June 21, 2014

CDC Anthrax Scare Blamed on Breach of Protocol

CDC is blaming its anthrax mishap on a breach of protocol. The breach may have exposed 84 CDC workers to live anthrax bacteria.

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Human Mortality, Individual and Collective

It has been a major triumph of human civilization: Never […]

Heretic to hero: Sir Harold Ridley and his sight-saving invention

It’s a strange phenomenon that some of the most revolutionarily […]

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 3

Handy. What a useful little word. The sort of word you could carry in your pocket like a jackknife or a ball of twine. One of the earliest members of the genus Homo is called Homo habilis, handy man. Skulking around in the savannahs of East Africa two million years ago with a bit of sharp rock in his hand. Maybe a pointed stick, too. Or a shell. And who knows what other crude tools he contrived from what he could find. He was short, with long arms dangling at his side, and a cranial capacity only half that of modern man, but wherever his bones have been found there are tools too. Hand and mind working together: He knew what he was doing.

Handy. Homo. Habilis. His. Himself. All those Hs with their feet planted firmly on the ground, hands upraised, ready for work, ready to knap a flint or dig out marrow with a twig. We were, apparently, habilis before we were sapiens, at least in nomenclature.

Some years ago, a treasure trove of prehistoric art was discovered in a cavern near the town of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in southern France. The cave contains multiple images of horses, bison, bears and rhinos, in red, ocher and black pigments. These exquisite drawings appear to date from around 20,000 years ago, long after Homo habilis disappeared into the fossil beds of East Africa. Whoever painted the cavern at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc was us, Homo sapiens, but still handy. No, handier. The animal images are accompanied by stenciled hands. Lots of hands. Some anthropologists say the hands are a mystery, but I think not. The animal drawings at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc are similar to those at other caves in southern France and Spain (I once visited with my children the exquisite galleries at Altamira). The images of animals probably had something to do with religion or the magic of the hunt. Collective things. Congregational things. But the stenciled hands seem to spring from something prior and private. Warm flesh pressed against cold stone. Spontaneity. Individualism. The stenciled hands are not abstract works of the mind; they are immediate projections of the body. They are the physical self making contact with the stuff of the world. They remind us that behind the wonderful animal art there was mortar and pestle, pigment and torch, stone and spear.

Stenciled hand at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave. (Photo by Laurent Chicoineau / CC BY-NC-SA)
Homo sapiens. Knowing man. By most accounts, it’s our brain that defines our humanity. But it’s with our hands that we make physical contact with reality. Our hands are our emissaries to the world. If I learned one thing from my father, one thing I have carried with me through life—one thing I hope to have passed on to my children—it is a respectful consonance of hand and mind. From an early age he taught me to use my hands, to value craft, to relish the touch of wood and metal, to respect the heft, hardness and edge of a tool. It was his conviction that the best way to understand how the world works is to take it apart and put it back together again.

Anthropologists endlessly debate the proper place of the various hominid fossils in the human family tree. But no one I know of doubts than we became human when we became handymen (and handywomen). Yes, chimps and crows and a few other animals use tools in certain instinctive ways. But there must have been a moment when the characterization Homo became definitive. I try to imagine squat, long-armed Homo habilis crouched at the side of a stream looking at his cupped hands leaking water, say, and that little anachronistic light bulb goes on over his head, and he conceives, dimly, but irrevocably, the idea of a bowl, an emptied shell, perhaps, or a broken skull, or a hollowed-out stem, but something made, something shaped by the hands to a purpose. And, as long as we are fantasizing, let’s be even more hypothetical and imagine him jumping up, pumping the air with his fists. H. Eureka! Handy and sapient.

Of all the artifacts of pre-Columbian America culture that I have seen, the one I like best is the life-sized “Hopewell hand,” a silhouetted human hand cut from a paper-thin sheet of mica by a craftsperson who lived a thousand years ago in southern Ohio. I saw the hand more than half-a-century ago in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. For years, I had a colored transparency of the hand taped to the window of my office, glowing in the sunlight. Something about those long, slender fingers, the delicate crook in the thumb. The people of the mica hand were ancestors of the Algonquians, Iroquois, Cherokees, and other Native Americans. They lived in river valleys of central North America from 200 BC to 1000 AD, and left behind impressive complexes of burial mounds, temple mounds, hilltop ramparts, and earthen walls. They are generally called the Mound Builders, and builders they certainly were, and fine handymen too. Many of their ancient sites were excavated a century ago to provide an archeological exhibit for the 1893 Chicago world’s fair. One of the richest sites was on the farm of M. C. Hopewell in Ross County, Ohio, and the Hopewell name has come to signify the culture of the people who built the mounds. The mica hand was found in a burial mound on Hopewell’s farm. It is flaky-thin and subtly tinged with color. That it survived unbroken in the earth for a thousand years seems little short of miraculous.

The Hopewell Hand
Perhaps the Hopewell hand represents the universal symbol of amity—raised palm turned outward, no weapon, “I come in peace.” Certainly, its gracile elegance evinces the life of the mind, not war. Or perhaps, like the stenciled hands in the cavern at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, or the traced hand that a child might make with a crayon, the mica hand was a craftsperson’s was of saying, “Here I am.” Whoever made the Hopewell hand was a handyman (I do not dismiss the possibility that it might have been a woman). He (or she) was our contemporary in every biological way.

As infants, it is hands that tease us into our humanity. “Gitchy-goo,” we tickle. “Itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout, down came the rain and washed the spider out. . . .” We begin our expressive lives with our fingers. Tugging. Sucking. Wriggling. We begin our social lives stroking and grooming. Before we made looms and potter’s wheels, we made cat’s cradles. Before we invented geometry and algebra and calculus, we counted on our fingers. Before we made harpsichords and flutes and tambourines, we put blades of grass between our fingers and blew. It is our hands we fold to pray. It is our hands that make us artists and athletes and musicians and carpenters. It is our hands that make us handymen.

Computers may one day equal human intelligence in rational thought, but the light that turns on in a child’s mind with “Itsy bitsy spider” is viscerally human in a way that programmed thought will never be. Computers can presently play chess at the level of grandmasters. I can imagine that someday computers will put mathematicians and composers and even psychologists out of jobs. But its hard to imagine a computer ever taking up a sheet of natural mica and scribing it with a sharp tool in such a way as to make a hand of such exquisite loveliness as the one found in the mound on Mr. Hopewell’s farm—mind and flesh working together, each instructing the other, thought and matter in a mutual unfolding in a handyman’s hands.

June 20, 2014

Parasite Egg Found in 6,200-Year Old Grave Suggests Ancient Irrigation Systems Spread Disease

The egg of a flatworm parasite found in a 6,200-year-old grave suggests ancient irrigation systems may have helped spread disease.

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Sunbathing may have similar effects to drug addiction

A study in mice suggests exposure to UV light might be addictive, which could explain some people's compulsion to tan despite the health risks

Twinkling Sirius spins its spectrum into a rainbow

The brightest star in the sky creates a rainbow smear as its light is refracted through our atmosphere in this long-exposure portrait

A film homage to a brain-damaged friend

Toby Amies has made a documentary about a friend with no short-term memory. The Man Whose Head Exploded shakes up our ideas of "normal"

Today on New Scientist

All the latest on newscientist.com: cop skills track nature's killers, big bang back-pedalling, hearing aids go iPhone, quantum computers and more

Buzzing glove teaches Braille through good vibrations

The glove has vibrating motors at the knuckle of each finger which pulse whenever you need to press a key on the Braille keyboard

Stone Age worm egg hints at origins of modern scourge

At a 6000-year-old site where locals irrigated crops, archaeologists have found the oldest parasitic egg of a flatworm that infects 210 million people today

Next-generation hearing aids get some iPhone cool

The first iPhone-compatible hearing aids allow music streaming and boast location-aware fine-tuning – one day everyone will want one

Anthrax escape raises worries about lab-grown super-flu

The anthrax scare at a US lab is unlikely to make anyone ill, but it suggests we should be very careful about scientists creating highly dangerous pathogens

Mountain top exploded to make way for ghost telescope

The telescope that will live on the now-flat summit of Cerro Amazones in the Atacama desert will be the largest of its kind in the world – and a ghost

Spot-the-difference software maps city's mean streets

Crowdsourced voters have taught a computer to recognise when a street looks safe – its automated maps could help homebuyers or even track inequality

Sound sieve lets you choose what to levitate

An acoustic device for lifting and sorting small objects might one day find uses in nano-manufacturing or cell therapies

Feedback: All dogs go to gate 97, please

The canine jet set, phone not a friend, fear, uncertainty and doubt among the economists, and more (full text available to subscribers)

Zoologger: Old magpies get wise to freeloading cuckoos

Eurasian magpies often have their nests parasitised by cuckoos, but as they get older they learn to reject the intruders' eggs

Break electricity addiction to win the power struggle

Electricity suppliers are struggling to supply cheap, clean and reliable power – managing our demand more actively will help

June 19, 2014

Manhunt to bug hunt: Cop skills track nature's killers

The geographical profiling that catches serial killers can track bats to their roosts or sharks to their lairs – and could close in on deadly diseases too (full text available to subscribers)

Neanderthals evolved their teeth before big brains

Ancient skulls found in Spain reveal how the earliest Neanderthals differed from their ancestors, suggesting their jaws changed shape to grip objects

Commercial quantum computer still awaits ultimate test

Today more inconclusive tests of D-Wave's quantum computers came to light – why is it so hard to tell if its machines are the real deal?

Big Bang breakthrough team back-pedals on major result

For the first time, the BICEP2 team – hailed for their gravitational wave discovery earlier this year – have dialled back on the certainty of the result

Fish-Eating Spiders Found All Over the World Say Scientists

Scientists report in a new study that fish-eating spiders can be found all over the world.

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Today on New Scientist

All the latest on newscientist.com: power trilemma, reverse-engineering NSA tech, crossing brain's ultimate barrier, gravitational wave doubts and more

Doubts about big bang breakthrough won't kill inflation

Cosmic inflation is sound whether or not we have found primordial gravitational waves, says the theory's co-founder Andrei Linde

Solving spider mysteries in the Peruvian Amazon

In the Amazon rainforest, spiders are building spider-shaped decoys in their webs. Nadia Drake goes to the jungle to learn more about these strange critters

Poppy the 3D-printed robot comes to life super-fast

Watch this incredible time-lapse of the world's first 3D-printed, open-source humanoid robot leap into life from starter parts

Activity trackers boosts fantasy footballer's success

Players' success in fantasy sports games could hinge on the amount of exercise they do in the real world – earning them bonus points

Mock recoil gives your gun real kick in virtual worlds

Designed to help train soldiers, a new gun-based controller for the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset brings a new sense of realism to gun play

The five most likely ways to beat dementia

Today the UK prime minister David Cameron announced a global push to defeat Alzheimer's by 2025. These are the most promising routes to success

Horned Dinosaur Species Had Wing-Shaped Headgear

Mercuriceratops gemini, a newly discovered dinosaur species, had wing-shaped ornamentation on the sides of its skull.

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June 18, 2014

Sciencebase Newsfeed

We were using Feedburner, but will be moving away from that defunct service, so if you’re an RSS subscriber, please update your reader with the following newsfeed link – http://sciencebase.com/feed to stay up to date with Sciencebase news or subscribe by email below.


Please click the link in the confirmation email you will receive, if you don’t see the email, please check your spam folder and whitelist our email address, thanks.

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If you use Feedly, search for “Sciencebase”, we’re the site with the subtitle “Freelance science journalist…” or similar as opposed to the Science Based lot…click the + and add us to Feedly.

Similarly, on Google Newsstand, tap the search icon and search for Sciencebase, we should be at the top of the feeds section, just click the + sign to subscribe.

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If your newsreader, RSS aggregator of choice is FeedSpot, then this is the link to use to follow us.
Sciencebase/David Bradley also has a Facebook page, a Youtube Channel, is active on Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, WordPress, Pinterest, Digg Reader and various other social networking and social bookmarking sites, just search for Sciencebase and watch out for American imposters…this is the real, the only genuine Sciencebase from David Bradley.

Sciencebase Newsfeed is a post from the science blog of David Bradley, author of Deceived Wisdom Subscribe to our Email Newsletter


Mars Rover – To the tune of Moon River

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER) is an ongoing robotic space mission involving two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which headed for the planet Mars back in 2003 and reached their destination in January 2004.


Spirit is quiet now despite NASA’s best efforts to keep it talking. Opportunity continues to relay data. The mission’s scientific objective was to search for and characterize a wide range of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity on Mars. A little poetic license was taken in these lyrics to be sung to the tune of Mancini’s “Moon River” from the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.

Mars Rovers travelled ‘cross the miles
A million score or more, who can say?
Then months later, it’s Endeavour Crater
Whatever you’re scanning, we’re coming some day

Two grifters, on a new, red world
It’s such a different world to probe
Searching for life not only hope,
That oughta see them through
There’s water out there too
On that old red globe

You lost Spirit
Opportunity’s still there
Explore and let us know that some day
If our dream making isn’t heart breaking
On the old Red Planet we soon might all play

Two grifters, on a new red world
It’s such a brave, new world, you see?
That red sky at night, an astronaut’s delight
It’s well within the sight of NASA’s little mites,
Mars Rovers and me

Mars Rover – To the tune of Moon River is a post from the science blog of David Bradley, author of Deceived Wisdom Subscribe to our Email Newsletter


June 17, 2014

In the news

Chet's father receiving the ‘Engineer of the Year’ award as reported in the Chattanooga Free Press—1965.

June 16, 2014

NASA Shares Radar Observations of Asteroid 2014 HQ124

NASA shares radar observations of Asteroid 2014 HQ124, which was 776,000 miles from Earth during its closest approach.

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June 15, 2014

Little Scout Robot Helps Big Robot Avoid Slippery Terrain

This little robot acts a scout for a larger robot and helps it avoid crossing slippery surfaces.

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Pluto's Moon Charon May Have Had Underground Ocean

Astronomers say there may one have been an underground ocean on Pluto's large moon Charon.

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June 14, 2014

Bachelor Party Finds Stegomastodon Skull and Tusks at New Mexico State Park

A bachelor party stumbled across a well-preserved fossilized stegomastodon skull and tusks while camping at a New Mexico state park.

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June 13, 2014

Anxious Crayfish Can Be Treated Like Humans Say Scientists

Scientists say anxious crayfish can be treated like humans using anti-anxiety drugs.

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Scientists Say Most Dinosaurs Were Mesothermic

Researchers say most dinosaurs were mesothermic, a middle path between warm-blooded and cold-blooded.

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June 12, 2014

Astronauts Kick Soccer Ball on the International Space Station

NASA released this video of astronauts kicking a soccer ball around on the International Space Station.

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Newly Discovered Paddle Prints Show How Nothosaurs Swam

Scientists have discovered a paddle print trackway that shows how nothosaurs moved along an ancient seabed.

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NASA Postpones Launch Test of Saucer Shaped Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator

NASA has postponed the launch of its flying saucer shaped Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator due to weather conditions.

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June 11, 2014

Fossilized Fish Discovery Helps Pinpoint the Origin of Jaws in Vertebrates

Scientists have discovered the fossil of an ancient fish in Canada that reveals the origin of jaws in vertebrates.

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New Wolf Snake Species Discovered in Cambodia

A new species of wolf snake has been discovered in Cambodia. The snake has a checkered pattern.

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May 06, 2010

A More Reality-Based Poll

Remember that strikingly inept poll analysis about the Tea Party movement from The New York Times last month? Well, the new Washington Post-ABC News poll addresses the same topic, and the Post’s analysis seems to actually be rooted in reality:

The conservative “tea party” movement appeals almost exclusively to supporters of the Republican Party, bolstering the view that the tea party divides the GOP even as it has energized its base.

That conclusion, backed by numbers from a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, also suggests that the tea party may have little room for growth. Most Americans — including large majorities of those who don’t already count themselves as supporters — say they’re not interested in learning more about the movement. A sizable share of those not already sympathetic to the tea party also say that the more they hear, the less they like the movement.

Overall, the tea party remains divisive, with 27 percent of those polled saying they’re supportive but about as many, 24 percent, opposed. Supporters overwhelmingly identify themselves as Republicans or GOP-leaning independents; opponents are even more heavily Democratic. The new movement is also relatively small, with 8 percent of supporters claiming to be “active participants” — about 2 percent of the total population.

(Emphasis added by me.)

These numbers are somewhat similar to last month’s New York Times-CBS News poll, which found that 18% of Americans support the Tea Party movement. Despite the Times doing as much as it could to hype these results, I pointed out that this wasn’t very meaningful, since that poll found that 78% of these “supporters” had never attended a Tea Party rally or meeting or donated money to the Tea Party cause. So, doing a little math, we find that about 4% of people could be labeled as active Tea Partiers based on that poll (compared with 2% in the current Washington Post poll).

The difference in both of these numbers (27% vs. 18% for supporters, 4% vs. 2% for active participants) could be due to a real drop in support for and participation in the Tea Party movement, or just a difference between the two polls. My point in bringing it up is that The Washington Post’s analysis actually makes sense.

On the side, it is also of note that there’s some good news in the poll for the Democratic Party:

The percentage of people who say the Democratic Party represents their personal values and is in tune with the problems of people like themselves hasn’t changed since November. The percentage siding with the GOP, however, has dropped by almost precisely the numbers now siding with the tea party.

Some 14 percent of Americans say the tea party is most in sync with their values, nearly matching the 15 percentage-point drop-off for the GOP over the past five months.

For more, check out a graphic on the poll results here and the full poll results here.

April 14, 2010

This Is a Very Dumb Poll

Actually, I should say that this is a very dumb analysis of a poll. The New York Times is really promoting its new NYT/CBS poll right now; as I write this, the top headline on the Times’ homepage reads “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated.”

When I first saw that headline and read the email news alert that the Times sent out, I did agree that these appeared to be interesting and surprising findings. And, as I read the article, my interest–and then skepticism–continued to grow. According to the article, these “Tea Party supporters” are “wealthier and more well-educated than the general public”, and they make up “18 percent of Americans”. Hmmm… interesting. Also, they “do not think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president”, and are “more likely than the general public to have returned their census forms.” Well, that’s quite a surprise.

The article goes on and on, but one thing should become clear: these “Tea Party supporters” sound almost indistinguishable from your run-of-the-mill establishment fiscal-conservative Republican. How could this be?

Well, if you look at the actual the survey results and methods, you’ll see that these “Tea Party supporters” are just people who answered affirmatively to the question “Do you consider yourself to be a supporter of the Tea Party movement, or not?” In fact, 78% (!!!) of these “supporters” have never attended a Tea Party rally or meeting or donated money to the Tea Party cause.

It’s no wonder that these “Tea Party supporters” sound nothing like the Tea Party activists we’ve grown so familiar with… because they’re not! Now, I’ll grant that the Times’ analysis never explicitly equates these two. But, especially by making statements like “Speculation and anecdotal evidence have often taken the place of concrete data about who supports the Tea Party movement, and the poll offers some surprising findings”, they’re really insinuating a lot.

In the end, these results are pretty uninteresting, since this poll just describes a large bloc of the Republican Party that has been in existence for a long time. (For a much more reasonable analysis of the poll, check out CBS’s take.)

For a more relevant picture of what the Tea Party movement actually looks like, just take this recent sampling from the Times’ own pages:

Let’s not mince words here: the Tea Party movement has been fueled by misinformation, bigotry, and irrational violent anger at the government. If this new poll shows us anything, it’s just to what a large degree the Republican establishment has accepted and embraced this radical fringe.

September 17, 2008

This blog is changing!

After more than two years and 769 posts, the Short Sharp Science blog is changing.

All the blogs are merging to become one super-blog, a blog for everything New Scientist covers in the world of science, technology, environment, and ideas.

The changes also incorporate a new URL, so visit the new, Short Sharp Science blog here.

For those of you viewing in RSS, please update your readers to subscribe to this new feed.

Tom Simonite, online technology editor

September 15, 2008

Are happy kids dumb kids?

Did you live a coddled childhood filled with unbridled playtime and few reminders of the harsh real world? You might have been dumber as a result.

Children coaxed into a jovial mood performed worse on a simple test of geometric shape recognition than kids put in a dourer mood, report Simone Schnall, of the University of Plymouth, UK and colleagues in a recent issue of Developmental Science.

You may wonder whether these psychologists hate happy kids or just fun, but their conclusion is supported by other research. For instance, adults in good spirits do worse than sad adults on similar tests.

To uncover the same effect in children, the researchers, thankfully, didn't resort to insults or mind-altering drugs.

Instead they played one of two classical tunes to 10- and 11-year olds. Fifteen kids heard Mozart's jolly ditty Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, while the other 15 had to suffer through Mahler's doleful Adagietto. Previous research suggested these songs put kids in happy and sad moods, respectively, and Schnall's team confirmed that by surveying the kids.

While listening to the tunes the children played a game where they hunted for a specific geometric shape – a triangle joined to a rectangle, for instance – within a picture. The merry Mozart kids took noticeably longer finding the shapes than the children who were forced to listen to Mahler.

Not content with proving that happy pre-teens are daft, the researchers aimed their hypothesis at 61 six and seven-year olds. Instead of hearing classical music, the kids watched three movie scenes.

One, from Disney's Jungle Book, features the singing and dancing of an ebullient bear. A neutral scene from The Last Unicorn shows a knight reaching a castle. The sad scene comes from The Lion King, another Disney cartoon. Even this reporter, who watched the movie as a teen, shed a tear when Simba mourns his father's death.

In the same shape recognition test administered after the movie scene, the happy kids proved slower at picking out shapes than those who watched the neutral Last Unicorn or the lugubrious Lion King scenes.

Schnall's team offers several explanations for their results. Mood could directly alter cognitive thinking, and in a happy state people have little desire to question what they see, while "sadness indicates something is amiss, triggering detail-oriented analytical processing," they write.

Alternatively, happy people could be so caught up in their personal high that they ignore details or they distract themselves from the task at hand.

This could be hand-waving - it seems just as likely that Mozart and The Jungle Book are more distracting than Mahler and The Lion King. Because the kids tended to ignore the music played before the test, the researchers dismiss this possibility, but anyone who's taken a six-year old to a Disney film knows that the catchy songs don't vanish from their brains in just a few minutes.

But there's some encouraging news, at least, for cheerful kids and their parents. Children in a good mood perform better on tasks that demand creative and flexible thinking, previous studies show.

So the take-home message may be - contrary to popular opinion - that happy kids end up as artists and poets, while sad and angry children become accountants.

The paper's last sentence seems directed toward parents of these future artists: "Artificially inflating a child's mood may have unintended and possibly undesirable cognitive consequences."

Ewen Callaway, online reporter
(Image: Kaeli/Photobucket)