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Bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs dies at age 88

photo by Ray Tharaldson all rights reserved 2012
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — It may be impossible to overstate the importance of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs to American music. A pioneering banjo player who helped create modern country music, his sound is instantly recognizable and as intrinsically wrapped in the tapestry of the genre as Johnny Cash’s baritone or Hank Williams‘ heartbreak.
Mr. Scruggs died Wednesday morning at age 88 of natural causes. The legacy he helped build with bandleader Bill Monroe, guitarist Lester Flatt and the rest of the Blue Grass Boys was evident all around Nashville, where he died in an area hospital. His string-bending, mind-blowing way of picking helped transform a regional sound into a national passion.
“It’s not just bluegrass, it’s American music,” bluegrass fan turned country star Dierks Bentley said. “There’s 17- or 18-year-old kids turning on today’s country music and hearing that banjo and they have no idea where that came from. That sound has probably always been there for them, and they don’t realize someone invented that three-finger roll style of playing. You hear it everywhere.”
Country music has transcended its regional roots, become a billion-dollar music and tourist enterprise, and evolved far beyond the classic sound Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys blasted out over the radio on “The Grand Ole Opry” on Dec. 8, 1945. Though he would eventually influence American culture in wide-ranging ways, Mr. Scruggs had no way of knowing this as he nervously prepared for his first show with Monroe. The 21-year-old Mr. Scruggs wasn’t sure how his new picking style would go over.
“I’d heard 'The Grand Ole Opry,' and there was tremendous excitement for me just to be on 'The Grand Ole Opry,'Mr. Scruggs recalled during a 2010 interview at Ryman Auditorium, where that “big bang” moment occurred. “I just didn’t know if or how well I’d be accepted because there’d never been anybody to play banjo like me here. There was Stringbean and Grandpa Jones. Most of them were comedians.”
There was nothing jokey about the way Mr. Scruggs attacked his “fancy five-string banjo,” as Opry announcer George D. Hayes called it. In a performance broadcast to much of the country but unfortunately lost to history, he scorched the earth and instantly changed country music. With Monroe on mandolin and Flatt on guitar, the pace was a real jolt to attendees and radio listeners far away, and in some ways the speed and volume he laid down predicted the power of electric music.
Tut Taylor, a friend of the Scruggs family who heard that first performance on the radio in his Georgia home, called it an unbelievably raucous moment, “a lot like some of the rock ‘n’ roll things they had, you know. But this was a new sound. It was a pretty sound and a welcome sound.”
Mr. Scruggs‘ use of three fingers — in place of the limited clawhammer style once prevalent — elevated the banjo from a part of the rhythm section — or even a comedian’s prop — to a lead instrument that was as versatile as the guitar and far more flashy.
Country great Porter Wagoner probably summed up Mr. Scruggs‘ importance best of all: “I always felt like Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.”
Mr. Scruggs‘ string-bending and lead runs became known worldwide as “the Scruggs picking style,” and the versatility it allowed helped popularize the banjo beyond the traditional bluegrass and country forms. Today the banjo can be found in almost any genre, largely because of the way Mr. Scruggs freed its players to experiment and find new space.
That was exactly what Ralph Stanley had in mind when he first heard Mr. Scruggs lay it down. A legendary banjo player in his own right, Mr. Stanley said in an interview last year that he was inspired by Mr. Scruggs when he first heard him over the radio after returning home from military service in Germany.
“I wasn’t doing any playing,” Mr. Stanley said. “When I got discharged, I began listening to Bill, and Earl was with him. I already had a banjo at that time, but of course I wanted to do the three-finger roll. I knew Earl was the best, but I didn’t want to sound like him. I wanted to do that style, but I wanted to sound the way I felt, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Dave Rawlings, a Nashville singer-songwriter and producer, said Mr. Scruggs remains every bit as influential and fresh seven decades later. He said it’s impossible to imagine nearly every guitar player mimicking Jimi Hendrix, but with Mr. Scruggs and the banjo, that’s the reality.
“The breadth and clarity of the instrument was increased so much,” he said. “He invented a style that now probably 75 percent of the people that play the banjo in the world play Scruggs-style banjo. And that’s a staggering thing to do, to play an instrument and change what everyone is doing.”
News of Mr. Scruggs‘ death quickly spread around the music world and over Twitter. Mr. Bentley and bluegrassers such as Sam Bush and Jon Randall Stewart celebrated him at the Tin Pan South gathering of songwriters in Nashville, and Eddie Stubbs dedicated the night to him on WSM, the home of “The Grand Ole Opry.” On the Internet, actor and accomplished banjo player Steve Martin called Mr. Scruggs, with whom he collaborated in 2001 on “Earl Scruggs and Friends,” ”the most important banjo player who ever lived.” Hank Williams Jr. sent prayers to the Scruggs family, and Charlie Daniels tweeted: “He meant a lot to me. Nobody will ever play a five string banjo like Earl.”
Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences said in a statement the four-time Grammy winner and lifetime achievement award recipient “leaves an indelible legacy that will be remembered for generations to come.”
Flowers were to be placed on his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Thursday.
Mr. Scruggs earned that star when he and Flatt weaved themselves into the fabric of American culture in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Flatt and Scruggs teamed as a bluegrass act after leaving Monroe from the late 1940s until breaking up in 1969 in a dispute over whether their music should experiment or stick to tradition. Flatt died in 1979.
They were best known for their 1949 recording “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” played in the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the popular TV series that debuted in 1962. Jerry Scoggins did the singing. For many viewers, the endlessly hummable theme song was their first introduction to country music.
Flatt and Scruggs‘ popularity grew, and they even became a focal point of the folk music revival on college campuses. Mr. Scruggs‘ wife, Louise, was their manager and was credited with cannily guiding their career as well as boosting interest in country music.
Later, as rock ‘n’ roll threatened country music’s popularity, Flatt and Scruggs became symbols of traditional country music.
In the 1982 interview, Mr. Scruggs said “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” broadened the scope of bluegrass and country music “more than anything I can put my finger on. Both were hits in so many countries.”
After the breakup with Flatt, Mr. Scruggs used three of his sons in the Earl Scruggs Revue. The group played on bills with rock acts such as Steppenwolf and James Taylor. Sometimes they played festivals before 40,000 people.
Mr. Scruggs always will be remembered for his willingness to innovate, but he wasn’t always accepted for it. In “The Big Book of Bluegrass,” Mr. Scruggs discussed the breakup with Flatt and how his need to experiment drove a rift between them. Later in 1985, he and Flatt were inducted together into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“It wasn’t a bad feeling toward each other as much as it was that I felt I was depriving myself of something,” Mr. Scruggs said. “By that, I mean that I love bluegrass music, and I still like to play it, but I do like to mix in some other music for my own personal satisfaction, because if I don’t, I can get a little bogged down and a little depressed.”
In 2005, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of works of unusual merit. The following year, the 1972 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” on which Mr. Scruggs was one of many famous guest performers, joined the list, too.
Mr. Scruggs was fairly active in the 2000s, returning to a limited touring schedule after frail health in the 1990s. In 1996, hes suffered a heart attack in the recovery room of a hospital shortly after hip-replacement surgery. He also was hospitalized late last year but seemed in good health during a few appearances with his sons in 2010 and 2011, though he had given up the banjo for the guitar by then.
Mr. Scruggs is survived by two sons, Gary and Randy. Louise Scruggs, his wife of 57 years, died in 2006. He often talked of her, recounting how their eyes had met while she watched him perform at the Ryman, and friends noted a sense of melancholy in Mr. Scruggs over his final years.
Mr. Bentley attended Mr. Scruggs‘ birthday party in January and had a chance to pick one more song in a circle with the legend. He even snapped a picture with his 3-year-old daughter, something he says he’ll cherish forever.“I think Earl was ready to go see Louise,” Mr. Bentley said. “I think he was ready to go. But we’re lucky. We’ve got a lifetime of his music that’s recorded to listen to and he’s in a better place.”
Mr. Scruggs funeral will be Sunday in Nashville. An obituary posted by the Spring Hill Funeral Home states the funeral will be conducted at Ryman Auditorium, from where “The Grand Ole Opry” was broadcast for many years, beginning at 2 p.m.
Visitation at the funeral home was scheduled for Friday and Saturday 3 to 7 p.m.
The family has asked that donations go to the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville or the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby, N.C.
Associated Press writer Joe Edwards contributed to this report.

Justices poised to strike down entire healthcare law

By David G. Savage
March 28, 2012, 8:35 a.m.

Reporting from Washington—
The Supreme Court's conservative justices said Wednesday they are prepared to strike down President Obama’s healthcare law entirely.

Picking up where they left off Tuesday, the conservatives said they thought a decision striking down the law's controversial individual mandate to purchase health insurance means the whole statute should fall with it.

The court’s conservatives sounded as though they had determined for themselves that the 2,700-page measure must be declared unconstitutional.

"One way or another, Congress will have to revisit it in toto," said Justice Antonin Scalia.

Agreeing, Justice Anthony Kennedy said it would be an "extreme proposition" to allow the various insurance regulations to stand after the mandate was struck down.

Meanwhile, the court's liberal justices argued for restraint. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the court should do a "salvage job," not undertake a “wrecking operation." But she looked to be out-voted.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said they shared the view of Scalia and Kennedy that the law should stand or fall in total. Along with Justice Clarence Thomas, they would have a majority to strike down the entire statute as unconstitutional.

An Obama administration lawyer, urging caution, said it would be "extraordinary" for the court to throw out the entire law. About 2.5 million young people under age 26 are on their parents' insurance now because of the new law. If it were struck down entirely, "2.5 million of them would be thrown off the insurance rolls," said Edwin Kneedler.

The administration indicated it was prepared to accept a ruling that some of the insurance reforms should fall if the mandate were struck down. For example, insurers would not be required to sell coverage to people with preexisting conditions. But Kneedler, a deputy solicitor general, said the court should go no further.

But the court's conservatives said the law was passed as a package and must fall as a package.

The justices are scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon to debate the law's Medicaid expansion.

Earth heated up in medieval times without human CO2 emissions, says new study

  • Evidence was found in a rare mineral that records global temperatures
  • Warming was global and NOT limited to Europe
  • Throws doubt on orthodoxies around 'global warming'
PUBLISHED: 07:21 EST, 26 March 2012 | UPDATED: 07:55 EST, 26 March 2012
Current theories of the causes and impact of global warming have been thrown into question by a new study which shows that during medieval times the whole of the planet heated up.
It then cooled down naturally and there was even a 'mini ice age'. 
A team of scientists led by geochemist Zunli Lu from Syracuse University in New York state, has found that contrary to the ‘consensus’, the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ approximately 500 to 1,000 years ago wasn’t just confined to Europe.
In fact, it extended all the way down to Antarctica – which means that the Earth has already experience global warming without the aid of human CO2 emissions.

Cold facts: Antarctica actually warmed up during medieval times, contrary to what climate scientists believe
At present the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that the Medieval Warm Period was confined to Europe – therefore that the warming we’re experiencing now is a man-made phenomenon.
However, Professor Lu has shown that this isn’t true – and the evidence lies with a rare mineral called ikaite, which forms in cold waters.

‘Ikaite is an icy version of limestone,’ said Lu. ‘The crystals are only stable under cold conditions and actually melt at room temperature.’
It turns out the water that holds the crystal structure together - called the hydration water - traps information about temperatures present when the crystals formed.
This finding by Lu's research team establishes, for the first time, ikaite as a reliable way to study past climate conditions.

Evidence that the Earth heated up over a 1,000 years ago was found in a rare mineral called ikaite

The scientists studied ikaite crystals from sediment cores drilled off the coast of Antarctica. The sediment layers were deposited over 2,000 years.
The scientists were particularly interested in crystals found in layers deposited during the ‘Little Ice Age,’ approximately 300 to 500 years ago, and during the Medieval Warm Period before it.
Both climate events have been documented in Northern Europe, but studies have been inconclusive as to whether the conditions in Northern Europe extended to Antarctica.
Lu’s team found that in fact, they did.
They were able to deduce this by studying the amount of heavy oxygen isotopes found in the crystals.
During cool periods there are lots, during warm periods there aren’t.
‘We showed that the Northern European climate events influenced climate conditions in Antarctica,’ Lu says. ‘More importantly, we are extremely happy to figure out how to get a climate signal out of this peculiar mineral. A new proxy is always welcome when studying past climate changes.’
The research was recently published online in the journal Earth And Planetary Science Letters and will appear in print on April 1. 

Gunman dies in hail of bullets as French seige ends

John Irish and Nicholas Vinocur, Reuters
TOULOUSE, France  - A 23-year-old gunman who said al Qaeda inspired him to kill seven people in France died in a hail of bullets on Thursday as he scrambled out of a ground-floor window during a gunbattle with elite police commandos.

Mohamed Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, died from a gunshot wound to his head at the end of a 30-hour standoff with police at his apartment in southern France and after confessing to killing three soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi.

He was firing frantically at police from a Colt 45 pistol as he climbed through his apartment window onto a verandah and toppled to the ground some 5 feet (1.5 metres) below, according to prosecutors and police.

Two police commandos were injured in the operation - a dramatic climax to a siege in a suburb of the city of Toulouse which riveted the world after the killings shook France a month before a presidential election.

"At the moment when a video probe was sent into the bathroom, the killer came out of the bathroom, firing with extreme violence," Interior Minister Claude Gueant told reporters at the scene.

"In the end, Mohamed Merah jumped from the window with his gun in his hand, continuing to fire. He was found dead on the ground."

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Merah had taken refuge in his bathroom, wearing a bullet-proof vest under his traditional black djellaba robe, as elite police blasted his flat through the night with flash grenades.

Neighbours watched baffled from the sidelines as the drama exploded around a man friends have spoken of as an amateur soccer player who visited night clubs and was not outwardly religious or involved with radical politics.

Police investigators were working to establish whether Merah had worked alone or with accomplices, Molins said, adding that Merah had filmed his three shooting attacks with a camera hung from his body and had indicated that he had posted clips online.

The most disturbing image of the attacks was of him grabbing a young girl at a Jewish school on Monday by the hair and shooting her in the head before escaping on a powerful scooter.

The killings have raised questions about whether there were intelligence failures, what the attacks mean for social cohesion and race relations in France and how the aftermath will affect President Nicolas Sarkozy's slim chances of re-election.

Sarkozy called Merah's killings terrorist attacks and announced a crackdown on people following extremist websites.

"From now on, any person who habitually consults websites that advocate terrorism or that call for hate and violence will be punished," he said in a statement. "France will not tolerate ideological indoctrination on its soil."

Elite RAID commandos had been in a standoff since the early hours of Wednesday with Merah, periodically firing shots or deploying small explosives until mid-morning on Thursday to try and tire out the gunman so he could be captured.

Surrounded by some 300 police, Merah had been silent and motionless for 12 hours when the commandos opted to go inside.

Initially, he had fired through his front door at police when they swooped on his flat on Wednesday morning, but later he negotiated with police, promising to give himself up and saying he did not want to die.

By late Wednesday evening, he changed tack again, telling negotiators he wanted to die "like a Mujahideen", weapon in hand, and would not go to prison, Molins said.

"If it's me (who dies), too bad, I will go to paradise. If it's you, too bad for you," Molins quoted Merah as saying.

IF YOU KILL MY BROTHERS

The interior ministry said there was no evidence Merah belonged formally to any group or was planning radical murders.

Merah has a police record for several minor offences, some involving violence, and was on the radar of French intelligence.

A Spanish interior ministry spokesman said police there were investigating whether Merah had ever met activists in Spain.

Merah had told negotiators he was trained by al Qaeda in Pakistan and killed three soldiers last week and four people at a Jewish school on Monday to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of French army involvement in Afghanistan.

In his video recording of his shooting of the soldiers, Merah cried: "If you kill my brothers, I kill you", Molins said.

Merah had staked out the first soldier he killed after replying to an advert about a scooter, investigators said on Wednesday, and had identified another soldier and two police officers he wanted to kill.

His use of his mother's computer to lure his first victim, a French soldier of North African heritage like himself, gave police a vital clue, but not in time to prevent the other killings, even though he mentioned to a mechanic that he had resprayed his scooter before the final attack on Monday.

Sarkozy's handling of the crisis could well impact an election race where for months he has lagged behind Socialist challenger Francois Hollande in opinion polls.

Early on Thursday, the first opinion poll since the school shooting showed Sarkozy two points ahead of Hollande in the first-round vote on April 22, although Hollande still led by eight points for a May 6 runoff.

Three years of economic gloom, and a personal style many see as brash and impulsive, have made Sarkozy highly unpopular in France, but his proven strong hand in a crisis gives him an edge over a rival who has no ministerial experience.

Sarkozy said an inquiry would be launched into whether French prisons were being used to propagate extremism and urged people not to seek revenge.

A militant Islamist group called Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate) claimed responsibility for Merah's killings, according to a statement posted on an internet forum used by Islamists. It named the assailant as Yousef al-Ferensi and said his attack "shook the foundations of the Zio-Crusaderdom".

"Israel's crimes against our people in the blessed land of Palestine, especially in Gaza, will not go unpunished," said the group, which was previously unknown until it took credit in November for two explosions in a western Khazakh oil city.

The interior ministry, which had already said there was no evidence he had formal radical links, declined to comment on the statement.

Merah, who had a weapons cache in his flat that included an Uzi and Kalashnikov assault rifle, boasted to police negotiators that he had brought France to its knees, and that his only regret was not having been able to carry out more killings.

French commandos had detonated three explosions just before midnight on Wednesday, flattening the main door of the building and blowing a hole in the wall, after it became clear Merah would no longer turn himself in. They fired shots roughly every hour, and stepped up the pace from dawn with flash grenades.

French psychiatrist Serge Bornstein described Merah as a passionate idealist. "Everything was centred around his ego with outsized narcissism, impulsiveness and instability but at the same he was methodological and organised in his planning," he told i<Tele.

Merah was tracked down after a no-holds-barred manhunt during which election candidates suspended their campaigning.

Immigration and Islam have been major campaign themes after Sarkozy tried to win over supporters of Le Pen, who accused the government of underestimating the threat from fundamentalism.

Leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities have called for calm, pointing out the gunman was a lone extremist.

On Thursday, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen accused Sarkozy's government of surrendering swathes of often impoverished suburban districts to Islamic fanatics, demanding that the election debate refocus on failing security. — Reuters

French serial killer declares himself an 'Islamic warrior'

French police have laid siege to an apartment block where a self-declared al-Qaeda militant who claimed a series of deadly attacks on troops and Jewish children was holed up.
Officials said suspect Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent who has visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, bragged of being an al-Qaeda member and said he had killed to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children.
Gunfire erupted as members of the RAID police special forces team tried to storm an apartment in a residential district of Toulouse in a pre-dawn raid, and two officers were wounded, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said.
After the clash the two sides became embroiled in an armed siege, with police initially talking to the suspect through the door. Nine hours after the stand-off began, officials evacuated neighbours from the five-storey block.
President Nicolas Sarkozy told religious community representatives that the gunman had planned to carry out another attack on Wednesday, a Jewish leader said. A police source said the suspect also planned to kill another soldier.
Sarkozy met with the representatives in a police station near the building where the suspect was negotiating with police. He left the station without making any comments to the media.
Gueant said the suspect was thought to be armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Mini-Uzi 9mm machine pistol and other handguns, but had thrown a .45 pistol used in the seven murders in the previous nine days from a window.
Sarkozy said earlier in a televised address after a meeting with Muslim and Jewish community leaders that "terrorism will not succeed in fracturing our national community".
"I say to the entire nation that we must be united," said the president, who has suspended his re-election campaign to deal with the crisis and to pay his respects to the dead from the recent killings.
Paris Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur urged France not to stigmatise his community, saying "99.9 per cent" of French Muslims were law-abiding citizens and the killings were the work of a tiny "fringe".
Gueant said the suspect had for several years been tracked by France’s DCRI intelligence agency and its agents in Toulouse, but that there was never anything to suggest that he was preparing a criminal act.
Merah spoke to officers through the door of his apartment, and declared himself to be a "mujahideen" or "Islamic warrior", fighting to avenge Palestinian children killed in the conflict with Israel, the minister said.
"This person has made trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past... and says he belongs to al-Qaeda and says he wanted to avenge Palestinian children and to attack the French army," Gueant had told reporters at the scene.
Merah, who twice tried and failed to join the French army, had previously been arrested on an unspecified charge in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, cradle of the Taliban, a police source said.
The siege came on the day that the Jewish victims of the attacks were being buried in Jerusalem and two of the soldiers were being laid to rest, one in France and one in Morocco.
If the suspect is proved responsible for the killings, it would bring to an end one of the most intense manhunts in French history and help calm tensions after the series of attacks disrupted the presidential election.
The shootings began on March 11, when a paratrooper of North African origin arranged to meet a man in Toulouse to sell him a scooter which he had advertised online.
A message sent from the suspect’s brother’s IP address was used to set up an appointment to inspect the bike, an appointment at which paratrooper Imad Ibn Ziaten was subsequently killed, a police source said.
Four days later three more paratroopers from another regiment were gunned down, two of them fatally, in the same fashion in a street in the nearby garrison town of Montauban.
The pair - Corporal Abel Chennouf, 25, and Private First Class Mohammed Legouade, 23, - were also French soldiers of North African Arab origin.
Arab soldiers are prized targets for groups like al-Qaeda, which regards Muslims who fight for Western armies as traitors.
Then on Monday the shooter, again wearing a motorcycle helmet and riding a scooter, attacked the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, killing a religious studies teacher, his toddler sons and a seven-year-old girl.
Jonathan Sandler, his sons Arieh, five, and Gabriel, four, and seven-year-old Miriam Monsonego were buried on Wednesday in Givat Shaul cemetery on the western outskirts of Jerusalem.
Sarkozy and several rival candidates for his presidency attended a memorial ceremony for the slain soldiers in Montauban, and were to visit the wounded police in Toulouse.
  AF

U.S. space tourism set for takeoff by 2014

By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida | Tue Mar 20, 2012 4:56pm EDT
(Reuters) - The Obama administration is preparing for a space tourism industry that is expected to be worth $1 billion in 10 years, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration's commercial space office said on Tuesday.
Rocket planes and spaceships to carry passengers beyond the atmosphere, similar to the suborbital hops taken by Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard and Virgil "Gus" Grissom in 1961, are being built and tested, with commercial flight services targeted to begin in 2013 or 2014.
"Based on market studies, we expect to see this type of activity result in a $1 billion industry within the next 10 years," George Nield, associate administrator for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation testified before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.
"This is a new and growing industry. If you look at the last 25 years, almost all the launches were for the same basic purposes - to launch a satellite, such as a telecommunications satellite, to orbit - and that level of business for that part of the industry is continuing today. But there are several new segments that we see just on the horizon," Nield said.
The boom in launch business is expected to begin this year, he said in the hearing, which was carried via webcast.
NASA has hired two companies, privately owned Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp., to fly cargo to the International Space Station, a $100 billion research complex orbiting 240 miles above Earth. The contracts are worth a combined $3.5 billion.
"We know that's going to start soon, probably this year," Nield said.
Space Exploration Technologies, which is known as SpaceX and owned and operated by entrepreneur Elon Musk, is preparing for a trial run to the station on April 30.
"We need to be careful not to assume that the success or failure of commercial spaceflight is going to hang in the balance of a single flight," NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters during a separate news conference.
"If they have problems along the way, it's the kind of thing you experience in this difficult process of not only trying to launch into low-Earth orbit, but do the next-hardest thing which is to try to rendezvous safely with another spacecraft in orbit," Suffredini said.
Also on the horizon are commercial flights that reach at least 62 miles above the planet, an altitude that exposes passengers to a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of Earth juxtaposed against the black sky of space.
In addition to tourism, suborbital spaceflights are being marketed and sold to research organizations, educational institutes and businesses that want to conduct experiments and fly payloads in space.
One company, Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of London-based Richard Branson's Virgin Group, already has collected about $60 million in deposits for rides that cost $200,000 per person.
"Exactly when those launches will start is hard to predict, but it looks very very clear it's going to be in the next one or two years," Nield said.
(Reporting By Irene Klotz)

A Slow News Day!

7.6 magnitude earthquake strikes near Acapulco, Mexico

A strong, long 7.6 earthquake with an epicenter in Guerrero state shook central southern Mexico on Tuesday, swaying buildings in Mexico City and sending frightened workers and residents into the streets.

The U.S. Geological Survey set the intensity at 7.6 at a depth of 11 miles underground. Mexico's National Seismological Survey said the temblor had an epicenter southwest of Ometepec. The quake was located 120 miles east of Acapulco.

Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard's Twitter account said the water system and other "strategic services" were not experiencing problems.

A person at Acapulco City Hall told NBC News that they felt the quake but had no immediate reports of injuries or damages.

Red Bull Creator Dies

He gave us wings ... and a caffeine buzz that keeps us up 'til the wee hours. Red Bull cofounder and Thai billionaire Chaleo Yoovidhya died Saturday of natural causes at age 89, the Associated Press has confirmed. Chaleo, Thailand's second-richest man, founded a pharmaceutical company in the 1970s that produced a prototype energy drink he called Krathing Daeng (Red Bull).

The beverage was particularly popular among Thai truck drivers and factory workers who needed to stay awake. Chaleo then cofounded Red Bull in 1984 with an Austrian partner who helped him turn the energy drink into a global brand. His eldest son, Chalerm Yoovidhya, now runs the company along with a family-owned wine business, Siam Winery.

Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band performing at the Sunscreen Film Festival


(TAMPA BAY, Fla.,) Downtown St. Petersburg is set to be the location for 7th Annual Sunscreen Film Festival, including a live performance by CSI:NY’s Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band on April 20th at 5pm. This is a free concert, co-produced by Backline Music at Williams Park to benefit active duty military and veterans in the bay area. With MacDill Air Force Base and BayPines VA Hospital local to the Tampa Bay area, it is expected to be a great turnout.

NY’s Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band will perform live at the festival. The Lt. Dan Band covers everything from Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix classics to contemporary songs by Kelly Clarkson, Evanescence, Beyonce, Lonestar, the Zac Brown Band and much more. There is something for everyone and each show highlights the musical diversity of the band, as well as the passion and energy each member brings to the stage.

In addition, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders (www.buccaneers.com/cheerleaders/index.html) will appear in a special opening performance prior to the band, complete with a meet and greet for concert goers. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders participate in performances regularly for troops on USO and Armed Forces Entertainment Tours.

Being able to have CSI:NY’s Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band along with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders perform at this year’s festival is something we are looking very forward to. The fact that the concert will benefit active duty military and veterans in the area is even better,” commented Tony Armer, Executive Director of the Sunscreen Film Festival.

The concert is free and open to the public; however, concert goers can purchase VIP tickets which include front-row access to the concert in Williams Park plus complimentary admission to the exclusive after-party at PUSH Ultra lounge in downtown St. Petersburg. 

For VIP concert tickets, which include two free drinks, visit http://sunscreen-filmfestival.ticketleap.com/vip-concert-gary-sinise/ 
For Festival VIP passes, and what other perks the passes include, visit http://sunscreen-filmfestival.ticketleap.com/2012-vip-pass/.

Woman On Meth Burns Down World's Oldest Tree

By ANDREW RAMOS

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. (PIX11)— A Florida woman was arrested and charged after admitting to police that she accidentally burned down a 3,500 year-old tree - the fifth oldest on the planet - while smoking meth with a friend.

The historic cypress tree named The Senator located in Big Tree Park in Longwood, Fla., caught fire and was destroyed on Jan. 16. Officials initially deemed the blaze suspicious, suspecting it was an act of arson. It turned out they were on to something.

Police said Barnes admitted to being inside the 118-foot tree, days before flames engulfed it. Barnes and a friend were smoking meth and used an open flame as a guide, authorities said.

The tree burned down a week later, eventually burning from the inside out.

The loss is undoubtedly one of epic proportions to the historic natural world. And as for Barnes, she's still coping in her own way.

"I can't believe I burned down a tree older then Jesus," Barnes reportedly told friends shortly after the blaze. Bravo Sarah. You did it!

Prince Harry continues Brazilian tour


RIO DE JANEIRO — Prince Harry has arrived in Rio de Janeiro to continue his tropical tour and promote British relations with Brazil.

Harry arrived from Jamaica. He made earlier stops in Belize and the Bahamas as part of a Diamond Jubilee tour in honor of Queen Elizabeth II as she celebrates 60 years on the throne.

 In Brazil, the 27-year-old prince will meet Friday night with top business people, artists and sporting figures at an event center atop Rio's iconic Sugarloaf Mountain.

On Saturday, the prince will teach tag-rugby and take beach volleyball lessons. He's then expected to visit a local slum and see a British-supported construction project.

Harry then heads to Sao Paulo state on Sunday to take part in a polo match for charity.

Solar storm's upside: Best places to see intense northern lights

By Mary Forgione Los Angeles Times Daily Travel
Travelers in Alaska, Canada, the northern Plains, parts of the Midwest and much of the West tonight (Thursday) may be treated to a northern lights display more intense than usual because of the powerful solar storm hitting the Earth's surface, according to science and weather reports.

The geomagnetic storm reached Earth about 5:45 a.m. EST Thursday. Scientists say the initial storm has been weaker than expected but may intensify later today.

Northern lights trackers say tonight could bring a spectacular show to mid- and high latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. AccuWeather.com says bright streaks were seen over the Great Lakes region Wednesday night.

And here's the forecast for Alaska from the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks: "Auroral activity will be high. Weather permitting, highly active auroral displays will be visible overhead from Barrow to Bethel, Dillingham and Ketchikan, and visible low on the horizon from King Salmon."

The Weather Channel says about the aurora forecast: "There is near certainty that this solar storm will produce aurora across the northern latitudes and could produce them as far south as the mid-latitudes," particularly on Thursday night-Friday morning.

Outside the U.S., Spaceweather.com shows spectacular northern lights photographs taken Wednesday night from northern parts of Russia, the Sky Station at Abisko National Park in Sweden and parts of Finland.

For those who might be in the northern lights belt, here are some viewing tips from the Geophysical Institute:

"[A]void city lights, and acquire a clear view of the northern horizon. Dress warmly, and plan to watch the sky between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. local time, although an active period can occur anytime during the dark hours. Active periods are about 30 minutes long, occurring every 2 hours."

Auroral photography: A guide to capturing the Northern Lights

By Ben Hattenbach
If you've ever been interested in aurora photography, now is a great time to get out there and give it a try. Here's why:

    The activity of our sun (the cause of aurorae here on Earth) ebbs and flows in eleven year cycles.  The peak of the current solar cycle - an apex of auroral activity - will occur around 2013.

    Revolutionary improvements in imaging technology have been made since the last solar cycle. We have progressed from film to an age of digital image sensors which offer far greater sensitivity and resolution, along with real time feedback and less noise.

    Our ability to predict the timing and intensity of aurorae has been enhanced considerably with the launch of the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory, the product of a collaboration between the European Space Agency and NASA.

In the next few years we will enjoy sensational aurorae, advance notice of their arrival, and the equipment necessary to capture them as never before. Even armed with all of these advantages, however, the aurorae are not going to put themselves on your memory cards. That's something you'll have to do yourself, and it can be a struggle.

This article provides ten suggestions that, if followed, will improve your odds of emerging from that struggle with some exceptional imagery. This article consists of two pages - the first page deals with how to find an aurora and equip yourself to capture it properly, and page 2 will guide you through the remainder of the process, including camera settings, composition and advanced topics.

1. Know Your Subject

Let’s begin by getting to know the aurora. According to my friend, astrophysicist Dr. Henry Throop, the aurora was thought at one time to be caused by ices suspended high above the Earth’s coldest, darkest regions. We now know that the aurora is actually an electrical phenomenon, caused by interactions between the solar wind and the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The sun emits massless photons that we see as light, but also emits out a real, physical, tangible wind of particles which moves at several hundred kilometers per second.

When this wind reaches the Earth, it begins a process that ends by exciting gasses in the Earth’s atmosphere, eventually leading to the emission of light. And just as a true neon light only comes in one color (red), the colors of the aurora are limited too: green and red caused by oxygen, with the fainter blue and purple caused by nitrogen. Unlike the wispy shapes of the aurora, its colors are narrow and precise.

Just like stars, the aurora is present during the day and the night, though during the day it is overwhelmed by the brightness of the sky. As the sun sets, it starts to become visible, being brightest near midnight when the orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind cause it to be strongest. The aurora is seen mostly in a ring centered roughly around the poles, where the solar wind is focused most intensely by the Earth’s magnetic field.

If the Earth had no magnetic field, we’d still have an aurora, but it would be weaker and more flat across the sky: a dull glow seen in every direction. A planet like Jupiter with a stronger magnetic field has a comparably more intense aurora, while Mercury - having neither an atmosphere nor magnetic field - has no aurora at all.

A terrestrial wind passing across the continents creates an unsettled display of turbulence and eddies, which we see in the form of dynamic cloud patterns, vortices, weather, and storms. In much the same way, the solar wind crossing the Earth’s magnetic field makes visible to us the turbulence of space: the vortices and eddies of magnetic fields peel off and pass rapidly overhead.

Even though - like wind - the magnetic fields themselves are invisible to us, we can see it through its tracers: charged particles. As the aurora moves in the sky overhead, the ripples in it are like the wakes and eddies peeling off a boat as at travels up a rough river at night, working at times with, at time against, the current and forcing what’s there out of the way.
2. Timing Is Everything

Now that you know what you’re chasing, when should you expect to actually see your quarry? Sadly there is no easy answer to that question. Here are some notes to consider, as you prepare for the hunt:

    Aurorae are caused by Earth-directed coronal mass ejections. Those ejections often come from solar flares associated with sunspots, or originate from coronal holes on the sun. The sun rotates around into an Earth-facing position roughly every 27 days, meaning that at least on a short term basis there is an element of a 27 day cycle to geoeffective emissions.

    There is an annual cycle that results in disproportionately high numbers of aurorae in the weeks on either side of the spring and fall equinoxes.

    There is an 11-year solar cycle (the 'Schwabe cycle') during which the activity of the sun rises and falls. The number of sunspots tends to track this cycle, resulting in prevalent aurorae around the peak of this cycle. Oddly enough, though, coronal holes are most common about three years after the sunspot maximum, resulting in large numbers of aurorae also appearing about three years after the peak of the Schwabe cycle.

    There are also much longer solar cycles stacked on top of these shorter ones, including cycles with periods of 22 years (the 'Hale cycle'), 87 years (the 'Gleissberg cycle'), 210 years (the 'Suess cycle') and 2,300 years (the 'Hallstatt cycle'). Most of us won’t be around for more than a few of these, though, so there is little sense letting them drive our planning.

    The weather on Earth is another important factor. If the sky is cloudy, it doesn't matter what's going on above the cloud layer - you won't see it. In much of the arctic, the skies tend to be clearer in late winter and early spring than in fall.

    Ambient light is another critical issue. In the high arctic, excessive sunlight will overwhelm any aurorae during summer and the surrounding months. The moon is another source of ambient light that must be considered. A partial moon may helpfully illuminate the surrounding countryside, avoiding the “silhouette” effect common in aurora photographs. I usually prefer about a quarter to a half of a moon when I’m including landscape in a photograph and want it to be illuminated. Anything approaching a full moon, however, can make it quite difficult even to see, much less photograph, ordinary aurorae.

Fortunately, the modern auroral photographer can take advantage of a lot of 'real time' information and analysis of so-called 'space weather', freely available online. Resources I recommend include:

    The most informative space weather related information on the net, in my view is www.spaceweather.com.

    An alternative presentation of similar information is available from the Space Weather Prediction Center.

    Good short-term auroral predictions for Alaska are available on the University of Alaska website.

    iPhone and iPad applications 'LightTrac' and 'Darkness,' which provide location-based data regarding sun and moon rise/set.

    Further information on solar cycles is available on Wikipedia.

3. Location, Location, Location

Photographers in search of exceptional aurora imagery will generally need to travel a significant distance. This is because aurorae form in oval rings that, roughly speaking, circle the magnetic north pole (the 'aurora borealis') and magnetic south pole (the 'aurora australis').  When observed from far away, these rings will appear as a faint glow on the horizon. When viewed from the arctic or antarctic, however, even an ordinary aurora will often appear directly overhead.

Overhead aurorae tend to be more photogenic, clearer and brighter because of reduced atmospheric interference, and will more effectively illuminate the foreground. Auroral displays over snow, for instance, will generally cause the snow to take on the coloration of the aurora. In comparison, when an aurora is low on the horizon, the foreground will often appear as a less-interesting silhouette.

In addition to finding a location remote from the equator, you’ll want to situate yourself far away from city lights, airports, and other sources of light pollution. To give you a quantitative sense of what this means, when photographing around Fairbanks, Alaska (population under 100,000, counting the surrounding boroughs), I prefer to be at least 30 to 40 miles out of town. The farther, the better. Even from 100 miles into the bush, my photos will occasionally still show a faint orange glow on the horizon.
     
Here are a few popular spots:

    Central and Northern Alaska: Relatively easy access from most of the United States, via Fairbanks. Hundreds of miles of beautiful mountain scenery, with year-round road access. The best locations, in my opinion, are along the Dalton Highway north of Coldfoot.

    Iceland: Astoundingly beautiful landscapes abound, and unfrozen water suitable for reflections is abundant, even in winter. Frequently overcast, but still one of the world’s most wonderful countries to visit. However, travel from most places outside of Europe can be time-consuming, and staying in Iceland can be very costly.
                                                                                                          
    Yellowknife, Canada: Well-situated in the auroral belt, but most photos from Yellowknife seem to feature flat fields of snow with pine forests.

    Greenland: At the time of writing Greenland is quite difficult to reach directly from the United States or most other countries, unless you’re a world-class swimmer. There's no road system, but Greenland is a superb place to snowshoe around in the dark, searching for aurorae. Greenland isn't for the faint of heart though - think twice before wandering around in the dark, searching for aurorae in a land filled with polar bears.

    Tromsø, Norway: A very long trip from North America, not even counting the time required to find the 'ø' on your computer when booking the flight. This location offers picturesque mountains and water in which auroral reflections regularly appear, but you might struggle to completely exclude the glow of town and city lights from your photographs.

    Antarctica: Exotic, and one of few locations where one can photograph the aurora while huddling for warmth with a colony of emperor penguins. Unfortunately, unless you’re a scientist overwintering at a research station, it’s virtually impossible to access the continent when aurora are most prevalent.

As I’m based on the west coast of the United States, northern Alaska has become my preferred location for aurora photography.
4. Gear Up For Battle

When photographers are asked how they managed to achieve a certain result, they will usually point to their own artistic proficiency, not the capability of their tools. 'It’s the photographer, not the camera,' is the common refrain. There are, of course, elements of artistry in aurora photography as well. However, the importance of good quality equipment cannot be overstated. Aurora photography does not require the most expensive kit available; it requires gear that can capture broad views, in low light, in cold weather. You will need:

    A camera body that excels with clean high-ISO operation. There are a number of new bodies in recent years that meet these criteria well, and which have enabled revolutionary advances in the field of aurora photography. Weather-sealing is a definite plus, although not a necessity.

    A wide, fast lens. On a full frame camera, a focal length of 24mm or less is desirable – but the wider, the better, in my experience. Ideally the lens will be able to shoot sharp pictures with minimal vignetting at a maximum aperture of f 2.8 or less, as you’ll want to keep your exposures short. All else being equal, your exposure will be inversely proportional to the square of your aperture, meaning that a lens at f 2.8 will need four times as long to capture an image as at f 1.4. Currently, my favorite lens for this purpose is Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f 2.8G ED.

    A sturdy tripod, and a remote shutter release (or, at a pinch, your camera's self-timer function). Don’t bother leaving home without them. They’re essential for aurora photography. A robust ballhead is also extremely useful.

Gearing up for winter photography, at night, in the arctic, necessitates psychological preparation as well. If you want to get the most out of your journey, you’ll need to be prepared to be awake and working most of the night.
5. Brace Yourself For A Chilly Reception

Aurorae just don’t seem to enjoy the warmth of the tropics or the glow of the midnight sun during summer.  You’ll need to play on their home turf, during the dark months. That means planning to spend hours on end, standing around outside at night, quite possibly in extreme cold, and probably a long way from home.

Clothing: be sure you’re dressed for the occasion. This is not a party you’ll want to attend in a mini-skirt.  For winter aurora photography I’ve settled on a down-filled mountaineering suit (the Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero), winter boots rated to -40 degrees F (the Sorel Caribou Reserve), multiple pairs of long thermal underwear (Under Armour ColdGear Base 3.0, both top and bottom), and a wind-proof cap (by Mountain Hardwear).

For the hands, you’ll want gloves thick enough to keep you warm, but thin enough to allow you to operate your camera. Personally I prefer to forgo gloves and keep my hands in warm pockets between shots. Most of the time it works fine. If you’re averse to occasional frostbite, try a different approach.

Batteries: The temperatures of the far north take an enormous toll on battery life. My camera batteries last around 1,500 actuations in normal conditions, but in the arctic winter have become exhausted after as few as 25 frames. The conventional cold weather advice is to keep your battery warm by storing it in a jacket pocket while not in use, but that is not an adequate solution under extreme arctic conditions. I recommend bringing multiple batteries and a charger, and rotating the batteries through the charging station when they’re not in use. If your aurora photography will take you far from the nearest well-stocked camera store, consider also bringing backups for any other 'mission critical' elements of your system.

Tripods: Carbon fiber tripods are just wonderful. They’re light, and in cold weather can be carried without chilling your hands as much as metal would. In frigid temperatures, however, both the carbon fiber legs and the adhesive used to connect then to your tripod base can become brittle. Exerting substantial pressure on your tripod, particularly when its legs are buried in deep snow, can easily result in the amputation of a leg. If you’d prefer not to find yourself hundreds of miles from civilization, with only a 'dipod' for support, be particularly cautious when planting your gear in deep snow.

Cameras and lenses: As noted above, weather-sealing is preferable. In part, this is to help prevent condensation from forming inside your equipment, when you move from an exceptionally cold environment (e.g., shooting outside) to a much warmer space (e.g., into a heated car). Particularly for non-weather-sealed equipment, including most medium format cameras and lenses, it is essential that the cold-to-warm transition be made gradually. It only takes one misstep to generate trip-ending amounts of condensation inside your lenses or sensor. To help slow the transition, I transfer my equipment to a camera bag that has also been outside, and only after sealing the bag do I move the bag and its contents into a warmer space. The camera is then allowed to heat up, slowly and safely, within the bag. For even better protection, consider placing your equipment in an airtight enclosure, such as a Ziploc bag, during the thawing process.

Safety gear: If you’re headed to the far north during winter you should, of course, also read up on how to travel safely in cold, icy climates. When travelling in northern Alaska between November and March, I’ll usually bring extra fuel, chemical additives to prevent the fuel from freezing, an oversupply of food (including food that will be palatable when frozen), a cold weather sleeping bag (rated to -25 degrees F), jumper cables and a tow rope with which a vehicle could be rescued after sliding off of an icy road. My tow rope has paid for itself on multiple occasions.

Multiple victims in Western Psych shooting

By Sadie Gurman, Liz Navratil and Dan Majors, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
At least five people have been shot at Western Psychiatric Institue and Clinic of UPMC. One shooter has been accounted for, but police are searching for a possible second shooter.p>

A University of Pittsburgh police officer was grazed in the leg, officials said.

SWAT teams from Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Port Authority and state police have been called to the scene.

Police were called shortly before 2 p.m. Police were checking reports that a person is being held hostage.

One woman, who did not give her name, said she and some other nurses from Western Psych were slowly returning from their lunch break when a woman yelled at them not to enter the building. The woman said there was a shooter in the first floor lobby and that at least five people had been hit, including a Pitt police officer who was struck while walking in the front door.

"A few seconds later and we would have been in the lobby," she said, adding that she was grateful she and her friends had stalled their return to the hospital.

Police officers are searching the Oakland building for the shooter and other victims.

A message sent to Pitt employees at 2:08 p.m. said that several people have been injured and that "lock-down recommended until further notice."

It also said, "If safe to do so, tell others of this message."

UPMC hospitals in Oakland were put on a bronze alert at 1:58 p.m. for someone with a weapon in Western Psych. The alert requires employees to stay where they are and respond to the alert with their exact location.

Family members of those involved in the shootings will go to Petersen Event Center. Those safely evaucated from Western Psych are also being taken to Petersen.

Several nearby buildings are on lockdown, including the elementary school at Carlow University. Central Catholic and the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy 6-12 - both on "modified lockdown" meaning no one can enter or exit the schools.

Family House, a nonprofit group that provides temporary residences for those dealing with serious or life-threatening illness, ordered its nearby University Place location -- as well as its other three facilities -- into lockdown.

"All four houses are in lockdown for the safety of our guests," said spokeswoman Holly Bulvony. "We are in the process of accounting for each and every guest. And, of course, no one is going in or out at this time. Until we know exactly what is happening."

She said emergency procedures were in place as soon as officials got word of the shootings.

"Everyone's calm and keeping our guests comfortable and carrying out our mission as if it were any other day."

Pitt is on break, so there are few students there.

The 81 Oak Hill and 83 Webster bus routes are detouring via Lothrop Street instead of DeSoto Street, which is blocked, according to the Port Authority.

The 93 Lawrenceville-Oakland is continuing on Fifth rather than turning on DeSoto, turning left on McKee Place, left on Forbes Avenue, left on Bigelow Boulevard and right to stay on Bigelow and return to its regular route.

Buses that use Fifth and Forbes avenues are not being detoured.

UPMC's website says that Western Psych "has been a national leader in providing research-base care and treatment of mental health and addictive disorders" which includes dealing with people with depression and bi-polar disorder.

Security is normally very tight at Western Psych, according to those who work there. Visitors must stop at a first-floor reception desk for a visitor's badge, but they are not checked with a metal detector until they are about to enter one of the locked units upstairs.