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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Some leads in cat mutilation case: K Shanmugam

SINGAPORE: Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said there has been some leads on the recent case of cat mutilation.

Two weeks ago, on 30 December 2012, two kittens were found dismembered outside a HDB flat in Chong Pang Division in Yishun.

Mr Shanmugam, who's the MP for Nee Soon GRC, said some people had come forward with information related to the case. He said he has passed the information on to the police.

He called the case "cruel" and "abominable". "I'll be checking with the police again on what is happening. But we also don't want to put the pictures up too much because I worry about copy cat incidents. It's terrible."

- CNA/ck

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Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz dies from suicide

Even as an eighth-grader in Winnetka, Aaron Swartz showed signs of the computer wizardry that would lead to his Internet activism and development of software used by websites worldwide.

But the Highland Park native who had attended North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka and as a 13-year-old had created an online public encyclopedia for a school competition got into trouble as an adult.

He faced trial in April on federal charges that he had illegally downloaded millions of journal articles from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the intention of posting them to a file-sharing site.

The prospect of the trial was too much for him, his family said. Swartz, 26, committed suicide inside his New York apartment, authorities said Saturday.

In a statement sent through a spokesman, his family said Swartz hanged himself the day before out of worry that he faced more than 30 years in federal prison.

“Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable — these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter,” the statement in part read.

Along with developing an early version of rich site summary, or RSS, technology, Swartz is credited with co-founding the popular Reddit website that allows users to vote for their favorite news stories of the day.

Increasingly active in efforts to make information more readily available on the Internet, he also founded Demand Progress, a lobbying group that advocates for civil liberties and government reform.

In that role, Swartz led a successful effort to stymie the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011, which sought to restrict access to websites that illegally shared copyrighted property. The bill was eventually withdrawn after widespread protests.

“He refined advocacy for the progressive and open-information movement,” said David Moon, program director for Demand Progress. “He was ultimately pretty brilliant at that.”

On Saturday, Swartz’s death spurred an outpouring of sympathy and tributes throughout social media, many of which hailed his multiple accomplishments at a young age.

Several commenters heaped scorn upon federal prosecutors in Massachusetts for indicting Swartz in 2011. He was accused of downloading millions of academic journal articles and breaking into a university closet to plug into the school’s computer network, which prompted charges of computer fraud, wire fraud and other crimes. Swartz had pleaded not guilty.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Massachusetts declined to comment, citing the family’s privacy.

Moon, who met Swartz in 2010 and last saw him about a month ago, declined to speak in detail about the circumstances surrounding his death.

“The stresses he was facing was obvious, and those who know him can attest to that,” Moon said.

Tribune wire services contributed.

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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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Softbank to sell eAccess stakes to Samsung, others

TOKYO: Japanese telecommunications firm Softbank has decided to sell a two-thirds stake in eAccess, a smaller mobile service provider, to Samsung Electronics and 10 other companies, according to reports.

Softbank, which last year signed a $20 billion takeover of US firm Sprint Nextel, is in talks with 11 possible buyers, including Ericsson and Nokia Siemens Networks as well as Japanese firms, the Nikkei newspaper said on Saturday.

Cutting its eAccess stake to below one-third will enable Softbank to skirt the government policy on spectrum allocation to telecom service providers, the Nikkei said.

Softbank turned eAccess into a wholly-owned subsidiary on January 1, and will remain its top shareholder with a 33-percent stake, major media said.

But the communications ministry has viewed the purchase as running counter to the policy of allocating frequency bands fairly to cellphone carriers, Kyodo News said.

Softbank is working towards selling a roughly six percent interest to each of the 11 companies by the end of this month, the Nikkei said.

The company hopes that the sales could also facilitate better development and upgrades of its telecommunications network by strengthening ties with major foreign firms, the Nikkei said.

Softbank also wants to tap the foreign partners' know-how to improve its services, the Nikkei said.

To prevent any impact on its American operations, Softbank has opted not to let any Chinese companies buy the eAccess shares, the Nikkei said.

The US Congress has expressed concerns about the use of Chinese communications equipment in the country.

- AFP/al

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Bulls hold on to beat Knicks 108-101

Bulls beat the Knicks 108-101 on Friday.

NEW YORK — Three players and a coach were not around to witness the end of the last Bulls-Knicks game at Madison Square Garden.

That coach was New York's Mike Woodson, who forecasted another battle royale.

"Chicago, the Celtics, Indiana … teams that play defense and get after it, there will be (intense) games," he said. "I expect (this) will be no different."

It turned out completely different, a walk in the park for the Bulls — for 44 minutes. But even after giving up 12 straight points late in the fourth quarter, Chicago left town with a solid 108-101 victory.

"When you build a cushion," coach Tom Thibodeau said, "you can withstand things not going your way. The most important thing is getting the win."

Marco Belinelli came through at the end, hitting 5 of 6 free throws and making a steal to lock up the victory. The Bulls improved to 3-0 against the Knicks, a mark that pleases native New Yorker Joakim Noah to no end.

"It feels great," he said. "Everybody's locked in when we play the Knicks. It's easy to get up for games like this — big stage, playing in the Garden."

Luol Deng scored 33 points on 13-for-18 shooting, besting his season high of 29 that came Dec. 21 in that wild, four-point Bulls victory in New York that featured nine technical fouls.

"Honestly it's not about the scoring," he said. "I just want to play well. I score for the team, but I don't go out trying to get big numbers. I never focus on one thing."

Carmelo Anthony scored 39 points, but most came after the game was decided. And he shot just 14-for-32.

"(Deng) guarded Carmelo about as well as you can," Thibodeau said.

There were no scraps or technical fouls Friday, just superb basketball from the visitors, who improved to 9-1 on the road against Eastern Conference foes.

The Bulls scored the game's first five points and cruised to a 57-36 halftime lead.

Noah (nine points, eight rebounds, four assists, four blocks) surprised observers by reprising his "finger guns" celebration after nailing a 15-foot jumper in the first quarter. Noah had ditched that after the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

"I just got too hyped," he said, implying he would not do it again.

The Bulls allowed New York to score 41 points in the fourth quarter — and nail 11 of 17 from deep in the second half.

"We opened up the 3-point line against a team that can shoot the 3," Thibodeau said. "We want to learn and improve. (But) I want to look at the game in totality."

Until the late flurry, the Bulls were totally dominant, building a 101-80 lead with 3 minutes, 47 seconds to play.

"I wish every game was here," Noah said. "It's the best, man."

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

Read More..

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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CDC: Flu Outbreak Could Be Waning

The flu season appears to be waning in some parts of the country, but that doesn't mean it won't make a comeback in the next few weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Five fewer states reported high flu activity levels in the first week of January than the 29 that reported high activity levels in the last week of December, according to the CDC's weekly flu report. This week, 24 states reported high illness levels, 16 reported moderate levels, five reported low levels and one reported minimal levels, suggesting that the flu season peaked in the last week of December.

"It may be decreasing in some areas, but that's hard to predict," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said in a Friday morning teleconference. "Trends only in the next week or two will show whether we have in fact crossed the peak."

The flu season usually peaks in February or March, not December, said Dr. Jon Abramson, who specializes in pediatric infectious diseases at Wake Forest Baptist Health in North Carolina. He said the season started early with a dominant H3N2 strain, which was last seen a decade ago, in 2002-03. That year, the flu season also ended early.

Click here to see how this flu season stacks up against other years.

Cheryl Evans/The Arizona Republic/AP Photo

Increasing Flu Cases: Best Measures to Ensure Your Family's Health Watch Video

Because of the holiday season, Frieden said the data may have been skewed.

For instance, Connecticut appeared to be having a lighter flu season than other northeastern states at the end of December, but the state said it could have been a result of college winter break. College student health centers account for a large percentage of flu reports in Connecticut, but they've been closed since the fall semester ended, said William Gerrish, a spokesman for the state's department of public health.

The flu season arrived about a month early this year in parts of the South and the East, but it may only just be starting to take hold of states in the West, Frieden said. California is still showing "minimal" flu on the CDC's map, but that doesn't mean it will stay that way.

Click here to read about how flu has little to do with cold weather.

"It's not surprising. Influenza ebbs and flows during the flu season," Frieden said. "The only thing predictable about the flu is that it is unpredictable."

Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., said he was expecting California's seeming good luck with the flu to be over this week.

"Flu is fickle, we say," Schaffner said. "Influenza can be spotty. It can be more severe in one community than another for reasons incompletely understood."

Early CDC estimates indicate that this year's flu vaccine is 62 percent effective, meaning people who have been vaccinated are 62 percent less likely to need to see a doctor for flu treatment, Frieden said.

Although the shot has been generally believed to be more effective for children than adults, there's not enough data this year to draw conclusions yet.

"The flu vaccine is far from perfect, but it's still by far the best tool we have to prevent flu," Frieden said, adding that most of the 130 million vaccine doses have already been administered. "We're hearing of shortages of the vaccine, so if you haven't been vaccinated and want to be, it's better late than never."

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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.

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Warnings handed to China celebrities over censorship row

BEIJING: Chinese authorities handed warnings to several celebrities who voiced support for a newspaper at the centre of a censorship battle online, newspaper reports and social media posts said on Friday.

Taiwanese singer Annie Yi, who works in mainland China, said on her social media account that she had been invited to "drink tea" with authorities, a common euphemism for being cautioned by authorities, the South China Morning Post reported.

The warning came after Yi -- who has more than six million followers on Sina Weibo, a Chinese website similar to Twitter -- expressed support for Southern Weekly, a newspaper at the centre of protests over government censorship this week.

Other Chinese celebrities, including the former head of Google China, Kai-Fu Lee, and property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang also said they received invitations to "drink tea", after posting messages in support of the paper, according to online posts.

The two men have a combined 38 million followers on the site, which had more than 400 million registered users in 2012.

Chinese activists have previously said that invitations to "drink tea" are extended by state security police, who use such meetings as warnings not to engage in anti-government activities.

Several Chinese celebrities posted messages in support of the Southern Weekly this week, after journalists at the paper protested government censors' replacement of a pro-reform editorial.

Yao Chen, an actress who has 32 million followers on her Weibo account, earlier posted the paper's logo and quoted Russian dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn: "One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world".

Southern Weekly was published as scheduled on Thursday, after reports that newspaper staff had struck a deal with authorities that the paper would not be censored before publication.

- AFP/al

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Cyanide: 'A poison we fear'

If Urooj Khan's remains are exhumed in coming days as expected, authorities will attempt to retrace the devastating course of one molecule through his body.

Cyanide, a toxic combination of carbon and nitrogen, exists throughout nature in trace amounts in certain plants, seeds and soils. It is also produced by some bacteria and fungi.

In its pure solid or gas forms, however, cyanide can be acutely poisonous, earning it an ignoble reputation in human history as an efficient killer — from World War II Nazi death camps to the Jonestown massacre to the Chicago Tylenol murders.

"It is a poison we fear," said Frank Paloucek, a pharmacist and toxicologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It is a really dangerous poison, and once you get enough of it, there is not much we can do."

That appears to be the case for Khan, a West Rogers Park businessman who died of cyanide poisoning in July just weeks after winning a million-dollar lottery jackpot. The Cook County medical examiner's office initially found that Khan died of natural causes, and he was buried in Rosehill Cemetery. But after a relative voiced concern, extensive toxicological tests showed he died of lethal levels of cyanide. Chicago police and Cook County prosecutors are investigating his death as a homicide.

The murder mystery, first revealed in the Tribune on Monday, has sparked worldwide interest. It comes more than 30 years after the murders of seven Chicago-area residents who ingested cyanide-spiked Tylenol capsules spread fear across the country. The FBI reopened its investigation into the killings four years ago, but no one has ever been charged.

"In the rare event of homicidal poisoning, cyanide is not an uncommon (substance) to use," Dr. Gregory Schmunk, a forensic pathologist and president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said Thursday.

Indeed, just last year, the wife of a former Communist Party leader in China was accused of killing a British businessman after ordering her butler to spike his drink with cyanide.

It is, however, more commonly seen in suicides, such as in the case of an Arizona businessman who poisoned himself in a courtroom with cyanide last year after he was found guilty of arson, according to experts.

The compound kills quickly.

Once inside the human body, it prevents cells from using oxygen. If enough cells absorb cyanide, a person's body and brain will become so oxygen-deprived that their tissues will begin to die.

As the body fights to provide more oxygen, heart and breathing rates rise. Cramping and headaches can occur, followed by loss of consciousness and eventually death.

Death may come in anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours, Paloucek said.

Cyanide is typically detected during a medical examination by a scarlet red discoloration or a "bitter almond" odor emitting from the body, according to experts. But neither is a sure measure — darker pigmentation can mask red skin coloration, and many people can't smell cyanide.

In its powder form, a toxic dose of cyanide may only be about 200 milligrams, roughly the amount of any common pain medication pill, according to Paloucek.

"We are dealing with a poison that has a very fast knockdown rate," said John H. Trestrail III, a clinical and forensic toxicologist who consults with law enforcement agencies on such cases.

For that reason, investigators have been looking closely at the events that happened around the time that Khan died, including the last meal he ate, which his wife acknowledged preparing.

Cyanide can come as a gas or in a solid powder that looks like white sugar. It is commonly used in research laboratories, in mining to extract certain metals and by jewelers. It also used to be widely used in the United States to kill various pests.

"One hundred years ago, you could go into a pharmacy and buy cyanide to kill wasps," Trestrail said. "But you don't do that anymore."

Now cyanide suppliers maintain a "poison register" that would include information like proof of purchase, the name of the buyer and its intended use, according to Trestrail.

Outside the United States, however, cyanide is readily available, according to Paloucek. And even within the U.S., there have been cases of people giving false information to cyanide suppliers to obtain the substance.

"If you're persistent, it is not hard to get your hands on it," Schmunk said.

Local authorities plan to ask a Cook County Circuit Court judge on Friday for permission to exhume Khan's body in the next week or two. The remains would be autopsied by the medical examiner's office, according to its spokeswoman, Mary Paleologos.

Investigators will take samples of Khan's stomach contents to see if and how the cyanide was ingested, Paleologos said. They will also take more fluid and blood samples and look at other organs such as the lungs, to see if it may have been inhaled, she said. Investigators will also try to rule out chronic cyanide poisoning in which long-term exposure to the compound may have contributed to his death.

"A lot depends on if the body is in good or poor condition," Paleologos said. "If it's in good condition, of course (the medical examiner) can get decent samples, but if it's in poor condition, the quality of the samples will be poor as well."

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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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Judge: Holmes Can Face Trial for Aurora Shooting

Jan 10, 2013 8:45pm

ap james holmes ll 120920 wblog Aurora Shooting Suspect James Holmes Can Face Trial

(Arapahoe County Sheriff/AP Photo)

In a ruling that comes as little surprise, the judge overseeing the Aurora, Colo., theater massacre has ordered that there is enough evidence against James Holmes to proceed to a trial.

In an order posted late Thursday, Judge William Sylvester wrote that “the People have carried their burden of proof and have established that there is probable cause to believe that Defendant committed the crimes charged.”

The ruling came after a three-day preliminary hearing this week that revealed new details about how Holmes allegedly planned for and carried out the movie theater shooting, including how investigators say he amassed an arsenal of guns and ammunition, how he booby-trapped his apartment to explode, and his bizarre behavior after his arrest.

PHOTOS: Colorado ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Theater Shooting

Holmes is charged with 166 counts, including murder, attempted murder and other charges related to the July 20 shooting that left 12 people dead and 58 wounded by gunfire. An additional 12 people suffered non-gunshot injuries.

One of the next legal steps is an arraignment, at which Holmes will enter a plea. The arraignment was originally expected to take place Friday morning.

Judge Sylvester indicated through a court spokesman that he would allow television and still cameras into the courtroom, providing the outside world the first images of Holmes since a July 23 hearing. Plans for cameras in court, however, were put on hold Thursday afternoon.

“The defense has notified the district attorney that it is not prepared to proceed to arraignment in this case by Friday,” wrote public defenders Daniel King, Tamara Brady and Kristen Nelson Thursday afternoon in a document objecting to cameras in court.

A hearing in the case will still take place Friday morning. In his order, Judge Sylvester said it should technically be considered an arraignment, but noted the defense has requested a continuance.  Legal experts expect the judge will grant the continuance, delaying the arraignment and keeping cameras out of court for now.

Sylvester also ordered that Holmes be held without bail.

Holmes’ attorneys have said in court that the former University of Colorado neuroscience student is mentally ill. The district attorney overseeing the case has not yet announced whether Holmes, now 25, can face the death penalty.

SHOWS: World News

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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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'Twilight' finale tops anti-Oscar Razzies shortlist

LOS ANGELES: The last installment of the blockbuster "Twilight" franchise has won the dubious honor of being nominated in every category for Hollywood's anti-Oscar Razzie awards.

"Twilight: Breaking Dawn - Part 2" topped the shortlist of the Golden Raspberries, handed out each year as an alternative to Tinseltown's annual back-slapping awards season, which moves into top gear this week.

Others tipped for Razzie shame include veteran diva Barbra Streisand for worst actress in mother-son road movie "The Guilt Trip," while Nicolas Cage, Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler are all up for worst actor.

"Twilight" stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are nominated for worst actor and actress, while the film's director Bill Condon was tipped for worst filmmaker, in shortlists for all 10 Razzie categories unveiled Tuesday.

The tongue-in-cheek dishonor award will not matter much to the makers of the "Twilight" films -- the fifth and final installment of the wildly-popular franchise has taken nearly $800 million at the box office worldwide, according to the IMDb movie industry website.

The other films shortlisted for worst movie of 2012 were "Battleship," family movie "The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure," Adam Sandler comedy "That's My Boy" and "A Thousand Words" starring comedy veteran Murphy.

The Razzie winners will be announced on February 23, the day before the Academy Awards. Nominations for the Oscars are due to be announced early Thursday in Beverly Hills.

Here are the full shortlists in the main Razzie categories:

Worst director: Sean Anders, "That's My Boy"; Peter Berg, "Battleship"; Bill Condon, "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2"; Tyler Perry, "Good Deeds"/"Madea's Witness Protection"; and John Putch, "Atlas Shrugged II."

Worst Actress: Katherine Heigl, "One for the Money"; Milla Jovovich, "Resident Evil: Retribution"; Tyler Perry, "Madea's Witness Protection"; Kristen Stewart, "The Twilight Saga"/"Snow White and the Huntsman."

Worst Actor: Nicolas Cage, "Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance"/"Seeking Justice"; Eddie Murphy, "A Thousand Words"; Robert Pattinson, "The Twilight Saga"; Tyler Perry, "Alex Cross"/"Good Deeds"; Adam Sandler, "That's My Boy."

Worst Supporting Actress: Jessica Biel, "Playing For Keeps"/"Total Recall"; Brooklyn Decker, "Battleship"/"What to Expect When You're Expecting"; Ashley Greene, "The Twilight Saga"; Jennifer Lopez, "What to Expect When You're Expecting"; Rihanna, "Battleship."

Worst Supporting Actor: David Hasselhoff, "Piranha 3-DD"; Taylor Lautner, "The Twilight Saga"; Liam Neeson, "Battleship"/"Wrath of the Titans"; Nick Swardson, "That's My Boy"; Vanilla Ice, "That's My Boy."

- AFP/ck

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Khan's in-law had IRS woes

The father-in-law of Urooj Khan — the million-dollar lottery winner who died of cyanide poisoning weeks later — allegedly owed more than $120,000 in back taxes, a debt that led the Internal Revenue Service to place liens on Khan's Far North Side house almost two years ago, according to records obtained by the Tribune.

Khan's father-in-law, Fareedun Ansari, was living at Khan's residence with his daughter and son-in-law when Khan was fatally stricken, according to Ansari's criminal defense attorney. The Cook County medical examiner's office initially found that Khan died of natural causes, but after a relative raised concerns, extensive toxicological tests showed he died of lethal levels of cyanide. Police and prosecutors are investigating his death as a homicide.

The IRS filed liens against Khan's West Rogers Park residence in February and March 2011 as part of an effort to collect $124,000 from Ansari in allegedly unpaid taxes related to a small business, records from the Cook County recorder of deeds show.

James Pittacora, who represents Ansari, said his client had operated a business in New Jersey that Khan had financed but that Ansari had since returned to Chicago. He said the two were "very close."

"They had a very good relationship, and he and his daughter are devastated" by Khan's death, Pittacora said.

Pittacora said detectives called Ansari shortly before Christmas asking to speak with him about the death but have yet to interview him.

Ansari's daughter, Shabana, who is Khan's widow, also has hired a criminal defense lawyer, who told the Tribune on Tuesday that she had been questioned for more than four hours by detectives and had fully cooperated.

The mystery surrounding Khan's death sparked international media interest after the Tribune first reported on the investigation in a front-page story earlier this week.

While a motive has not been determined, Chicago police have not ruled out that Khan was killed because of his lottery win, a law enforcement source has told the Tribune. He died before he could collect the winnings in a lump-sum payment — about $425,000 after taxes.

Authorities on Wednesday moved toward exhuming Khan's body in order to perform an autopsy and learn more about how he died. Cook County prosecutors are drafting court papers and expect a judge to hear the matter Friday at the Daley Center courthouse, said Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office.

The exhumation could take place as soon as next week, according to sources familiar with the process.

On Wednesday, Khan's sister and her husband spoke out for the first time to the Tribune about the pain they have been quietly enduring since learning weeks ago the shocking revelation that Khan was fatally poisoned.

"There is a way to go, a natural way," said his brother-in-law, Mohammed Zaman, 46. "We are born, we die. Not homicide. I don't want to see him a victim."

Zaman and his wife, Khan's sister, Meraj Khan, won custody of Khan's 17-year-old daughter from his first marriage as part of a court case involving Khan's estate. A probate court judge in that case has ordered that the lottery winnings be held by a bank until it is decided how the money should be divided among Khan's heirs.

Khan's wife has been approved as the administrator of the estate, which in initial estimates was pegged at just over $2 million, including the lottery winnings, according to probate court records.

In the interview in the family's North Side home, Meraj Khan and her husband recalled her brother as a generous, kind man who loved to host parties for his extended Chicago family. Zaman said Khan donated to an orphanage in his native India and even offered one of his Chicago condos to a stranger who needed a place to stay while looking for a job.

Khan would often arrive at birthday parties for youngsters in the family and pretend to have forgotten gifts, only to retrieve bags filled with presents for everyone after the cake was cut.

Zaman said that before his death, Khan had asked to host the Bismillah, a Muslim religious ceremony to mark a child's introduction to Islam, for the couple's 6-year-old son.

Meraj Khan said her brother would often pop over to her home — just blocks from one of his three dry cleaning businesses — unannounced and with coffee for them to share.

Khan had devoted much of his life to running his businesses, including rental properties on the city's North Side. But he also found time to play cricket at Warren Park and was passionate — and fiercely competitive — about playing table tennis, they said.

The couple also said Khan was healthy before he died and was happy even before winning the lottery.

Tribune reporters Jeremy Gorner and Matthew Walberg contributed.

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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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Holmes 'Delighted' by Creepy Self-Portraits: Victims

After two days of apparent indifference, accused Aurora shooter James Holmessmiled and smirked at disturbing self-portraits and images of weapons shown in court today, according to the families of victims who watched him.

"When he sees himself, he gets very excited and his eyes crinkle," Caren Teves said outside of the courthouse, after the hearing. "Your eyes are the window to the soul and you could see that he was very delighted in seeing himself in that manner."

Teves' son Alex Teves, 24, died in the shooting.

Prosecutors showed photos that Holmes took of himself hours before he allegedly carried out a massacre at a Colorado movie theater. He took a series of menacing self-portraits with his dyed orange hair curling out of from under a black skull cap and his eyes covered with black contacts. In some of the photos, guns were visible.

Those haunting photographs, found on his iPhone, were shown in court today on the last day of a preliminary testimony that will lead to a decision on whether the case will go to trial. The hearing concluded without Holmes' defense calling any witnesses.

The judge's decision on whether the case will proceed to trial is expected on Friday.

James Holmes: Suspect in Aurora Movie Theatre Shootings Back in Court Watch Video

Police Testify at Hearing for Accused Colorado Gunman Watch Video

Couple Surprised by Rebuilt Home After Sandy Watch Video

Holmes, 25, is accused of opening fire on a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo., on July 20, 2012, killing 12 people and wounding dozens others during a showing of "Dark Knight Rises."

The court room's set-up kept members of the media from being able to see Holmes' face as the photos were displayed, but victims and their families could watch him.

Teves said that Holmes was "absolutely smirking" when images of his weapons and the iPhone photos he took of himself were shown in court.

"I watched him intently," Caren Teves' husband Tom Teves said. "I watched him smile every time a weapon was discussed, every time they talked about his apartment and how he had it set up (with booby traps), and he could have gave a darn about the people, to be quite frank. But he's not crazy one bit. He's very, very cold. He's very, very calculated."

Holmes' has exhibited bizarre behavior after the shooting and while in custody. His defense team has said that he is mentally ill, but have not said if he will plead insanity.

"He has a brain set that no one here can understand and we want to call him crazy because we want to make that feel better in our society, but we have to accept the fact that there are evil people in our society that enjoy killing any type of living thing," a frustrated Tom Teves said. "That doesn't make them crazy. And don't pretend he's crazy. He's not crazy."

The photos presented in court showed Holmes mugging for his iPhone camera just hours before the shooting.

Click here for full coverage of the Aurora movie theater shooting.

Half-a-dozen photos showed Holmes with his clownish red-orange hair and black contact lenses giving the photos a particularly disturbing edge.

In one particularly odd image, he was making a scowling face with his tongue out. He was whistling in another photo. Holmes is smiling in his black contacts and flaming hair in yet another with the muzzle of one of his Glock pistols in the forefront.

Yet another photo showed him dressed in black tactical gear, posing with an AR-15 rifle.

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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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Malaysian manhunt on as escape drama spices up

KUALA LUMPUR: Seven Malaysians who escaped police custody this week did so by temporarily blinding a guard with chilli powder hidden in one of the escapee's underpants, police and press reports said Wednesday.

The escape Monday of the seven men -- whom police have called "dangerous criminals" -- has prompted a large-scale manhunt in the northern Malaysian state of Penang.

But the seven escapees remained at large after their daring break-out from a police van as they were being transported to a local court.

The detainees had staged a fight in the vehicle, prompting its driver to pull over, police said.

When the police opened the rear door to investigate, "they threw chilli powder on a policeman", Abdul Rahman Ibrahim, a local police official, told AFP, as other detainees attacked and injured his fellow guards.

Abdul Rahman declined to elaborate on the use of the spices, but press reports have said one of the men had concealed the chilli powder in his underwear.

Chilli powder is ubiquitous in Malaysia, which is known for its spicy cuisine.

The seven fugitives then sped off in the police van, which was later found abandoned in a nearby village, police have said.

Some 250 police officers aided by tracker dogs and a police helicopter were scouring the area near where the van was discarded, said Abdul Rahim Hanafi, Penang's state police chief.

"The escapees are dangerous criminals who have been charged with serious offences, including murder, gang robbery and causing grievous hurt," he was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper.

Police were investigating how the detainees had obtained the chilli powder.

The Star quoted an unnamed source saying the powder could have been from the spicy seasoning sachets found in instant noodle packets that are sometimes provided to detainees by family members during visits.

- AFP/al

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Attorney: Poisoned lottery winner's widow has 'nothing to hide'

The widow of a West Rogers Park man who died of cyanide poisoning weeks after winning a $1 million lottery jackpot was questioned extensively by Chicago police last month after the medical examiner's office reclassified the death as a homicide, her attorney told the Tribune on Tuesday.

Authorities investigating the death of Urooj Khan also executed a search warrant at the home he had shared with his wife, Shabana Ansari, according to Steven Kozicki, her attorney. Ansari later was interviewed by detectives for more than four hours, answering all their questions, the attorney said.

"She's got nothing to hide," Kozicki said.

The mystery surrounding Khan's death — first reported by the Tribune in a front-page story Monday — has sparked international media interest.

Cook County authorities said Tuesday that they plan to go to court in the next few days for approval to exhume Khan's remains at Rosehill Cemetery. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Medical Examiner Stephen J. Cina said he sent a sworn statement to prosecutors laying out why the body must be exhumed.

"I feel that a complete autopsy is needed for the sake of clarity and thoroughness," Cina said.

Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, confirmed that papers seeking the exhumation would be filed soon in the Daley Center courthouse.

Khan, who owned a dry cleaning business on the city's North Side, died unexpectedly in July at 46, just weeks after winning a million-dollar lottery 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 without an autopsy.

About a week later, a relative told authorities 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, leading the medical examiner's office to reclassify the death a homicide and prompting police and prosecutors to investigate.

While a motive has not been determined, police have not ruled out that Khan was killed because of his big lottery win, a law enforcement source has told the Tribune. He died before he could collect the winnings — about $425,000 after taxes and because he decided to take a lump-sum payment.

According to court records obtained by the Tribune, Khan's brother has squabbled with Ansari over the money in probate court. The brother, Imtiaz, raised concern that because Khan left no will, his 17-year-old daughter from a previous marriage would not get "her fair share" of her father's estate. Khan and Ansari did not have children.

Al-Haroon Husain, an attorney for Ansari in the probate case, said the money was all accounted for and the estate was in the process of being divided up by the court. Under Illinois law, the estate typically would be split evenly between the surviving spouse and Khan's only child, he said.

Kozicki, Ansari's criminal defense attorney, said his client adored her husband and had no financial interest in seeing harm come to him.

"Now in addition to grieving her husband, she's struggling to run the business that he essentially ran while he was alive," Kozicki said. "Once people analyze it, they (would) realize she's in a much worse financial position after his death than she was before."

Reached by phone Tuesday evening at the family dry cleaners, Ansari denied reports that she had fed her husband a traditional Indian meal of ground beef curry before he died. She said he wasn't feeling well after awakening in the middle of the night. She said he sat in a chair and soon collapsed. She then called 911.

Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, speaking Tuesday at an unrelated news conference, remarked that he had never seen a case like this in 32 years in law enforcement.

"So I'll never say that I've seen everything," he told reporters.

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Pictures: Wildfires Scorch Australia Amid Record Heat

Photograph by Jo Giuliani, European Pressphoto Agency

Smoke from a wildfire mushrooms over a beach in Forcett, Tasmania, on January 4. (See more wildfire pictures.)

Wildfires have engulfed southeastern Australia, including the island state of Tasmania, in recent days, fueled by dry conditions and temperatures as high as 113ºF (45ºC), the Associated Press reported. (Read "Australia's Dry Run" inNational Geographic magazine.)

No deaths have been reported, though a hundred people are unaccounted for in the town of Dunalley, where the blazes destroyed 90 homes.

"You don't get conditions worse than this," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told the AP.

"We are at the catastrophic level, and clearly in those areas leaving early is your safest option."

Published January 8, 2013

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Holmes Played Childish Games After Aurora Carnage

As police confronted the movie theater carnage and a massive booby trap left behind by accused Aurora gunman James Holmes, the suspect loopily played with hand puppets, tried to stick a metal staple in an electrical socket and clamly flipped a styrofoam cup, according to court testimony today.

Holmes, 25, displayed the bizarre behavior once he was in custody and taken to Aurora police headquarters after the shooting that left 12 people dead and dozens injured, the lead investigator in the case testified today.

While being cross examined by Colorado public defender Daniel King, Police Detective Craig Appel was asked about the observations of two Aurora officers assigned to watch over Holmes in an interrogation room.

Appel said that to preserve possible gunshot residue, police had placed paper bags over Holmes' hands. One officer, King said, noted in a report that Holmes began moving his hands "in a talking puppet motion."

Click here for full coverage of the Aurora movie theater shooting.

King asked if Appel was also aware that the officer "observed Holmes take a staple out of the table and tried to stick it in an electrical socket?" Appel confirmed Holmes' actions.

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The officers also noted that they watched as Holmes began playing with an empty styrofoam cup, trying to "flip it" on the table.

While Holmes was carrying out his childish antics, police were puzzling over a complex booby trap Holmes had left behind in his apartment, according to testimony.

A gasoline-soaked carpet, loud music and a remote control car were part of Holmes' plan to trick someone into triggering a blast that would destroy his apartment and lure police to the explosion while he shot up a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., according to court testimony.

FBI agent Garrett Gumbinner told the court that he interviewed Holmes on July 20, hours after he killed 12 and wounded 58 during the midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises."

"He said he rigged the apartment to explode to get law enforcement to send resources to his apartment instead of the theater," Gumbinner said.

His plan failed to prompt someone into triggering the bombs.

Gumbinner said Holmes had created two traps that would have set off the blast.

The apartment was rigged with a tripwire at the front door connected to a mixture of chemicals that would create heat, sparks and flame. Holmes had soaked the carpet with a gasoline mixture that was designed to be ignited by the tripwire, Gumbinner said.

"It would have caused fire and sparks," the agent said, and "would have made the entire apartment explode or catch fire."

Holmes had set his computer to play 25 minutes of silence followed by loud music that he hoped would cause a disturbance loud enough that someone would call police, who would then respond and set off the explosion by entering the apartment.

Gumbinner said Holmes also told him he rigged a fuse between three glass jars that would explode. He filled the jars with a deadly homemade chemical mixture that would burn so hot it could not be extinguished with water.

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