What’s Up: January 23, 2012?

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· ‘Strongest evidence yet to there being life on Mars’

· Martian rocks from a crater hit by a meteorite may contain the strongest evidence yet that there is life on Mars.

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Prof John Parnell, 55, has co-written a theory with Dr Joseph Michalski, a planetary geologist at the Natural History Museum that suggests they have discovered the best signs of life in the huge McLaughlin Crater on the surface of Mars.

The document, published today in Nature Geoscience journal, describes how they assessed the crater, created by a meteorite which smashed into the surface of Mars, flinging up rocks from miles below.

The rocks appear to be made up of clays and minerals which have been altered by water – the essential element to support life.

Speaking from his laboratory at the University of Aberdeen, geochemist Prof Parnell said: “We could be so close to discovering if there is, or was, life on Mars.

“We know from studies that a substantial proportion of all life on Earth is also in the subsurface and by studying the McLaughlin Crater we can see similar conditions beneath the surface of Mars thanks to observations on the rocks brought up by the meteorite strike.

“There can be no life on the surface of Mars because it is bathed in radiation and it’s completely frozen. However, life in the sub surface would be protected from that.

“And there is no reason why there isn’t bacteria or other microbes that were or still are living in the small cracks well below the surface of Mars.

“One of the other things we have discussed in our paper is that this bacteria could be living off hydrogen, which is exactly the same as what microbes beneath the surface of the Earth are doing too.

“Unfortunately, we won’t find any evidence of animals as the most complex life you might get in the sub surface would be fungi.

“But fungi aren’t even that far removed from plants and animals, so I think you could say that life on Mars could be complex, but small.”

Prof Parnell reckons that although the next mission to Mars will have a drill to examine possibilities of life beneath the surface of Mars, he says his new study suggests looking around the edges of craters would be easier and more beneficial.

He said: “What we’re really doing is emphasizing that if we are going to explore for life on Mars, we need to go beneath the surface. So we need to find an approach beneath the surface.

“One approach to do that might be to drill and indeed the next European mission to Mars will have a drill on it, but that will only go down about two meters.

“And although drilling two meters on Earth would be a fantastic technological achievement, it’s only really scratching the surface.

“So the alternative is to use what nature has done for us and that’s why we are particularly interested in the McLaughlin Crater that we have investigated in our paper.

“Because when a meteor lands, it excavates a big hole in the ground and throws rocks from the bottom of the hole outside the crater to where we could conceivably go and sample them.”

And while the craters on Mars may uncover secrets about the planet’s possibility of supporting life, Prof Parnell also revealed the results could show us how life on Earth began.

He said: “It’s very easy to draw parallels between what Mars looks like and what the early Earth might have looked like, because the rocks on Earth that we see now have been recycled a lot in ways that they have not been recycled on Mars.

“Mars has not had things like erosion and shifting of mountain ranges to destroy vital evidence from the past.

“So studying meteorite craters of Mars may well actually give us an indication to how life on Earth began.

“Although we all live on the surface of Earth, life did not originate here, but actually in the sub surface.

“It was only when life had taken hold below the surface that it gradually expanded and came up to the surface.

“In fact, there’s so much life below the surface of our planet that we are actually the unusual ones living above it.” Story Continued:

· McConnell vows to block gun control measures

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, bracing for a challenge in the 2014 elections, promised Saturday to try to block President Barack Obama’s gun-violence initiatives in a taped telephone recording sent across Kentucky.

“President Obama and his team are doing everything in their power to restrict your Constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” McConnell said in the recording. “Their efforts to restrict your rights, invading your personal privacy and overstepping their bounds with executive orders, is just plain wrong.”

Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager, said the call went out to “several hundred-thousand gun owners and hunters across the state.”

It came the same day that “Guns across America” rallies were held in state capitals across the country, including Frankfort, where participants cradling guns jeered Obama’s plans to clamp down on assault weapons and stiffen background checks.

Obama laid out his gun proposals Wednesday in response to the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six school employees dead.

The proposals came from a work group headed by Vice President Joe Biden and called for a variety of measures, including outlawing the sale of assault-style rifles, prohibiting gun magazines with more than 10 rounds and requiring that everyone who purchases a gun pass a background check.

Some of the measures would require congressional approval, while Obama signed 23 executive orders to put other provisions in place.

“Know that I will be doing everything in my power as Senate Republican leader, fighting tooth and nail, to protect your Second Amendment rights, so that law-abiding citizens such as yourself can properly and adequately protect yourself, your family, and your country,” McConnell, R-Ky., said in the phone call.

At the Commerce Lexington’s Public Policy Luncheon on Friday, McConnell avoided the issue of gun control, focusing instead on the national debt, his role in fiscal-cliff negotiations and his recent trip to Afghanistan, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

He didn’t take questions from reporters after the speech.

Republicans have largely opposed the measures, and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, also of Kentucky, said he would file legislation this week to seeking to nullify Obama’s executive orders because he said they stray into the area of “legislation.”

Paul also advocated for allowing school teachers and principals who have concealed-carry permits to take guns into the classroom to protect students.

Currently, McConnell has no re-election opposition, but some members of the tea party are searching for a quality opponent to challenge McConnell in the GOP primary, while Democrats are trying to recruit a candidate who can challenge Paul in the November 2014 election. Story Continued:

· West faces ‘decades’ of conflict in N Africa – David Cameron has raised the spectre of Britain being sucked into the fight against terrorists in north Africa for “decades” after the Algerian hostage crisis ended with more than 20 dead.

The UK prime minister said on Sunday that the growing threat of Islamist militants in the Sahel region of Africa required “a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months”.

He compared the situation with that in Afghanistan, saying: “What we face is an extremist, Islamist, violent al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group, just as we had to deal with in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

British officials said the government’s response to threats in countries such as Algeria and Mali, where the UK is supporting French efforts to expel Islamist rebels, would mainly focus on attempts to strengthen governments and promote dialogue. But they added that British troops could be forced to take direct action against the growing threat of Islamist militants.

Algerian officials warned that the initial casualty figure of 23 hostages and 32 militants was likely to rise while local newspapers quoting unnamed security forces said up to 30 bodies have been found at the sprawling gas complex which was being combed for explosives.

Ten Japanese and five Norwegians were among those unaccounted for at the plant, which is operated by the UK’s BP, Statoil of Norway and Algeria’s Sonatrach.

The first British fatality has been named by the Foreign Office as Paul Thomas Morgan, aged 46. It was unclear which company Mr Morgan had been working for.

Mr Cameron said the UK must “work with others to defeat the terrorists and to close down the ungoverned space where they thrive with all the means that we have”. He said the threat would “require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months, and . . . that is patient, that is painstaking, that is tough but also intelligent”.

He said he would use Britain’s chairmanship of the G8 this year to ensure that the issue is “right at the top of the agenda”.

In line with other western leaders, Mr Cameron refrained from criticising the Algerian authorities who mounted a final military assault on the facility on Saturday two days after their helicopters shelled vehicles in which the attackers had loaded hostages, causing many deaths. He did not repeat the “disappointment” he expressed on Friday over the decision to launch an attack on the hostage takers without his prior knowledge.

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister said: “It’s easy to say that this or that should have been done. The Algerian authorities took a decision and the toll is very high but I am a bit bothered . . . when the impression is given that the Algerians are open to question. They had to deal with terrorists.”

Algerian officials said the army decided to storm the gas facility only when it became clear the militants had killed the remaining seven hostages they held and were planning to blow up the site.

François Hollande, French president, said Algeria’s tactics were “the most adapted response to the crisis” and that there could be no negotiations with terrorists.

An escaped British worker, Alan Wright, told ITV News said he and his colleagues hid in an office when they heard sustained gunfire. They stuck pieces of paper to the windows of the room so the militants could not see inside and after about 24 hours, his Algerian colleagues decided to attempt an escape. Disguising him as a local worker, they cut a hole in the perimeter fence and ran into the desert where they came across members of the Algerian military.

The kidnappers calling themselves “Those Who Sign In Blood’’ – part of an al-Qaeda splinter group led by the veteran jihadist, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, initially claimed the attack was in retaliation for France’s military campaign in Mali.

They reiterated this claim on Sunday, according to the Mauritanian news website Sahara Media. It cited a video, showing Mr Belmokhtar saying: “We in al-Qaeda announce this blessed operation,” adding: “We are ready to negotiate with the west and the Algerian government provided they stop their bombing of Mali’s Muslims.”

Sahara Media did not display the video itself on its site and it was not immediately possible to verify the information. Story Continued:

· First Term: Americans Collecting Disability Increased 1,385,418—Now 1 for Each 13 Full-Time Workers

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During President Barack Obama’s first term, the number of Americans collecting federal disability insurance increased by 1,385,418 to a record 8,827,795.

As a result, there is now one person collecting disability in this county for every 13 people working full-time. Forty-two years ago, in December 1968, there were 51 people working full-time in this country for each person collecting disability.

In January 2009, the month Obama was inaugurated, there were 7,442,377 Americans collecting federal disability insurance, according to the Social Security Administration. By December 2012, the latest month reported, there were 8,827,795 collecting disability, an increase of 1,385,418. With 115,868,000 people working full-time in December, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there was 1 person collecting disability for every 13 people working full-time.

In the comparable period of George W. Bush’s first term—January 2001 through December 2004—the number of people taking disability went from 5,052,895 to 6,197,664, an increase: 1,144,769.

In the comparable period of George W. Bush’s second term–January 2005 through December 2008–the number of people taking disability went from 6,219,666 to 7,427,203, an increase of 1,207,537.

Back in January 2001, there was one person collecting disability for every 23 full-time workers; by December 2004 there was one person collecting disability for every 19 full-time workers; and by December 2008, there was one person collecting disability for every 16 full-time workers.

Forty-two years ago, in December 1968, 1,295,428 Americans collected disability and 65,630,000 worked full-time. Thus, at that time, there were about 51 Americans working full-time for each person collecting disability. Story Continued:

· The Long Road Forward: Obama’s Second-Term Challenges

Just because you beat Mitt Romney — and John McCain before him — doesn’t mean you’re a great president or even a particularly good one.

President Barack Obama has proved to be brilliant at digital organizing and winning elections. But his presidency so far has been less than meets the eye.

He has yet to improve the lives and lot of average Americans; to erect the edifices of health care and banking reform; to enact immigration reform or implement strong new environmental rules; to set a consistent course for our role in the world; or to soothe the corrosive tone of public life in Washington.

Still, the public hasn’t abandoned him; he won a convincing victory last November, after all. A new Huffington Post/YouGov poll shows voters modestly hopeful about his chances of being more successful this time around; a combined 64 percent of those polled say they think he will accomplish as much or more in the second term than he did in the first term.

And, given the haplessness of his Republican foes, Obama is in an unusually strong position to deliver on the potential of his second term — but only if he has the will and wherewithal to turn ballot-box victory into real-life results.

That’s the bottom line of an in-depth survey by The Huffington Post of the problems and prospects facing the president as he prepares to place his hand on two Bibles next Monday: the one Abraham Lincoln used in 1861, and the “traveling” one Martin Luther King, Jr., kept at his side.

Today we launch a series of stories giving you results of that survey: 20 reported pieces during the next week, 14 from the U.S. and six from overseas; pairs of expert blog posts published with each domestic story; HuffPost Live video interviews with reporters; and poll data from HuffPost/YouGov.

Drudges on the right see the president as a malignant and unstoppable force out to utterly transform America. But our reporters found something less apocalyptic. Obama actually has been less daring than he could have been, less systematic than he should have been, and more focused on short-term politics than his lofty, man-of-big-ideas image would suggest.

We start with the middle class, in whose name the president has, fitfully, dedicated his presidency. There is no question that the president helped save the global system of trade and credit from collapse — a collapse that would have ruined us all, middle class included. Also, as his aides regularly point out, the promise of more widely available health care, subsidized by taxpayers, can make up for some of the downdraft in job and wages.

But reporters Dave Jamieson and Arthur Delaney found that the American middle class — the cultural and economic mainstay of the country — is under more pressure than ever, and in some ways farther behind than it was when Obama took office in 2009. Our reporters look at the administration’s claims of progress, and its modest targeted plans for a second term, and ask whether he is eager or able to do more.

It’s a central question — if not the central question — of the Obama presidency.

In the days ahead, we will look at other urgent topics: poverty, education reform, foreign affairs, military tactics, bank regulation, the environment, immigration, the black community, drug policy, health care, Obama’s partisan political legacy, his willingness (or lack thereof) to change the tone in Washington and the prospects (or lack thereof) for a grand budget bargain.

We find that Obama has miles to travel on most of these issues. His electoral victories (winning two terms by more than 50 percent of the popular vote each time) place him in the company of presidents like Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Obama is in the winner’s circle, but not yet the “transformational figure” circle.

For most reelected presidents, power fades quickly. That may not be true in Obama’s case. Laws he passed in his first term can be implemented without going back to a nettlesome Congress. The world economy could be poised for a new round of growth. His Republican foes are in retreat and disarray. He can back them into a corner or woo them one-by one, as he did recently on the “fiscal cliff.” He was a novice at Washington and at the give-and-take of politics four years ago. Now he has a feel for the game.

The deeper question is whether he will be shrewd, persistent and tough enough to turn great promise into true greatness. His critics are of course skeptical. The American people are skeptical, too. A HuffPost/YouGov poll shows that only 37 percent of the American people predict that Obama will be a “great or above average” president. Other polls show that voters still think by a wide margin that the country is on the “wrong track.”

But Obama has defied expectations before. And if he can meet the challenges we explore starting today, he will do so again — and honor the memory of Lincoln and King in a fashion far more profound than a hand on a Bible. Story Continued:

· Obama gut-busting lunch menu tops 3,000 calories

The ceremonial lunch President Obama and his former congressional colleagues are eating Monday tops out at 3,000 calories, according to a website that has tallied up the luxurious menu of lobster, bison and apple pie.

HealthyFoodRecipe.net posted the full menu, complete with its calorie count, and said it was “unsatisfactory” to see such an unhealthy spread, given first lady Michelle Obama’s push for healthier eating.

She has come under fire for the high-calorie counts of some of the state dinners she’s hosted at the White House, but other nutritionists have given her a pass, saying indulging on special occasions is perfectly fine. Inaugurations, which come every four years, are about as special as occasions get.

The first course is lobster tails in a New England clam chowder sauce. The second course is bison with a red potato horseradish cake. The dessert is apple pie with sour cream ice cream.

The chef preparing all of this is Shannon Shaffer, who also prepared the 2009 luncheon.

The menu was determined by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugurals Ceremonies, which is chaired by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. Mr. Schumer’s home town of New York already requires all fast-food chains to post calorie counts.

And soon the rest of the country will have to follow suit. Mr. Obama’s health law includes that same requirement.

Some of those restaurants have objected. Pizza chains said they’ll have to post extensive signs with thousands of combinations of ingredients to meet the requirements. Story Continued:

· Panetta: US has to ‘fight back’ against al Qaeda after three Americans killed

The terrorist attack in Algeria that left three Americans and 34 other hostages dead shows that al Qaeda is “committed to creating terror” no matter where its members are located and that America has “got to fight back,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday.

“I’m glad we were able to get some rescued, but we did lose three Americans,” Panetta told a small group of reporters Monday as he left the inaugural lunch at the Capitol. “That just tells us al Qaeda is committed to creating terror wherever they are, and we’ve got to fight back.”

He said the militant groups have shown a capacity to rebound even after being pushed out of safe havens.

Panetta’s comments reflected a speech he gave in November in which he said the end is not near in the U.S. fight against al Qaeda.

He noted that U.S. forces had made key gains against the terror group in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, but said it was now seeking new footholds in places like Mali, where the United States has aided a French campaign against Islamist militants.

Panetta described al Qaeda like an adapting cancer.

“We have slowed the primary cancer, but we know that the cancer has also metastasized to other parts of the global body,” he said.

The hostage crisis began Wednesday when an offshoot of al Qaeda’s North African affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, stormed a remote natural-gas facility near the Libyan border. The three American hostages killed when Algerian forces intervened were identified Monday by the State Department as Victor Lynn Lovelady, Gordon Lee Rowan and Frederick Buttaccio.

“We extend our deepest condolences to their families and friends,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. “Out of respect for the families’ privacy, we have no further comment. We are also aware of seven U.S. citizens who survived the attack. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further information to provide.

“As the president said, the blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out, and the United States condemns their actions in the strongest possible terms. We will continue to work closely with the government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of the terrorist attack of last week and how we can work together moving forward to combat such threats in the future.”

Some foreign governments, including Japan and Great Britain, have complained of being kept out of the loop as Algerian forces prepared to raid the compound. The White House so far has refrained from criticizing Algeria, a key counterterrorism ally.

“The blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out, and the United States condemns their actions in the strongest possible terms,” Obama said in a statement Saturday. “We have been in constant contact with Algerian officials and stand ready to provide whatever assistance they need in the aftermath of this attack.” Story Continued:

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