Video games take off as a spectator sport

Editorial: "Give video games a sporting chance"

EVERY sport has its idols and superstars. Now video gaming is getting them too. Professional gaming, or e-sports, exploded in popularity in the US and Europe last year.

The scene has been big in Asia - particularly South Korea - for about a decade, with top players such as Lim Yo-Hwan earning six-figure salaries and competing for rock-star glory in Starcraft tournaments that attract audiences in the hundreds of thousands.

The phenomenon is taking off in the West partly because of improved video-streaming technology and large financial rewards. Video games are becoming a spectator sport, with certain players and commentators drawing massive online audiences.

And where people go, money follows. The second world championship of League of Legends - a team-based game in which players defend respective corners of a fantasy-themed battle arena - was held in Los Angeles in October. The tournament had a prize pool of $5 million for the season, with $1 million going to winning team Taipei Assassins, the largest cash prize in the history of e-sports.

League of Legends has also set records for spectator numbers. More than 8 million people watched the championship finals either online or on TV - a figure that dwarfs audience numbers for broadcasts of many traditional sports fixtures.

But gamers don't need to compete at the international level to earn money. Video-streaming software like Twitch makes it easy for players to send live footage to a website, where the more popular ones can attract upwards of 10,000 viewers - enough for some to make a living by having adverts in their video streams. Gamers can go pro without leaving their homes.

Currently, e-sports productions are handled by gaming leagues - but that could soon change. Last November saw two moves that will make it even easier to reach a global online audience. First, Twitch announced it would be integrating with Electronic Arts's Origin service, a widely used gaming platform. This would let gamers stream their play at the click of a button, making it easy for people around the world to watch.

Also in November came the latest release from one of gaming's biggest franchises, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, which has the ability to live-stream via YouTube built into the game itself. Another feature allows the broadcast of in-game commentary for multiplayer matches.

"I think we will reach a point, maybe within five years, where spectator features are a necessity for all big game releases," says Corin Cole of e-sports publishing company Heaven Media in Huntingdon, UK.

David Ting founded the California-based IGN Pro League (IPL), which hosts professional tournaments. He puts the popularity of e-sports down to the demand for new forms of online entertainment. "After 18 months, IPL's viewer numbers are already comparable to college sports in the US when there's a live event," he says. "The traffic is doubling every six months."

Ting sees motion detection, virtual reality and mobile gaming coming together to make physical exertion a more common aspect of video games, blurring the line between traditional sport and e-sports. "Angry Birds could be this century's bowling," says Ting.

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Money talks at Obama's inauguration

WASHINGTON: As hundreds of thousands of Americans crowd the National Mall for President Barack Obama's second inauguration on January 21, the best seats will already be filled -- sold for a hefty price.

Obama limited individual donations to $50,000 for his first inaugural in 2009, and banned corporate donors as he sought to distance himself from special interests amid the historic swearing-in of the country's first black president.

His reticence over money did little to stop the flow of cash, however, and the new US leader racked up a record $53 million in private donations, much of it coming from the 1.8 million people who packed Washington for the event.

This second time around, such lofty intentions -- and Obama's pledge to have the most transparent US administration ever -- appear to have been shelved in advance, with companies invited to join in -- and fund -- the proceedings.

For the White House is throwing open the gates of largesse for supporters to contribute as much as $1 million for special access. The money could buy much more than a coveted seat near the president as he takes the oath of office.

"This is an avenue for special interests, especially wealthy corporations, to get their last chance to throw money at the feet of the president," Craig Holman, an expert on campaign finance reform, told AFP.

"The real intent is for the corporations to buy access and influence with the White House," added Holman, from consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

In this year's invitations, copies of which were posted online by the Sunlight Foundation, an accountability group, the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) formalized four different donation levels -- each with a name of one of the nation's founding fathers.

For $10,000 from individuals and $100,000 from business entities, "Madison" benefactors receive an invitation to a finance committee "road ahead" meeting, two tickets to a candlelight celebration on the eve of the inauguration, and a pair of tickets to the inaugural ball.

"Washington" contributors -- individuals who pay $250,000 and corporations that shell out $1 million -- gain "premium partner access" that also includes attendance at VIP receptions, seats for the inaugural parade, four ball tickets and passes to a concert with Stevie Wonder and Katy Perry.

Just who exactly will be buying in to such events, and how much will they be paying? Right now, it is a mystery.

In 2009, donors and their offerings were published on the Internet, but this year only the names are being disclosed in the short term. The amounts given will be published within 90 days of the inauguration.

A PIC spokesman said the lavish perks were offered to donors to get them to open their wallets one more time to help fund the inaugural festivities, after many of them contributed to the most expensive political race in US history.

The 2012 presidential campaign exceeded $2 billion, partly due to a Supreme Court case that lifted a cap on independent political spending by corporations.

Ironically, inauguration day will coincide with the second anniversary of the landmark Citizens United ruling, but funding fatigue may be setting in with the inaugural committee reportedly struggling to meet its $50 million target.

Private donations cover the party element of the inauguration, while taxpayers foot the bill for security.

According to a congressional report, more than 30,000 police were mobilized for the record inaugural crowd that jammed Washington's National Mall in 2009.

Authorities expect fewer people this year but security remains paramount -- dozens of streets will be closed to traffic and metal detectors will be used to scan the thousands ticketed guests.

The exact number of VIP donors is unknown, but a Department of Homeland Security report indicated that four years ago at least 750 were transported to the west front of the Capitol, where seats were reserved near the podium.

One donor perk that the Washington Post identified as a security breach in 2009 and will likely not be repeated this time around: some VIPs arranged to have their photo taken near the presidential limousine.

- AFP/ck

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Aaron Swartz, Internet activist and programmer, dead at 26

Internet activist and computer prodigy Aaron Swartz, who helped create an early version of the Web feed system RSS and was facing federal criminal charges in a controversial fraud case, has committed suicide at age 26, authorities said on Saturday.

Police found Swartz's body in his apartment in the New York City borough of Brooklyn on Friday, according to a spokeswoman for the city's chief medical examiner, which ruled the death a suicide by hanging.

Swartz is widely credited with being a co-author of the specifications for the Web feed format RSS 1.0, which he worked on at age 14, according to a blog post on Saturday from his friend, science fiction author Cory Doctorow.

RSS, which stands for Rich Site Summary, is a format for delivering to users content from sites that change constantly, such as news pages and blogs.

Over the years, he became an online icon for helping to make a virtual mountain of information freely available to the public, including an estimated 19 million pages of federal court documents from the PACER case-law system.

"Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves," Swartz wrote in an online "manifesto" dated 2008.

"The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. ... sharing isn't immoral -- it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy," he wrote.

That belief - that information should be shared and available for the good of society - prompted Swartz to found the nonprofit group DemandProgress.

The group led a successful campaign to block a bill introduced in 2011 in the U.S. House of Representatives called the Stop Online Piracy Act.

The bill, which was withdrawn amid public pressure, would have allowed court orders to curb access to certain websites deemed to be engaging in illegal sharing of intellectual property.

Swartz and other activists objected on the grounds it would give the government too many broad powers to censor and squelch legitimate Web communication.

But Swartz faced trouble in July 2011, when he was indicted by a federal grand jury of wire fraud, computer fraud and other charges related to allegedly stealing millions of academic articles and journals from a digital archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

According to the federal indictment, Swartz - who was a fellow at Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics - used MIT's computer networks to steal more than 4 million articles from JSTOR, an online archive and journal distribution service.

JSTOR did not press charges against Swartz after the digitized copies of the articles were returned, according to media reports at the time.

Swartz, who pleaded not guilty to all counts, faced 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted. He was released on bond. His trial was scheduled to start later this year.


In a statement released Saturday, the family and partner of Swartz praised his "brilliance" and "profound" commitment to social justice, and struck out at what they said were decisions made at MIT and by prosecutors that contributed to his death.

"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach," the statement said.

"The U.S. Attorney's office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims," it added.

Neither the U.S. Attorney's office nor MIT could be reached for comment.

Swartz's funeral is scheduled for Tuesday in Highland Park, Illinois. On Saturday, online tributes to Swartz flooded across cyberspace.

"Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill and intelligence about people and issues," Doctorow, co-editor of the weblog Boing Boing, wrote on the site.

Doctorow wrote that Swartz had "problems with depression for many years."

Swartz also played a role in building the news-sharing website Reddit, but left the company after it was acquired by Wired magazine owner Conde Nast. Recalling that time of his life, Swartz described his struggles with dark feelings.

In an online account of his life and work, Swartz said he became "miserable" after going to work at the San Francisco offices of Wired after Reddit was acquired.

"I took a long Christmas vacation," he wrote. "I got sick. I thought of suicide. I ran from the police. And when I got back on Monday morning, I was asked to resign."

Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited as the most important figure in the creation of the World Wide Web, commemorated Swartz in a Twitter post on Saturday.

"Aaron dead," he wrote. "World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep."

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Doina Chiacu and Philip Barbara)

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Pictures: Civil War Shipwreck Revealed by Sonar

Photograph by Jesse Cancelmo

A fishing net, likely only decades old, drapes over machinery that once connected the Hatteras' pistons to its paddle wheels, said Delgado.

From archived documents, the NOAA archaeologist learned that Blake, the ship's commander, surrendered as his ship was sinking. "It was listing to port, [or the left]," Delgado said. The Alabama took the wounded and the rest of the crew and put them in irons.

The officers were allowed to keep their swords and wander the deck as long as they promised not to lead an uprising against the Alabama's crew, he added.

From there, the Alabama dropped off their captives in Jamaica, leaving them to make their own way back to the U.S.

Delgado wants to dig even further into the crew of the Hatteras. He'd like see if members of the public recognize any of the names on his list of crew members and can give him background on the men.

"That's why I do archaeology," he said.

(Read about other Civil War battlefields in National Geographic magazine.)

Published January 11, 2013

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Poisoned Lottery Winner's Kin Were Suspicious

Urooj Khan had just brought home his $425,000 lottery check when he unexpectedly died the following day. Now, certain members of Khan's family are speaking publicly about the mystery -- and his nephew told ABC News they knew something was not right.

"He was a healthy guy, you know?" said the nephew, Minhaj Khan. "He worked so hard. He was always going about his business and, the thing is: After he won the lottery and the next day later he passes away -- it's awkward. It raises some eyebrows."

The medical examiner initially ruled Urooj Khan, 46, an immigrant from India who owned dry-cleaning businesses in Chicago, died July 20, 2012, of natural causes. But after a family member demanded more tests, authorities in November found a lethal amount of cyanide in his blood, turning the case into a homicide investigation.

"When we found out there was cyanide in his blood after the extensive toxicology reports, we had to believe that ... somebody had to kill him," Minhaj Khan said. "It had to happen, because where can you get cyanide?"

In Photos: Biggest Lotto Jackpot Winners

Authorities could be one step closer to learning what happened to Urooj Khan. A judge Friday approved an order to exhume his body at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago as early as Thursday to perform further tests.

Lottery Winner Murdered: Widow Questioned By Police Watch Video

Moments after the court hearing, Urooj Khan's sister, Meraj Khan, remembered her brother as the kind of person who would've shared his jackpot with anyone. Speaking at the Cook County Courthouse, she hoped the exhumation would help the investigation.

"It's very hard because I wanted my brother to rest in peace, but then we have to have justice served," she said, according to ABC News station WLS in Chicago. "So if that's what it takes for him to bring justice and peace, then that's what needs to be done."

Khan reportedly did not have a will. With the investigation moving forward, his family is waging a legal fight against his widow, Shabana Ansari, 32, over more than $1 million, including Urooj Khan's lottery winnings, as well as his business and real estate holdings.

Khan's brother filed a petition Wednesday to a judge asking Citibank to release information about Khan's assets to "ultimately ensure" that [Khan's] minor daughter from a prior marriage "receives her proper share."

Ansari may have tried to cash the jackpot check after Khan's death, according to court documents, which also showed Urooj Khan's family is questioning if the couple was ever even legally married.

Ansari, Urooj Khan's second wife, who still works at the couple's dry cleaning business, has insisted they were married legally.

She has told reporters the night before her husband died, she cooked a traditional Indian meal for him and their family, including Khan's daughter and Ansari's father. Not feeling well, Khan retired early, Ansari told the Chicago Sun-Times, falling asleep in a chair, waking up in agony, then collapsing in the middle of the night. She said she called 911.

"It has been an incredibly hard time," she told ABC News earlier this week. "We went from being the happiest the day we got the check. It was the best sleep I've had. And then the next day, everything was gone.

"I am cooperating with the investigation," Ansari told ABC News. "I want the truth to come out."

Ansari has not been named a suspect, but her attorney, Steven Kozicki, said investigators did question her for more than four hours.

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Today on New Scientist: 11 January 2013

Largest structure challenges Einstein's smooth cosmos

One-twentieth the diameter of the observable universe, a group of galaxies dents the cherished idea that the cosmos is uniform at large scales

Straitjacket drug halts herpes virus's escape stunt

Herpes infections recur as the virus is adept at evading our defences, but a new drug that suppresses enzymes exploited by the virus seems effective

Zoologger: Mouse eats scorpions and howls at the moon

Super-aggressive grasshopper mice are not put off by the deadly venom of the scorpions they feast on - in fact, nothing much seems to scare them

Sand tsunami pictured striking Australian coast

The spectacular wall of sand and dust appears to block out the sun like a giant wave

Astrophile: Zombie stars feed on Earth-like exoplanets

We can now learn what planets around other stars are made of - by looking at the atmospheres of white dwarfs that have swallowed up their worlds

Life will find a way, even in the midst of a hurricane

Not for the faint-hearted: to sample the microbiome of a hurricane, fly a jetliner through it

Physics not biology may be key to beating cancer

Billions of dollars spent on cancer research have yielded no great breakthrough yet. There are other ways to attack the problem, says physicist Paul Davies

Feedback: Return of nominative determinism

The last nominative determinism stories, salads of gizzards and his chestnuts, Australian graduates in outer space, and more

A comeback for virtual reality? Inside the Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift promises an immersive gaming experience like no other. Niall Firth gets his head in the game and gives it a try

Is the US facing Flu-maggedon?

The US flu season has come early this winter, leaving many hospitals overwhelmed. But is the situation really any worse than usual?

Your body's insights into life and cosmos

The Universe Within by Neil Shubin tells stories from your body about our species, planet and universe. PLUS: a cautionary tale of inspirational scientists

Hands on with Leap Motion's gestural interface

The makers of the ultra-precise gestural interface talk big about killing off the mouse. But it looks like more than just bluster

Personal assistant for your emails streamlines your life

GmailValet aims to use crowdsourcing to give everyone a personal assistant to help deal with their emails - it could cost as little as $2 a day

DNA 'identichip' gives a detailed picture of a suspect

A new microchip-based DNA tester can identify multiple traits of an individual at a time, even where their DNA is scarce

Most fundamental clock ever could redefine kilogram

Physicists have created the first clock with a tick that depends on the hyper-regular frequency of matter itself

Nanomachine mimics nature's protein factory

An artificial ribosome that assembles proteins and peptides could make it much easier to manufacture antibiotics and exotic new materials

Muscle mimic pulls electricity from wet surface

A plastic film that repeatedly curls up and flips over when wet could power devices in remote areas or sensors embedded in sweaty clothing

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US study warns of extreme heat, more severe storms

WASHINGTON: A government report warned on Friday that the United States could face more frequent severe weather including heat waves and storms for decades to come as temperatures rise far beyond levels being planned for.

The draft Third National Climate Assessment, a scientific study legally mandated to advise US policymakers, made few bones that carbon emissions have been causing climate change -- a source of controversy among some lawmakers.

"Evidence for climate change abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans," the study said. "The sum total of this evidence tells an unambiguous story: The planet is warming."

The study, which was submitted for public and expert review and could be revised, said there was "strong evidence" that human activity had already roughly doubled the probability of extreme heat of the kind seen in Texas and Oklahoma in the summer of 2011.

The assessment expected temperatures to keep rising and offered different scenarios for the future -- including temperatures rising between 2.8 and 5.6 degrees Celsius (5 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit) after 2050 if emissions climb further.

Such a rise would be far beyond the level anticipated by world leaders in UN-backed climate change negotiations, which have committed to holding warming to no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The report warned that climate change "threatens human health and well-being in many ways," including through more frequent storms, wildfires, diseases and worse air quality.

Rising sea levels have already damaged infrastructure and climate change could increasingly reduce the reliability of water supplies, particularly in the southern half of the United States and Great Plains, the report said.

While US agriculture will likely remain resilient in the next 25 years, yields of major crops could start declining by mid-century and warming oceans could threaten fish, the study said.

The draft assessment said that some additional climate change was "now unavoidable" but said that the United States still could decide how much to allow.

The draft assessment was released three days after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that 2012 was easily the warmest year on record in the continental United States and ranked second for extreme weather.

Environmental advocates hoped that the release of the draft report would bring fresh momentum to efforts to tackle climate change.

"Climate change is taking its toll on people and their economies, and will only become more intense without a strong and rapid response here in the United States and around the globe," Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, said in a statement.

President Barack Obama has hinted he will make a new effort on climate change in the wake of his November 6 re-election and massive storm Sandy, which killed at least 120 people in the US Northeast.

Efforts by Obama's Democratic Party to mandate cuts in carbon emissions failed in 2010 in the Senate. Lawmakers of the rival Republican Party said that legislation would be too costly and voiced doubt over climate science.

Since then, the Obama administration has ordered higher standards for power plants. US emissions dropped in 2011, largely due to increased use of natural gas instead of coal.

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, who released a report in November that warned of potentially catastrophic 4.0 degree Celsius warming if no action is taken, said that evidence is "overwhelming" on climate change.

Speaking on Friday at a luncheon honouring Korean Americans, Kim voiced fear that his three-year-old son would live "a world that looks completely different from the world we have today" when he nears his father's age in 2060.

"If you have a three-year-old child, or if you have a three-year-old grandchild, what you've got to understand is, if we don't act aggressively on climate change, the world they live in will be daily fights over access to water, daily fights over access to food," he said.

- AFP/al

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3 teens shot in South Side attacks

Three teens were shot in two separate South Side attacks this afternoon, authorities said.

About 4:05 p.m., a 16-year-old boy was shot in the thigh and a 17-year-old boy suffered a graze wound to the chest in the 400 block of East 82nd Street in the Chatham neighborhood, said Chicago Police News Affairs Officer Veejay Zala.

The younger victim was taken to Adocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn in serious-to-critical condition, and the older victim was taken to Jackson Park Hospital in good-to-fair condition, according to the Chicago Fire Department's media office.

Police did not have details of the attack.

Earlier this afternoon, a 17-year-old boy was shot and seriously wounded in the Gresham neighborhood on the South Side, according to police and the  Chicago Fire Department.

Someone in a passing vehicle opened fire and shot the 17-year-old boy in the arm and torso in the 2100 block of West 85th Street, according to police News Affairs Officer Veejay Zala. 

About 2 p.m. paramedics responded and took the victim, who Chicago Fire Department spokesman Kevin MacGregor said appeared under age 16, to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn in serious condition.

On the North Side earlier this afternoon, a man was shot and wounded in the Buena Park neighborhood, authorities said.

The victim was taken from the 700 block of West Gordon Terrace to Weiss Memorial Hospital in fair-to-serious condition following the shooting a little before 1 p.m., said Chicago Fire Department spokesman Will Knight.

The man was shot in the buttocks, said Police News Affairs Officer Michael Sullivan.

Initial reports were of several shots fired near Clarendon and Montrose avenues at 12:53 p.m., and a Cook County sheriff's officer calling for assistance after finding someone at the scene a few minutes later, said Chicago Police News Affairs Officer John Mirabelli.

The sheriff's officer was a civil process server, and he heard shots and found the shooting victim nearby, said sheriff's spokeswoman Sophia Ansari.

The officer stayed with the victim and another person who was with him and called for an ambulance and police, Ansari said.

Twitter: @ChicagoBreaking

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Pictures: Civil War Shipwreck Revealed by Sonar

Photograph by Jesse Cancelmo

A fishing net, likely only decades old, drapes over machinery that once connected the Hatteras' pistons to its paddle wheels, said Delgado.

From archived documents, the NOAA archaeologist learned that Blake, the ship's commander, surrendered as his ship was sinking. "It was listing to port, [or the left]," Delgado said. The Alabama took the wounded and the rest of the crew and put them in irons.

The officers were allowed to keep their swords and wander the deck as long as they promised not to lead an uprising against the Alabama's crew, he added.

From there, the Alabama dropped off their captives in Jamaica, leaving them to make their own way back to the U.S.

Delgado wants to dig even further into the crew of the Hatteras. He'd like see if members of the public recognize any of the names on his list of crew members and can give him background on the men.

"That's why I do archaeology," he said.

(Read about other Civil War battlefields in National Geographic magazine.)

Published January 11, 2013

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Obama Promises Faster Transition in Afghanistan

President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai said today that most U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan would end this spring, signaling a quickening troop drawdown that will bring the decade-long war to a close at the end of 2014.

"Our troops will continue to fight alongside Afghans when needed, but let me say it as plainly as I can: Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission -- training, advising, assisting Afghan forces," Obama announced at an East Room news conference in Washington.

"It will be a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty, something I know that President Karzai cares deeply about, as do the Afghan people," he said.

Administration officials said Afghan forces were "exceeding initial expectations" in their capabilities. Afghan security forces are expected to lead 90 percent of security operations across the country in February.

"By the end of next year -- 2014 -- the transition will be complete," Obama said. "Afghans will have full responsibility for their security, and this war will come to a responsible end."

The rosy assessments belied the serious political, economic and security challenges that remain.

Left unanswered by Obama and Karzai: How many U.S. troops might stay after 2014; what their mission would be and whether they could be effective; and whether the forces would have immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts.

Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

President Hamid Karzai Addresses Afghan Sovereignty at White House Watch Video

Afghanistan: Insider Attacks Mark War's 11th Anniversary Watch Video

Afghanistan Troop Surge Ends at Tumultuous Point Watch Video

Obama said he was still reviewing recommendations from the Pentagon and will make an announcement in the coming weeks after penning an anticipated bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan. Karzai said the exact number would be up to the United States to decide.

Both leaders confirmed in a statement that the United States "does not seek permanent bases in Afghanistan."

They also agreed today to turn over battlefield combatants held by the U.S. military in Afghanistan to Afghan government control, which has been long-sought by Karzai.

Roughly 66,000 U.S. troops are serving in Afghanistan. The military has proposed keeping several thousand troops in the country after 2014 as advisers, trainers and logistical support for Afghan forces; the White House has said it remains open to pulling out all troops entirely.

Obama's visit with Karzai was the first face-to-face encounter since the November election and since last year's dramatic increase in so-called green-on-blue attacks, when U.S. and NATO soldiers have been killed by the Afghans they are training or working alongside.

There were 45 insider attacks in 2012 that resulted in 62 deaths among coalition forces, including 35 Americans. There has been one attack already in the first 11 days of 2013.

The White House summit included a private Oval Office meeting between Obama, Karzai and Vice President Joe Biden. The trio also attended a private lunch in the Old Family Dining Room.

Karzai Thursday attended meetings with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and top military brass at the Pentagon, where he was afforded all the pomp and circumstance accorded a head of state: a 21-gun salute, and marching bands and honor guards from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.

Karzai's relationship with the United States has at times been a rocky one as he has sometimes made critical statements about the allied troop presence in his country. U.S. officials believe he has made those comments out of political expediency to improve his standing with Afghans and show his independence.

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Muscle mimic pulls electricity from wet surface

Electricity has been squeezed from a damp surface for the first time, thanks to a polymer film that curls up and moves – a bit like an artificial muscle – when exposed to moisture. The film could be used to run small, wearable devices on nothing but sweat, or in remote locations where conventional electricity sources aren't available.

When a dry polymer absorbs water, its molecular structure changes. This can, in principle, be converted into larger-scale movement, and in turn electricity. But previous attempts at creating a material powered by a moisture gradient – the difference in chemical potential energy between a wet region and a dry region - failed to produce a useful level of force.

These unsuccessful tries used a polymer called polypyrrole. Now Robert Langer and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have turned to the material again, embedding chains of it within another material, polyol-borate. This more complex arrangement mimics structures found in muscles as well as in plant tissues that bend in response to changes in humidity.

Flipping film

The result looks like an ordinary piece of thin black plastic, but when placed on a wet surface, something extraordinary happens. As the material absorbs water, its end curls away from the surface and the film becomes unstable, so it flips over. The ends have now dried out, so they are ready to absorb more water, and the whole process repeats itself. This continuous flipping motion lets the film travel across a suitably moist surface unaided.

Langer found that a 0.03-millimetre-thick strip, weighing roughly 25 milligrams, could curl up and lift a load 380 times its mass to a height of 2 millimetres. It was also able to move sideways when carrying a load about 10 times its mass.

To extract energy from this effect, Langer's team added a layer of piezoelectric material – one which produces electricity when squeezed. When this enhanced film, weighing about 100 milligrams, flipped over, it generated an output of 5.6 nanowatts – enough to power a microchip in sleep mode.

Electricity from sweat

Though the output is small, it is proof that electricity can be extracted from a water gradient. "To the extent of our knowledge, we are the first to utilise a water gradient, without a pressure gradient, to generate electricity," says Langer.

Large-scale energy harvesting is unlikely as the size of the device needed would be impractical, but it could be used to power small devices such as environmental monitoring systems in remote locations. "It will be interesting for applications where the amount of energy needed may be low but where access to energy may be difficult," says Peter Fratzl at the Max-Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany, who was not involved in the work.

Another application, Langer suggests, would be to place the film inside the clothing of joggers or athletes. The evaporation of sweat could generate enough electricity to power sensors monitoring blood pressure and heart rate.

Journal reference: Science, DOI 10.1126/science.1230262

If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.

All comments should respect the New Scientist House Rules. If you think a particular comment breaks these rules then please use the "Report" link in that comment to report it to us.

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US flu outbreak claims at least 18 lives

WASHINGTON: The United States was in the grip Thursday of a deadly influenza outbreak that has hit harder and earlier than in previous years, and has claimed the lives of at least 18 children.

"It looks like the worst year we had since 2003-2004," said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Fauci said this year's influenza strain, which has sickened thousands across the country, is particularly severe.

"The type of flu is one that generally is more serious. It's the H3N2 variety, which is historically more serious than we see with other types of virus," he said.

The epidemic, which broke out at the beginning of December, has caused some 2,200 hospitalizations across the United States, federal health officials said.

Particularly hard hit has been the northeastern city of Boston, where officials have declared a public health emergency.

City officials there said there so far have been about 700 confirmed cases of flu, almost 10 times the number from this time last year.

"This is the worst flu season we've seen since 2009, and people should take the threat of flu seriously," Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said in a statement.

"I'm urging residents to get vaccinated if they haven't already. It's the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family. If you're sick, please stay home from work or school," he said.

Joe Bresee, chief of the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Influenza division, said officials don't yet know how much worse this year's outbreak will get.

"While we can't say for certain how severe this season will be, we can say that a lot of people are getting sick with influenza and we are getting reports of severe illness and hospitalizations," he said.

US states, particularly in the northeast of the country, have seen a sharp spike in emergency room visits from patients reporting flu-like symptoms, according to the federal CDC in Atlanta.

In Allentown, Pennsylvania, one hospital had to erect a large outdoor tent to admit and treat the large number of flu sufferers.

Health officials said that the flu vaccine is a good match for the strain of influenza circulating around the nation, and confers about 60 per cent to 65 per cent protection against the illness.

"You might get the flu but it will likely be less severe if you are vaccinated," Fauci said.

- AFP/ck

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1 dead, 1 wounded in South Side attack

Police at the scene

Chicago police work at the scene of a fatal shooting at 71st an Jeffrey on Chicago's southeast side.
(Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune / January 10, 2013)

Two men were wounded, one fatally, in a shooting in the South Shore neighborhood this evening, police said.

The shooting took place about 6:13 p.m. in the 2000  block of East 71st Street — near Jeffery Boulevard —said Chicago Police News Affairs Officer Veejay Zala.

One man was shot and died on the scene, the other suffered a gunshot wound to the leg and was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for treatment, said Zala. A condition was not available.

News Affairs had no immediate information on any of the circumstances of the shooting.
Twitter: @ChicagoBreaking

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Google and Twitter Help Track Influenza Outbreaks

This flu season could be the longest and worst in years. So far 18 children have died from flu-related symptoms, and 2,257 people have been hospitalized.

Yesterday Boston Mayor Thomas Menino declared a citywide public health emergency, with roughly 700 confirmed flu cases—ten times the number the city saw last year.

"It arrived five weeks early, and it's shaping up to be a pretty bad flu season," said Lyn Finelli, who heads the Influenza Outbreak Response Team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Boston isn't alone. According to the CDC, 41 states have reported widespread influenza activity, and in the last week of 2012, 5.6 percent of doctor's office visits across the country were for influenza-like illnesses. The severity likely stems from this year's predominant virus: H3N2, a strain known to severely affect children and the elderly. Finelli notes that the 2003-2004 flu season, also dominated by H3N2, produced similar numbers. (See "Are You Prepped? The Influenza Roundup.")

In tracking the flu, physicians and public health officials have a host of new surveillance tools at their disposal thanks to crowdsourcing and social media. Such tools let them get a sense of the flu's reach in real time rather than wait weeks for doctor's offices and state health departments to report in.

Pulling data from online sources "is no different than getting information on over-the-counter medication or thermometer purchases [to track against an outbreak]," said Philip Polgreen, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa.

The most successful of these endeavors, Google Flu Trends, analyzes flu-related Internet search terms like "flu symptoms" or "flu medication" to estimate flu activity in different areas. It tracks flu outbreaks globally.

Another tool, HealthMap, which is sponsored by Boston Children's Hospital, mines online news reports to track outbreaks in real time. Sickweather draws from posts on Twitter and Facebook that mention the flu for its data.

People can be flu-hunters themselves with Flu Near You, a project that asks people to report their symptoms once a week. So far more than 38,000 people have signed up for this crowdsourced virus tracker. And of course, there's an app for that.

Both Finelli, a Flu Near You user, and Polgreen find the new tools exciting but agree that they have limits. "It's not as if we can replace traditional surveillance. It's really just a supplement, but it's timely," said Polgreen.

When people have timely warning that there's flu in the community, they can get vaccinated, and hospitals can plan ahead. According to a 2012 study in Clinical Infectious Diseases, Google Flu Trends has shown promise predicting emergency room flu traffic. Some researchers are even using a combination of the web database and weather data to predict when outbreaks will peak.

As for the current flu season, it's still impossible to predict week-to-week peaks and troughs. "We expect that it will last a few more weeks, but we can never tell how bad it's going to get," said Finelli.

Hospitals are already taking precautionary measures. One Pennsylvania hospital erected a separate emergency room tent for additional flu patients. This week, several Illinois hospitals went on "bypass," alerting local first responders that they're at capacity—due to an uptick in both flu and non-flu cases—so that patients will be taken to alternative facilities, if possible.

In the meantime, the CDC advises vaccination, first and foremost. On the bright side, the flu vaccine being used this year is a good match for the H3N2 strain. Though Finelli cautions, "Sometimes drifted strains pop up toward the end of the season."

It looks like there won't be shortages of seasonal flu vaccine like there have been in past years. HealthMap sports a Flu Vaccine Finder to make it a snap to find a dose nearby. And if the flu-shot line at the neighborhood pharmacy seems overwhelming, more health departments and clinics are offering drive-through options.

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Hero Teacher Talks Shooter into Dropping Gun

A California high school teacher is being hailed a hero for talking a 16-year-old shooter into putting down his gun and turning himself in after opening fire on a classroom and wounding another student, police said.

The student victim was taken to a nearby hospital and remains in critical but stable condition, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood told reporters on Thursday.

The teacher, whose name has not yet been officially released by authorities, helped evacuate nearly two dozen students out a door at Taft Union High School in Taft, Calif., while calmly engaging the young gunman, who is a student at Taft Union, in conversation.

Chris McCullah/The Californian/ZUMA

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The teacher and a campus supervisor, who responded to the gunfire and arrived at the classroom, helped convince the teenager to stop shooting.

"They talked him into putting the shotgun down," Youngblood said.

The shooting began around 9 a.m. in the school's science building and sheriff's deputies were on the scene within one minute of the call. An armed security guard who is typically at the school was not on campus because he had been snowed in, the sheriff said.

Two other students received minor injuries: One reported hearing loss and the other fell over a table. The teacher was shot with a pellet, but refused medical treatment, according to police.

The school's 900 students were evacuated from the building and many of them were met by parents within minutes of the first 911 calls.

Today's shooting comes less than month after 20-year-old Adam Lanza opened fire on an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. killing 20 children and six adults.

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Hints of new dark force seen in galactic smash-ups

Colliding clusters of galaxies may hold clues to a mysterious dark force at work in the universe. This force would act only on invisible dark matter, the enigmatic stuff that makes up 86 per cent of the mass in the universe.

Dark matter famously refuses to interact with ordinary matter except via gravity, so theorists had assumed that its particles would be just as aloof with each other. But new observations suggest that dark matter interacts significantly with itself, while leaving regular matter out of the conversation.

"There could be a whole class of dark particles that don't interact with normal matter but do interact with themselves," says James Bullock of the University of California, Irvine. "Dark matter could be doing all sorts of interesting things, and we'd never know."

Some of the best evidence for dark matter's existence came from the Bullet clusterMovie Camera, a smash-up in which a small galaxy cluster plunged through a larger one about 100 million years ago. Separated by hundreds of light years, the individual galaxies sailed right past each other, and the two clusters parted ways. But intergalactic gas collided and pooled on the trailing ends of each cluster.

Mass maps of the Bullet cluster showed that dark matter stayed in line with the galaxies instead of pooling with the gas, proving that it can separate from ordinary matter. This also hinted that dark matter wasn't interacting with itself, and was affected by gravity alone.

Musket shot

Last year William Dawson of the University of California, Davis and colleagues found an older set of clusters seen about 700 million years after their collision. Nicknamed the Musket Ball cluster, this smash-up told a different tale. When Dawson's team analysed the concentration of matter in the Musket Ball, they found that galaxies are separated from dark matter by about 19,000 light years.

"The galaxies outrun the dark matter. That's what creates the offset," Dawson said. "This is fitting that picture of self-interacting dark matter." If dark matter particles do interact, perhaps via a dark force, they would slow down like the gas.

This new picture could solve some outstanding mysteries in cosmology, Dawson said this week during a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, California. Non-interacting dark matter should sink to the cores of star clusters and dwarf galaxies, but observations show that it is more evenly distributed. If it interacts with itself, it could puff up and spread outward like a gas.

So why doesn't the Bullet cluster show the same separation between dark matter and galaxies? Dawson thinks it's a question of age – dark matter in the younger Bullet simply hasn't had time to separate.

New window

The idea complements a previous study that saw evidence for dark forces at work in the Bullet cluster. In 2007 Glennys Farrar of New York University and colleagues said that the smaller cluster was moving too fast for gravity alone to be responsible. They suggested that some mysterious force related to dark matter might be hurrying it along.

Still, two clusters is not a lot to go on. Dawson, Bullock and colleagues are following up with about 20 more galactic collisions to see if they show any unusual behaviours. "I really think that we're almost to the point where we have enough observational data in hand," Dawson said. "We could close the book on self-interacting dark matter."

If the new force does exist, we might soon be able to see its effects on things influenced by dark matter, such as the behavior of black holes or the masses of the first stars, says Douglas Finkbeiner of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was not involved in the new study.

"The simple thing isn't always the right thing, so I really appreciate that Will is trying to look into these other possibilities," he says.

Louis Strigari of Stanford University in California agrees. "Self-interacting dark matter is worth pursuing because we're still very ignorant," he said. "We're desperate to understand what dark matter is, so any new window is welcome."

If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.

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SIA to recruit & train intern cabin crew from polys

SINGAPORE: Singapore Airlines (SIA) is working closely with three polytechnics to recruit and train cabin crew, as part of efforts to attract the best talent.

It has special programmes with Nanyang Polytechnic, Republic Polytechnic and Temasek Polytechnic, covering recruitment activities.

It's also starting an internship-recruitment programme to hire and train selected students to become full-time cabin crew.

These are provided under Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) that the carrier signed with the three polytechnics on Thursday.

Besides recruitment, the MOUs also cover areas of potential cooperation such as curriculum development in service, operations, safety and security.

SIA will also work with the polytechnics on continued education programmes for cabin crew.

SIA employs about 7,500 cabin crew. New crew undergo an extensive 15-week training programme in areas such as service delivery, customer relations, deportment, security and safety.

- CNA/ck

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Exhumation of poisoned lottery winner proceeds

Cook County authorities continue to move toward exhuming the body of a Chicago man who died of cyanide poisoning weeks after winning a $1 million lottery jackpot.
Cook County prosecutors are drafting court papers and expect a judge to hear the matter on Friday at the Daley Center courthouse, Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, said today.

Chief Medical Examiner Stephen J. Cina sent a sworn statement to prosecutors on Tuesday explaining why an autopsy was needed in order to ensure a complete investigation.
The exhumation could take place as soon as next week, according to sources familiar with the process.
The mystery surrounding Urooj Khan's death has sparked international media interest.

As first reported by the Tribune in a front-page story on Monday, Khan died suddenly last July just weeks after winning a million-dollar prize.

Finding no trauma to his body and no unusual substances in his blood, the medical examiner's office declared his death to be from natural causes and he was buried at Rosehill Cemetery without an autopsy.

About a week later, a relative told the medical examiner’s office to take a closer look at the 46-year-old’s death. By early December, comprehensive toxicology tests showed that Khan had died of a lethal amount of cyanide, prompting Chicago police and county prosecutors to investigate his homicide.

While a motive has not been determined yet, police haven't ruled out that Khan was killed because of his lottery win, a law enforcement source has told the Tribune.

Khan, the owner of three dry cleaners on the North Side, died before he could collect the lump-sum winnings – about $425,000 after taxes.

The Tribune reported in Wednesday’s newspaper that authorities investigating the homicide executed a search warrant at the home he had shared with his wife, Shabana Ansari.

She later was interviewed by detectives for more than four hours, answering all their questions, according to her attorney, Steven Kozicki.

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Embryonic Sharks Freeze to Avoid Detection

Jane J. Lee

Although shark pups are born with all the equipment they'll ever need to defend themselves and hunt down food, developing embryos still stuck in their egg cases are vulnerable to predators. But a new study finds that even these baby sharks can detect a potential predator, and play possum to avoid being eaten.

Every living thing gives off a weak electrical field. Sharks can sense this with a series of pores—called the ampullae of Lorenzini—on their heads and around their eyes, and some species rely on this electrosensory ability to find food buried in the seafloor. (See pictures of electroreceptive fish.)

Two previous studies on the spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula) and the clearnose skate (Raja eglanteria)—a relative of sharks—found similar freezing behavior in their young. But new research by shark biologist and doctoral student Ryan Kempster at the University of Western Australia has given scientists a more thorough understanding of this behavior.

It all started because Kempster wanted to build a better shark repellent. Since he needed to know how sharks respond to electrical fields, Kempster decided to use embryos. "It's very hard to test this in the field because you need to get repeated responses," he said. And you can't always get the same shark to cooperate multiple times. "But we could use embryos because they're contained within an egg case."

Cloaking Themselves

So Kempster got his hands on 11 brownbanded bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium punctatum) embryos and tested their reactions to the simulated weak electrical field of a predator. (Popular pictures: Bamboo shark swallowed whole—by another shark.)

In a study published today in the journal PLoS One, Kempster and his colleagues report that all of the embryonic bamboo sharks, once they reached later stages of development, reacted to the electrical field by ceasing gill movements (essentially, holding their breath), curling their tails around their bodies, and freezing.

A bamboo shark embryo normally beats its tail to move fresh seawater in and out of its egg case. But that generates odor cues and small water currents that can give away its position. The beating of its gills as it breathes also generates an electrical field that predators can use to find it.

"So it cloaks itself," said neuroecologist Joseph Sisneros, at the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved in the study. "[The embryo] shuts down any odor cues, water movement, and its own electrical signal."

Sisneros, who conducted the previous clearnose skate work, is delighted to see that this shark species also reacts to external electrical fields and said it would be great to see whether this is something all shark, skate, and ray embryos do.

Marine biologist Stephen Kajiura, at Florida Atlantic University, is curious to know how well the simulated electrical fields compare to the bamboo shark's natural predators—the experimental field was on the higher end of the range normally given off.

"[But] they did a good job with [the study]," Kajiura said. "They certainly did a more thorough study than anyone else has done."

Electrifying Protection?

In addition to the freezing behavior he recorded in the bamboo shark embryos, Kempster found that the shark pups remembered the electrical field signal when it was presented again within 40 minutes and that they wouldn't respond as strongly to subsequent exposures as they did initially.

This is important for developing shark repellents, he said, since some of them use electrical fields to ward off the animals. "So if you were using a shark repellent, you would need to change the current over a 20- to 30-minute period so the shark doesn't get used to that field."

Kempster envisions using electrical fields to not only keep humans safe but to protect sharks as well. Shark populations have been on the decline for decades, due partly to ending up as bycatch, or accidental catches, in the nets and on the longlines of fishers targeting other animals.

A 2006 study estimated that as much as 70 percent of landings, by weight, in the Spanish surface longline fleet were sharks, while a 2007 report found that eight million sharks are hooked each year off the coast of southern Africa. (Read about the global fisheries crisis in National Geographic magazine.)

"If we can produce something effective, it could be used in the fishing industry to reduce shark bycatch," Kempster said. "In [America] at the moment, they're doing quite a lot of work trying to produce electromagnetic fish hooks." The eventual hope is that if these hooks repel the sharks, they won't accidentally end up on longlines.

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Arias Caught Lying to Cops in Recorded Phone Calls

Jodi Arias blatantly lied to police who asked her about Travis Alexander's death, telling them in recorded phone calls that she kept trying to call and message Alexander the week of his death but never heard back from him.

The phone calls were played as evidence during the fourth day of Arias' trial, in which she is charged with murder and could face the death penalty if convicted of killing Alexander in a "depraved and heinous" way. Arias has admitted to killing her former boyfriend, but claims it was self-defense.

During the phone conversations played in court, Arias can be heard telling Mesa, Ariz., detective Esteban Flores that she last talked to Alexander on Tuesday night, June 3, 2008, around 10 p.m. She had been in Los Angeles, about to leave to go to Utah to visit a new love interest, she said.

After June 3, he stopped calling her back, she said.

Photos of Key Players and Evidence in the Jodi Arias Murder Trial

"On Tuesday night (I talked to him), it was brief though, 10 o'clock maybe. I'd say 10 p.m. or 9 - 9:30. I was calling people because I was bored on the road. He was nice and cordial, but kind of acting like he had hurt feelings," she said.

"I may have called him Wednesday, from the road, and I sent him a couple of text messages, and a couple of pictures," she said, though Alexander didn't pick up and his voice mailbox was full. "That's unusual. He deletes all of his messages. I didn't want to be obsessive about it because we're not together anymore and I didn't like to call too much."

According to court records, Arias, 32, actually went to Alexander's home on in Mesa on Wednesday morning. There, the pair had sex and took graphic photos of one another with Alexander's camera.

Then, Arias is believed to have killed Alexander, 30, in his shower by stabbing him, slashing his throat from ear to ear, and shooting him in the head.

In the phone conversations, Arias told Flores that she considered calling Alexander's friends when he stopped returning her calls on Wednesday, but didn't want to act like "his mother."

Alexander's friends found his body five days later with stab wounds and a bullet wound, lying in blood in his home.

Flores asked Arias if she ever considered buying a gun, she said she was too scared of handguns.

Jodi Arias/Myspace | ABC News

Jodi Arias Murder Trial: Who Is the Alleged Killer? Watch Video

Jodi Arias Trial: Defense Claims Victim Was Sex Deviant Watch Video

"I've looked into handguns. I have a list of things I'm scared of that I'm trying to overcome," she said. "I got that from Travis, you know, to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and do things you're afraid of. But handguns are expensive and not really in my price range right now."

Arias is accused of stealing her grandmother's handgun and using it to shoot Alexander in the head during the attack.
The detective interviewed Arias by phone multiple times in June after Alexander's body was discovered by his friends on June 9.

Arias was indicted on July 9, 2008, and changed her story again before her arraignment, telling a TV news station that she was at Alexander's house when he was killed and witnessed two intruders kill him.

After she was arraigned, Arias told police she killed Alexander, but did it in self-defense. Arias's attorneys have said that Alexander was controlling and abusive toward Arias, and described him as a "sexual deviant."

In earlier testimony in court today, Arias's new love interest, Ryan Burns, testified that Arias showed up to his house on the morning of Thursday, Dec. 5, just 24 hours after she killed Alexander.

There, the pair cuddled, kissed, and watched movies, according to Burns.

Burns, who met Arias at a business conference in spring, 2008, said he exchanged frequent long phone calls and online conversations with Arias before inviting her to come visit him in West Jordan, Utah, in June. Arias lived in California at the time.

She arrived at Burns's home 24 hours after she was expected there, telling him that she got lost, drove the wrong way on a freeway for a few hours, fell asleep for awhile, and then got lost again, Burns testified today.

She never told him that she had confronted Alexander with a knife or gun and ended up killing him just hours before their date.

When she arrived, the pair quickly got physical, he testified.

"We went back to my house. We talked for awhile, and agreed that we were going to watch a movie. At some point we were talking and we kissed. Every time we started kissing it got a little more escalated. Our clothes never came off, but at some point she was kissing my neck, I was kissing hers, but our clothes never came off," he said.

Burns said that both he and Arias stopped kissing at the time, though they again became physically involved later in the evening when Arias climbed on top of Burns and began kissing him. Burns said that they stopped kissing because he did not want her to "regret the visit" because of her Mormon beliefs about sex.

He also told prosecutors upon questioning that Arias was physically strong.

"She's very fit," he said, describing their encounter when she climbed on top of him. "She's very strong. She has close to a six pack (of abs)."

Prosecutors likely asked about the strength of Arias because in testimony Tuesday Maricopa County medical examiner Kevin Horn said Alexander was stabbed so forcefully that the blade chipped his skull and his neck was cut all the way back to the spinal cord.

Burns, who is also a Mormon, said he noticed two bandages on Arias's hand when she arrived at his house, which she told him she got when a glass broke at her place of employment, Margaritaville.

During her visit, the pair also went to a business meeting and went out with Burns' friends where Burns described Arias as acting "shy" and a "little awkward."

"She was fine, she was laughing about simple little things like any other person. I never once felt like anything was wrong during the day. With a crowd she was a little awkward in social areas, but one on one she was very talkative and excitable," he said.

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Pruney fingers give us better grip underwater

WHY do our fingers do prune impressions when soaked? It could be an adaptation that gives us better grip underwater.

Fingers and toes wrinkle in water after about 5 minutes due to the constriction of blood vessels. This reduction in volume pulls the skin inward, but as the skin's surface area cannot change, it wrinkles. A study in 2011 showed that wrinkles form a pattern of channels that divert water away from the fingertip – akin to rain treads on tyres. The team thought that this could aid grip.

To find out, Tom Smulders and his team at Newcastle University, UK, timed people as they transferred wet or dry objects from one box to another with and without wrinkled fingers.

With wrinkles, wet objects were transferred about 12 per cent faster than with unwrinkled fingers. The time it took to transfer dry objects was the same regardless of wrinkles.

So why aren't our digits always prune-like? "With wrinkles, less of your skin surface touches the object, so there may be issues of sensitivity," Smulders suggests.

Journal reference: Royal Society Biology Letters, DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0999.

If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.

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Football: Liga-dominated FIFPro World XI raises eyebrows

LONDON: With Spanish clubs having supplied all 11 members of the FIFPro World XI for 2012, La Liga's claim to be considered the world's best league appears stronger than ever.

Barcelona and Real Madrid may have missed out in last season's Champions League, losing to Chelsea and Bayern Munich respectively, but they still supplied 10 of the players voted into FIFA's all-star team by over 55,000 professional footballers around the world.

Atletico Madrid's Colombian striker Radamel Falcao completed the line-up, meaning that for the first time in the eight-year history of the selection, all 11 players were drawn from teams playing in the same country.

In recent years, coinciding with Spain's dominance of both club and international football, the make-up of the FIFPro World XI has crystallised around a small coterie of players.

Serial Ballon d'Or-winner Lionel Messi has been a mainstay of the side since 2007, Iker Casillas and Xavi since 2008, and Andres Iniesta and Cristiano Ronaldo have been included in the team for the past four years.

In fact, so enduring is the appeal of the players at Spain's top two clubs that there were only two changes to the 11 voted into the FIFPro World XI in 2011.

Manchester United pair Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic were the men to make way, for Falcao and Madrid's Brazilian left-back Marcelo, as the English Premier League had its grip on the team prised away finger by finger.

England has at least mustered representation in recent years, which is more than can be said for the German Bundesliga and France's Ligue 1, while the leading lights from Italy's Serie A have been ignored since 2010.

Amid criticism that the FIFPro selection amounts to nothing more than a glorified popularity contest, dissenting voices have emerged.

Germany captain Lothar Matthaus, present at the Ballon d'Or ceremony in Zurich, claims "people were shaking their heads" when the line-up was announced, while Chelsea left-back Ashley Cole jokingly tweeted: "#iwantspanishpassport."

Given the Spanish national team's stellar achievements in 2012 and the enduring brilliance of Messi and Ronaldo, it is difficult to quibble with much of the team, but there is room for conjecture.

Xabi Alonso won the league with Madrid and scored twice against France in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, but his performances in Poland and Ukraine were eclipsed by those of Italy's Andrea Pirlo.

The elegant Juventus midfielder narrowly missed out to Iniesta in the voting for the player of the tournament and UEFA technical director Andy Roxburgh described his displays as "magnificent".

His Italy and Juve team-mates Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini also enjoyed excellent years, including success in Serie A, although both were members of the back line pierced four times by Spain in the Euro 2012 final.

In attack, Manchester United striker Robin van Persie, Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea's Champions League hero Didier Drogba all presented strong cases for inclusion as well, albeit not with a Spanish accent.

FIFPro World XI 2012:

Iker Casillas (ESP/Real Madrid); Dani Alves (BRA/Barcelona), Gerard Pique (ESP/Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (ESP/Real Madrid), Marcelo (BRA/Real Madrid); Xabi Alonso (ESP/Real Madrid), Xavi (ESP/Barcelona), Andres Iniesta (ESP/Barcelona); Lionel Messi (ARG/Barcelona), Radamel Falcao (COL/Atletico Madrid), Cristiano Ronaldo (POR/Real Madrid)


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Medical examiner seeks to exhume body of poisoned lottery winner

Urooj Khan

Urooj Khan won the $1 million in the lottery just weeks before he died suddenly of a heart attack in his West Rogers Park home last summer. Now, months after his death, Chicago police were conducting a homicide investigation after it was discovered that he had been poisoned.
(January 7, 2013)

Cook County authorities investigating the cyanide-poisoning death of a Chicago man who had hit a lottery jackpot want to exhume his body to conduct an autopsy.

In a telephone interview today with the Tribune, Medical Examiner Stephen J. Cina said he sent a sworn statement to prosecutors laying out why he wanted the body of Urooj Khan exhumed. The state’s attorney’s office is planning to file papers in civil court in coming days asking a judge to approve the exhumation of Khan’s remains, spokeswoman Sally Daly said.

As first reported by the Tribune in a front-page story Monday, Khan, 46, who owned a dry cleaning business on the city’s North Side, died suddenly last July just weeks after winning a million-dollar prize at a 7-Eleven store near his home. Finding no trauma to his body and no unusual substances in his blood, the medical examiner's office declared his death to be from natural causes and he was buried at Rosehill Cemetery without an autopsy.

About a week later, a relative told the medical examiner’s office to take a closer look at Khan’s death. By early December, comprehensive toxicology tests showed that Khan had died of a lethal amount of cyanide, prompting Chicago police and county prosecutors to investigate his homicide.

While a motive has not been determined yet, police haven't ruled out that Khan was killed because of his big lottery win, a law enforcement source told the Tribune. He died before he could collect the winnings – about $425,000 after taxes.

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