Greece qualifies for new bailout funds but must impose mass layoffs
By Anthee Carassava April 15, 2013, 7:30 a.m.
ATHENS – With a critical monitoring mission completed, international debt inspectors gave Greece the nod Monday for an additional $13 billion in rescue aid but insisted that it had to ax thousands of civil servants as part of efforts to slash the country’s bloated – and costly – public sector.
Lenders from Europe and the International Monetary Fund have pressed successive Greek governments to implement mass layoffs since Athens signed up for its first bailout, worth $150 billion, three years ago. Despite widespread opposition, Greece’s three-party coalition agreed to the plan over the weekend, bowing to the tough new terms contained in a new multibillion-dollar bailout hammered out in December.
Without its latest installment of rescue funds, Athens would be unable to pay its bills and recapitalize the country’s struggling banking sector.
Poul Thomsen, the IMF's representative in Greece, said that Athens would be able to avoid imposing further austerity cuts if it follows through on its pledge to overhaul the state sector.
“The fiscal adjustment in Greece has been exceptional by any standard,” Thomsen told an Athens conference on the economy.
Details of the layoff plan remained unclear. Still, for a country where one in five salaries are paid by the government, the looming layoffs break a century-old taboo: Civil servants were granted lifelong job security in 1911 in Greece's constitution. That provision was aimed at stamping out politicization of the civil service, but it has been used as a tool of political patronage, bloating the public sector to its present size of about a million people.
Local press reports Monday suggested that about 4,000 civil servants would be laid off by the end of the year and 11,000 by the end of 2014. European and IMF debt inspectors said that the first phase of layoffs would be “targeted at disciplinary cases and cases of demonstrated incapacity, absenteeism, and poor performance, or that result from closure or mergers of government entities.”
With unemployment topping 27% and an acute recession deepening across the country, the government is braced for unrest. Representatives of Greece’s powerful civil servants’ union said officials were meeting Monday to decide on a course of strike action. Opposition politicians, too, were reeling.
“When you have an army of a million people already out of work, you cannot support these moves,” radical leftist leader Alexis Tsipras said. “We won’t. We will not allow for this play of human sacrificing to continue.”
Reconstructed fossil of 4.4-million-year-old species has humanlike features.
By Bruce Bower
Web edition: April 15, 2013
KNOXVILLE — One of the most controversial proposed members of the human evolutionary family, considered an ancient ape by some skeptical scientists, is the real hominid deal, an analysis of a newly reconstructed skull base finds.
By 4.4 million years ago, Ardipithecus ramidus already possessed a relatively short, broad skull base with a forward-placed opening for the spinal cord, an arrangement exclusive to ancient hominids and people today, William Kimbel of Arizona State University in Tempe reported on April 11 at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists annual meeting.
Although features of the skull’s floor evolved substantially in Homo species leading to modern humans, Kimbel said, those changes appeared in piecemeal fashion starting at least a couple of million years earlier in hominids such as Ardipithecus.
A. ramidus is best known by the partial skeleton of an adult female, dubbed Ardi, described in a set of papers published in 2009 (SN: 10/24/09, p. 9). Elements of Ardi’s build related to tree climbing, such as grasping feet and an elongated lower hip bone, have raised suspicions that she and her kind come from apes that evolved a rudimentary ability to walk upright without being hominids. However, Ardi’s discoverers argue that she’s a hominid whose species split time between slow, awkward walking and shuffling along tree branches while grabbing upper branches for support.
The new skull reconstruction, which fits that view, relied on a partial A. ramidus skull base reported in 1994, long before Ardi’s remains were painstakingly removed for analysis from rock that had encased the partial skeleton in Ethiopia.
By examining 79 skull bases of chimps, gorillas, modern humans and ancient hominids, Kimbel’s group identified relationships among anatomical landmarks that distinguish apes from people and hominids. The researchers estimated the total length of A. ramidus’ skull bottom and found that it fell within a range characteristic of hominids, not apes.
As in more recent members of the Australopithecus genus, such as the 3.2-million-year partial skeleton nicknamed Lucy, Ardipithecus ramidus displays a relatively short, humanlike skull base, Kimbel said.
A new 3-D analysis of Ardi’s previously reconstructed pelvis, also presented April 11 at the anthropology meeting, finds a mix of monkey, ape and hominid characteristics. Although not confirming a consistently upright gait, this version of Ardi’s hips doesn’t undermine her proposed hominid status, said Nicole Webb of City University of New York, who led the research. As for Ardi’s disputed mode of travel, she probably had a two-legged gait “but didn’t use her hands much while upright,” said Caley Orr of Midwestern University in Downers Grove, Ill., who didn’t participate in the new research.
Liz Norden, a mother of five, had just finished hauling groceries into her Wakefield home Monday afternoon when her cellphone rang.
“Ma, I’m hurt real bad,” said her 31-year-old son. He was in an ambulance, he told her, being rushed to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
It was her second boy, who had gone with his older brother to watch a friend run in the Boston Marathon.
On the phone, her son said his legs were badly burned in an explosion. His brother had been next to him, but he didn’t know where he was.
Within the next two hours, amid frantic phone calls and a panicked drive into Boston, Norden pieced together the horrific truth that will forever change her two sons’ lives — and her own. Each of the brothers lost a leg, from the knee down. One was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess, while the other was at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
‘I’d never imagined in my wildest dreams this would ever happen.’
“I’d never imagined in my wildest dreams this would ever happen,” Norden said, sitting on a bench outside the Beth Israel Deaconess emergency room Monday night.
As she looked at her feet, with socks mismatched because she had dressed so quickly to leave the house, tears fell to the sidewalk.
“I feel sick,” she said. “I think I could pass out.”
She had yet to see either son, because doctors had not authorized visitors. Both are graduates of Stoneham High School and had been laid off recently from their jobs as roofers. The oldest, age 33, still lives in Stoneham, the younger in Wakefield. Both are avid fishermen.
Norden didn’t want to release their names without talking to them. As she tried to absorb what had happened to her two oldest children, she was surrounded by family, including her sister and brother-in-law, as well as Mike Jefferson, her sons’ friend, the one they had gone to watch run the Marathon.
Jefferson, a Somerville firefighter who had graduated from Stoneham High with Norden’s two sons, shook his head at the surreal events of the day. He was close to finishing the Marathon when he saw race officials abruptly stopping runners. Little did he know then that it was because of an explosion that had seriously injured two of his closest friends.
“I was a quarter-mile away from the finish line,” said Jefferson.
Also on their minds was the younger son’s girlfriend, who they said suffered serious burns and other injuries and was hospitalized at Tufts Medical Center.
Norden braced herself for the moment when she would be allowed to see her boys. She said her sons were apparently standing next to the 8-year-old boy who died in the blast. As FBI officers and local police left the hospital, having finished rounds of interviews with patients and family members, Norden’s head sank onto the shoulder of her brother-in-law.
A relative approached her, handing her some Tylenol she had asked him to buy at a nearby pharmacy.
“Thank you,” she said, burying her face in her hands.
(Reuters) - A major earthquake struck Iran near the border with Pakistan on Tuesday and an Iranian official said hundreds of people were feared to have been killed.
Tremors from the 7.8 magnitude quake were also felt in India and Gulf states.
"It was the biggest earthquake in Iran in 40 years and we are expecting hundreds of dead," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake hit at 5:44 a.m. ET at a depth of 15.2 km (9.4 miles).
People in the city of Zahedan poured into the streets when the earthquake struck, Iran's Fars news agency reported.
All communications in the area have been cut, the Iranian Red Crescent's Mahmoud Mozaffar told state television. Rescue teams have been dispatched to the affected area, he said.
"In the aftermath of this earthquake five evaluation teams from the Khash and Saravan branches were sent to the area to assess damage," Mozaffar said.
The epicenter was in southeast Iran in an area of mountains and desert, 201 km (125 miles) southeast of Zahedan and 250 km northwest of Turbat in Pakistan, USGS said.
On April 9, a powerful 6.3 magnitude quake struck close to Iran's only nuclear power station, killing 37 people, injuring 850 and devastating two villages.
Most of Iran's nuclear-related facilities are located in central Iran or its west, including the Bushehr nuclear power plant on the Gulf coast. A U.S. Institute for Science and International Security map did not show any nuclear-linked facilities in southeastern Iran close to Pakistan.
SITTING ON THE FAULTLINE
Iran sits on major geological faultlines and has suffered several devastating earthquakes, including a 6.6 magnitude quake in 2003 that flattened the city of Bam, in Iran's far southeast, killing more than 25,000 people.
This quake also shook tall buildings in India's capital New Delhi, sending people running into the streets, witnesses said. People also evacuated buildings in Qatar and Dubai, residents said.
"I was working and my work station was shaking," said Viidhu Sekhri, 35, an underwriter at a New Delhi insurance company. "Then it was a bit shaky so we just rushed outside."
Earlier in the day two smaller tremors were felt in India's Himalayan region close to the Chinese border.
An official at India's disaster management authority said the tremors felt in New Delhi and across northern India were because of the earthquake in Iran.
(Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Janet Lawrence)
Scientists Transform Cellulose Into Starch: Potential Food Source Derived from Non-Food Plants
Apr. 16, 2013
A team of Virginia Tech researchers has succeeded in transforming cellulose into starch, a process that has the potential to provide a previously untapped nutrient source from plants not traditionally though of as food crops.
Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering, led a team of researchers in the project that could help feed a growing global population that is estimated to swell to 9 billion by 2050. Starch is one of the most important components of the human diet and provides 20-40 percent of our daily caloric intake.
The research was published this week in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Cellulose is the supporting material in plant cell walls and is the most common carbohydrate on earth. This new development opens the door to the potential that food could be created from any plant, reducing the need for crops to be grown on valuable land that requires fertilizers, pesticides, and large amounts of water. The type of starch that Zhang's team produced is amylose, a linear resistant starch that is not broken down in the digestion process and acts as a good source of dietary fiber. It has been proven to decrease the risk of obesity and diabetes.
This discovery holds promise on many fronts beyond food systems.
"Besides serving as a food source, the starch can be used in the manufacture of edible, clear films for biodegradable food packaging," Zhang said. "It can even serve as a high-density hydrogen storage carrier that could solve problems related to hydrogen storage and distribution."
Zhang used a novel process involving cascading enzymes to transform cellulose into amylose starch.
"Cellulose and starch have the same chemical formula," Zhang said. "The difference is in their chemical linkages. Our idea is to use an enzyme cascade to break up the bonds in cellulose, enabling their reconfiguration as starch."
The new approach takes cellulose from non-food plant material, such as corn stover, converts about 30% to amylose, and hydrolyzes the remainder to glucose suitable for ethanol production. Corn stover consists of the stem, leaves, and husk of the corn plant remaining after ears of corn are harvested. However, the process works with cellulose from any plant.
This bioprocess called "simultaneous enzymatic biotransformation and microbial fermentation" is easy to scale up for commercial production. It is environmentally friendly because it does not require expensive equipment, heat, or chemical reagents, and does not generate any waste. The key enzymes immobilized on the magnetic nanoparticles can easily be recycled using a magnetic force.
Zhang designed the experiments and conceived the cellulose-to-starch concept. Zhang and Virginia Tech visiting scholar Hongge Chen are the inventors of the cellulose-to-starch biotransformation, which is covered under a provisional patent application. Chun You, a postdoctoral researcher from China at Virginia Tech, and Chen conducted most of the research work.
Support for the current research comes from the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech. Additional resources were contributed by the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Biodesign and Bioprocessing Research Center, the Shell GameChanger Program, and the U.S. Department of Energy BioEnergy Science Center, along with the Division of Chemical Sciences, Geosciences and Biosciences, Office of Basic Energy Sciences of the Department of Energy. Chen was partially supported by the China Scholarship Council.
Sweet Caroline at Yankee Stadium 4/16/13 to honor the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. Classy gesture by the Yankees and Yankee fans. Stand strong East Coast. Boston Red Sox - New York Yankees.
No poultry contact in some China bird flu cases: WHO
GENEVA/BEIJING Wed Apr 17, 2013 9:03am EDT
(Reuters) - The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that a number of people who have tested positive for a new strain of bird flu in China have had no history of contact with poultry, adding to the mystery about the virus that has killed 16 people to date.
Chinese authorities have slaughtered thousands of birds and closed some live poultry markets to try and stem the rate of human infection, but many questions remain unsolved including whether the H7N9 strain is being transmitted between people.
WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl confirmed that "there are people who have no history of contact with poultry", after a top Chinese scientist was quoted as saying about 40 percent of those with the H7N9 flu had had no poultry contact.
"This is one of the puzzles still (to) be solved and therefore argues for a wide investigation net," Hartl said in emailed comments, though he did not know the exact percentage.
Several avenues should be explored by an international team of experts going to China soon, including the possibility that the virus can be spread between people, although there is "no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission", Hartl said.
"It might be because of dust at the wet markets, it could be another animal source beside poultry, it could also be human-to-human transmission," he added by telephone.
Wendy Barclay, a flu expert at Imperial College London, said it was likely to be very difficult to determine and rule out people's exact exposure to poultry - and to wild birds, which could also be a possible source of infection.
"The incubation time might be quite long so visiting a market even 14 days before might have resulted in infection," she said.
Previously the WHO reported two suspected family "clusters", but later said the virus was found not to have infected anyone in the first. Tests in the second were inconclusive and experts say the poor quality samples may make it impossible to know.
China has warned that the number of infections could rise from the current 77. The latest victims are from the commercial capital of Shanghai, where the majority of the cases have been found, the official Xinhua news agency said on Tuesday.
China reported three new bird flu outbreaks to the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE) this week, bringing the total number of places to 11, the OIE said on its website.
Samples have tested positive in some poultry markets that remain the focus of investigation by China and the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Zeng Guang, the chief scientist in charge of epidemiology at the China Disease Prevention and Control Centre (CDPCC), said about 40 percent of human victims had no clear history of poultry exposure, the Beijing News reported on Wednesday.
According to a Reuters analysis of the infections, based on state media reports, only 10 of the 77 cases as of Tuesday have had contact with poultry. The CDPCC declined to comment when asked by Reuters.
A study published last week showed the H7N9 strain was a so-called "triple reassortant" virus with a mixture of genes from three other flu strains found in birds in Asia. [ID:nL5N0CY2ZT]One of those three strains is thought to have come from a brambling, a type of small wild bird.
"We can't rule out that this ... has passed through poultry but then been reintroduced to a wild bird population from which some spread to humans might be occurring," Barclay said.
China's poultry sector has recorded losses of more than 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) since reports emerged of the strain two weeks ago, while authorities have slaughtered thousands of birds and closed live poultry markets in Shanghai and Beijing.
China said on Sunday the virus had spread outside the Yangtze River delta region in eastern China, with cases reported in Beijing and the central province of Henan.
The WHO said no H7N9 vaccine was currently being produced.
"This is being followed up, but we are not yet there in terms of thinking about producing a vaccine ... We need a decision based on the epidemiology," Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, WHO director of Immunization, Vaccination and Biologicals, told a news briefing in Geneva on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Sui-Lee Wee and Huang Yan in Beijing, Kate Kelland in London and Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris; Editing by Nick Macfie and Mike Collett-White)
Strange New Bursts of Gamma Rays Point to a New Way to Destroy a Star
Apr. 16, 2013
A team led by the University of Warwick has pinpointed a new type of exceptionally powerful and long-lived cosmic explosion, prompting a theory that they arise in the violent death throes of a supergiant star.
These explosions create powerful blasts of high energy gamma-rays, known as gamma-ray bursts, but while most bursts are over in about a minute, this new type can last for several hours.
The first example was found by astronomers on Christmas Day 2010, but it lacked a measurement of distance and so remained shrouded in mystery with two competing theories put forward for its origin.
The first model suggested it was down to an asteroid, shredded by the gravity of a dense neutron star in our own galaxy, the second that it was a supernova in a galaxy 3.5 billion light years away, or in the more common language of astronomers at a redshift of 0.33.
A new study by a team of scientists led by Dr Andrew Levan at the University of Warwick finds several more examples of these unusual cosmic explosions and shows that the Christmas Day burst took place in a galaxy much further away than the two theories suggested.
This research is to be presented at the GRB 2013 Symposium in Nashville, Tennessee on Tuesday 16 April.
Using data from the Gemini Telescope in Hawaii, the scientists calculated that this ultra-long gamma-ray burst had a redshift of 0.847. This gives it a location of approximately half-way to the edge of the observable universe, or 7 billion light years away.
Armed with its location, Dr Levan's team, which included scientists from an international collaboration, has developed a new theory to explain how it occurred.
They suggest this kind of burst is caused by a supergiant, a star 20 times more massive than the sun, which evolves to become among the biggest and brightest stars in the universe with a radius of up to 1 billion miles -- up to 1,000 times that of the sun.
They believe the ultra-long durations of the Christmas gamma-ray burst and two other similar bursts are simply down to the sheer size of the supergiants exploding in a supernova.
Most stars that create gamma-ray bursts are thought to be relatively small and dense, and the explosion that destroys them punches through the star in a matter of seconds. In the case of these new ultra-long bursts the explosion takes much longer to propagate through the star, and so the gamma-ray burst lasts for a much longer time..
Dr Levan said: "These events are amongst the biggest explosions in nature, yet we're only just beginning to find them.
"It really shows us that the Universe is a much more violent and varied place than we'd imagined.
"Previously we've found lots of gamma-ray events with short durations, but in the past couple of years we've started to see the full picture."
Nial Tanvir, a professor at the University of Leicester, and second author of the study added: "We believe that powering the explosion is a newly formed black hole in the heart of the star.
"Predicting the detailed behaviour of matter falling into a black hole in these circumstances turns out to be very difficult, and from a theoretical point of view we didn't initially expect explosions at all.
"The amazing thing is that nature seems to have found ways of blowing up a wide range of stars in the most dramatic and violent way."
The more common type of gamma-ray burst is thought to be caused when a Wolf-Rayet star in the final phase of its evolution collapses into a black hole at its own core.
Matter is drawn into the black hole, but some of its energy escapes and is focussed into a jet of material which blasts out in two directions forming copious gamma-rays in the process.
These jets are ejected extremely quickly (close to the speed of light), otherwise the material would fall into the black hole from which it can't escape. For this reason they last only a few seconds.
However, a gamma-ray burst in a bigger star the size of a supergiant needs to power through a larger reservoir of material, hence its longer duration.