Special thanks go to Magnifico for starting this venerable series.
Lead Off Story
US And Russia Fail To Reach Ukraine Deal On Day Of Frantic Diplomacy
The first western attempts to get Moscow to back down over its seizure of Crimea failed on Wednesday evening, putting pressure on the EU to resort to punitive action against the Kremlin at an emergency summit on Thursday.
Negotiations in Paris between John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, broke up without agreement on Wednesday. The Americans and the Europeans hoped to persuade Moscow to open a dialogue with the new government in Kiev and also to withdraw its forces in Crimea to their bases and allow in international monitors.
But while Lavrov accused the Americans of tabling unacceptable ultimatums, Kerry said there were “a number of ideas ” up for discussion. Both men are expected to resume negotiations in Rome on Thursday after consulting their respective presidents, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin.
“Things have moved in a good direction,” said Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister.
Lavrov said western countries were proposing “steps that do not help create an atmosphere of dialogue”. Kerry agreed that such atmosphere needed to be created. “It’s very hard to make honest agreements that will help the Ukrainian people stabilise the situation in an atmosphere of threats and ultimatums.”
Israeli Forces Seize Rockets 'Destined For Gaza'
In Raid On Iranian Ship In Red Sea
Israeli naval forces have raided an Iranian freighter in the Red Sea and seized dozens of missiles that were allegedly destined for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
The seizure follows a visit this week by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to Washington, where he used a meeting with Barack Obama and a stump speech to the powerful Jewish lobby AIPAC to underscore his reservations about a nuclear deal with Iran.
"At a time when it is talking to the major powers, Iran smiles and says all sorts of nice things," Netanyahu said on Wednesday. "The same Iran is sending deadly weapons to terrorist organisations … that will be used to harm innocent citizens. This is the true Iran and this state cannot possess nuclear weapons."
After more than 40 years of cold truce between Tel Aviv and Damascus, the Golan Heights border between the two countries is increasingly becoming a battle zone. Israeli officials claim tank fire killed two Hezbollah members trying to plant a bomb on the border fence early on Wednesday. Israel believes Syria is stepping up efforts to move strategic weapons, such as anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, where they pose a potent threat to its military and citizens. Israeli jets attacked a crossing point between Syria and Lebanon's Bekaa valley last week that officials had suggested was being used at the time to move advanced missiles to Hezbollah.
Israeli jets have also struck Damascus three times since last January, levelling a base of the Fourth Division near Damascus, destroying a convoy outside a scientific institute and striking an unknown target near the Lebanese border.
Karunanidhi Must Face Prosecution, Election Commission Tells Madras HC
Adopting a tough stand against DMK president M Karunanidhi's petition in the Madras high court to quash an election complaint against him, the Election Commission of India has said the former chief minister must face prosecution and prove his innocence only after trial.
While assembly elections in Tamil Nadu concluded in May 2011, the returning officer of the Tiruvarur constituency, where Karunanidhi contested and won, lodged a complaint with a magistrate court in Tiruvarur in December 2013 seeking his prosecution for non-furnishing of full particulars of his properties while filing his nomination.
On June 3, the judicial magistrate took cognizance of the matter and issued summons to Karunanidhi, directing him to appear in court on March 7. Seeking the quashing of the complaint, and alleging malafide action by a state government officer who had functioned as returning officer in 2011, Karunanidhi moved the high court. The court stayed all further proceedings and dispensed with his court appearance too.
Denying Karunanidhi's allegations, the then returning officer and revenue divisional officer of Tiruvarur P Paramasivam filed a counter-affidavit on Wednesday, stating that 'false declaration' made by Karunanidhi exposed him to prosecution. "False declaration, as per the decision of the Supreme Court, may not be a ground to reject the nomination paper, but it certainly is a ground for institution of prosecution. Otherwise, the entire purpose of the legislation would be defeated," he said.
U.S. Reassures After Official’s ‘Pivot’ Gaffe
The Obama administration rushed Tuesday to restate its commitment to a stronger presence in Asia after a senior defense official reportedly said that budget cuts have made the U.S. “pivot” to the region unfeasible.
A senior Democratic senator voiced concern at a congressional hearing over the comments, made by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Katrina McFarland.
According to Defense News, McFarland told a defense industry conference: “Right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen.”
McFarland later issued a clarification that the shift in focus to the region requires difficult budget decisions and adaptation, but the “rebalance to Asia can and will continue.”
The administration has made increased engagement in Asia a key plank of its foreign policy as the U.S. winds down its military involvement in Afghanistan and contends with a rising China. The U.S. has begun a new deployment of troops in Australia, and plans to shift more of its naval forces to the region.
Black Lawmakers Walk Out On Resolution Honoring Ardent Segregationist
A group of black lawmakers in Virginia on Tuesday silently protested a resolution honoring Harry F. Byrd Jr., a former state and U.S. senator, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
Byrd, who died in July at age 98, served in the state Senate for 18 years before holding a U.S. Senate seat in Virginia until 1983. He was also a vocal proponent of racial segregation in the 1950s who promoted the "Southern Manifesto," a document signed by more than 100 lawmakers that opposed integrating schools after the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education.
The resolution honored Byrd, a noted fiscal conservative, for "his unswerving commitment to the commonwealth’s and the nation’s fiscal and economic well-being," according to the Dispatch. It also honored him for being “remembered for his integrity and gentlemanly demeanor; he served the commonwealth and the nation with great dignity and distinction.“
Before the resolution was presented to Byrd's family in the Senate, several of lawmakers, nearly all African-American, walked out of the chamber, including state Sens. Mamie E. Locke, (D) L. Louise Lucas, (D) A. Donald McEachin, (D) and Adam P. Ebbin. Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D) didn't leave chamber but instead left his seat and stood against the wall.
“It wasn’t anything that anybody planned to do,” said Locke, chairwoman of the Black Legislative Caucus, as quoted by the Dispatch. “I just didn’t want to sit there and listen to a resolution that honored someone who was an ardent segregationist and never said I’m sorry for being a segregationist.”
Emergency Downgraded At Wanapum Dam
The crack in a spillway pier at the Wanapum Dam has been downgraded to a "non-failure emergency," meaning the pier is no longer considered at risk of collapsing, the Grant County Public Utility District said Wednesday.
The downgrade is the result of engineering surveys conducted Monday and Tuesday that show the fractured area found on one of the dam's spillways was continuing to stabilize, the PUD said in a press release.
"This is still a serious issue," Chuck Allen, a public affairs officer for the PUD, said Wednesday.
The crack has closed and a section of the spillway pier that had shifted has nearly returned to full alignment, the PUD said. That's the result of the utility lowering the water level by 26 feet in the reservoir behind the dam, reducing pressure on the damaged spillway, the PUD said.
The 65-foot long crack was discovered last Thursday, and the dam had operated under the status of a "developing failure," since last Friday, the PUD said.
EPA Will Review 27 Superfund Site Clean Ups This Year
EPA will review site clean ups and remedies at 27 Superfund Sites across New England this year by doing routine Five-Year Reviews at each site.
EPA conducts evaluations every five years on previously-completed clean up and remediation work performed at Superfund sites and Federal Facilities listed on the “National Priorities List” (aka Superfund sites) to determine whether the implemented remedies at the sites continue to be protective of human health and the environment. Further, five year review evaluations identify any deficiencies to the previous work and, if called for, recommend action(s) necessary to address them.
In addition to a careful evaluation of technical work at the sites, during the Five Year Review process EPA also provides the public with an opportunity to evaluate preliminary findings and to provide input on potential follow up activity that may be required following the review process.
[Links are provided in the article to "...detailed information on site status and past assessment and cleanup activity. - Editor]
Science and Technology
30,000 Year-Old Giant Virus Found In Siberia
new type of giant virus called "Pithovirus" has been discovered in the frozen ground of extreme north-eastern Siberia by researchers from the Information Génomique et Structurale laboratory (CNRS/AMU), in association with teams from the Biologie à Grande Echelle laboratory (CEA/INSERM/Université Joseph Fourier), Génoscope (CEA/CNRS) and the Russian Academy of Sciences. Buried underground, this giant virus, which is harmless to humans and animals, has survived being frozen for more than 30,000 years. Although its size and amphora shape are reminiscent of Pandoravirus, analysis of its genome and replication mechanism proves that Pithovirus is very different. This work brings to three the number of distinct families of giant viruses.
It is published on the website of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the week of March 3, 2014.
In the families Megaviridae (represented in particular by Mimivirus, discovered in 2003) and Pandoraviridae, researchers thought they had classified the diversity of giant viruses (the only viruses visible under optical microscopy, since their diameter exceeds 0.5 microns). These viruses, which infect amoebae such as Acanthamoeba, contain a very large number of genes compared to common viruses (like influenza or AIDS, which only contain about ten genes). Their genome is about the same size or even larger than that of many bacteria.
By studying a sample from the frozen ground of extreme north-eastern Siberia, in the Chukotka autonomous region, researchers were surprised to discover a new giant virus more than 30,000 years old (contemporaneous with the extinction of Neanderthal man), which they have named Pithovirus sibericum. Because of its amphora shape, similar to Pandoravirus, the scientists initially thought that this was a new member -- albeit certainly ancient -- of this family. Yet genome analysis on Pithovirus showed that this is not the case: there is no genetic relationship between Pithovirus and Pandoravirus. Though it is large for a virus, the Pithovirus genome contains much fewer genes (about 500) than the Pandoravirus genome (up to 2,500). Researchers also analyzed the protein composition (proteome) of the Pithovirus particle (1..5 microns long and 0.5 microns wide) and found that out of the hundreds of proteins that make it up, only one or two are common to the Pandoravirus particle
When Sleep Goes Terribly Wrong
Chris Stimac was a typical high school freshman: athletic, friendly, into science. He loved football and hoped to play it in college. But in the winter of 2003, he got a flu-like illness, which left him somehow changed. Stimac descended into a dark, foul mood, and he couldn’t shake exhaustion. When he wasn’t sleeping, he’d sit in his room in a confused daze, emerging only to use the bathroom or eat insatiably. He could devour entire pizzas at once. And if he didn’t get exactly what he wanted, he would scream obscenities uncontrollably.
The episode lasted only a couple of weeks but the symptoms returned about a year later. After that, the spells recurred several times a year. Between episodes, Stimac labored through catch-up work and avoided dating. Doctors ran several sleep studies but couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Finally, one suggested he go to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, which diagnosed him with a classic case of a very rare sleep disorder: Kleine-Levin Syndrome (KLS).
KLS is more common in males and typically strikes in the mid-teens. Researchers are aware of only about 700 cases worldwide. There are two main hypotheses for what causes it, says Emmanuel Mignot, a sleep expert at Stanford University. KLS may be an autoimmune or infectious disease, because it often follows an infection and because it waxes and wanes like a viral illness. Or it may be a metabolic disorder, which would explain the excessive sleep and hunger. Mignot leads a team that is studying about 500 KLS patients to identify genes associated with the disorder. Those genes could help point to a cause and hopefully a treatment. The work could also provide some insight into how the brain controls basic behaviors like sleep, appetite, and sex (because hypersexuality can also be a symptom).
When Stimac reached college, KLS made him miss too much coursework and so he had to drop out his freshman year. “It was wearing me down, stressing me out,” he says. KLS usually fades in a person’s thirties, so although Stimac experienced three episodes last year, he’s cautiously optimistic they’ll soon disappear. Until then, he’s making the most of his time: At 24, he now has a steady job, a new house, and a fiancée.
Algae Assassin Found Responsible For Whale Mass Grave In Chile
It has all the hallmarks of a paleontological crime scene: a massive graveyard along a remote desert highway containing the fossil bones of at least 40 dead whales and a slew of other marine victims. Discovered in 2010 in the Atacama Desert of Chile, this mysterious assemblage of bones baffled scientists trying to piece together the chain of events that led to its creation during the Miocene. Known locally as Cerro Ballena, or Whale Hill, it is the densest site for individual fossil whales and other extinct marine mammals ever found.
Now the mystery is solved: poisoning resulting in sudden death at sea. The culprit: common ocean algae. Blooming in profusion some 6 to 9 million years ago, the algae produced a deadly neurotoxin that was either ingested or inhaled by the animals causing organ failure and rapid death. Scientists believe the algae blooms were triggered by iron-rich runoff from the Andes Mountains. A scientific verdict on these deaths is handed down in a paper released today (Tuesday, Feb. 25) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
One clue to the cause of the calamity was that many of the whale skeletons are lying belly-up. “Like today’s humpback and blue whales, these prehistoric whales had a big throat pouch,” says Nicholas Pyenson of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, lead author of the study. When they die and decompose the throat pouch fills with gas and “acts like a flotation device, it’s like a hot air balloon coming off their throat,” Pyenson explains. This belly-up position of the skeletons reveals the whales died out at sea and did not strand themselves upright on the shore.
What intrigues Pyenson about the Cerro Ballena site is that it offers such a clear window into the marine ecosystems and marine food webs of the Miocene. “I’m amazed at how comprehensive a snapshot it is,” he says. “We have a little bit of the familiar—baleen whales—and a little bit of the exotic—an extinct aquatic sloth and an extinct walrus whale. Yet in 240 meters of road cut we can sample fossil marine mammals that pretty much represents everything that we know of living in the ocean in South America at that time. That is what is compelling to me.”
The Cerro Ballena site also reveals just how full the oceans once were of whales, with some regions possibly even experiencing super-aggregations of whales, Pyenson says. “We don’t see baleen whale strandings like Cerro Ballena today. The issue is that today’s world has a shifted baseline because we nearly killed off all the baleen whales. They didn’t go extinct but we reduced their abundances by upwards of 95 percent. What was normal on Earth for hundreds and even thousands of years is no longer normal. So we are living in a very altered world today where baleen whales are not nearly as abundant as they used to be.”
Society and Culture
Pope Suggests Church Could Tolerate Some Civil Unions
Pope Francis suggested the Catholic Church could tolerate some types of nonmarital civil unions as a practical measure to guarantee property rights and health care. He also said the church would not change its teaching against artificial birth control but should take care to apply it with "much mercy."
In the wide-ranging conversation with the paper's editor-in-chief, Ferruccio de Bortoli, the pope defended the church's response to clerical sex abuse and lamented that popular mythology has turned him into a kind of papal superhero. He also addressed the role of retired Pope Benedict XVI and the church's relations with China
"Matrimony is between a man and a woman," the pope said, but moves to "regulate diverse situations of cohabitation (are) driven by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, as for instance to assure medical care." Asked to what extent the church could understand this trend, he replied: "It is necessary to look at the diverse cases and evaluate them in their variety."
"The question is not whether to change the doctrine, but to go deeper and make sure that pastoral care takes account of situations and of what each person is able to do," Pope Francis said.
The pope said birth control, like the predicament of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, would be a topic of discussion at the Vatican in October at an extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family. He said the synod would approach all such problems "in the light of profound reflection," rather than casuistry, which he described as a superficial, pharisaical theology focused exclusively on particular cases.
Major Changes In SAT Announced By College Board
Saying its college admission exams do not focus enough on the important academic skills, the College Board announced on Wednesday a fundamental rethinking of the SAT, eliminating obligatory essays, ending the longstanding penalty for guessing wrong and cutting obscure vocabulary words.
David Coleman, president of the College Board, criticized his own test, the SAT, and its main rival, the ACT, saying that both “have become disconnected from the work of our high schools.”
In addition, Mr. Coleman announced new programs to help low-income students, who will now be given fee waivers allowing them to apply to four colleges at no charge. And even before the new exam starts, the College Board, in partnership with Khan Academy, will offer free online practice problems from old tests and instructional videos showing how to solve them.
The changes coming to the exam are extensive: The SAT’s rarefied vocabulary words will be replaced by words that are common in college courses, such as “empirical” and “synthesis.” The math questions, now scattered widely across many topics, will focus more narrowly on linear equations, functions and proportional thinking. The use of a calculator will no longer be allowed on some of the math sections. The new exam will be available on paper and computer, and the scoring will revert to the old 1600 scale, with a top score of 800 on math and what will now be called “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing.” The optional essay will have a separate score.
San Francisco Bar Bans Google Glass For Fear Of Secret Recordings
A bar popular with a high-tech crowd in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood has banned patrons from wearing Google Glass, the local CBS station in the city reports.
A sign posted at the Willows at Folsom and 12th streets features a picture of the wearable computer with the familiar red circle and a slash over it, along with a message saying customers “have expressed concerns with being recorded while enjoying themselves.”
The device, which combines many of the functions of a smartphone, has aroused fears of privacy intrusions. It has also become a target of critics who say it symbolizes the tech elite’s negative effects on working-class neighborhoods, KPIX-TV Channel 5 says.
The prohibition follows a claim by a social media consultant that she was attacked at the Lower Haight bar Molotov's for wearing Glass. Others disputed the consultant's account, which set off a social media backlash, and she has since attempted to leverage the incident for a Google-sponsored trip to the South by Southwest festival.
The SFist reports that Molotov’s also has put up a sign banning the use of recording devices. The Willows' owner, Tim Ryan, told Business Insider his new policy is in reaction to what happened at Molotov’s.
Well, that's different...
Close Enough for Government Work
Clare Lally, weary of her three-story walk-up, demanded a wheelchair ramp on her government-subsidized house in Duntocher, England, for her daughter, 7, who has suffered from bulbar palsy since birth, and the West Dunbartonshire Council came through promptly. A front-yard-dominating concrete platform was built in January (costing the equivalent of $67,000), consisting of a 10-level “snake”-style series of ramps, with steel railings. Not only does navigating the “snake” take time, but Lally now complains that the ramp has been taken over by neighborhood kids as a skateboard run.
Bill Moyers and Company:
Ian Haney López on the Dog Whistle Politics of Race
Author and legal scholar Ian Haney López tells Bill that dog whistle politics is “the dark magic” by which middle-class voters have been seduced to vote against their own economic interests.