Special thanks go to Magnifico for starting this venerable series.
Lead Off Story
Russia Signs 30-Year Gas Deal With China
The deal between Russia's Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) has been 10 years in the making.
Russia has been keen to find an alternative energy market for its gas as it faces the possibility of European sanctions over the crisis in Ukraine.
No official price has been given but it is estimated to be worth over $400bn.
President Putin said in a statement to the Russian news channel Rossiya: "The price is satisfactory for both sides.
"It is tied, like it is envisaged in all our international contracts with Western partners, specifically our partners in Western Europe, to the market price on oil and oil products. It is an absolutely calibrated, general formula for pricing."
Gazprom shares rose 2% on the news.
Tepco Begins Dumping Fukushima No. 1 Groundwater Into Pacific Ocean
Tokyo Electric Power Co. began dumping groundwater from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant into the Pacific on Wednesday, in a bid to manage the huge amounts of radioactive water that have built up at the complex.
The utility, which says the water discharged is within legal radiation safety limits, has been fighting a daily battle against contaminated water since Fukushima No. 1 was decimated by the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.
Tepco said 560 tons of groundwater captured and stored before it entered reactor building basements was to be released Wednesday, using a bypass system that funnels it toward the ocean after checking for radiation levels.
Using the bypass, Tepco hopes to divert an average of 100 tons of untainted groundwater a day into the ocean.
The controversial release, which was agreed to by local fishermen after extended talks, came after the latest breakdown earlier in the week of a water treatment system for the highly contaminated water held in makeshift tanks. It also came amid revelations this week in the Asahi Shimbun that the majority of workers at the plant fled during the height of the meltdowns after the quake and tsunami knocked out cooling and backup power.
'Lying And Fear-Mongering': Tony Abbott Cops A Grilling On Talkback
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has conceded a new deficit levy on high-income earners is a tax in heated exchanges with talkback radio callers in Melbourne who accused him of lying, fearmongering and endangering the health of pensioners.
Mr Abbott, who has been on a media blitz to sell the government's unpopular budget, was castigated by callers to ABC Melbourne 774 on Wednesday morning, including a pensioner who said she worked on a sex line to pay for her health costs.
The first caller, Stella from Geelong, who said she had been a lifetime Liberal voter, told Mr Abbott: "I accept if you need to do a harsh budget. What I cannot accept is myself and other intelligent voters being condescended to by politicians who won't answer a straight question ... It makes us feel that you're treating us like idiots." Stella said the deficit levy – introduced despite pre-election promises not to introduce new taxes – showed Mr Abbott has not been upfront with voters.
"I obviously accept a levy is something you pay out of your pocket," Mr Abbott said. "I'm not going to quibble over calling it a tax – if you want to call it a tax that's fine." Mr Abbott was less inclined to call the reintroduction of fuel excise indexation a new tax.
"I absolutely concede some taxes are going up and I've never suggested otherwise," he said.
Pakistan Launches Air Strikes On Suspected Militant Hideouts
Pakistani military jets and helicopter gunships have attacked suspected militant hideouts near the Afghan border, killing 60 people, the army said.
The main target of the air strikes on Wednesday was Mir Ali, a town in the North Waziristan, the army said in a statement.
It said 60 suspected terrorists, including important local commanders as well as foreigners, were killed and a further 30 wounded in the strikes.
One resident said the army had also been using artillery fire since early morning. "We heard big bangs," said Saeedullah Khan. "I saw some houses flattened."
The army did not give more details on the key figures they said were killed.
The claims could not be independently verified. The area is off limits to foreign journalists.
Obama Vows A Forceful Response To Veteran Care Issues
President Obama on Wednesday expressed outrage about allegations of misconduct at veterans hospitals and said that people in the Department of Veterans Affairs — including Eric Shinseki, its secretary — could be punished if investigations revealed wrongdoing.
Speaking to reporters at the White House after meeting in the Oval Office with Mr. Shinseki, the president said he would take swift action if it was proved that employees of the department manipulated data to hide long wait times for appointments at the hospitals.
“I will not stand for it,” Mr. Obama said. “Not as commander in chief, but also not as an American. None of us should.” He added that if “these allegations prove true,” he would consider the actions “dishonorable.”
“Once we know the facts, I assure you, if there was misconduct, people will be punished,” he said.
The statement from Mr. Obama was the first time he has spoken publicly about the growing furor over the veterans hospitals since he answered a question on the topic during his trip to Asia this month. White House officials are hoping to tamp down political attacks on the subject by demonstrating that the president takes the situation seriously and is prepared to act.
U.S. Deploys About 80 Military Personnel to Help Find Nigerian Girls
The United States has deployed about 80 military personnel to Chad as part of its effort to help find and return more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamist militant group Boko Haram, President Barack Obama said in a letter to Congress on Wednesday.
"These personnel will support the operation of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area," Obama said in the letter.
"The force will remain in Chad until its support in resolving the kidnapping situation is no longer required," he said.
The deployment comes following back-to-back bomb blasts that killed at least 118 people and wounded 45 in the crowded business district of the central Nigerian city of Jos on Tuesday, emergency services said, in an attack that also appeared to bear the hallmarks of the Boko Haram insurgents.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But the militant group Boko Haram, which has set off bombs across the north and center of Nigeria in an increasingly bloody campaign for an Islamic state, was likely to be the prime suspect in what would rank among their deadliest single attacks in five years of insurrection.
US Charges Egg Company, 2 Execs In 2010 Outbreak
An Iowa company and two executives are expected to plead guilty to selling tainted eggs that were responsible for a 2010 salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands and led to an unprecedented recall of 550 million eggs, according to court documents filed Wednesday.
Disgraced egg industry titan Austin "Jack" DeCoster and son Peter DeCoster are charged with introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail. A charging document filed by federal prosecutors alleges that their company, Quality Egg LLC, sold eggs tainted with salmonella from early 2010 until the August 2010 recall and that the DeCosters were the responsible corporate officers.
The DeCosters are scheduled to plead guilty June 3 as part of plea agreements expected to resolve the four-year investigation, though it's unclear whether prosecutors will recommend jail. The punishment will be handed down in the same federal courthouse where Jack DeCoster received probation in 2003 for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
Two felonies also were filed against Quality Egg, which includes the DeCosters' former network of chicken farms and egg production sites in northern Iowa. Corporations can face criminal charges under the theory that they are responsible for employees' actions, with felony convictions carrying fines of $500,000 apiece, or more, depending on the amount of loss.
Science and Technology
The Medical And Microbiological Consequences Of Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol consumption has been a part of human activity for millennia though not everyone does so responsibly. Back in the 1800s, public health officials first took note of the issue of alcohol abuse, which was known then as intemperance. They were keenly aware there was a link between the amount of the fermented byproduct consumed and both short and long term effects on personal health. Yet, while the social and psychological impacts were apparent, the actual consequences at the physiological level would require time.
Over the last 150 years, the medical problems associated with alcohol have been elucidated with more than enough concrete evidence to support them. The major diseases include cardiovascular disorders, loss of bone mass, onset of cancer and the most common of all, liver disease. The compiled data also suggest the major contributing factor is not the alcohol itself, but the inflammation caused by its ingestion. The immune system is negatively affected, leading to the propensity for more frequent dysregulation.
Whenever inflammation is suspected as a cause of long-term medical consequences, the microbiome must be taken into consideration. However, until recently, little has been done to find any links between the nature of the microbiota and the onset and/or progression of disease. One of the few meaningful studies to show any links was published in 2012 when an American team of researchers found chronic alcohol consumption led to changes in the nature of the bacteria in the colon. Yet how this change happened and how it impacted health was left unanswered.
Alcohol liver disease (ALD) is the most common liver-related medical problem and has been intensively studied to both understand as well as help to resolve the condition. Unfortunately, there are few answers. What has been known is the understanding of the gut-liver axis, in which changes in the gastrointestinal system contribute directly to functions in the liver. With this information at hand, a duo from the University of California took a closer look at how the gut-liver axis may involve the microbiome. What they found highlighted the scope of the problem and the reasons for its intransience.
Instead of only one specific link, they found many. The first confirmed the earlier observations of a change in the microbiome. As alcoholism progressed, the gut underwent a form of dysbiosis. The levels of good bacteria, such as the probiotic Lactobacillus, dropped while those of potential pathogens rose. They also highlighted an overgrowth of these bad bacteria leading to an increase in toxins and other liver-damaging chemicals. Inflammation would subsequently occur, leading to increased permeability of the gut. At this point, those damaging byproducts would be easily translocated to the blood serum and the liver. Over time, the damage would become unstoppable and eventually, disease would occur.
Even In The Wild, Mice Run On Wheels
In 2009, neurophysiologist Johanna Meijer set up an unusual experiment in her backyard. In an ivy-tangled corner of her garden, she and her colleagues at Leiden University in the Netherlands placed a rodent running wheel inside an open cage and trained a motion-detecting infrared camera on the scene. Then they put out a dish of food pellets and chocolate crumbs to attract animals to the wheel and waited.
Wild house mice discovered the food in short order, then scampered into the wheel and started to run. Rats, shrews, and even frogs found their way to the wheel—more than 200,000 animals over 3 years. The creatures seemed to relish the feeling of running without going anywhere.
The study "puts a nail in the coffin" of the debate over whether mice and rats will run on wheels in a natural setting, says Ted Garland, an evolutionary physiologist at the University of California, Riverside, who was not involved in the work. More importantly, he says, the findings suggest that like (some) humans, mice and other animals may simply exercise because they like to. Figuring out why certain strains of mice are more sedentary than others could help shed light on genetic differences between more active and sedentary people, he adds.
Even before Meijer got creative in her yard, researchers knew that captive mice are exercise maniacs. In laboratories and bedrooms, they frequently log more than 5 km per night on stationary running wheels. But scientists didn’t know why the animals did it.
One thing was clear: They seem to enjoy it. Mice find exercise rewarding; just as they can be trained to press a lever dozens of times to release a pellet of food or a dose of cocaine, the rodents will go to great lengths to unlock a running wheel when it has a brake on, and get back to spinning, Garland says. But is the drive to run normal, or is it an aberrant, obsessive behavior triggered by living in a shoebox-sized cage?
A New Way To Harness Waste Heat:
Electrochemical Approach Has Potential To Turn Low-Grade Heat To Electricity
Vast amounts of excess heat are generated by industrial processes and by electric power plants; researchers around the world have spent decades seeking ways to harness some of this wasted energy. Most such efforts have focused on thermoelectric devices, solid-state materials that can produce electricity from a temperature gradient, but the efficiency of such devices is limited by the availability of materials.
Now researchers at MIT and Stanford University have found a new alternative for low-temperature waste-heat conversion into electricity -- that is, in cases where temperature differences are less than 100 degrees Celsius.
The new approach, based on a phenomenon called the thermogalvanic effect, is described in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications by postdoc Yuan Yang and professor Gang Chen at MIT, postdoc Seok Woo Lee and professor Yi Cui at Stanford, and three others.
Since the voltage of rechargeable batteries depends on temperature, the new system combines the charging-discharging cycles of these batteries with heating and cooling, so that the discharge voltage is higher than charge voltage. The system can efficiently harness even relatively small temperature differences, such as a 50 degrees Celsius difference.
To begin, the uncharged battery is heated by the waste heat. Then, while at the higher temperature, the battery is charged; once fully charged, it is allowed to cool. Because the charging voltage is lower at high temperatures than at low temperatures, once it has cooled the battery can actually deliver more electricity than what was used to charge it. That extra energy, of course, doesn't just appear from nowhere: It comes from the heat that was added to the system.
Well, that's different...
Least Competent Criminals
At a press conference in April, as Houston police officers announced they were after two burglars who had broken into Katz's lingerie boutique, surveillance video showed two armed men cautiously creeping through the store until one accidentally bumped the other, apparently startling the bumped man, who turned and fired -- causing the first man to fire back. Officers counted nearly a dozen bullet holes in the store. Said the Houston press briefer, these are "by far some of the clumsiest crooks that I've seen in a long time."
Bill Moyers and Company:
Facing the Truth: The Case for Reparations
This week Bill speaks with Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic about his cover story on why America needs to reconcile with its racist past.