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This handout photo provided by the Office of the Defense Secretary (OSD), taken Aug. 19, 2014, shows a Chinese fighter jet that the White House said Friday conducted a "dangerous intercept" of a U.S. Navy surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. (AP)

China Warns U.S. Over Surveillance Flights

Aug 28, 2014

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Beijing has rejected U.S. claims that one of its fighter jets acted recklessly in intercepting a U.S. Navy maritime patrol plane in the South China Sea last week, warning Washington to curtail or discontinue "close surveillance" flights near Chinese territory.

"According to different situations we will adopt different measures to make sure we safeguard our air and sea security of the country," Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said at a news briefing.

"If the United States really hopes to avoid impacting bilateral relations, the best course of action is to reduce or halt close surveillance of China," Yang said.

As we reported last week, the Pentagon says a Chinese Su-27 made "aggressive and unprofessional" approaches of the U.S. P-8 Poseidon in international waters about 135 miles east of Hainan island. The Pentagon said the Chinese warplane made several passes under and alongside the P-8, coming within 30 feet or so.

The Associated Press says:

"China has long complained about U.S. surveillance flights that just skim the edge of China's territorial airspace. However, Yang said such flights this year have become more frequent, are covering a wider area and are coming even closer to the Chinese coast.

"U.S. sea and air surveillance missions occur most frequently during Chinese military exercises or weapons tests, raising the risk of accidents and misunderstandings, Yang said.

"That was a likely reference to an incident last December in which China accused a U.S. Navy cruiser, the USS Cowpens, of having veered too close to China's sole aircraft carrier in the South China Sea during sea drills. That nearly led to a collision with a Chinese navy ship in the most serious sea confrontation between the two nations in years."

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This handout photo provided by the Office of the Defense Secretary (OSD), taken Aug. 19, 2014, shows a Chinese fighter jet that the White House said Friday conducted a "dangerous intercept" of a U.S. Navy surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. (AP)

Angelina Jolie And Brad Pitt Finally Make It Official

by Annie Johnson
Aug 28, 2014

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We take a quick break from the heaviness this week for a bit of celebrity news: "Brangelina" has officially tied the knot.

A spokesperson for Brad Pitt, 50, and Angelina Jolie, 39, confirmed that the couple was married in a private ceremony Saturday in Correns, France.

The Associated Press reports that a California judge presided over the ceremony at Chateau Miraval, which was attended by family and close friends. The couple's six children participated in the nondenominational civil ceremony. Jolie was escorted down the aisle by her sons Maddox, 13, and Pax, 10, according to the news service. Daughters Zahara, 9, and Vivienne, 6, served as flower girls, while daughter Shiloh, 8, and son Knox, 6, were ring bearers.

The nuptials came as a surprise to many fans. The relationship between Pitt and Jolie has long been a topic of celebrity news since they became a couple after starring in the 2005 film Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They got engaged in 2012, but made it clear they were in no rush to walk down the aisle because of their support for same-sex marriage. Pitt once told talk show host Ellen DeGeneres that he and Jolie "would not be getting married until everyone in this country has the right to get married."

Pitt later told The Hollywood Reporter that:

"We made this declaration some time ago that we weren't going to do it till everyone can. But I don't think we'll be able to hold out. It means so much to my kids, and they ask a lot. And it means something to me, too, to make that kind of commitment."

This is the second marriage for Pitt, who divorced actress Jennifer Aniston in 2005, and the third for Jolie, who was previously married to actors Jonny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thornton.

The Times of Malta reports that the couple was on their way to Malta to shoot their second film together, By The Sea.

So far, no photos of the ceremony have surfaced.

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Want to find your personal posse of Demodex mites? Gently scrape the pores on the sides of your nose. (iStockphoto)

Hey, You've Got Mites Living On Your Face. And I Do, Too

by Nancy Shute
Aug 28, 2014

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When Megan Thoemmes first found a tiny critter living in the pores of her nose, she was disgusted.

"The first time I found one on my face I didn't sleep for four nights," says Thoemmes, a graduate student at North Carolina State University.

But she's made peace with her Demodex mites, not only accepting that the microscopic arthropods are hers for life, but conducting a study that finds that everybody else has them, too.

"They're actually pretty cute," Thoemmes tells Shots. "With their eight little legs, they look like they're almost swimming through the oil."

That's the oil from the sebaceous glands on your face.

Scientists have known for more than a century that Demodex mites like to hang out on human skin. More recently, the creatures have been investigated as a potential cause of the skin disorder rosacea. But the thought was that just a small minority of people played host to the translucent critters.

Boy were they wrong about that.

Thoemmes and her colleagues had gotten good at using little laboratory spatulas to scrape the sides of people's noses, collecting a bit of the goop inside pores that the mites like to live in. They tested hundreds of people and found mites 14 percent of the time.

But that number seemed suspiciously low, so the scientists hit on the idea of looking for mite DNA on human faces, rather than the mites themselves.

In tests of 29 people at citizen science events in Raleigh, N.C., 100 percent of the people over age 18 carried DNA from Demodex mites. The results were published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE. Tests on more people have also come up with the same 100 percent number, Thoemmes says.

Makes you feel kind of itchy, doesn't it?

Scientists don't know how the mites spread among humans; one theory is that they're passed on from mother to child while breast-feeding. Young people are much less likely to have them, while they've been found on almost all cadavers. The mites probably crawl on our faces at night, when it's dark.

In a way, that 100 percent number is strangely comforting. Not only do I have face mites, but so does Benedict Cumberbatch. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And Beyonce.

"It's like having friends with you all the time," Thoemmes says. "Realizing that everyone has them and they're likely not causing any problems, it's pretty reassuring."

Thoemmes and her colleagues are pretty excited about using human mites and their DNA to figure out how people have migrated historically and how we've interacted with animals. One of the two species of human mites, Demodex brevis, is related to the dog mite that can cause mange.

Indeed, Thoemmes just got back from mite-hunting in Mexico and Peru. "We want to get a lot of samples from humans around the world, to see how that genetic diversity is falling out and have a fuller picture of what is happening,"

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Moss growing on a fallen tree. (iStock)

Atheists Feel Awe, Too

Aug 28, 2014

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In Elizabeth Gilbert's brilliant novel The Signature of All Things, Alma Whittaker, the central character who was born in Philadelphia in 1800, is destined for a highly unconventional life as a woman in science.

Consumed by a love of botany, specifically of mosses, Whittaker grapples with questions that preoccupied many real-world minds of the 19th century, including Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace as they developed their theories of evolution. How can we understand the astounding variety of life in the natural world? If animals and plants are not after all created and fixed once and for all by God, by what mechanism did so many species arise?

These questions came to life for Alma when she discovered mosses. As a young unmarried woman confined to her father's estate in Philadelphia, her formidable sense of curiosity was dulled by familiarity. On those acres, she knew inside and out every tree, plant, insect and bird, and yearned for something new to explore. By accident, she found it one day — mosses, gloriously alive on a boulder:

"Alma put the magnifying lens to her eye and looked again. Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprang into majestic detail. She felt her breath catch. This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seem from the back of harpy eagle. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here were rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and miniscule, tangled vines. Here were barely visible tributaries running through that jungle, and here was a miniature ocean in a depression in the center of the boulder, where all the water pooled."

Nearby, on that same boulder, Anna soon saw:

"...another continent of moss altogether. On this new continent, everything was different. This corner of the boulder must receive more sunlight than the other, she surmised. Or slightly less rain? In any case, this was a new climate entirely."

As a result of that slight variation in climate, Alma realized, the mosses in that patch varied from those in the first patch. Years later, and before the 1859 publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (an event noted in the novel), Alma comes to grasp something like the process of natural selection.

I was captivated by the way Gilbert painted the clamors of the intellect — and of the heart, too — through Alma's character. Another striking passage came in a conversation between Alma and the evolutionary scientist Wallace, whom Alma meets late in her life. Wallace asks Alma if she believes in an afterworld. At first, she demurs, telling him, "I do so try not to say things that make people feel upset." When Wallace presses her, Alma tells him:"

"You see, I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me. I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others — why they must dream up new and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere, beyond this dominion ... but that is not my business. We are all different, I suppose."

Why did this passage strike me so powerfully? I think it's because I have encountered, as have other atheists I know, the persistent view expressed by some people of faith that the world is necessarily meaningless without belief in God or gods or an afterlife. "How can you stand to live in a world without meaning?" is a question many atheists hear in their lifetime.

Fictional scientist Alma feels real to me because she finds meaning in the natural world in a way that I fundamentally understand (although it's not mosses that do it for me, but bison and bonobos and bees and almost any other animal).

Alastair Reynolds's science fiction novel Blue Remembered Earth contains a similarly striking passage. The ideas here are expressed by a young artist named Sunday — born on Earth and now a resident on the Moon — who is making her first visit to Mars. Sunday found the Martian landscape "literally awesome," with mesas, pyramids and other geological formations shaped by "rain and wind, insane aeons of it," forces that have sculpted "deliberate-looking right-angled steps and contours [that] began to assume grand and imperial solidity, rising from the depths like the stairways of the gods."

Sunday invokes the gods only metaphorically, however. Here is what she really thinks:

"Awe-inspiring, yes. Sometimes it was entirely right and proper to be awed. And recognizing the physics in these formations, the hand of time and matter and the nuclear forces underpinning all things, did not lessen that feeling. What was she, ultimately, but the end product of physics and matter? And what was her art but the product of physics and matter working on itself?"

For both Reynolds's Sunday and Gilbert's Alma, recognizing that they are products of biological and physical forces isn't cause for anxiety about meaningless or despair. On the contrary, that recognition brings them a satisfying sense of connection to the whole universe.

Atheists feel awe too. Everyone does. That wondrous sense needn't be described by invoking the sacred.

Atheist awe is mind- and heart-expanding. I love seeing this real-world feeling mirrored in works of contemporary fiction.


Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Ailiana Tsarnaeva, sister of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, departs district court in Boston's South Boston neighborhood in October. (AP)

Sister Of Boston Bombing Suspects Arrested Over Bomb Threat

by Eyder Peralta
Aug 28, 2014

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The sister of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects was arrested on Tuesday and accused of making a bomb threat against her boyfriend's ex girlfriend.

The Boston Herald reports:

"Ailina Tsarnaeva, 24, of North Bergen, N.J., turned herself in to officers in Manhattan around 2:30 p.m. yesterday and was charged with aggravated harassment, according to police.

"'She made phone threats against another female, saying, "I know people who can go over there and put a bomb on you,"' said New York police Lt. Paul Ng.

"Tsarnaeva allegedly called the mother of her boyfriend's children in Manhattan on Monday around 3 p.m. and made the threats, according to Ng. Police did not identify the mother or the boyfriend.

"Ng told the Herald that Tsarnaeva was released on a ticket to appear in a Manhattan court at a later date."

Tsarnaeva is the sister of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Both are suspected of planting two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013.

Tamerlan died during a shootout with police and Dzhokhar is awaiting trial. He has pleaded not guilty to 30 federal charges in connection to the bombing.

WCVB-TV reports that Ailina is also facing "a trial in Boston next month on charges of misleading Boston police in a counterfeit money investigation in 2010."

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