Friday, December 26, 2008

US defence industry gets alarm call - Immortal Invaders Infect World's Oceans - Wall Street Is 'No More' - Ancient skills 'could reverse global warming' - First 'placebo gene' discovered - Toddler Befriends Baby Orangutan

In the twisted, political logic of a gathering recession, the weakness of US-based automakers can be strength and the aerospace sector's health makes it a target.

The US Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), recognising this ironic peril, has launched an advertising campaign aimed at lawmakers and president-elect Barack Obama's transition team to underscore the value of the aerospace and defence industry to the economy.

The key message: do not break a healthy defence industry just to fix other parts of the economy that are falling apart.

"There are things they can do that can make that engine stutter or even jump the track," says Fred Downey, the AIA's vice-president of national security. "That's a bad thing for national security, number one. And it's bad for the overall economy, number two."


A full-page advertisement in The Washington Post on 2 December and follow-up ads running in political journals remind lawmakers that the industry supports 2 million jobs and 30,000 suppliers in the USA alone.

The goal is not to salvage any particular programme, such as the threatened Lockheed Martin F-22 and Boeing C-17 production lines, but to avert a wider defence industry financial catastrophe.

"We don't take a position on a specific programme," Downey says. "What I'm thinking of is more along the lines of what happened at the demise of the Soviet Union. Some people declared a peace dividend [saying], 'we can take money from defence for these other worthy needs'. We believe here that it's absolutely important to have stability and predictability in the defence programme side."

AIA's bottom-line recommendation is to contribute 4% of the gross domestic product to spending on national security, or about $700 billion. Of that number, about $120-$150 billion should be assigned to the Department of Defense's procurement and research and development accounts to maintain a healthy defence industry, Downey says.

However, the track record of defence contractors and the military's acquisition system raises questions about whether taxpayers' money might be better spent elsewhere. Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the cost of the top 95 military acquisition programmes in the Pentagon's budget had grown by a combined $295 billion.


Downey, a former aide to senator Joe Lieberman, acknowledges that the defence industry has problems, but argues they will not be solved by spending cuts. "There clearly are inefficiencies in the acquisition system, and they need to be fixed. But that doesn't translate into free money for something else," he says.

So far, neither Obama nor the Democratic majority in Congress have taken specific aim at the defence industry. However, one Democratic congressman, Rep Barney Frank, recently called for a 25% cut in defence spending.

Obama's national security team appears in no rush to cut funding for the military. The AIA briefed Obama's campaign before the election about the recommendation to devote 4% of GDP to national security.

"The response was positive," Downey says. "They recognised there are real and legitimate defence requirements and they need to be funded."

After 10 consecutive years of rapid growth in military spending, the defence industry is in relatively good form compared with the rest of the economy and its exports are held up as a rare bright spot of growth in the manufacturing sector.

To be sure, the defence industry faces challenges. Three major contractors - BAE Systems, Bell Helicopter and Boeing - have announced layoffs. The cumulative layoffs, however, amount to about 1,500 workers, which pales in comparison to the thousands of net job cuts in the automotive and financial sectors.

As a result, the banking industry and the three US-based automakers are in Congress pleading for a bailout, while the defence industry hopes that it is not forced to pay the bill.

"When you're wrestling with a bunch of alligators," Downey says, "the long-term goal of draining the swamp seems to fade into the future and we just want to remind them while they're dealing with alligators not to forget the long-term problem."

Immortal Invaders Infect World's Oceans

Hydrozoan1 The rock star mantra of "live fast, die young" works in reverse too - you can trade off enjoyment for endurance.  Don't smoke, drink or eat meat and you can extend your life by decades, though what you're going to do with all that time is another question.  Now it seems that an animal has taken this to the logical extreme, and can live forever - the only drawback being it lives forever as a small clump of jelly.

The Hydrozoan, a small predatory sea creature like a jellyfish but without all their well known exciting higher functions, can achieve the dream of millions and become a child again.  When adverse environmental conditions threaten death it can collapse into a rugged blob of cells to survive.  When it re-emerges, it does so as a child - literally building itself up all over again.  Since this isn't just a shell to hide in, but a complete structural restart, it seems possible that it could keep this up forever.

Since one of these adverse environmental conditions is "getting sucked into the ballast tanks of a freighter", the hardy hitchhiker has spread all over the globe.  It possesses stingers and eats things, which are definitely qualities you don't want in something that's unkillable and spreading worldwide, but if you're larger than a shrimp you're still safe.  If you are currently smaller than a shrimp, get Rick Moranis to block the laser and try to be in a better comedy next time.

We aren't in any immediate danger of knock-on effects either, as the jetsetting jellyfish-ettes seem to be integrating quite harmlessly into their new homes (though some shrimp might disagree).  The rather damp phoenix-stylings of the hydrozoan have obviously made them a hot topic in genetics, but don't expect to buy your immortality pills just yet - this is one life extension option that isn't even remotely applicable to humans.

Posted by Luke McKinney.

Former Bear Stearns CEO Greenberg Says Wall Street Is 'No More'

By Elizabeth Hester and Peter Cook

Dec. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Alan "Ace" Greenberg, the former Bear Stearns Cos. chief executive officer who is approaching his 61st year on Wall Street, said the investment-banking model he helped pioneer is defunct.

"There's no more Wall Street," Greenberg, 81, said last night in an interview on Bloomberg's "Money & Politics" television program. "That model just doesn't work because it's at the mercy of rumors."

Greenberg elected to stay when JPMorgan Chase & Co., the biggest U.S. bank, acquired Bear Stearns through a forced sale in March. The acquisition followed a run by clients and lenders that left New York-based Bear Stearns on the brink of bankruptcy. Market speculation helped cause customers to pull their money from Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., and pushed down the stock prices, he said.

The entire make-up of Wall Street has changed "forever," Greenberg said. This year has seen the demise of Bear Stearns and Lehman, Bank of America Corp.'s purchase of Merrill Lynch & Co., and the conversions of Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. into bank holding companies.

"Rumors can start and turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy," Greenberg said during the interview in Washington. He said he's "never seen anything close" to the current economic decline and turmoil in the financial markets.

Financial firms worldwide have taken $980 billion of writedowns, losses and credit provisions since the start of the crisis, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. More than 201,000 jobs have been cut across the industry and the U.S. benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 Index has dropped 38 percent this year, the worst annual decline since 1937.


Firms that specialize in advisory work on mergers and acquisitions are "going to stay in business" as demand for independent opinions grow, Greenberg said.

New York-based JPMorgan, which kept the Bear Stearns name for the brokers, offered Greenberg a payout equal to 40 percent of the commission revenue he generates and the title of vice chairman emeritus. He became Bear Stearns CEO in 1978 and ran the company until James "Jimmy" Cayne took the role in 1993.

Charities, which are struggling to raise money, will have to replace $65 million to $80 million in giving from Bear Stearns employees, according to Greenberg. All senior managing directors and higher were required to give 4 percent of their income to organizations, he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Elizabeth Hester in New York at; Peter Cook in Washington at

Ancient skills 'could reverse global warming'

Trials begin of a technique used by Amazon Indians that takes CO2 and locks it safely into soil

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
Sunday, 7 December 2008

Ancient techniques pioneered by pre-Columbian Amazonian Indians are about to be pressed into service in Britain and Central America in the most serious commercial attempt yet to reverse global warming.

Trials are to be started in Sussex and Belize early in the new year, backed with venture capital from Silicon Valley, on techniques to take carbon from the atmosphere and bury it in the soil, where it should act as a powerful fertiliser.

The plan is to scale up rapidly into a worldwide enterprise to reverse the build-up of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming, in the atmosphere and eventually bring it back to pre-Industrial Revolution levels.

The ambitious enterprise – which on Friday received its first multimillion-pound investment from California – is the brainchild of two of Britain's most successful environmental entrepreneurs: Craig Sams, one of the founders of the best-selling Green & Black's organic chocolate, and Dan Morrell, who co-founded Future Forests, the first carbon offsetting company.

They aim to grow trees and plants to absorb CO2 and then trap the carbon by turning the resulting biomass into "biochar", a fine-grained form of charcoal that can be buried in the soil, keeping it safely locked up for thousands of years.

The pre-Columbian Indians used biochar to make the poor soils of the rainforest – which otherwise quickly become exhausted – productive for harvest after harvest. It is still there today, many hundreds of years later, forming islands of black fertile earth in the otherwise unpromising ground.

But it is now being widely cited as a possible solution to global warming by scientists shocked at how climate change is taking place much faster than predicted and convinced that the world must now start not just rapidly to reduce CO2 emissions, but to get the greenhouse gas out of the air.

Among them is Professor James Hansen, director of Nasa's Goddard Institute of Space Studies and probably the world's most respected climate scientist, who believes CO2 concentrations must urgently be reduced from its present 385 parts per million to 350 if global warming is not to run out of control. International negotiations – continuing this weekend in Poznan, Poland – are aimed at stabilising them at the higher level of 450ppm.

Trees and plants soak up carbon dioxide as they grow, but release it again as they are burned or left to rot. But burning them largely in the absence of oxygen, through pyrolysis, reduces the amount of the gas emitted by 90 per cent, and stores the carbon in the charcoal instead. It also gives off energy that can be used as an efficient biofuel.

If the resulting biochar is then buried in the ground it will stay there for some 5,000 years, keeping the carbon out of the atmosphere, and nourishing the soil while it is there. It also cuts down on the use of fertilisers; reduces the emission of methane and nitrous oxides, which are also greenhouse gases, from the ground; filters out pollutants; and retains water, thus combating flooding.

The new enterprise will start with wood grown in Suffolk and with prunings from the Belize cacao trees that supply Green & Black's chocolate. But its founders hope that it will rapidly become a worldwide industry.

Mr Sams calculates that if just two and a half per cent of the world's productive land were used to produce biochar, carbon dioxide could be returned to pre-Industrial Revolution levels by 2050.

He said: "Biomass from trees and plants, which captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is a treasure to be buried in the earth."

Scientist says ancient technique cuts greenhouse gas

By Gerard Wynn Gerard Wynn Fri Dec 5, 1:22 pm ET
An Indian farmer plough his field in Chuli village, 255 km (158 miles) west of Reuters – An Indian farmer plough his field in Chuli village, 255 km (158 miles) west of the western Indian city …

POZNAN, Poland (Reuters) – An ancient technique of plowing charred plants into the ground to revive soil may also trap greenhouse gases for thousands of years and forestall global warming, scientists said on Friday.

Heating plants such as farm waste or wood in airtight conditions produces a high-carbon substance called biochar, which can store the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and enhance nutrients in the soil.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow. Subsequently storing that carbon in the soil removes the gas from the atmosphere.

"I feel confident that the (carbon storage) time of stable biochar is from high hundreds to a few thousand years," said Cornell University's Johannes Lehmann, at an event on the sidelines of U.N. climate talks in the Polish city of Poznan.

Lehmann estimated that under ambitious scenarios biochar could store 1 billion tons of carbon annually -- equivalent to more than 10 percent of global carbon emissions, which amounted to 8.5 billion tons in 2007.

Under a conservative scenario the technique could store 0.2 billion tons of carbon annually, he said. That would still require heating without oxygen -- called pyrolysis -- some 27 percent of global crop waste and plowing this into the soil.

Lehmann cited experiments on 10 farm crops suggesting biochar can also increase yields by up to three times, because the organic matter holds on to nutrients.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in November that global greenhouse gas emissions were so out of control that avoiding more dangerous levels of climate change depended on creating negative emissions later this century.

The energy adviser to 28 industrialized countries cited biochar as one way of achieving that.

The technique rings alarm bells among some environmentalists worried it could spur deforestation, but its chief problem may be that it is barely proven on a commercial scale.

"It will remain theoretical without making demonstration plants on the ground," Lehmann said.

Soils containing biochar made by Amazon people thousands of years ago still contain up to 70 times more black carbon than surrounding soils and are still higher in nutrients, said Debbie Reed, director of the International Biochar Initiative (IBI).

The IBI was in Poznan to lobby for research funding for biochar. In Poznan, 187 countries are meeting in ongoing talks to agree a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol after 2012. They hope to finalize a deal next year.

Lehmann emphasized that the technique was not a substitute for fighting climate change by curbing man-made greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels.

(Reporting by Gerard Wynn, Editing by Catherine Bosley)

First 'placebo gene' discovered

FOR the first time, a gene is being linked to increased susceptibility to the placebo effect, the mysterious capacity some people have to benefit from sham treatments.

(Image: Ray Roberts/Rex Features)

(Image: Ray Roberts/Rex Features)

The gene might not play a role in our response to treatment for all conditions, and the experiment involved only a small number of people. Nonetheless, the discovery is a milestone in the quest to understand this phenomenon, which often blurs the results of clinical trials "To our knowledge, it's the first time anyone has linked a gene to the placebo effect," says Tomas Furmark of Uppsala University in Sweden.

He and his colleagues recruited 25 people with an exaggerated fear of public humiliation, otherwise known as social anxiety disorder. Participants had to give a speech at the start and end of an eight-week treatment - which unbeknownst to them and their doctors, was actually a placebo.

Ten volunteers responded to the placebo much better than the rest. By the end of the experiment, their anxiety scores had halved, whereas the others' stayed the same. Brain scans also showed that activity in the amygdala, the brain's "fear" centre, had dropped by 3 per cent.

To see if there were genetic differences between responders and non-responders, Furmark screened them for a variant of the gene for tryptophan hydroxylase-2, which makes the brain chemical, serotonin. Previous studies suggested that people with two copies of a particular "G" variant are less anxious in standard "fear" tests. Sure enough 8 of the 10 responders had two copies, while none of the non-responders did (Journal of Neuroscience (DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2534-08.2008).

Furmark believes the effect of the gene may extend to other conditions where the amygdala is involved, such as phobias, pain disorders and even depression. However, he cautions that only further studies will reveal whether the gene influences the placebo effect more generally.

Echoing Furmark's caution is Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin, Italy. "We know that there's not a single placebo effect but many." Some may work through genetics, he adds, others through the expectation of a reward.

Edzard Ernst of the Complementary Medicine Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, UK, agrees the results need to be replicated and tested in several clinical settings.

Toddler Befriends an Orphaned Baby Orangutan

This is one of those things that's so cute it verges on obnoxious. A one-year-old orangutan named Rishi, born at an animal sanctuary, was rejected by all of the males in his group. So the little guy was sent to The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (TIGERS) in Miami, Florida.

When photographer Barry Bland went to take photos of Rishi in his new home, he brought along his two-year-old daughter, Emily. As you can tell from these photos, Rishi and Emily became fast friends, which actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it: they both communicate largely with their hands, they have the same interests (playing, eating, napping), and they are both the most winsome members of their respective species.


 Photos: CFP


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