Wall Street Week Ahead: Bears hibernate as stocks near record highs

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks have been on a tear in January, moving major indexes within striking distance of all-time highs. The bearish case is a difficult one to make right now.

Earnings have exceeded expectations, the housing and labor markets have strengthened, lawmakers in Washington no longer seem to be the roadblock that they were for most of 2012, and money has returned to stock funds again.

The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> has gained 5.4 percent this year and closed above 1,500 - climbing to the spot where Wall Street strategists expected it to be by mid-year. The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> is 2.2 percent away from all-time highs reached in October 2007. The Dow ended Friday's session at 13,895.98, its highest close since October 31, 2007.

The S&P has risen for four straight weeks and eight consecutive sessions, the longest streak of days since 2004. On Friday, the benchmark S&P 500 ended at 1,502.96 - its first close above 1,500 in more than five years.

"Once we break above a resistance level at 1,510, we dramatically increase the probability that we break the highs of 2007," said Walter Zimmermann, technical analyst at United-ICAP, in Jersey City, New Jersey. "That may be the start of a rise that could take equities near 1,800 within the next few years."

The most recent Reuters poll of Wall Street strategists estimated the benchmark index would rise to 1,550 by year-end, a target that is 3.1 percent away from current levels. That would put the S&P 500 a stone's throw from the index's all-time intraday high of 1,576.09 reached on October 11, 2007.

The new year has brought a sharp increase in flows into U.S. equity mutual funds, and that has helped stocks rack up four straight weeks of gains, with strength in big- and small-caps alike.

That's not to say there aren't concerns. Economic growth has been steady, but not as strong as many had hoped. The household unemployment rate remains high at 7.8 percent. And more than 75 percent of the stocks in the S&P 500 are above their 26-week highs, suggesting the buying has come too far, too fast.


All 10 S&P 500 industry sectors are higher in 2013, in part because of new money flowing into equity funds. Investors in U.S.-based funds committed $3.66 billion to stock mutual funds in the latest week, the third straight week of big gains for the funds, data from Thomson Reuters' Lipper service showed on Thursday.

Energy shares <.5sp10> lead the way with a gain of 6.6 percent, followed by industrials <.5sp20>, up 6.3 percent. Telecom <.5sp50>, a defensive play that underperforms in periods of growth, is the weakest sector - up 0.1 percent for the year.

More than 350 stocks hit new highs on Friday alone on the New York Stock Exchange. The Dow Jones Transportation Average <.djt> recently climbed to an all-time high, with stocks in this sector and other economic bellwethers posting strong gains almost daily.

"If you peel back the onion a little bit, you start to look at companies like Precision Castparts , Honeywell , 3M Co and Illinois Tool Works - these are big, broad-based industrial companies in the U.S. and they are all hitting new highs, and doing very well. That is the real story," said Mike Binger, portfolio manager at Gradient Investments, in Shoreview, Minnesota.

The gains have run across asset sizes as well. The S&P small-cap index <.spcy> has jumped 6.7 percent and the S&P mid-cap index <.mid> has shot up 7.5 percent so far this year.

Exchange-traded funds have seen year-to-date inflows of $15.6 billion, with fairly even flows across the small-, mid- and large-cap categories, according to Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at the ConvergEx Group, in New York.

"Investors aren't really differentiating among asset sizes. They just want broad equity exposure," Colas said.

The market has shown resilience to weak news. On Thursday, the S&P 500 held steady despite a 12 percent slide in shares of Apple after the iPhone and iPad maker's results. The tech giant is heavily weighted in both the S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100 <.ndx> and in the past, its drop has suffocated stocks' broader gains.


In the last few days, the ratio of stocks hitting new highs versus those hitting new lows on a daily basis has started to diminish - a potential sign that the rally is narrowing to fewer names - and could be running out of gas.

Investors have also cited sentiment surveys that indicate high levels of bullishness among newsletter writers, a contrarian indicator, and momentum indicators are starting to also suggest the rally has perhaps come too far.

The market's resilience could be tested next week with Friday's release of the January non-farm payrolls report. About 155,000 jobs are seen being added in the month and the unemployment rate is expected to hold steady at 7.8 percent.

"Staying over 1,500 sends up a flag of profit taking," said Jerry Harris, president of asset management at Sterne Agee, in Birmingham, Alabama. "Since recent jobless claims have made us optimistic on payrolls, if that doesn't come through, it will be a real risk to the rally."

A number of marquee names will report earnings next week, including bellwether companies such as Caterpillar Inc , Amazon.com Inc , Ford Motor Co and Pfizer Inc .

On a historic basis, valuations remain relatively low - the S&P 500's current price-to-earnings ratio sits at 15.66, which is just a tad above the historic level of 15.

Worries about the U.S. stock market's recent strength do not mean the market is in a bubble. Investors clearly don't feel that way at the moment.

"We're seeing more interest in equities overall, and a lot of flows from bonds into stocks," said Paul Zemsky, who helps oversee $445 billion as the New York-based head of asset allocation at ING Investment Management. "We've been increasing our exposure to risky assets."

For the week, the Dow climbed 1.8 percent, the S&P 500 rose 1.1 percent and the Nasdaq advanced 0.5 percent.

(Reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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Stan Musial remembered during funeral Mass

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Stan Musial was remembered as a Hall of Famer on and off the field during a 2-hour funeral Mass.

Broadcaster Bob Costas, his voice cracking at times, pointed out during Saturday's lengthy tribute that in 92 years of life, Musial never let anyone down.

Among those in attendance were baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, former St. Louis standout Albert Pujols and Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Bruce Sutter and Red Schoendienst.

The 90-year-old Schoendienst once roomed with Musial.

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Canada’s Flaherty less optimistic on Keystone prospects

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama‘s emphasis in his inaugural address on fighting climate change may not bode well for the contentious project to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline, Canada’s finance minister said on Friday.

The Canadian government has been an enthusiastic supporter of TransCanada Corp‘s plan to build the $ 5.3 billion pipeline, which would open up a huge new market on the U.S. Gulf Coast for crude derived from oil sands in Alberta.

Washington faces a decision in the next few months on whether to approve the project, a possible cure for deeply discounted Canadian crude prices.

“I had reason for optimism before the election that the president would approve it, were he re-elected, but his speech the other day was not encouraging,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told Reuters at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Obama promised in his address on Monday to combat climate change, citing recent fires, drought and storms, “knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”. The United States had to be a leader in sustainable energy, Obama said, putting the issue as a matter of national security and economic opportunity.

Environmental groups oppose Keystone XL, saying it would encourage more carbon-intensive tar sands development.

Surging output and tight export pipeline capacity has pulled the price of Canadian heavy crude in recent months to less than half the value of international benchmark Brent crude. This is hurting the public finances in Alberta, which warned this week of a C$ 6 billion ($ 6 billion) shortfall in revenue for its 2013-14 fiscal year as a result.

The Canadian economy, which depends heavily on energy and commodity prices, is also suffering, according to the central bank.

Flaherty pointed out that the energy industry was putting together alternative plans to move Alberta crude to new markets.

Some include Enbridge Inc’s C$ 6 billion Northern gateway pipeline to the Pacific Coast, proposals to ship the oil to Quebec and further east, and even a scheme to build a railroad to Alaska, where the crude could be shipped to the oil port at Valdez.

“We will go wherever we have to go. We are going to create markets for Canadian commodities,” Flaherty said. Asked how fast such plans could be put in motion, he said: “We’ll do it quickly. We have major projects right now on our agenda and we will encourage them.”

TransCanada first applied to build Keystone XL in 2008. Obama rejected it last year, saying it needed a new route around the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region of Nebraska.

This week, Nebraska’s governor approved the reworked path that skirts the area, and 53 U.S. senators wrote to Obama urging him to approve the project, citing energy security and jobs benefits. The state department, which is handling the issue because the pipeline would cross the Canadian border, said it will not make a ruling until at least the end of March.

(Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Writing by Jeffrey Jones; editing by David Stamp)

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Can sanctions deter North Korea?

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

Kim Jong Un and his military

























  • N. Korea said Thursday it plans to carry out new nuclear test and more long-range rocket launches

  • It said they are part of new phase of confrontation with United States

  • George A. Lopez says North Korea's aim is to be recognized as a 'new nuclear nation by fait accompli'

  • The Security Council sanctions aim to deteriorate and disrupt N. Korea's programs, says Lopez

Editor's note: George A. Lopez holds the Hesburgh Chair in Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame. He is a former member, UN Panel of Experts on DPRK.

Indiana, U.S. (CNN) -- North Korea has responded to new Security Council sanctions condemning its December 12 rocket launch with a declaration that it plans a third nuclear test and more missile launches. Politically, it has made unambiguous that its "aim" is its enemy, the United States.

In this rapid reaction to U.N. sanctions, the young government of Kim Jong Un underscores what Security Council members have long known anticipated from the DPRK. Their end-game is to create a vibrant, integrated missile and nuclear weapons program that will result - as in the cases of Pakistan and India - in their being recognized as a new nuclear nation by fait accompli.

Read more: North Korea says new nuclear test will be part of fight against U.S.

In light of DPRK defiance - and a soon to occur nuclear test - the Security Council's first set of sanctions on North Korea since 2009 may seem absurd and irrelevant. These sanctions will certainly not prevent a new DPRK nuclear test. Rather, the new sanctions resolution mobilizes regional neighbors and global actors to enforce sanctions that can weaken future DPRK programs and actions.

Read more: U.N. Security Council slams North Korea, expands sanctions

The utility, if not the necessity, of these Security Council sanctions are to deteriorate and disrupt the networks that sustain North Korea's programs. Chances of this degradation of DPRK capabilities have increased as the new sanctions both embolden and empower the member states who regularly observe - but do nothing about - suspicious vessels in their adjacent waterways.

The resolution provides new guidance to states regarding ship interdiction, cargo inspections, and the seizure and disposal of prohibited materials. Regarding nuclear and missile development the sanctions expand the list of material banned for trade to DPRK, including high tech, dual-use goods which might aid missile industries.

Read more: South Korean officials: North Korean rocket could hit U.S. mainland

These new measures provide a better structure for more effective sanctions, by naming new entities, such as a bank and trading companies, as well as individuals involved in the illicit financing of prohibited materials, to the sanctions list. To the surprise of many in the diplomatic community - the Council authorizes states to expose and confiscate North Korea's rather mobile "bulk cash." Such currency stocks have been used in many regions to facilitate purchases of luxury goods and other banned items that sustain the DPRK elites.

Finally, the Security Council frees the Sanctions Committee to act more independently and in a timely manner to add entities to the list of sanctioned actors when evidence shows them to be sanctions violators. This is an extensive hunting license for states in the region that can multiply the costs of sanctions to the DPRK over time.

Read more: North Korea's rocket launches cost $1.3 billion

Whatever their initial limitations, the new round of U.N. sanctions serve as a springboard to more robust measures by various regional and global powers which may lead back to serious negotiations with DPRK.

Despite its bluster and short-term action plan, Pyongyang recognizes that the wide space of operation for its policies it assumed it had a week ago, is now closed considerably. To get this kind of slap-down via this Security Council resolution - when the launch was a month ago - predicts that any nuke test or missile launch from Pyongyang will bring a new round of stronger and more targeted sanctions.

Read more: North Korea silences doubters, raises fears with rocket launch

Although dangerous - a new game is on regarding DPRK. Tougher U.N. measures imposed on the North generated a predictable response and likely new, prohibited action. While DPRK may be enraged, these sanctions have the P5 nations, most notably China, newly engaged. A forthcoming test or launch will no doubt increase tensions on both sides.

But this may be precisely the shock needed to restart the Six Party Talks. Without this institutional framework there is little chance of influencing DPRK actions. And in the meantime, the chances of greater degrading of DPRK capabilities via sanctions, are a sensible next best action.

Read more: Huge crowds gather in North Korean capital to celebrate rocket launch

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of George A. Lopez.

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Fire 'rekindles' at Bridgeport warehouse

A vacant warehouse in Bridgeport continues to burn.

A nearly 100-year-old Bridgeport warehouse is on fire again this morning after it was gutted during a 5-alarm fire on Tuesday, according to the Chicago Fire Department.

About 10 a.m., a tower ladder truck was sent to the scene to handle the rekindle at the ruins, according to the fire department.

Last night, as crews began demolishing the warehouse at 3757 S. Ashland Ave., the fire department officially released its conclusion as to how it began.

"In layman's terms, that means something that was burning such as a flame or match got near something that would burn," Langford said.

Langford said the building had no gas or electric service and no one was known to be living there. But the night of the blaze, Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago told reporters that in the past, firefighters had been called to the warehouse for small fires caused when squatters lit fires to stay warm.

The matter has been forwarded to the Chicago Police Bomb and Arson unit to determine if the fire involved foul play, Langford and police said.

Friday morning, a private wrecking company hired by the owners of the building began its demolition, Chicago Fire Department spokeswoman Meg Ahlheim said.

Tuesday night, a fire department battalion chief spotted smoke from the blaze as he drove past around 9 p.m. A third of the department's on-duty personnel were called to fight a fire fed by century-old support timbers. Crews have remained there since, dousing flames from the smouldering debris.


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At least 30 die in riots over Egyptian death sentences

PORT SAID, Egypt/CAIRO (Reuters) - At least 30 people were killed on Saturday when Egyptians rampaged in protest at the sentencing of 21 people to death over a soccer stadium disaster, violence that compounds a political crisis facing Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.

Armored vehicles and military police fanned through the streets of Port Said, where gunshots rang out and protesters burned tires in anger that people from their city had been blamed for the deaths of 74 people at a match last year.

The rioting in Port Said, one of the most deadly spasms of violence since Hosni Mubarak's ouster two years ago, followed a day of anti-Mursi demonstrations on Friday, when nine people were killed. The toll over the past two days stands at 39.

The flare-ups make it even tougher for Mursi, who drew fire last year for expanding his powers and pushing through an Islamist-tinged constitution, to fix the creaking economy and cool tempers enough to ensure a smooth parliamentary election.

That vote is expected in the next few months and is meant to cement a democratic transition that has been blighted from the outset by political rows and street clashes.

The National Defense Council, which is led by Mursi and includes the defense minister who commands the army, called for "a broad national dialogue that would be attended by independent national characters" to discuss political differences and ensure a "fair and transparent" parliamentary poll.

The statement was made on state television by Information Minister Salah Abdel Maqsoud, who is also on the council.

The National Salvation Front of liberal-minded groups and other Mursi opponents cautiously welcomed the call, but demanded any such dialogue have a clear agenda and guarantees that any deal would be implemented, spokesman Khaled Dawoud told Reuters.

The Front spurned previous calls for dialogue, saying Mursi had ignored voices beyond his Islamist allies. The Front earlier on Saturday threatened an election boycott and to call for more protests on Friday if demands were not met.

Its demands included picking a national unity government to restore order and holding an early presidential poll.


The political statements followed clashes in Port Said that erupted after a judge issued a verdict sentencing 21 men to die for involvement in the deaths at the soccer match on February 1, 2012. Many were fans of the visiting team, Cairo's Al Ahly.

Al Ahly fans had threatened violence if the court had not meted out the death penalty. They cheered outside their Cairo club when the verdict was announced. But in Port Said, residents were furious that people from their city were held responsible.

Protesters ran wildly through the streets of the Mediterranean port, lighting tires in the street and storming two police stations, witnesses said. Gunshots were reported near the prison where most of the defendants were being held.

A director for Port Said hospitals told state television that 30 people had been killed, many as a result of gunshot wounds. He said more than 300 had been wounded.

Inside the court in Cairo, families of victims danced, applauded and some broke down in tears of joy when they heard Judge Sobhy Abdel Maguid declare that the 21 men would be "referred to the Mufti", a phrase used to denote execution, as all death sentences must be reviewed by Egypt's top religious authority.

There were 73 defendants on trial. Those not sentenced on Saturday would face a verdict on March 9, the judge said.

At the Port Said soccer stadium a year ago, many spectators were crushed and witnesses saw some thrown off balconies after the match between Al Ahly and local team al-Masri. Al Ahly fans accused the police of being complicit in the deaths.

Among those killed was a former player for al-Masri and a soccer player in another Port Said team, the website of the state broadcaster reported.


On Friday, protesters angry at Mursi's rule had taken to the streets for the second anniversary of the uprising that erupted on January 25, 2011 and which brought Mubarak down 18 days later.

Police fired teargas and protesters hurled stones and petrol bombs. Nine people were killed, mainly in the port city of Suez, and hundreds more were injured across the nation.

Reflecting international concern at the two days of clashes, British Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt said: "This cannot help the process of dialogue which we encourage as vital for Egypt today, and we must condemn the violence in the strongest terms."

On Saturday, some protesters again clashed and scuffled with police in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities. In the capital, youths pelted police lines with rocks near Tahrir Square. In Suez, police fired teargas when protesters angry at Friday's deaths hurled petrol bombs and stormed a police post.

"We want to change the president and the government. We are tired of this regime. Nothing has changed," said Mahmoud Suleiman, 22, in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the cauldron of the 2011 anti-Mubarak revolt.

Mursi's opponents say he has failed to deliver on economic pledges or to be a president representing the full political and communal diversity of Egyptians, as he promised.

"Egypt will not regain its balance except by a political solution that is transparent and credible, by a government of national salvation to restore order and heal the economy and with a constitution for all Egyptians," prominent opposition politician Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on Twitter.

Mursi's supporters say the opposition does not respect the democracy that has given Egypt its first freely elected leader.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which propelled Mursi to office, said in a statement that "corrupt people" and media who were biased against the president had stirred up fury on the streets.

The frequent violence and political schism between Islamists and secular Egyptians have hurt Mursi's efforts to revive an economy in crisis as investors and tourists have stayed away, taking a heavy toll on Egypt's currency.

(Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy, and Peter Griffiths in London; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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S&P 500 heads for longest winning streak in eight years

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The S&P 500 index on Friday closed above the 1,500 level for the first time in more than five years as strong U.S. earnings reports from Procter & Gamble and others helped the benchmark extend its rally to eight days.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 70.50 points, or 0.51 percent, at 13,895.83. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 8.11 points, or 0.54 percent, at 1,502.93. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 19.33 points, or 0.62 percent, at 3,149.71.

For the week, the Dow rose 1.8 percent, the S&P climbed 1.1 percent and the Nasdaq rose 0.5 percent. It was the fourth straight week of gains for all three indexes.

(Reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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After beating Federer, Murray reaches Aussie final

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Andy Murray was sucking in deep breaths, trying to recover from his exhausting win over Roger Federer. Pain was very much on his mind.

The U.S. Open champion defeated Federer 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-2 in a four-hour Australian Open semifinal Friday night. It was Murray's first victory against the 17-time major winner at a Grand Slam event.

But with the clock about to strike midnight, Murray was already thinking about Sunday's final against two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic, who is on a 20-match winning streak at Melbourne Park. This will be a rematch of their U.S. Open final.

"Every time we play each other it's normally a very physical match," Murray said. "I'll need to be ready for the pain. I hope it's a painful match — that'll mean it's a good one."

Murray had a 10-9 record against Federer, but had lost his three previous Grand Slam matches to the Swiss star. One of those defeats came at Wimbledon last year. Murray says the disappointment of that loss triggered his run to the gold medal at the London Olympics, and then his drought-breaking triumph at the U.S. Open.

"You know, I've obviously lost some tough matches against him in Slams," Murray said. "So to win one, especially the way that it went tonight, yeah, was obviously nice."

Murray ended a 76-year drought for British men at the majors when he beat Djokovic in five sets in the final at Flushing Meadows.

He's hoping the step-by-step manner in which he has crossed career milestones off his to-do list will continue Sunday. He lost four major finals, including two in Australia, before winning a Grand Slam title. He lost three times to Federer in a major before beating him. Even then, he wasted a chance to serve out in the fourth set Friday night as Federer rallied.

"Those matches ... have helped obviously mentally," he said. "I think going through a lot of the losses that I've had will have helped me as well. Obviously having won against Novak before in a Slam final will help mentally."

Djokovic will not be the only defending champion this weekend playing for another title. Victoria Azarenka will face China's Li Na on Saturday night for the women's crown.

Azarenka hasn't added a major title since her breakthrough in Australia last year. She's coming off a semifinal victory over American teenager Sloane Stephens in which she had to answer a torrent of questions over her nine-minute medical timeout after wasting five match points and then dropping serve in the next-to-last game.

Li, who is seeded sixth, lost the 2011 Australian final before claiming her first major title months later at the French Open. She made the final with less commotion, beating No. 2 Maria Sharapova in straight sets.

The first title of the 2013 Australian Open, women's doubles, was decided Friday when top-seeded Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci of Italy beat unseeded Australians Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua 6-2, 3-6, 6-2.

That was a prelude to the night match, where 15,000 people packed Rod Laver Arena, including the great Laver himself, to see if Federer could reach a sixth Australian final. The 31-year-old Swiss has won four of his 17 titles at Melbourne Park.

He showed flashes of his customary genius, but also rare bursts of anger. Murray showed his frustration as well. The crowd started to turn on him after he challenged a call in the eighth game of the fourth set, booing each time he complained to the umpire. His unforced error into the net on the next point prompted a huge cheer.

In the 12th game of the fourth set, Federer appeared to yell across the net after Murray stopped momentarily behind the baseline during the rally.

Murray shrugged it off and seemed to dig in. He'd won that point but lost the game and was taken to another tiebreaker, which he lost.

"We were just checking each other out for bit," Federer said. "That wasn't a big deal for me — I hope not for him."

Murray said "stuff like that happens daily in tennis," and added that it was "very, very mild in comparison to what happens in other sports."

When Federer got break point with Murray serving for the match at 6-5, the applause was so prolonged Murray had to wait to serve. And when Federer got the break to force a tiebreaker, the crowd stood and roared as Murray slammed a ball into the court in anger.

The crowd cheered for every Murray error in tiebreaker. One man yelled, "Andy, don't choke."

He didn't.

Rather than wilting under the pressure in the fifth set, Murray hit his stride. He allowed Federer only four points in the first three games of the fifth set, bolting to a 3-0 lead and carrying it through to the end.

"It's big. I never beat Roger in a Slam before. It definitely will help with the confidence," Murray said. "Just knowing you can win against those guys in big matches definitely helps."

Federer could see improvement in Murray's approach in the tough situations.

"With the win at the Olympics and the U.S. Open, maybe there's just a little bit more belief," Federer said. "Or he's a bit more calm overall."

Djokovic already owns three Australian titles and is aiming to be the first man in the Open era to win three in a row. The 25-year-old Serb was nearly flawless in his 89-minute disposal of No. 4-ranked David Ferrer in Thursday night's semifinal, and said he was hoping Murray and Federer would go to five sets.

"Obviously, Novak goes in as the favorite, I would think, even though Andy beat him at the U.S. Open," Federer said. "Novak is the double defending champion here. He's done really well again this tournament. Obviously a tough match again, and give a slight edge to Novak just because of the last couple of days."

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Obama Presses Liberal Agenda as He Starts 2nd Term

From gun control to gay rights, President Barack Obama‘s second-term agenda is shaping up as an unabashedly liberal wish list.

In less than a week, he’s vowed to tackle climate change and protect government entitlements. His administration has lifted a ban on women in combat and expanded opportunities for disabled students. Proposals for stricter gun laws have already been unveiled, and plans for comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, are coming next week.

Obama’s full embrace of such an agenda suggests a president both freed for action by his re-election win and seeking to capitalize on it.

“There is a deep recognition that he has a short period of time to get a lot done,” said Jennifer Psaki, Obama’s 2012 campaign spokeswoman. “The American people are seeing a man who is determined to finish what he started in his first term, pushing through his agenda without the burden of running for re-election.”

But following through and winning approval for his proposals will require cooperation from a Congress that is nearly as divided now as it was before the November elections.

“If the president pursues that kind of agenda, obviously it’s not designed to bring us together,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who calls the start of Obama’s second term “a new era of liberalism.”

And it’s not just congressional Republicans who could stand in Obama’s way as he seeks to make good on his pledges. Senate Democrats from conservative-leaning states — who, unlike Obama, still face future elections — may have reservations about backing a liberal agenda in the lead-up to the 2014 midterms.

Democratic resistance is already proving to be a problem for some of the toughest gun control measures that Obama proposed ahead of his inauguration in response to the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. An assault weapons ban, in particular, appears to be in jeopardy, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada among the Democrats yet to voice support.

Obama’s tilt to the left follows a presidential campaign that left open questions about what policies he would pursue if he won a second term. His most specific campaign pledge was to let George W. Bush-era tax cuts expire for the wealthiest Americans, a step he was able to achieve during the “fiscal cliff” negotiations in late December.

That’s why many of his strongest supporters were surprised — some pleasantly — by the issues he raised in his inaugural address, particularly his call for tackling the threat of climate change, a topic that garnered little attention during the campaign.

And after campaigning on a balanced approach to deficit reduction, including making tough choices on entitlement programs, Obama used his inauguration to extol the virtues of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. He made just one reference to the huge federal deficit.

Obama has previously said he’s willing to put government entitlements on the table as Washington seeks to reduce the deficit, and aides say his inaugural address doesn’t change that.

Obama also became the first president to use the word “gay” in an inaugural address, asserting that the nation’s journey is not complete until “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”

Progressive groups welcomed the president’s rhetoric, but made it clear that words alone would not be enough.

Adam Green, co-founder of the political action group Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said that if the president’s inaugural address does become a template for his second-term governing strategy, “that will allow the president to win big victories and secure a legacy of bold progressive change that helped millions of Americans.”

“We hope he goes that route, and we will proudly rally to his side if he does,” Green said.

It remains to be seen how vigorously Obama pursues the agenda items he outlined in his inaugural address. White House officials have already struggled this week to back up his rhetoric with specific policy proposals

Still, people close to the president say he feels emboldened since winning re-election and wants to act quickly on progressive issues that eluded him during his first term. His supporters have also created a campaign spin-off organization to support his second-term agenda.

The outside group, Organizing for Action, will employ many of the same people who led Obama’s two presidential bids and will have access to his campaign’s voter and donor data. The new group is expected to focus on backing his positions in legislative battles, including gun control and immigration.

Some of what the president may pursue, particularly when it comes to climate change, may be through executive branch actions that don’t need congressional approval.

The Pentagon this week acted on its own to lift a ban that kept female service members out of combat positions. And the Education Department unilaterally ordered schools to include students with disabilities in sports programs or provide equal alternative options.

White House officials are scouring rule books for other actions the West Wing and government agencies can take on their own.


Associated Press writers Josh Lederman contributed to this report.

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Where is aid for Syria going?


  • The U.S. ambassador to Syria says the U.S. has provided $210 million in humanitarian aid

  • The assistance has to be discrete, he said, to protect workers from being targeted

  • Washington has also provided $35 million worth of assistance to Syria's political opposition

  • Ambassador: We can help, but it's up to Syrians to find their way forward

(CNN) -- It has been more than a year since the United States government withdrew its ambassador to Syria and closed its embassy in Damascus.

On Thursday, that ambassador returned to the region along with a U.S. delegation, touring a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey to bring more attention to the growing humanitarian crisis. As the civil war has intensified in Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have sought refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other neighboring countries.

Ambassador Robert Ford gave an exclusive interview to CNN's Ivan Watson and described what the U.S. is doing to help the refugees and the Syrian opposition.

Ivan Watson: The U.S. has given $210 million in aid (to Syria), but I think that there is a perception problem because no one can actually point at what that help is. So people conclude there is no help.

Robert Ford: The assistance is going in. It's things like tents, it's things like blankets, it's things like medical equipment, but it doesn't come in big boxes with an American flag on it because we don't want the people who are delivering it to be targeted by the Syrian regime.

The regime is going after and killing people who are delivering supplies. You see them bombing even bakeries and bread lines. So we're doing that, in part, to be discrete.

The assistance is going in ... but it doesn't come in big boxes with an American flag on it.
Robert Ford, U.S. ambassador to Syria

The needs are gigantic. So even though a great deal of American materials and other countries' materials are arriving, the needs are still greater. And that's why we're going to Kuwait to talk to the United Nations and to talk to other countries about how we can talk together to provide additional assistance.

Watson: The head of the Syrian National Coalition, which the U.S. government has backed, came out with a statement very critical of the international community, saying we need $3 billion if you want us to have any say on events on the ground inside Syria. Where is that money?

Ford: (Sheikh Ahmed) Moaz al-Khatib is a good leader, and we think highly of him and we have recognized his (coalition) as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. And, of course, he wants to get as many resources as possible because of the humanitarian conditions that I was just talking about. Especially the ones inside Syria.

But we also, at the same time, have to build up those (aid) networks I was talking about. In some cases, they start out with just a few people. We don't need just a few people, we need hundreds of people, thousands of people on the inside of Syria organized to bring these things in.

And so step by step, the Syrians, Moaz al-Khatib and his organization, need to build that capacity. We can help build it, we can do training and things like that. But in the end, Syrians have to take a leadership role in this.

Watson: Is Washington giving money to the Syrian National Coalition?

Ford: We absolutely are assisting the (coalition), with everything from training to, in some cases, limited amount of cash assistance so that they can buy everything ranging from computers to telephones to radios.

Frankly, if not for the American assistance in many cases, the activists inside Syria wouldn't be in contact with the outside world. It's American help that keeps them in contact with the outside world.

Watson: But, how much assistance has this coalition gotten from the U.S.?

Ford: So far, we've allocated directly to the coalition in the neighborhood of $35 million worth of different kinds of equipment and assistance. And over the next few weeks, couple of months, we'll probably provide another $15 million worth of material assistance.

Watson: Washington recently blacklisted Jabhat al-Nusra, the Nusra Front, calling it a terrorist organization even though inside Syria, it has attracted a lot of respect for its victories and for comparative lack of corruption compared to many rebel groups. How has blacklisting the Nusra Front helped the Syrian opposition?

Ford: We blacklisted the Nusra Front because of its intimate links with al Qaeda in Iraq, an organization with whom we have direct experience, which is responsible for the killings of thousands of Iraqis, hundreds of Americans. We know what al Qaeda in Iraq did and is still doing, and we don't want it to start doing that in Syria -- which is why we highlighted its incredibly pernicious role.

I think one of the things that our classification of Nusra as a terrorist group did is it set off an alarm for the other elements of the Free Syrian Army. There was a meeting of the Free Syrian Army to set up a unified command, (and) Nusra Front was not in that meeting -- which we think is the right thing to do. As Syrians themselves understand that Nusra has a sectarian agenda, as they understand better that Nusra is anti-democratic and will seek to impose its very strict interpretation of Islam on Syria -- which historically is a relatively moderate country in terms of its religious practices -- as Syrians understand that better, I think they will more and more reject the Nusra Front itself.

Watson: But I've seen the opposite. As I go into Syria, I hear more and more support and respect for the Nusra Front, and more and more criticism for the U.S. government each time I go back.

Ford: I think that people, Ivan, are still understanding what Nusra is. I have heard criticism from the Nusra Front from people like Moaz al-Khatib who, in Marrakesh (Morocco) in his speech, said he rejected the kind of ideology which backs up Nusra. ... We have heard that from the senior commander of the Free Syrian Army as well. And so the more people understand inside Syria what Nusra is and represents, I think they will agree that is not the group on which to depend for freedom in Syria.

Watson: Do you think the U.S. government could have done more?

Ford: I think the Syrians, as I said, are the ones who will bring the answer to the problem -- just as in Iraq, Iraqis brought the solution to the Iraq crisis, to the Iraq war. The Americans can help, and we helped in Iraq, but ultimately it wasn't the Americans. Despite our help, it was Iraqis.

In Syria, again, it has to be Syrians who find their way forward. Twenty-three million Syrians need to find their way forward. We can help, and we are helping: $210 million in humanitarian assistance, $50 million to help the political opposition get organized for the day after (Bashar) al-Assad goes. These are important bits of help. But ultimately, it's not the American help. It's the Syrians themselves.

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PepsiCo to take controversial ingredient out of Gatorade

Responding to consumer concerns, PepsiCo today announced that it will remove brominated vegetable oil, an emulsifier, from citrus-flavored Gatorade.

Mississippi teenager Sarah Kavanagh had launched an online petition in November that drew recent media attention, including a story in the Chicago Tribune on Monday, but the company said the reformulation project was sparked by earlier customer complaints.

“While our products are safe, we are making this change because we know that some consumers have a negative perception of BVO in Gatorade, despite being permitted for use in North American and Latin American countries,” Gatorade spokeswoman Molly Carter said in a statement. “As part of this process, we began working on an alternative ingredient to BVO for the few Gatorade flavors that contain BVO more than a year ago.”

Some countries, including those in the European Union and Japan, do not allow the use of brominated vegetable oil in food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s last review of the chemical, conducted in the 1970s, called for more toxicological testing that was never performed.
Kavanagh, whose petition noted that the chemical shares an ingredient, bromine, with some flame retardants, was ecstatic when she heard the news.
“When I went to Change.org to start my petition, I thought it might get a lot of support because no one wants to gulp down flame retardant, especially from a drink they associate with being healthy,” she said. “But with Gatorade being as big as they are, sometimes it was hard to know if we’d ever win. This is so, so awesome.”

In an interview, Carter said the company needed a year to make sure the new formulation “would not affect taste or functionality. So we did a lot of sensory testing to make sure we had the right batch and we feel strongly we do.”
Carter said BVO will be replaced with sucrose acetate isobutyrate, “one of the flavor emulsifiers we use internationally.”
She said she expects the newly formulated drinks to be on shelves over the next few months. Consumers can check for brominated vegetable oil in the list of ingredients and “until then they can drink other (non citrus) flavors that do not contain it.”
Carter said there is no current plan to remove BVO from PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew but the company is always evaluating “formulas to ensure they meet the high standards our consumers expect.”

Coca-Cola, which uses the chemical in Orange Fanta and Powerade, said in a statement that the ingredient improves the stability of some products by preventing ingredients from separating.

“While we are confident in the safety of our beverages, we continuously look for ways to improve our products and take consumers’ concerns into account,” the statement said.
Change.org said Kavanagh’s petition attracted more than 200,000 supporters and was one of its most popular.
“Her campaign is a great example of the shift in power we’re seeing between businesses and their customers,” said Pulin Modi, senior campaigner at Change.org. “Companies like Gatorade can no longer sit back as thousands of consumers are asking for a change -- they’re compelled to do something about it.”

Twitter @monicaeng

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Violence flares on anniversary of Egypt uprising

CAIRO/ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (Reuters) - On the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, demonstrators clashed with police during protests across Egypt against the Islamist president they accuse of betraying the revolution.

At least 186 civilians and 45 security personnel were injured, officials said.

Thousands of opponents of President Mohamed Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood allies massed in Cairo's Tahrir Square - the cradle of the revolt against Mubarak - to rekindle the demands of a revolution they say has been hijacked by Islamists.

Street battles erupted in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Port Said. Arsonists attacked at least two state-owned buildings as symbols of government were targeted. An office used by the Muslim Brotherhood's political party was also torched.

The January 25 anniversary laid bare the divide between the Islamists and their secular rivals. This schism is hindering Mursi's efforts to revive an economy in crisis and reverse a plunge in Egypt's currency by enticing back investors and tourists.

Inspired by the popular uprising in Tunisia, Egypt's revolution spurred further revolts across the Arab world. But the sense of common purpose that united Egyptians two years ago has given way to internal strife that last month triggered bloody street battles.

"Our revolution is continuing. We reject the domination of any party over this state. We say no to the Brotherhood state," Hamdeen Sabahy, a popular leftist leader, told Reuters.

The Brotherhood decided against mobilizing for the anniversary, wary of the scope for more conflict after December's violence that was stoked by Mursi's decision to fast-track an Islamist-tinged constitution rejected by his opponents.

The Brotherhood denies accusations that it is seeking to dominate Egypt, labeling them a smear campaign by its rivals.


Before dawn, police battled protesters who threw petrol bombs and firecrackers as they tried to approach a wall blocking access to government buildings near Tahrir Square.

Clouds of tear gas filled the air. At one point, riot police used one of the incendiaries thrown at them to set ablaze at least two tents erected by youths, a Reuters witness said.

Skirmishes between stone-throwing youths and the police continued in streets around the square into the day. Ambulances ferried away a steady stream of casualties.

Protesters echoed the chants of 2011's historic 18-day uprising. "The people want to bring down the regime," they chanted. "Leave! Leave! Leave!" chanted others as they marched towards the square.

"We are not here to celebrate but to force those in power to submit to the will of the people. Egypt now must never be like Egypt during Mubarak's rule," said Mohamed Fahmy, an activist.

There were similar scenes in Suez and Alexandria, where protesters and riot police clashed near local government offices. Black smoke billowed from tires set ablaze by youths.

In Cairo, police fired tear gas to disperse a few dozen protesters trying to remove barbed-wire barriers protecting the presidential palace, witnesses said. A few masked men got as far as the gates before they were beaten back.

Tear gas was also fired at protesters who tried to remove metal barriers outside the state television building.

Outside Cairo, protesters broke into the offices of provincial governors in Ismailia and Kafr el-Sheikh in the Nile Delta. A local government building was torched in the Nile Delta city of al-Mahalla al-Kubra.


With an eye on parliamentary elections likely to begin in April, the Brotherhood marked the anniversary with a charity drive across the nation. It plans to deliver medical aid to one million people and distribute affordable basic foodstuffs.

Writing in Al-Ahram, Egypt's flagship state-run daily, Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie said the country was in need of "practical, serious competition" to reform the corrupt state left by the Mubarak era.

"The differences of opinion and vision that Egypt is passing through is a characteristic at the core of transitions from dictatorship to democracy, and clearly expresses the variety of Egyptian culture," he wrote.

Mursi's opponents say he and his group are seeking to dominate the post-Mubarak order. They accuse him of showing some of the autocratic impulses of the deposed leader by, for example, driving through the new constitution last month.

"I am taking part in today's marches to reject the warped constitution, the 'Brotherhoodisation' of the state, the attack on the rule of law, and the disregard of the president and his government for the demands for social justice," Amr Hamzawy, a prominent liberal politician, wrote on his Twitter feed.

The Brotherhood says its rivals are failing to respect the rules of the new democracy that put the Islamists in the driving seat via free elections.

Six months into office, Mursi is also being held responsible for an economic crisis caused by two years of turmoil. The Egyptian pound has sunk to record lows against the dollar.

The parties that called for Friday's protests list demands including a complete overhaul of the constitution.

Critics say the constitution, which was approved in a referendum, offers inadequate protection for human rights, grants the president too many privileges and fails to curb the power of a military establishment supreme in the Mubarak era.

Mursi's supporters say enacting the constitution quickly was crucial to restoring stability needed for economic recovery.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed el-Shemi, Ashraf Fahim, Marwa Awad and Shaimaa Fayed in Cairo and Yousri Mohamed in Ismailia; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Robert Woodward)

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Wall Street edges up in face of Apple decline

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Dow and S&P 500 advanced on Thursday, with the benchmark S&P index on track for its first seven-day streak of gains in over six years as solid economic data managed to outweigh a steep decline in Apple shares.

Apple Inc dropped 10.4 percent to $460.69 after the technology giant missed Wall Street's revenue forecast for a third straight quarter as iPhone sales were poorer than expected, lending credence to recent concerns its days as the dominant player in consumer electronics may be on the wane.

The drop wiped out roughly $50 billion in Apple's market capitalization to $432 billion, leaving the company vulnerable to losing its status as the most valuable U.S. company to second place ExxonMobil Corp , at $417 billion.

A trio of economic reports helped buoy the market, with data showing a decline in weekly jobless claims and an increase in manufacturing, while a gauge of future economic activity climbed.

"The claims numbers are clearly a big surprise and were very good numbers - they imply we may have a good employment number for the month of January," said Hugh Johnson, chief investment officer of Hugh Johnson Advisors LLC in Albany, New York.

"You have Apple and technology on the one side and the rest of the market on the other side."

The gains marked the first time the S&P 500 had risen above 1,500 since December 12, 2007 and put the index on pace for its seventh straight advance, its longest streak since October 2006.

The advance for the S&P, and muted declines in the Nasdaq in spite of the decline in Apple, were viewed as a positive sign, as investors take encouragement from an improving global economy and move into stocks more closely tied to economic fortunes, such as industrials.

General Electric rose 0.5 percent to $22.06 and United Parcel Service gained 2.4 percent to $82.30. Of the 10 major S&P sectors, only technology <.splrct>, off 1.5 percent, was lower.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> gained 58.82 points, or 0.43 percent, to 13,838.15. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> added 1.78 points, or 0.12 percent, to 1,496.59. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> dropped 14.25 points, or 0.45 percent, to 3,139.42.

The domestic data meshed with those overseas showing growth in Chinese manufacturing accelerated to a two-year high this month and a buoyant Germany took the euro zone economy a step closer to recovery.

Apple's disappointing results drew a round of price-target cuts from brokerages. At least 14 brokerages, including Barclays Capital, Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank, cut their price target on the stock by $142 on average. Morgan Stanley removed the stock from its 'best ideas' list.

In contrast to Apple, Netflix Inc surprised Wall Street Wednesday with a quarterly profit after the video subscription service added nearly 4 million customers in the U.S. and abroad. Shares surged 37.6 percent to $142.10, its biggest percentage jump ever.

Diversified U.S. manufacturer 3M Co reported a 3.9 percent rise in profit, meeting expectations, on solid growth in sales of its wide array of products, which range from Post-It notes to films used in television screens. The shares slipped 0.2 percent to $99.28.

Corporate earnings have helped drive the recent stock market rally. Thomson Reuters data through early Thursday showed that of the 133 S&P 500 companies that have reported earnings, 66.9 percent have exceeded expectations, above the 65 percent average over the past four quarters.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

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Te'o tells Couric 'pain' and 'sorrow' was real

NEW YORK (AP) — Manti Te'o told Katie Couric the feelings he had for what turned out to be a fake, online girlfriend were real and reiterated he had nothing to do with the hoax.

The All-American linebacker said he was truly sorrowful and pained after finding out the woman he knew as Lennay Kekua died in September.

Te'o's once-heartwarming tale of inspired play after the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend on the same day in September was exposed as a bizarre hoax on Jan. 16. Deadspin.com broke the news that the woman Te'o had claimed to be in love with did not exist.

Te'o, who led Notre Dame to a spot in the national championship, has admitted that when his girlfriend's "death" became a story, he misled reporters into thinking he had met her in the flesh.

The star player recounted the whole, strange episode in an interview with Couric that was broadcast Thursday.

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Wow! Dung Beetles Navigate by the Stars

Despite having tiny brains, dung beetles are surprisingly decent navigators, able to follow straight paths as they roll poo balls they’ve collected away from a dung source. But it seems the insects’ abilities are more remarkable than previously believed. Like ancient seafarers, dung beetles can navigate using the starry sky and the glow from the Milky Way, new research shows.

“This is the first time where we see animals using the Milky Way for orientation,” said lead researcher Marie Dacke, a biologist at Lund University in Sweden. “It’s also the first time we see that insects can use the stars.”

After locating a fresh pile of feces, dung beetles will often collect and roll away a large piece of spherical dung. Last year, Dacke and her colleagues discovered the beetles climb on their dung balls and dance around in circles before taking off. This dance is not one of joy, however; the insects are checking out the sky to get their bearings.

“The dorsal (upper) parts of the dung beetles‘ eyes are specialized to be able to analyze the direction of light polarization — the direction that light vibrates in,” Dacke told LiveScience. So when a beetle looks up, it’s taking in the sun, the moon and the pattern of ambient polarized light. These celestial cues help the beetle avoid accidentally circling back to the poo pile, where other beetles may try to steal its food, Dacke said. [Photos of Dung Beetles Dancing on Poop Balls]

In addition to these cues, Dacke and her team wondered if dung beetles can use stars for navigation, just as birds, seals and humans do. After all, they reasoned, dung beetles can somehow keep straight on clear, moonless nights.

To find out, the researchers timed how long dung beetles of the species Scarabaeus satyrus took to cross a circular arena with high walls blocking views of treetops and other landmarks. They tested the insects in South Africa under a moonlit sky, a moonless sky and an overcast sky. In some trials, the beetles were fitted with cardboard caps, which kept their eyes to the ground. Overall, the beetles had a difficult time traveling straight and took significantly longer to cross the arena if caps or clouds obstructed their view of the sky.

From the experiments, “we thought that they could be using the stars [for orientation], but dung beetles have such small eyes that they don’t have the resolution, or sensitivity, to see individual stars,” Dacke said.

So the researchers moved their setup into a planetarium to tease out the information the beetles were extracting from the starry sky. They repeated the experiment under several different conditions, such as showing only the brightest stars, showing only the diffuse band of the Milky Way and showing the complete starry sky. The beetles took about the same amount of time to cross the arena when only the Milky Way was visible as when they could see a full star-filled sky. And they were slower to cross under all other conditions.

Previous experiments showed another dung beetle, S. zambesianus, is unable to roll along straight tracks on moonless nights when Earth’s galaxy, the Milky Way, lies below the horizon, Dacke noted. Taken together, these results suggest dung beetles navigate using the gradient of light provided by the Milky Way. However, this technique would only work for beetles living in regions where the Milky Wayis distinct. “What they are doing in the Northern Hemisphere [of Earth], I don’t know,” she said.

The researchers are now trying to determine the relative importance of the different sky cues dung beetles use. “If they have the moon, polarized light and the Milky Way, will they use all cues equally?” Dacke said.

The research is published online today (Jan. 24) in the journal Current Biology.

Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We’re also on Facebook & Google+.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Neanderthal cloning? Pure fantasy

A display of a reconstruction of a Neanderthal man and boy at the Museum for Prehistory in Eyzies-de-Tayac, France.


  • Arthur Caplan: It would be unethical to try and clone a Neanderthal baby

  • Caplan: Downsides include a good chance of producing a baby that is seriously deformed

  • He says the future belongs to what we can do to genetically engineer and control microbes

  • Caplan: Microbes can make clean fuel, suck up carbon dioxide, clean fat out of arteries

Editor's note: Arthur Caplan is the Drs. William F and Virginia Connolly Mitty professor and director of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center.

(CNN) -- So now we know -- there won't be a Neanderthal moving into your neighborhood.

Despite a lot of frenzied attention to the intentionally provocative suggestion by a renowned Harvard scientist that new genetic technology makes it possible to splice together a complete set of Neanderthal genes, find an adventurous surrogate mother and use cloning to gin up a Neanderthal baby -- it ain't gonna happen anytime soon.

Nor should it. But there are plenty of other things in the works involving genetic engineering that do merit serious ethical discussion at the national and international levels.

Arthur Caplan

Arthur Caplan

Some thought that the Harvard scientist, George Church, was getting ready to put out an ad seeking volunteer surrogate moms to bear a 35,000-year-old, long-extinct Neanderthal baby. Church had to walk his comments back and note that he was just speculating, not incubating.

Still cloning carries so much mystery and Hollywood glamour thanks to movies such as "Jurassic Park," "The Boys From Brazil" and "Never Let Me Go" that a two-day eruption of the pros and cons of making Neanderthals ensued. That was not necessary. It would be unethical to try and clone a Neanderthal baby.

Why? Because there is no obvious reason to do so. There is no pressing need or remarkable benefit to undertaking such a project. At best it might shed some light on the biology and behavior of a distant ancestor. At worst it would be nothing more than the ultimate reality television show exploitation: An "Octomom"-like surrogate raises a caveman child -- tune in next week to see what her new boyfriend thinks when she tells him that there is a tiny addition in her life and he carries a small club and a tiny piece of flint to sleep with him.

The downsides of trying to clone a Neanderthal include a good chance of killing it, producing a baby that is seriously deformed, producing a baby that lacks immunity to infectious diseases and foods that we have gotten used to, an inability to know what environment to create to permit the child to flourish and a complete lack of understanding of what sort of behavior is "normal" or "appropriate" for such a long-extinct cousin hominid of ours.

When weighed against the risks and the harm that most likely would be done, it would take a mighty big guarantee of benefit to justify this cloning experiment. I am willing to venture that the possible benefit will never, ever reach the point where this list of horrible likely downsides could be overcome.

Even justifying trying to resurrect a woolly mammoth, or a mastodon, or the dodo bird or any other extinct animal gets ethically thorny. How many failures would be acceptable to get one viable mastodon? Where would the animal live? What would we feed it? Who would protect it from poachers, gawkers and treasure hunters? It is not so simple to take a long dead species, make enough of them so they don't die of isolation and lack of social stimulation and then find an environment that is close enough and safe enough compared with that which they once roamed.

In any event the most interesting aspects of genetic engineering do not involve making humans or Neanderthals or mammoths. They involve ginning up microbes to do things that we really need doing such as making clean fuel, sucking up carbon dioxide, cleaning fat out of our arteries, giving us a lot more immunity to nasty bacteria and viruses and helping us make plastics and chemicals more efficiently and cheaply.

In trying to make these kinds of microbes, you can kill all you want without fear of ethical condemnation. And if the new bug does not like the environment in which it has to exist to live well, that will be just too darn bad.

The ethical challenge of this kind of synthetic biology is that it can be used by bad guys for bad purposes. Biological weapons can be ginned up and microbes created that only infect people with certain genes that commonly associate with racial or ethnic groups.

Rather than worry about what will happen to real estate values should a new crop of "Flintstones" move in down the street, our public officials, religious groups and ethicists need to get serious about how much regulation the genetic engineering of microbes needs, how can we detect what terrorists might try to use, what sort of controls do we need to prevent accidents and who is going to pay if a bug turns out to cause more harm than good.

We love to think that the key to tomorrow lies in what humanity can be designed or empowered to do. Thus, the fascination with human cloning. In reality, at least for a long time to come, the future belongs to what we can do to design and control microbes. That is admittedly duller, but it is far better to follow a story that is true than one such as Neanderthal cloning that is pure, speculative fantasy.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arthur Caplan.

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Girl: 'My sister's on fire'

3 children were injured, 1 critically after a fire started inside their apartment. (WGN - Chicago)

Hearing screams in the hallway, Vanessa King stepped out of her apartment to see her neighbor rushing down the stairs while cradling a little girl crying from burns over half her body.

"He put a blanket around her. He was holding her. He was telling her it was going to be OK," King said.

The neighbor, Clyde Harden, carried the 4-year-old girl into an ambulance that took her to Comer Children's Hospital, where she remained in critical condition today.

The girl was with her 9-year-old brother and 16-year-old sister when her bunk bed caught fire around 7:15 p.m. Wednesday in a four-flat in the 1000 block of West 76th Street, officials said.

The 16-year-old was in a back bedroom doing her homework when the boy ran to her room, neighbors said. "He ran back there to tell her [their sister] was on fire," said Sandra Gray, who lives downstairs. "She came downstairs and was knocking on everyone's door. She was screaming, 'My sister's on fire.' "

Gray said she and her husband and a neighbor ran up and saw the bottom bunk bed on fire. "All I saw was that the bed was on fire and the baby was burned," Gray said. "You could see the bed on fire."

She said the 16-year-old tried to pull the little girl from the bed and burned her hands. Gray's husband and the neighbor finally put the fire out as firefighters and paramedics arrived, she said. Gray said the girl was conscious but badly burned.

Harden, who rushed up with Gray, said he grabbed hold of the girl and helped put out the fire. “I believe that she was sheltered by God already,” he told reporters on the scene. “Somebody was there for her.”

Though an official cause has not been determined, authorities are looking into the possibility that someone inside the home had been playing with a lighter or matches, according to Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford.

King said she was struggling with how to talk to her 5-year-old daughter about her friend’s injury, saying her girl had nightmares through the night.

King said her daughter told her that "my friend needs to get her skin back. The doctor is going to take care and God is going to take care of her."


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North Korea to target U.S. with nuclear, rocket tests

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said on Thursday it would carry out further rocket launches and a nuclear test that would target the United States, dramatically stepping up its threats against a country it called its "sworn enemy".

The announcement by the country's top military body came a day after the U.N. Security Council agreed to a U.S.-backed resolution to censure and sanction North Korea for a rocket launch in December that breached U.N. rules.

North Korea is not believed to have the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead capable of hitting the continental United States, although its December launch showed it had the capacity to deliver a rocket that could travel 10,000 km (6,200 miles), potentially putting San Francisco in range, according to an intelligence assessment by South Korea.

"We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets that we will fire and the high-level nuclear test we will carry out are targeted at the United States," North Korea's National Defence Commission said, according to state news agency KCNA.

North Korea is believed by South Korea and other observers to be "technically ready" for a third nuclear test, and the decision to go ahead rests with leader Kim Jong-un, who pressed ahead with the December rocket launch in defiance of the U.N. sanctions.

China, the one major diplomatic ally of the isolated and impoverished North, agreed to the U.S.-backed resolution and it also supported resolutions in 2006 and 2009 after Pyongyang's two earlier nuclear tests.

Thursday's statement by North Korea represents a huge challenge to Beijing as it undergoes a leadership transition, with Xi Jinping due to take office in March.

China's Foreign Ministry called for calm and restraint and a return to six-party talks, but effectively singled out North Korea, urging the "relevant party" not to take any steps that would raise tensions.

"We hope the relevant party can remain calm and act and speak in a cautious and prudent way and not take any steps which may further worsen the situation," ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a regular press briefing.

North Korea has rejected proposals to restart the talks aimed at reining in its nuclear capacity. The United States, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas are the six parties involved.

"After all these years and numerous rounds of six-party talks we can see that China's influence over North Korea is actually very limited. All China can do is try to persuade them not to carry out their threats," said Cai Jian, an expert on Korea at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Analysts said the North could test as early as February as South Korea prepares to install a new, untested president or that it could choose to stage a nuclear explosion to coincide with former ruler Kim Jong-il's Feb 16 birthday.

"North Korea will have felt betrayed by China for agreeing to the latest U.N. resolution and they might be targeting (China) as well (with this statement)," said Lee Seung-yeol, senior research fellow at Ewha Institute of Unification Studies in Seoul.


Washington urged North Korea not to proceed with a third test just as the North's statement was published on Thursday.

"Whether North Korea tests or not is up to North Korea," Glyn Davies, the top U.S. envoy for North Korean diplomacy, said in the South Korean capital of Seoul.

"We hope they don't do it. We call on them not to do it," Davies said after a meeting with South Korean officials. "This is not a moment to increase tensions on the Korean peninsula."

The North was banned from developing missile and nuclear technology under sanctions dating from its 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.

A South Korean military official said the concern now is that Pyongyang could undertake a third nuclear test using highly enriched uranium for the first time, opening a second path to a bomb.

North Korea's 2006 nuclear test using plutonium produced a puny yield equivalent to one kiloton of TNT - compared with 13-18 kilotons for the Hiroshima bomb - and U.S. intelligence estimates put the 2009 test's yield at roughly two kilotons

North Korea is estimated to have enough fissile material for about a dozen plutonium warheads, although estimates vary, and intelligence reports suggest that it has been enriching uranium to supplement that stock and give it a second path to the bomb.

According to estimates from the Institute for Science and International Security from late 2012, North Korea could have enough weapons grade uranium for 21-32 nuclear weapons by 2016 if it used one centrifuge at its Yongbyon nuclear plant to enrich uranium to weapons grade.

North Korea has not yet mastered the technology needed to make a nuclear warhead small enough for an intercontinental missile, most observers say, and needs to develop the capacity to shield any warhead from re-entry into the earth's atmosphere.

North Korea gave no time-frame for the coming test and often employs harsh rhetoric in response to U.N. and U.S. actions that it sees as hostile.

The bellicose statement on Thursday appeared to dent any remaining hopes that Kim Jong-un, believed to be 30 years old, would pursue a different path from his father, Kim Jong-il, who oversaw the country's military and nuclear programs.

The older Kim died in December 2011.

"The UNSC (Security Council) resolution masterminded by the U.S. has brought its hostile policy towards the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (North Korea) to its most dangerous stage," the commission was quoted as saying.

(Additional reporting by Christine Kim in SEOUL, Ben Blanchard and Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Ron Popeski)

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