Nation & World News

Russian Space Experiment On Gecko Sex Goes Awry

By Geoff Brumfiel on September 2nd, 2014 | Last updated: September 2, 2014 at 7:47 pm

Space is a dangerous place. That message resonated again on Monday, when the Russian Federal Space Agency — Roscosmos — announced that a team of experimental geckos tasked with copulating while in orbit did not survive their journey.

“All geckos, unfortunately, died,” the space agency said in a terse statement.

Roscosmos is launching an investigation into the exact circumstances surrounding the geckos’ deaths, but the mission seemed star-crossed from the start.

On July 19, the Foton-M4 satellite lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Onboard were several experiments from the Institute of Biomedical Problems designed to study life in space.

The star experiment was “Gecko-F4,” which according to a Google translation of the agency’s website was designed to “create conditions for sexual behavior, copulation and reproduction of geckos in the orbital experiment.” Video cameras were set up to capture the geckos in the act, along with any eggs that resulted.

But shortly after launch, ground control said the Foton-M4 stopped responding to commands. Controllers spent several days battling to reconnect with the spacecraft. During that time the status of the geckos, and their sexual activity, remained unclear. Nor was it clear whether the Foton-M spacecraft was capable of safely returning to Earth. The scenario was a little like the ill-fated flight of Apollo 13 in 1970 (except in most respects it was completely different).

Eventually contact was re-established with the spacecraft, and it did travel back to Earth. But the geckos appear to have died somewhere along the way. Ria Novosti quotes the head of the experiment, Sergei Savelyev, as saying the geckos very likely died just two days before landing. It appears that part of the capsule’s life-support system had quit working.

Not all life aboard perished, however. Roscosmos reports that some fruit flies appeared to have survived the journey. What’s more, they successfully reproduced.

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John Oliver And Cookie Monster, On The News Beat

By Bill Chappell on September 2nd, 2014 | Last updated: September 2, 2014 at 6:46 pm

Just in time for back-to-school season, funny newsman John Oliver and incorrigible consumer Cookie Monster are co-anchoring a news special on words, in a video that includes appearances by Saturday Night Live‘s Kate McKinnon and weatherman Al Roker.

Sharing the anchor desk of W-ORD News, Oliver and Cookie Monster banter about the silent “b” in crumb and puzzle over the length of the word “abbreviation.” In another highlight, Roker adapts his forecast to warn of the arrival of the word “hangry” across most of the Midwest this week.

The segment is part of a series of collaborations between the makers of Sesame Street and the website Mashable.

“This project is in support of Sesame Street’s Words Are Here, There and Everywhere, a fantastic digital resource that encourages families to explore the world of words all around them,” Mashable’s Matt Silverman writes.

As you might expect, things can go off the rails when Cookie Monster is on the set — a point driven home by a clip of outtakes.

“Thank you, Cookie,” Oliver tells his partner. “You’re a great hype man.”

On a final note, we’ll mention that the credits show the segment’s two stars received equal treatment on the set:

“Production Assistance & Stand-In for Mr. Oliver: Eric Larson
“Production Assistance & Stand-In for Mr. Monster: Noah Sterling”

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New U.S. Rules Protect Giant Bluefin Tuna

By Bill Chappell on September 2nd, 2014 | Last updated: September 2, 2014 at 6:46 pm

In an effort to reduce the number of giant bluefin tuna killed by fishing fleets, the U.S. is putting out new rules about commercial fishing in the Gulf of Mexico and parts of the western Atlantic. The rules have special protections for giant bluefin — fish that have grown to 81 inches or more.

The new requirements were recently published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a nearly 750-page amendment to its management plan. The agency hopes the changes will help rebuild the tuna population and improve data it gets from fishing vessels.

As NPR’s Christopher Joyce reports for our Newscast unit, commercial fleets in the Gulf cannot target giant bluefin tuna, whose numbers have fallen since the 1970s. The Gulf is of crucial importance, as it is the fish’s breeding ground.

“But fishing fleets can harvest other types of tuna and large fish using long-lines. These are lines loaded with hooks that float below the surface and can run 30 miles long. They often accidentally hook and kill giant bluefin tuna.

“The new rules will lower the allowable number of these accidental killings, called ‘by-catch.’ They also will require video cameras on fishing vessels to record full time what’s being caught. The rules cover long-line fishing in the Gulf and parts of the Atlantic coast.”

The new rules were welcomed by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean conservation unit, with director Lee Crockett saying, “NOAA Fisheries deserves great praise for significantly increasing protections for bluefin while allowing fishing for yellowfin tuna and swordfish to continue.”

The group also lists some of the things that set the bluefin apart:

“They’re as fast as racehorses, bring fishermen to their knees, and grow to the size of a small car. These ‘superfish’ make transoceanic migrations, can dive deeper than 4,000 feet, and live up to 40 years.”

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Islamic State Claims It Has Beheaded Second American Journalist

By Eyder Peralta on September 2nd, 2014 | Last updated: September 2, 2014 at 3:45 pm

An Islamic radical group released a video on Tuesday that purportedly shows the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff.

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, had threatened Sotloff’s life when it released a video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley two weeks ago.

At the time, the militants said Sotloff’s life depended on the actions of the U.S. government, which has been targeting the group with airstrikes to stop its offensive in Iraq.

SITE Intel Group, which monitors jihadist groups, posted a version of the video showing a man who looks like Sotloff kneeling next to a masked fighter holding a knife.

In his regular briefing, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said he was “not in a position to confirm the authenticity of the video or the reports.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Sotloff and Mr. Sotloff’s family and those who worked with him,” Earnest said. “The United States, as you know, has dedicated significant time and resources to try and rescue Mr. Sotloff.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. would try to authenticate the video quickly.

“If the video is genuine, we are sickened by this brutal act,” she said.

Just last week, Sotloff’s mother released an emotional video in which she pleaded with the Islamic State to spare her son’s life.

Shirley Sotloff asked Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to grant her son amnesty, “to use your authority to spare his life and to follow the example set by the Prophet Muhammad who protected people of the Book.”

According to The Washington Post, Sotloff, 31, was a freelance journalist covering the civil war in Syria when he was captured in 2013. On his Twitter account, Sotloff described himself as a “stand-up philosopher from Miami,” whose work has been published in Time and Foreign Policy.

Sotloff’s mother said he was “an honorable man” who “has always tried to help the weak.”

The New York Times reports that in the video released today, Sotloff says he is “paying the price” for the Obama administration’s airstrikes in Iraq.

A masked fighter, the Times reports, appears beside Sotloff saying, “I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State.”

SITE Intel Group reports that the masked fighter also threatens to execute an additional hostage.

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Celebrity Photo Leak Puts Spotlight On The Cloud, And Security

By Bill Chappell on September 2nd, 2014 | Last updated: September 2, 2014 at 4:45 pm

The FBI and Apple are looking into how private photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities were stolen, in an apparent breach of security that is raising new questions about storing personal information online.

“This is a flagrant violation of privacy,” Lawrence’s spokeswoman said Sunday, after nude images of the actress and others began to emerge online. Some of the celebrities have denied the photos are of them; others, such as Mary Elizabeth Winstead, say they deleted the images long ago.

Lawrence and Winstead are among dozens of famous women who seem to have been targeted by a systematic hacking job that was announced by a message on the online forum 4Chan on Sunday.

Update at 3:15 p.m. ET: Apple Says Its System Wasn’t Breached

Apple released a statement Tuesday saying, “None of the cases we have investigated has resulted from any breach in any of Apple’s systems including iCloud or Find my iPhone.”

More from the company:

“After more than 40 hours of investigation, we have discovered that certain celebrity accounts were compromised by a very targeted attack on user names, passwords and security questions, a practice that has become all too common on the Internet.”

Apple urged “all users to always use a strong password and enable two-step verification,” including a link to info about account security.

Our original post continues:

The people behind the scheme say they have more images and video to offer, and as Ars Technica notes, voyeurism wasn’t the hackers’ only objective: people who said they could provide the images on 4Chan demanded money in exchange, “with one providing a Hotmail address associated with a PayPal account, and another seeking contributions to a Bitcoin wallet.”

The hackers are suspected of downloading the images from cloud storage services such as Apple’s iCloud, which automatically uploads and stores media files from smartphones and other electronic devices. The thieves were able to access personal accounts by exploiting a security weakness in another Apple service, according to reports by several tech news sites.

From The Verge:

“Though it hasn’t yet been confirmed that the pictures came from iCloud accounts, reports have speculated that the hackers used a recent tool called iBrute, which can repeatedly try different combinations of passwords on Apple’s Find My iPhone service until one of them works. Once Find My iPhone is breached, it is possible to access iCloud passwords and view images and other data stored in a user’s iCloud account. Apple had previously allowed an unlimited number of password attempts on the Find My iPhone service, but it has since limited it to five attempts, making the iBrute tool ineffective.”

“We take user privacy very seriously and are actively investigating this report,” says Apple spokeswoman Nat Kerris.

Other questions raised by the stolen photos center on how difficult it is to delete images and video that are stored on the far-flung servers that make up the cloud. In most cases, deleting an image from a device doesn’t also delete it from the cloud, which requires a separate step.

And several security experts note that for now at least, most cloud backup systems don’t make it easy for users to assign different privacy levels to different files. The safest route, many say, is to disable any automatic cloud services that could store sensitive images or data online — and to remember that you lose control over anything you email or text.

Security experts also say it’s dangerous to click on any link that promises to show the leaked celebrity photos, because they’ve “been put on websites that are loaded with malware,” analyst Carmi Levy tells CTV.

The photo leak has renewed some of the discussions of last summer, when it was revealed that government spy agencies could easily access massive amounts of data being held in the cloud by large tech companies.

Those revelations sparked an editorial in The New York Times, in which Vikas Bajaj wrote that many of us have “ceded our privacy” by moving toward cloud-based storage, and “it might be incredibly hard, if not impossible, to regain what we have given up.”

To explain his point, Bajaj offered this contrast:

“While moving house recently, I came across a box of letters I had received in high school and college, some more than 20 years old. Other people cannot see those letters unless I let them, a court orders that I divulge their contents or they are physically stolen. But I can’t say the same about the nine-year-old messages in my Gmail account. I might think those messages are confidential just as I might hope that my private Facebook posts are, well, private. But in reality they aren’t and never were.”

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After Just Two Years, Huge Atlantic City Casino Shuts Down

By Bill Chappell on September 2nd, 2014 | Last updated: September 2, 2014 at 12:45 pm

After operating for only two years, the Revel Casino Hotel has closed down, part of a trend that will reportedly shutter a third of Atlantic City’s big gambling halls by the end of September. It cost $2.4 billion to build the Revel facility.

“It’s a tragedy,” massage therapist Lori Bacum, who worked at the resort’s spa, tells “There were some warnings, but none of us thought it would happen. We felt so safe, because this was the place that was going to take (the city) to a new level.”

From the AP:

“By mid-September, four of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos will have closed, but none will be a costlier failure than Revel.

“It started construction just before the Great Recession hit and had to take on so much debt it never could turn a profit.

The Showboat closed on Sunday, Trump Plaza is closing Sept. 16, and the Atlantic Club closed in January.”

The closures come as casinos in Atlantic City and surrounding areas struggle to attract customers in a region that’s becoming saturated with gambling options — as NPR’s David Greene reports for today’s Morning Edition.

The arrival of new casinos in cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — and Baltimore, where Maryland’s fifth casino recently opened — is giving gamblers more options. And that makes it harder for any one town to attract customers from miles around.

“Pennsylvania is a terrific example,” Suzette Parmley of The Philadelphia Inquirer tells David. She says the casinos are expected to bring money pouring into resources for senior citizens and boost tax revenue.

“From 2012 to 2013, it was booming — billions of dollars coming into Pennsylvania,” Parmley says. But now, she adds, “Pennsylvania has already flattened out; it’s actually on a slight decrease this year in revenue, from last year. It’s still making a lot, but already the trajectory is going downward because you have Maryland in the mix now, you have Ohio in the mix.”

In Atlantic City, Revel opened in April 2012; its owners twice sought bankruptcy protection. The last hotel guests left Monday. And by Tuesday morning, workers had removed the resort’s name and put up a yellow chain to block access.

“At the end of the month, some 6,500 jobs will have been lost” in Atlantic City, David says.

As CBS News reports, Revel’s unique approach of emphasizing its hotel qualities seemed to backfire:

“The idea behind Revel was to open a totally different resort, a seaside pleasure palace that just happened to have a casino as one of its features. That included Atlantic City’s only total smoking ban, which alienated many gamblers; the lack of a buffet and daily bus trips to and from the casino; and the absence of a players’ club. By the time those decisions were reversed, it was already too late. High room and restaurant prices hurt, too.”

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NATO To Create New ‘Spearhead’ Force For Eastern Europe

By L. Carol Ritchie on September 1st, 2014 | Last updated: September 2, 2014 at 7:46 am

NATO leaders are expected to set up a rapid-response force to deploy quickly to eastern Europe to defend against potential Russian aggression at their meeting in Wales later this week.

The force of about 4,000 troops will be ready to move on 48 hours notice from a station in a member country close to Russia, The New York Times reported.

The “spearhead” force would be defensive in nature and able to respond “to Russia’s aggressive behavior — but it equips the alliance to respond to all security challenges, wherever they may arise,” said Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in a speech on the NATO website.

The Obama administration supports the plan, but emphasized the force’s defensive posture, National Security Spokesman Caitlin Hayden tells CNN.

The force is “not intended as a provocation, or as a threat to Russia, but rather as a demonstration of NATO’s continued commitment to our collective defense,” Hayden said.

Poland and other NATO members in eastern and Baltic states had expressed concerns about Russian actions in Ukraine, and had demanded a stronger response, says the Guardian. The new force will not help with the current situation in Ukraine, but may serve as a deterrent if Russia considers destabilizing the Baltic states.

“The spearhead group will be trained to deal with unconventional actions, from the funding of separatist groups to the use of social media, intimidation and black propaganda,” writes the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill.

Russia is bound to view it as an act of aggression, MacAskill says.

The NATO summit, featuring some 60 heads of state, including President Obama, is set for Thursday and Friday at the Celtic Manor Resort, a luxury hotel complex in Newport, Wales.

Update at 7:09 a.m. ET. Russia Reconsiders Military Doctrine:

In response to what it called a military threat, Mikhail Popov, deputy secretary of Russia’s military Security Council, said Russia would reconsider its military doctrine.

The New York Times reports:

“Mr. Popov said Russia expected that leaders of NATO would seek to strengthen the alliance’s long-term military presence in Eastern Europe by establishing new military bases in the region and by deploying tanks in Estonia, a member of NATO that borders Russia.

“‘We believe that the defining factor in our relationship with NATO remains the unacceptability for Russia of plans to move military infrastructures of the alliance to our borders, including by means of expanding the bloc,’ Mr. Popov said.”

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3 Americans Detained In North Korea Urge U.S. To Secure Their Release

By Krishnadev Calamur on September 1st, 2014 | Last updated: September 1, 2014 at 7:46 pm

Three Americans who have been detained in North Korea appealed today to the U.S. to send a senior representative to secure their release.

In interviews with CNN and The Associated Press, Kenneth Bae, Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller detailed the conditions of their imprisonment and urged a quick resolution of their situations.

Bae, a Christian missionary, has been detained the longest. He was arrested in late 2012 and tried and convicted to 15 years of hard labor for the attempted overthrow of North Korea’s communist regime. The 46-year-old has diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney stones. He told CNN that he worked eight hours a day, six days a week at a labor camp, and that he had been suffering from “failing health.”

“I’ve been going back and forth between hospital and to the labor camp for the last year and a half,” he said.

Fowle, 56, was detained in June. At the time, North Korean media said he “acted in violation of the DPRK law, contrary to the purpose of tourism during his stay.” CNN says he is accused of leaving a Bible in a hotel where he was staying.

“Within a month I could be sharing a jail cell with Ken Bae,” Fowle told the AP.

Miller was picked up in April, arrested for what the North called “rash behavior.” He is accused of tearing up his tourist visa and seeking asylum in the North.

He told CNN he wanted to tell the U.S. “my situation is very urgent, that very soon I am going to trial, and I would directly be sent to prison.” He declined to comment on the claim that he was seeking asylum.

Fowle and Miller both said they expected their trials to start in the next month. They both said they do not know what specific charges they face. But both, along with Bae, have signed statements admitting their guilt.

Here’s more from the AP on the conditions under which the interviews were conducted:

“The three were allowed to speak briefly with The Associated Press at a meeting center in Pyongyang. North Korean officials were present during the interviews, conducted separately and in different rooms, but did not censor the questions that were asked. The three said they did not know they were going to be interviewed until immediately beforehand.”

Of its interview, CNN said:

“All three men said they have signed statements admitting their guilt. North Korean officials monitored and recorded all three interviews, and CNN was unable to assess independently the conditions under which the men were being held.”

The U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea and is trying to isolate it over its nuclear program. But The New York Times reports, “The choreography of the interviews seemed to make increasingly clear that North Korea wanted to use the three Americans as bargaining leverage to pressure Washington to engage the country in dialogue.”

Past intercessions, by high-level emissaries such as former President Clinton have resulted in the freeing of Americans.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki urged North Korea to free Bae, Fowle and Miller out of humanitarian concern. She also asked that Bae be granted immunity.

“We continue to work actively to secure these three U.S. citizens’ release,” she said in a statement.

The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang acts as the United States’ protecting power in North Korea, and its diplomats have met the Americans regularly, the statement said.

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The Flight Of The Passenger Pigeon, Now 100 Years Extinct

By Krishnadev Calamur on September 1st, 2014 | Last updated: September 1, 2014 at 3:45 pm

The Cincinnati Zoo held a commemorative event; the London Zoo stopped the clock outside its bird house at noon. The object of their memorials: Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who died exactly a century ago at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Passenger pigeons were once the world’s most abundant birds. Massive flocks of more than 1 million would darken the sky. But, says the London Zoo, “a huge surge in hunting and deforestation saw them rapidly driven towards extinction in just a few decades, with Martha being the last survivor.

“The demise of the passenger pigeon is one of the fastest and most dramatic extinctions ever witnessed, and ultimately caused, by humans.”

The Cincinnati Zoo held several events to honor Martha, including renovating the building in which she is believed to have lived.

Bird keepers at London Zoo stopped the clock tower outside the Victorian Bird House at noon, the hour Martha died on Sept. 1, 1914.

We’ve told you about Martha before. NPR’s Rae Ellen Bichell reported in July that Martha, who lived at the Cincinnati Zoo until 1914, was a celebrity.

Joel Greenberg, who has written a book about the birds, recounts a report from Ohio in 1854 when people noticed strange clouds forming on the horizon.

“As time went on it became clear that those clouds were birds,” Greenberg told NPR’s Bichell. “And as more time passed, they were plunged into darkness. People who had never seen the phenomenon before fell to their knees in prayer, thinking the end times had come. The down-beating of hundreds of millions of wings created drafts. People were cold.”

But the birds’ tendency to gather in large clusters proved to be their undoing.

“At pennies a piece, they were the cheapest protein on land,” NPR’s Bichell says. “During migrations, so many would line the trees that sometimes branches would snap right off.”

That made the species vulnerable: Hunters used the telegraph to locate the flocks, and that was the beginning of the end. Eventually, there was just Martha. And when she died in 1914, she was encased in a block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian in Washington where she can still be seen.

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U.K. Seeks To Expand Terrorism Laws To Target British Fighters

By Krishnadev Calamur on September 1st, 2014 | Last updated: September 1, 2014 at 5:45 pm

Prime Minister David Cameron says he wants to give U.K. police the power to seize the passports of Islamist fighters bound for Iraq and Syria.

“We will introduce specific and targeted legislation … providing the police with a temporary power to seize a passport at the border during which time they will be able to investigate the individual concerned,” Cameron told British Parliament today.

His comments, which come just days after Britain raised its terrorism threat level to “severe” from “substantial,” come amid reports of radicalized Europeans, including about 500 Britons, fighting alongside militants of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.

Here’s more from the BBC on Cameron’s proposals:

“Legislation will be drawn up to give the police new statutory powers to confiscate the passports of suspect terrorists at UK borders

“The UK will challenge any attempt by the courts to water down these powers

“Plans to block suspected British terrorists from returning to the UK will be drawn up on a “cross-party basis”

“Terrorism prevention and investigation measures (Tpims) will be extended, to include the power to relocate suspects

“Terrorists will be required to undergo de-radicalisation programmes

“Airlines will be forced to hand over more information about passengers travelling to and from conflict zones.”

Meanwhile in Washington, President Obama told Congress that he had authorized targeted airstrikes in Iraq in support of an “operation to deliver humanitarian assistance to the town of [Amerli], where thousands of Shia Turkomen have been cut off from receiving food, water and medical supplies for two months by ISIL.”

ISIL is another name for the Islamic State, which is also sometimes referred to as ISIS.

“The United States Air Force delivered aid to the town of [Amerli] alongside aircraft from Australia, France and the United Kingdom, who also dropped much needed supplies,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.

As NPR’s Peter Kenyon told our Newscast unit this morning, the operation in Amirli brought together unusual allies.

“Iraqi army units and Shiite militiamen advanced on Amerli from one direction, while Kurdish Peshmerga forces moved in from another,” he said.

They were given U.S. and allied air cover.

As The New York Times points out, the operation “appeared to be the first time American warplanes and militias backed by Iran had worked with a common purpose on a battlefield against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, even though the Obama administration said there was no direct coordination with the militias.”

At a news conference last week, Obama said the Islamic State was continuing to lose arms and equipment because of targeted U.S. strikes against its members in Iraq. But he also acknowledged that the U.S. doesn’t “have a strategy yet” to deal with the Islamic State in Syria, where it has also made gains.

The group controls vast swaths of territory across both countries, and in its brutal campaign has carried out mass executions and targeted non-Muslims, including Christians and members of the tiny Yazidi community.

The U.N. Human Rights Council, meanwhile, approved Iraq’s request into an investigation into crimes against civilians by the Islamic State.

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