frankfurt.

But this year, two independent teams (one including Hailer, the other with Lindqvist) got the first good look at DNA from the nuclei of polar bear cells. Lindqvist’s previous estimate had come from DNA in mitochondria, which traces only the maternal lineage.

Antarctic subglacial drilling effort suspended

British team calls off campaign to penetrate Lake Ellsworth
Technicians guide a hot-water drill down a borehole into the ice above Lake Ellsworth. The project was halted when two such boreholes could not be connected properly 300 meters deep.By Alexandra Witze

One of three major efforts to drill into buried Antarctic lakes has ended without success. A British-led project to plumb the subglacial Lake Ellsworth ground to a halt on Christmas Eve, after the team could not properly connect two portions of the drilling system.

Scientists had hoped to penetrate 3 kilometers of ice to reach the lake, where they would sample the pristine water for signs of life. Researchers hope that studying some of Antarctica’s hundreds of subglacial lakes will offer clues to whether ice-covered planets and moons could also support life.  

But after drilling two boreholes next to one another, each to 300 meters deep, engineers could not connect the two underground cavities that were meant to recirculate drilling water to the surface and keep it from contaminating the lake below.

Man the martial artist

The human hand evolved partly as a tool for fighting, researchers argue
A human hand (right) has shorter fingers, a shorter palm and a longer, stronger thumb than a chimpanzee hand (left). These hand proportions, which allow humans to make a fist, may have evolved in response to fistfighting, a new study suggests.By Erin Wayman

Ancient rumbles in the jungle might have left a lasting mark on the human hand.

The hand’s proportions are such that clenching the fingers creates an effective bludgeon, a pair of researchers observes. Perhaps, they propose online December 19 in the Journal of Experimental Biology, evolution played a role in making the hand such a punishing weapon.

But other scientists are skeptical. “There’s no compelling evidence that the hand evolved in this way,” says Mary Marzke, a physical anthropologist at Arizona State University in Tempe. It’s more likely that the ability to throw a good punch was just a lucky (or unlucky) consequence of evolving nimble hands suited to making and using tools.

Humans have shorter fingers, a shorter palm and a longer, stronger thumb than other apes. These features give the human hand unparalleled dexterity, and most anthropologists agree these characteristics evolved as early human ancestors began making stone tools.

Monkey Brain Area Keeps Count of Kindnesses

The primates have an altruistic 'tally chart' that keeps track of social rewards and gifts
Monkeys can be kind to their neighbors - and they have a specific brain region which appears to record their good deeds.By Becky Summers and Nature magazine

Monkeys might not be known for their generosity, but when they do seem to act selflessly, a specific area in their brains keeps track of these kindnesses.

The discovery of this neuronal tally chart may help scientists to understand the neural mechanisms underlying normal social behavior in primates and humans, and might even provide insight into disorders such as autism, in which social processing is disrupted.

Steve Chang and his colleagues from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, used electrodes to directly record neuronal activity in three areas of the brain prefrontal cortex that are known to be involved in social decision-making, while monkeys performed reward-related tasks.

When given the option either to drink juice from a tube themselves or to give the juice away to a neighbor, the test monkeys would mostly keep the drink. But when the choice was between giving the juice to the neighbor or neither monkey receiving it, the choosing monkey would frequently opt to give the drink to the other monkey.

Technology News

Apple rumor watch: iOS timepiece on drawing board?

Never mind the Nano doing double duty. New scuttlebutt out of China suggests that Apple is teaming up with Intel to fashion a bona fide iOS-based watch.
Is Apple eyeing an iWatch?by Lance Whitney

After creating the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, is Apple now working on an iWatch?

A report cited by Business Insider claims that Apple has partnered with Intel to develop an iOS watch. Supply chain sources reportedly told Chinese blog site that the watch would be Bluetooth-enabled and sport a 1.5-inch OLED screen.

The so-called smart watch would debut sometime in the first half of next year.

Other sources have chimed in on the general concept, with Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, for one, saying he thinks wearable computing is a line that Apple might eventually get into. And as noted by The Next Web, the Kickstarter campaign by Pebble raised more than $10 million from people convinced of the demand for a smart watch running iOS or Android.

Based on just the one report from, this bit of "news" is decidedly in the rumor stage. So I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for the iWatch just yet. Still, a smart watch represents another area where Apple could see heavy interest and demand.

Randi Zuckerberg loses control on Facebook (and Twitter)

The Facebook CEO's sister is peeved that a photo she thought she'd posted privately is exposed publicly. It's quite a photo.
(Credit: Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET)by Chris Matyszczyk

It's easy to have sympathy for those who have been misled by Facebook's ever-morphing privacy controls. One should therefore have additional sympathy when the person led astray is a former director of Facebook and enjoys the name Zuckerberg.

Randi Zuckerberg thought she had posted a picture to be only seen by her friends. Suddenly, it was there for all to see. Yes, all. The world. The whole misanthropic, green-eyed human race.

As ReadWriteWeb's Dan Lyons icily fulminates, it seems that one of her sister's friends saw the picture, assumed it was for public viewing and -- because of its profoundly fascinating nature -- tweeted it down the Styx to public hell.

You'll be wondering about the picture. Well, it shows several members of the Zuckerberg family standing around the kitchen, staring into their cellphones and seeming astoundingly happy.

You might imagine that Randi Zuckerberg felt this was not the right message to be sending to the world.

No One Uses Smart TV Internet Because It Sucks

The first generation of Google TV set-top boxes fizzled. Photo: Jon Snyder/Wired.comBy Mat Honan

People aren’t using their internet-connected smart TVs for anything beyond, well, watching TV. It turns out, nobody wants to tweet from their TV. Or read books. Or do whatever it is people do on LinkedIn. Worse, more than 40 percent of the people who buy a connected TV aren’t even using it for its ostensible primary purpose: getting online video onto the biggest screen in your home. What gives?

We didn’t need a report to tell us this, but NPD provided one just the same. The report finds fewer than 15 percent of smart-TV owners are listening to music, surfing the internet or shopping on their TVs.

I think I can explain all of this with a single thesis: Smart TVs are the literal, biblical devil. (That may be overly broad. Perhaps they are merely demonic.) But the bottom line is that smart TVs typically have baffling interfaces that make the act of simply finding and watching your favorite stuff more difficult, not less.

There are two things to mull over here. The first is why apps haven’t taken off. The other is why more people who buy a TV capable of showing online video aren’t watching online video. Although related, they have different explanations.

SpaceX’s Cowboy-Carrying Rocket Flies to 131 Feet, Hovers and Lands

Photo: SpaceXBy Jason Paur

Last week was the 109th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight, and SpaceX celebrated in style with the highest launch of its Grasshopper test rocket to date. The flight took place at the company’s McGregor, Texas test facility, and at 131 feet is practically the vertical rocket version of Orville’s first flight that covered 120 feet on December 17, 1903 (the SpaceX flight was a nice, round metric jump of 40 meters).

This was the third flight for the Grasshopper, a test vehicle SpaceX is using to develop a fully controllable and reusable first-stage launch vehicle for future trips to orbit and beyond. The previous two flights made it to 6 feet and 18 feet, respectively.

During the latest test hop, the Grasshopper also had a passenger. SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted that a cowboy mannequin was on board providing a sense of scale (he can be seen at the bottom of the fuselage on the right side).

The test flight lasted 29 seconds and included approximately 8 seconds of hovering time at the apex before returning back to the launch pad. There was a small amount of lateral drift as the rocket ascended, and it appears most of this drift was corrected on the descent.

Environmental News

West Antarctica warming fast

Temperature record from high-altitude station shows unexpectedly rapid rise
Byrd station, seen here in the winter of 1959-1960, is the site of one of the only long-term temperature records from interior West Antarctica. Credit: Henry Brecher/Ohio StateBy Alexandra Witze

While the Arctic melts apace with rising global temperatures, Antarctica is often seen as the literal polar opposite — frigid, unyielding, impervious to change. But a spot in the heart of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth, a new study shows.

From 1958 to 2010, the average temperature at the mile-high Byrd station rose by 2.4 degrees Celsius, researchers report online December 23 in Nature Geoscience. That warming is nearly twice what earlier, indirect studies had suggested.

“It’s a big number — about as big as the most rapidly warming places elsewhere on the planet,” says study coauthor David Bromwich, a polar scientist at Ohio State University in Columbus. “We were quite surprised.”

Byrd is warming fastest in winter and spring, but Bromwich and his colleagues also say they detect a statistically significant temperature increase during the summer. If so, then even the frozen Antarctic interior is getting closer to melting.

Deforestation in the Amazon equals net losses of diversity for microbial communities

A photo taken by researchers in Rondonia, Brazil.University of Texas at Arlington

Research from an international team of microbiologists has revealed a new concern about deforestation in the Amazon rainforest – a troubling net loss in the diversity among the microbial organisms responsible for a functioning ecosystem.

The group, which includes professors from The University of Texas at Arlington, University of Oregon, University of Massachusetts, Michigan State University and University of Sao Paulo, sampled a 100 square kilometer area, about 38 square miles, in the Fazenda Nova Vida site in Rondônia, Brazil, a location where rainforest has been converted to agricultural use. Their findings in part validated previous research showing that bacteria in the soil became more diverse over the years, as it was converted to pasture.

But their findings contradicted prior thinking by showing that the loss of restricted ranges for different kinds of bacteria communities resulted in a biotic homogenization and net loss of diversity overall. Scientists worry that the loss of genetic variation in bacteria across a converted forest could reduce ecosystem resilience.

"We have known for a long time that conversion of rainforest land in the Amazon for agriculture results in a loss of biodiversity in plants and animals. Now we know that microbial communities which are so important to the ecosystem also suffer significant losses," said Jorge Rodrigues, the University of Texas at Arlington assistant biology professor who was part of the research team and is first author on a recent publication of the findings.

Finless Porpoises in Peril

A survey has found that fishing, pollution and other human activities along the Yangtze River in China are driving a freshwater mammal, the Yangtze finless Porpoise, to the brink of extinction
The Yangtze finless porpoise is in decline in the wild, with the latest estimate suggesting it might be critically endangered.By Jane Qiu and Nature magazine

Fishing, pollution and other human activities along the Yangtze River in China are driving yet another species of freshwater cetacean to the brink of extinction. That is the conclusion of a six-week survey of the river’s middle and lower stretches by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Hydrobiology (IHB) in Wuhan and the conservation group WWF in China.

The final results of the survey will be announced in March. But the preliminary findings are worrying: the survey team spotted fewer than half of the Yangtze finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides asiaeorientalis) that were seen during a similar expedition in 2006, which found 1,225 living in the river.

“This is really bad news,” says Wang Ding, an ecologist at the IHB who is the survey's chief scientist. “The finless porpoises are doing much worse than previously thought along the Yangtze mainstream.”

FDA Backs Safety of Transgenic Fish

A fast-growing salmon moves closer to approval after a fishy delay
Transgenic AquAdvantage salmon grow twice as fast as wild Atlantic salmon.By Amy Maxmen and Nature magazine

The first genetically engineered (GE) animal for human consumption—a fast-growing salmon—has come a step closer to the dinner table, with a piece of paperwork posted online on December 22 by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA’s draft environmental assessment concludes that the fish poses no foreseeable risk to nature. After 60 days of public comment, the FDA may issue a final assessment and approval—at which time AquaBounty, of Maynard, Mass., can begin selling the fish.

However, the draft assessment was dated 4 May, suggesting that the FDA had kept its conclusions under wraps for several months. Advocates on both sides of the issue speculate that political interference may be responsible. “I think it was controversial, and it was an election year,” says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C., group opposed to GE food animals. An FDA spokeswoman, Morgan Liscinsky, declined to comment on accusations that the process had been politicized, and says it’s possible that the agency could request further studies after the public comment period.

Medical News

Trying to halt hepatitis C's molecular hijacking

hepatitis CUniversity of Colorado Denver

AURORA, Colo. (Dec. 27, 2012) – Researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine have figured out intimate details of how the hepatitis C virus takes over an invaded cell, a breakthrough that could point to way for new treatments for the virus.

Hep C hijacks the machinery by which a cell makes proteins and uses it instead to create proteins for the virus. Over the last two decades, researchers have figured out that Hep C uses an RNA molecule to do this. Now they're trying to fill in the details.

One key detail is reported in a paper published online Dec. 23 in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. It's written by Jeffrey Kieft, PhD, an associate professor at the CU medical school's Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics and an Early Career Scientist of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and his former graduate student, Megan Filbin, PhD, a graduate of the Program in Molecular Biology.

Working with researchers from the lab of Tamir Gonen at the Janelia Farm Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Kieft used ultra high-power electron microscopes to take images of individual RNA molecules from Hep C as they interacted with the cell's machinery. The researchers combined those images with a variety of other experiments and these clues led them to identify a new way that the virus' RNAs takes over the cell's machinery.

Drug Substitions Due To Shortages Could Prove Harmful For Cancer Patients

Image Credit: Photos.comLee Rannals for

According to research led by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, there is a connection between higher rates of relapse in pediatric cancer patients and drug shortages.

A national drug shortage was linked to a higher rate of relapse among children, teenagers and young adults with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to the national study.

Survival from the condition went from 88 to 75 percent in two years after the drug cyclophosphamide was substituted for mechlorethamine for treatment of patients with intermediate or high-risk Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The study was launched before the drug shortages started; the change occurred after a mechlorethamine shortage that began in 2009.

No study patients have died, but those who relapsed received additional intensive therapy that is associated with higher odds for infertility and other health problems.

Researchers wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) about an analysis comparing how patients in each group were faring two years after their cancer diagnoses. The report provides the first evidence of a drug shortage adversely impacting treatment outcomes in specific patients.

Obesity Rates In Young Children Down Over The Past Ten Years

Image Credit: Photos.comLawrence LeBlond for

With about one in three children in the US now being overweight, an important turn may have just been made in the growing obesity epidemic. A new study by researchers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a slight decline in obesity among 2- to 4-year-olds in poor families. The finding offers hope that the obesity epidemic has reached a plateau in that particular group and is starting to reverse the trend.

The finding comes as the result of a study of height and weight measurements of some 27 million children who were part of the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program, which provides subsidies to low-income mothers and their children up to the age of 5.

“We are very encouraged by this data,” said study author Heidi M. Blanck, PhD, of the CDC. “It’s pretty exciting and a nice turning of the tide. But we have to stay vigilant or it will go in the other direction.”

The study, published Dec. 25 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), looked at data from 30 states and the District of Columbia and covered the years from 1998 to 2010. The study found that obesity in children aged 2 to 4 declined to 14.9 percent in 2010, down from 15.2 percent in 2003. Extreme obesity also declined, dropping to 2.07 percent in 2010 from 2.22 percent in 2003.

“The declines we’re presenting here are pretty modest, but it is a change in direction,” said Blanck. “We were going up before. And this data shows we’re going down.”

Mimicking a Natural Defense Against Malaria to Develop New Treatments

Transmission electron micrograph images reveal lysis of the parasite digestive vacuole (DV) upon treatment with human PF4 (top right), or the small molecules PMX207 and PMX1207 (bottom) as shown by the dispersal of hemozoin fragments throughout the cytoplasm (red arrowheads) and undigested hemoglobin-containing vesicles (yellow arrowheads). Mock-treated control (top left) shows complete integrity of the DV membrane (white arrowheads), encapsulating all hemozoin crystals. (N: parasite nucleus).Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

Dec. 27, 2012 — One of the world's most devastating diseases is malaria, responsible for at least a million deaths annually, despite global efforts to combat it. Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, working with collaborators from Drexel University, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and Johns Hopkins University, have identified a protein in human blood platelets that points to a powerful new weapon against the disease.

Their work was published in this months' issue of Cell Host and Microbe.

Malaria is caused by parasitic microorganisms of the Plasmodium genus, which infect red blood cells. Recent research at other universities showed that blood platelets can bind to infected red blood cells and kill the parasite, but the exact mechanism was unclear. The investigators on the Cell Host and Microbe paper hypothesized that it might involve host defense peptides (HDP) secreted by the platelets.

Space News

Astronomers Give The All Clear – Asteroid Will Not Impact Earth In 2040

Image Credit: Yeko Photo Studio / ShutterstockredOrbit Staff & Wire Reports

A 140 meter diameter asteroid experts once believed had a one in 500 chance of striking the earth no longer presents a significant impact risk, NASA officials have confirmed.

Previously, orbital uncertainties meant there could have been a 0.2-percent chance that asteroid 2011 AG5 would collide with the planet in February 2040, prompting the scientific community — including David Tholen, Richard Wainscoat and Marco Micheli of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IFA) — to continue monitoring its course, the university said in a statement Friday.

Tholen, Wainscoat, and Micheli used the 8-meter Gemini North telescope, located at Mauna Kea, to locate the asteroid on October 20, October 21, and October 27 of this year. The data they collected was reviewed by NASA’s Near-Earth Object (NEO) Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, who declared the chance of an impact 28 years from now had been “eliminated.”

“The updated trajectory of 2011 AG5 is not significantly different, but the new observations have reduced the orbit uncertainties by more than a factor of 60, meaning that Earth’s position in February 2040 no longer falls within the range of possible future paths for the asteroid,” officials from the Gemini Observatory explained. “With the updated orbit, the asteroid will pass no closer than 890,000 km (550,000 miles, over twice the distance to the moon) in February 2040, the time of the prior potential collision.”

Brilliant Comet, Brighter Than Full Moon, Making Debut In 2013

Image Credit: Giovanni Benintende / ShutterstockLee Rannals for

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gaze upon the stars will be had next year by thousands of backyard astronomers who wish to catch a glimpse of the comet of the century.

Comet Ison has yet to earn its spotlight in the media, but soon enough it will be the trending topic among all the search engines.

The comet, which was discovered by two Russian astronomers, will be “the biggest star of 2013” and “brighter than a full moon,” according to David Whitehouse, an author and astronomer.

Ison has been traveling for millions of years from the Oort cloud to reach Earth. The comet’s surface is very dark, and it is a few tens of miles across.

Whitehouse says if you jumped into the air while on the surface of the comet, you could leap 20 miles up, and it would take you over a week to come back down.

By the end of the summer next year the comet will become visible in small telescopes and binoculars. A few months later, by October, it will be passing Mars and the surface will shift, with the surface of the rock responding to thermal shock.

Neutron Radiation Detectors Placed Throughout International Space Station

Image Caption: Solar storms, like this coronal mass ejection, can propel a billion tons of charged particles and radiation into space. Occasionally, these eruptions are directed towards Earth, prompting special protective measures for astronauts aboard the International Space Station, as well as aircraft crew on transpolar flights where risk to exposure is greatest. Image Credit: NASA / Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports

During his trip to the International Space Station (ISS), Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield carried with him a new set of instruments designed to help measure the amount of radiation an astronaut absorbs during a typical trip into space.

The radiation measured by the devices is called neutron radiation. It is one of the more dangerous types officials from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) explained recently in a statement, and is caused by high-energy neutron particles that are created when charged particles collide with physical matter.

“Neutron radiation is considered to be one of the most severe of all types of radiation experienced in space as it can cause biological damage,” the CSA said. “It represents approximately 30 percent of the total exposure for those aboard the station… [and] these high-energy particles can shoot through delicate body tissues, and through long-term exposure, they can damage DNA and potentially cause cataracts, bone marrow damage or even cancer.”

The instruments Hadfield and fellow crew member Roman Romanenko carried are called bubble detectors, and they are part of Radi-N2, a second-generation neutron radiation monitoring program. The two astronauts, as well as colleague Tom Marshburn and the gear, arrived safely at the station Friday following two days in orbit.

“Radi-N2 is Canada’s second generation of neutron radiation monitoring aboard the station and continues on where fellow Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk and the original Radi-N experiment left off in 2009,” the agency said, adding the program was “a collaborative effort between the CSA and Russia’s RSC-Energia and State Research Center of Russia Institute of Biomedical Problems, or IBMP, Russian Academy of Sciences.”

NASA Puts Orion Backup Parachutes to the Test

A mockup Orion capsule is poised to drop from a plane 25,000 feet above the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona to test the parachute design for the spacecraft that will take humans farther than they’ve ever been before – and return them to Earth at greater speeds than ever before. (Credit: NASA)NASA

Dec. 20, 2012 — NASA completed the latest in a series of parachute tests for its Orion spacecraft Thursday at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in southwestern Arizona, marking another step toward a first flight test in 2014. The test verified Orion can land safely even if one of its two drogue parachutes does not open during descent.

Orion will take humans farther into space than ever before, but one of the most challenging things the multipurpose vehicle will do is bring its crew home safely. Because it will return from greater distances, Orion will reenter Earth's atmosphere at speeds of more than 20,000 mph. After re-entry, the parachutes are all that will lower the capsule carrying astronauts back to Earth.

"The mockup vehicle landed safely in the desert and everything went as planned," said Chris Johnson, a NASA project manager for Orion's parachute assembly system. "We designed the parachute system so nothing will go wrong, but plan and test as though something will so we can make sure Orion is the safest vehicle ever to take humans to space."

Odd News

Mercury Craters Named After Disney And Muddy Waters

Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of WashingtonLee Rannals for

Mercury has gained a little more fame in the eyes of Hollywood, after the International Astronomical Union (IAU) agreed to name nine impact craters after Walt Disney.

The MESSENGER Science Team proposed nine names for impact craters on Mercury, all of which refer to either a blues singer, animation pioneer Walter Elias “Walt” Disney, or other artists.

IAU has been the gatekeeper for planetary and satellite nomenclature since 1919, setting the precedence for naming the objects that lie beyond our current grasp.

All of the newly designated features on Mercury are named after famous deceased artists, musicians, or authors, including McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield, who was an African-American blues musician considered the father of modern “Chicago blues.”

The nine newly named craters join 86 other craters named since the MESSENGER spacecraft’s first Mercury flyby in January 2008.

Scott Joplin, an African-American composer and pianist who wrote operas and a ballet, also earned his infamy on Mercury via an impact crater.

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