Reindeer, Prairie Dogs Talk?
Prometheus, AI CyberDetectives,
Our Sun & Alien Worlds!
Mysteries at Teotihuacán!

The Pyramid of the Moon is the oldest monument at Teotihuacán.
The structure we currently see was actually built in several stages
(archaeologists currently have evidence for seven stages), with
each succeeding pyramid being built on top of the previous stage.
The current structure is 151 feet high and its walls are precisely
aligned with the walls of every other structure in the city.
Arizona State University News Release

December 3, 2004 - A spectacular new discovery from an ongoing excavation at the Teotihuacán’s Pyramid of the Moon is revealing a grisly sacrificial burial from a period when the ancient metropolis was at its peak, with artwork unlike any seen before in Mesoamerica.

Though archaeologists hope that discoveries at the pyramid will answer lingering questions about the distinctive culture that built the great city, the new find deepens the mystery, with clear cultural connections to other burials found at the site, but with some markedly new elements.

With the excavation of the pyramid nearly complete, one important conclusion is emerging: combined with past burials at the site, the new find strongly suggests that the Pyramid of the Moon was significant to the Teotihuacáno people as a site for celebrating state power through ceremony and sacrifice. Contrary to some past interpretation, militarism was apparently central to the city’s culture.

Teotihuacán, the 2,000-year-old, master-planned metropolis that was the first great city of the Western Hemisphere, has long been perplexing to Mesoamerican archaeologists. Located 25 miles north of the current Mexico City, this ancient civilization left behind the ruins of a city grid covering eight square miles and signs of a unique culture. But even the Aztecs, who gave the city its present name, did not know who built it. They called the monumental ruins "the City of the Gods." The Pyramid of the Moon is one of the site’s oldest structures, and has long been suspected to be its ceremonial center.

Partially uncovered figurine, carved
in jade, found in connection with three
unbound, seated bodies and other
objects at the top of the pyramid’s fifth
stage (the offering was presumably
made in the construction of the sixth
stage), circa 350 AD. This object is
notable in that it is carved from jade
that originated in Guatemala, and
appears to be Mayan in style. Other
jade objects on top of the figurine are
beads and earspools. (Saburo Sugiyama)

In the continuing excavation of the pyramid, led by Saburo Sugiyama, professor at Aichi Prefectural University in Japan and research professor at Arizona State University, and Ruben Cabrera of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, the team has found a fifth tomb, this time at the center of the fifth of the pyramid’s seven stages of construction. This phase of the excavation has been supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the National Geographic Society. ASU manages an archaeological research center at the site.

The filled-in burial vault contains the remains of twelve people, all apparently sacrificed, together with a large variety of offerings and the remains of various animals of clearly symbolic importance. Ten of the human bodies were decapitated. Sugiyama, the excavation director, believes that the signs of violence and militarism in the burial are especially significant.

"What we have found in this excavation suggests that a certain kind of mortuary ritual took place inside the tomb before it was filled in. It is hard to believe that the ritual consisted of clean symbolic performances -- it is most likely that the ceremony created a horrible scene of bloodshed with sacrificed people and animals," Sugiyama said. "Whether the victims and animals were killed at the site or a nearby place, this foundation ritual must have been one of the most terrifying acts recorded archaeologically in Mesoamerica."

Also found in the tomb were various
animal skeletons, large shells (like the
one above) and this obsidian figurine.
Unlike the jade, the obsidian was probably
local in origin. (Saburo Sugiyama)

All the human remains had their hands bound behind their backs, and the ten decapitated bodies appear to have been tossed, rather than arranged, on one side of the burial.

The other two bodies Sugiyama describes as "richly ornamented" with greenstone earspools and beads, a necklace made of imitation human jaws, and other items indicating high rank.

The animal remains were found arranged on the sides of the burial structure, especially on the end opposite the decapitated bodies, and include five canine skeletons (wolf or coyote), 3 feline skeletons (puma or jaguar), and 13 complete bird remains (many were tentatively identified eagle) – all animals that are believed to be symbols of warriors in Teotihuacáno iconography, according to Sugiyama. Many of the animals appear to have been bound and there are also numerous animal skulls.

"We don’t know who the victims were, but we know that this ritual was carried out during the enlargement process of a major monument in Teotihuacán, and highly symbolic objects associated with them suggest that the government wanted to symbolize expanding sacred political power and perhaps the importance of military institutions with the new monument," said Sugiyama.

Though Teotihuacán at its height was roughly contemporary with the early stages of the Mayan cities located to the south in the jungles of southern Mexico and Guatemala, archaeologists have long noted very distinct differences between the cultures and only minor evidence of interaction.

During an earlier stage of the excavation in 2002, Sugiyama and Cabrera found a burial (connected to the construction of the pyramid’s sixth layer) that revealing a Mayan link with the city’s aristocracy. The burial included three ceremonially positioned bodies adorned with jade artifacts of Mayan design.

The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest monument
at Teotihuacán and the main structure was built
all at one time, with a front structure added on
later. The pyramid is significantly newer than
the oldest versions of the Pyramid of the Moon.

The current discovery is connected to construction of the pyramid’s earlier fifth layer, and has similarities to the second burial found by Sugiyama’s team, which was also connected to that layer, which contained four bound men (two of whom isotopic evidence indicates were Teotihuacános and two were foreigners), and some similar symbolic animal remains.

The current burial, however, also contains some startling new features – particularly an "offering" at the center of the burial containing an mosaic human figure, with some features unique in Mesoamerican art and enigmatic in its cultural connections.

The central offering also contains various shell pendants, obsidian blades, projectile points, a fragmented slate object, and "many remains of organic materials."

"The mosaic figure was found on top of 18 large obsidian knives, carefully set in a radial pattern. Nine of these had a curving form, while the nine others had the form of the feathered serpent, a symbol of maximum political authority," noted Sugiyama. "Evidently this offering in some way formed the central symbolic meaning of the grave complex." Sugiyama said.

The burial also contained obsidian human figures, knives, projectile points; shell pendants and beads, ceramics (Tlaloc jars), plaques, and a large disk.

Currently completing the excavation, Sugiyama says that the recent digging is approaching the completion of the seven-year-long excavation of the Pyramid of the Moon, though the analysis of the finds is ongoing. "We will now be able to dedicate our efforts more intensively in the material studies, analyses of different kinds, and in interpretation. We expect to publish the project results quickly," he said.

Arizona State University - http://www.asu.edu

eXoNews Pix of the Week Dept.
A Piece of the Grand Design

A composite color-coded image of the "grand design" spiral galaxy NGC 6118, at a distance of 80 million light-years. It is based on images obtained with the multi-mode VIMOS instrument on the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) in three different wavebands. (European Southern Observatory)

Reindeer Endangered by Global Warming

Santa Claus with a reindeer in Lapland.

University of Washington News Release

December 1, 2004 - With increasing global warming Rudolph and the rest of Santa Claus' reindeer will disappear from large portions of their current range and be under severe environmental stress by the end of the century.

That finding comes from a new study that examined the archaeological record in southwestern France, where reindeer became locally extinct during two earlier episodes of warming roughly 10,000 and 130,000 years ago.

"There will be a direct impact of increases in summer temperature on reindeer well-being if global warming is allowed to proceed," said University of Washington archaeologist Donald Grayson, lead author of the study. "The number of southern reindeer will diminish dramatically as their range will move far to the north, and the number of reindeer in the north also will fall greatly."

Grayson and his colleague, Francoise Delpech, a French paleontologist at the Institut de Prehistoire et de Geologie du Quaternaire at the University of Bordeaux, will report their findings in a forthcoming issue of the journal Conservation Biology.

The pair examined the fossil record left in Grotte XVI, a cave above the Ceou River in the Dordogne region of France. The cave, which was occupied by both Neandertal and later Cro-Magnon people, has a very well-dated archaeological sequence from about 40,000 to 12,000 years ago. The sequence actually extends to about 65,000 years ago, but the older dates are less well documented.

Grayson and Delpech correlated the number of reindeer bones found in the cave with summer climate data from previously published paleobotany studies of pollen counts.

"As summer temperatures went up, the number of reindeer went down," said Grayson. "The warmer the summer, the fewer the reindeer. And when the Pleistocene Epoch ended about 10,000 years ago and summer temperatures soared, reindeer disappeared. Sometime between 11,000 and 10,000 years ago, reindeer became extinct from higher elevations in southwestern France."

He added that the Pleistocene extinction was not the first time that reindeer vanished from the region, noting that the animals were present in the glacial period prior to 130,000 years ago. However, he said there is no record of reindeer in southwest France during the Eemian Interglacial Stage, another period of warming that stretched from 130,000 to about l16,000 years ago.

The range of reindeer, as they are called in the Old World, and caribou, the name used for the same species in the New World, has varied over time. Today they extend from Scandinavia across northern Russia in Europe and roughly along the United States-Canada border in North America, although most of the population is in the far north.

Prior to global warming at the end of the Pleistocene the animals were found as far south as northern Spain and northern Italy in Europe. In North America they ranged into northern Mississippi in the southeastern United States and in into southern Idaho in the West.

Grayson said the idea of looking at summer temperature as a driving factor in declining reindeer populations is important and controversial. Biologists have linked declines in animal populations to a combination of changing climate and vegetation, increased rainfall and even insect harassment. He admits that there is no fossil record of rodent or small mammals to support the findings in Grotte XVI, but contends reindeer biologists have ignored summer temperature.

"Reindeer cannot physiologically tolerate high summer temperatures," he said. "They have almost no sweat glands and keep their insulation, a heavy pelt, in the summer. You would expect them to have trouble in high temperatures. Summer in those conditions would be the worst time for them because they have to eat a great deal to make up for the scarcity of winter food."

University of Washington - http://www.washington.edu

School Bus Driver Fired for Chatting About Stem Cell Research

This is a stem cell

NEW YORK December 2, 2004 (Reuters) - A school bus driver who chatted about stem cell research with her pupils was fired for inappropriate behavior, a local newspaper said on Thursday.

Stem cell research was a divisive issue in the November U.S. presidential election. Supporters say it may eventually help people with conditions such as Alzheimer's and cancer but opponents argue it would be unethical when it involves cloning human embryos or harvesting cells from embryos.

The Buffalo News said Julianne Thompson, 42, was fired from her job in Grand Island, New York after parents complained about her discussing the issue with pupils on Nov. 1 -- the day before the presidential election.

Thompson told the newspaper she had read an interview where movie director Mel Gibson said more than 20 years of embryonic stem cell research had not cured any diseases but more than 300,000 cures had been found with adult stem cells.

She said she then shared the stated facts with the pupils, without offering her opinions.

"In the midst of all the misplaced outrage, is the story of the sad and disturbing success of a fraudulent social 'conscience' that devalues life in favor of demonstrably failed science, wasting billions of dollars in the process," she was quoted as saying.

Education authorities in the town were not immediately available for comment but the paper quoted schools Superintendent Thomas Ramming as saying employees were not allowed to discuss political issues with students.

"You can say anything you want as a private citizen when you are off duty," Ramming said.

Prairie Dogs Talk?

"Prairie dogs hear this and they
say, 'Oh, coyote. Better hide,'"
Slobodchikoff said.


ALBUQUERQUE December 3, 2004 (AP) - Prairie dogs, those little pups popping in and out of holes on vacant lots and rural rangeland, are talking up a storm. They have different "words" for tall human in yellow shirt, short human in green shirt, coyote, deer, red-tailed hawk and many other creatures.

They can even coin new terms for things they've never seen before, independently coming up with the same calls or words, according to Con Slobodchikoff, a Northern Arizona University biology professor and prairie dog linguist.

Prairie dogs of the Gunnison's species, which Slobodchikoff has studied, speak different dialects in Grants and Taos, N.M.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; and Monarch Pass, Colo., but they would likely understand one another, the professor says.

"So far, I think we are showing the most sophisticated communication system that anyone has shown in animals," Slobodchikoff said.

Slobodchikoff has spent the last two decades studying prairie dogs and their calls, mostly in Arizona, but also in New Mexico and Colorado.

Prairie dog chatter is variously described by observers as a series of yips, high-pitched barks or eeks. And most scientists think prairie dogs simply make sounds that reflect their inner condition. That means all they're saying are things like "ouch" or "hungry" or "eek."

But Slobodchikoff believes prairie dogs are communicating detailed information to one another about what animals are showing up in their colonies, and maybe even gossiping.

Linguists have set five criteria that must be met for something to qualify as language: It must contain words with abstract meanings; possess syntax in which the order of words is part of their meaning; have the ability to coin new words; be composed of smaller elements; and use words separated in space and time from what they represent.

"I've been chipping away at all of these," Slobodchikoff said.

He and his students have done work in the field and in a laboratory. With digital recorders, they record the calls prairie dogs make as they see different people, dogs of different sizes and with different coat colors, hawks, elk. They analyze the sounds using a computer that dissects the underlying structure and creates a sonogram, or visual representation of the sound. Computer analysis later identifies the similarities and differences.

The prairie dogs have calls for various predators but also for elk, deer, antelope and cows.

"It's as if they're trying to inform one another what's out there," Slobodchikoff said.

So far, he has recorded at least 20 different "words."

Some of those words or calls were created by the prairie dogs when they saw something for the first time. Four prairie dogs in Slobodchikoff's lab were shown a great-horned owl and European ferret, two animals they had likely not seen before, if only because the owls are mostly nocturnal and this kind of ferret is foreign. The prairie dogs independently came up with the same new calls.

In the field, black plywood cutouts showing the silhouette of a coyote, a skunk and an oval shape were randomly run along a wire through the prairie dog colony.

"There are no black ovals running around out there and yet they all had the same word for black oval," Slobodchikoff said.

He guesses the prairie dogs are genetically programmed with some vocabulary and the ability to describe things.

Slobodchikoff has also played back a recorded prairie dog alarm call for coyote in a prairie dog colony when no coyote was around. The prairie dogs had the same escape response as they did when the predator was really there.

"There's no coyote present, but the prairie dogs hear this and they say, 'Oh, coyote. Better hide,'" Slobodchikoff said.

Computer analysis has been able to break down some prairie dog calls into different components, suggesting the critters have yet another element of a real language.

"We're chipping away with this at the idea that animals don't have language," Slobodchikoff said.

The Big Chill

This graphic released by the Arctic
Climate Impact Association indicates
the seasonal melt extent of the
Greenland Ice Sheet in 2002.  (AP)

WASHINGTON December 3, 2004 (Reuters) - Global warming could lead to a big chill in the North Atlantic, at least if history is anything to go by, researchers reported on Friday.

They published evidence to support a popular theory that rising temperatures caused a big melt of polar ice 8,200 years ago, causing a freshwater flood into the salty North Atlantic.

This would have changed the flow of the balmy Gulf Stream and in just a few years, average temperatures plummeted, ushering in a deep freeze that lasted a century or more, researchers have proposed.

Writing in the Dec. 11 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, Torbjorn Tornqvist, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says he has evidence that this happened.

"Few would argue it's the most dramatic climate change in the last 10,000 years," Tornqvist said in a statement. "We're now able to show the first sea-level record that corresponds to that event."

Tornqvist and some graduate students found the evidence along the Gulf of Mexico off the southern U.S. coast.

They found peat deposits that would have been formed under rising sea levels. Working with researchers in the Netherlands, they dated the material to 8,200 years ago.

Their composition suggested they were made when a saltwater marsh was abruptly flooded and turned into a lagoon.

"Climatologists urgently need this type of information to run their climate models in order to understand the conditions that can produce such an abrupt climate change," Tonrqvist said.

Prometheus - The Thief of Saturn

The shepherd moon Prometheus working its influence on the
multi-stranded and kinked F ring of Saturn. (NASA)

NASA News Release

December 3, 2004 - Stealing is a crime on Earth, but at Saturn, apparently it is routine. The Cassini spacecraft has witnessed Saturn's moon Prometheus snatching particles from one of Saturn's rings.

This potato-shaped moon is also believed to be responsible for kinks within Saturn's thin F ring, a contorted, narrow ring flanked by two small moons, Prometheus and Pandora. The thievery and the detailed behavior of kinks were observed for the first time ever in images taken by the Cassini spacecraft.

In an image taken on Oct. 29, Prometheus is seen stealing particles from the F ring while connected to the ringlets by a faint streak of material. A movie sequence of the ring, taken on Oct. 28, captures in freeze-frame motion the zigzagging kinks and knots, some of which are almost certainly caused by Prometheus.

The kinks look like "hiccups" traveling around the ring. Consisting of 44 frames taken three minutes apart, the sequence represents almost two hours, or about one-eighth of the orbital period of F ring particles around the planet.

Cassini was on a flight path that took the spacecraft away from the planet and farther south, so that the rings appear to tilt upward. The top portion of the F ring is closer to the spacecraft, while the bottom portion is farther away and curves around the far side of Saturn.

Scientists are not sure exactly how Prometheus is interacting with the F ring here, but they have speculated that the moon might be gravitationally pulling material away from the ring. Scientists speculate that the ring particles may end up in a slightly different orbit from the one they were in prior to getting a 'kick' from the moon.

These kicks occur at specific locations in the rings and can actually cause large waves or knots to form. In the still image, gaps in the diffuse inner strands are seen. All these features appear to be due to the influence of Prometheus in ways that are not fully understood.

Saturn's moon Prometheus is following in the footsteps of the legendary Titan for which it is named. In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to the mortals.

Scientists will use what they learn about Prometheus' interaction with the F ring to understand the gravitational exchanges between moons and rings, which give rise to so much of the structure that is observed in Saturn's rings.

The new movie is available at http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

Environmentalists Lose Again in $388 Billion Spending Bill
WASHINGTON December 3, 2004 (AP) - From an Alaska land swap to tours of a Georgia barrier island, business interests bested environmentalists in battles that shaped Congress' $388 billion spending bill.

The legislation wasn't totally one-sided as it boosted expenditures for operating national parks and continued bans on oil drilling in national monuments and many offshore areas. Lawmakers also omitted business-sought provisions to help a huge Oregon logging project and to ease standards for some pesticide use.

Business groups said the spending bill, which with accompanying documents ran 3,646 pages, was too wide-ranging for either side to declare victory.

"I'd be hard-pressed to say it was a clear win," Bruce Josten, a top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said about the legislation that lawmakers soon will send to President Bush for his signature.

Even so, much of the measure reflected the pro-business orientation of Bush and Congress' majority Republicans, who dominated the crafting of the package. Oil, ranching, timber and tourism all scored victories.

"This bill is harmful to the environment, there's no question about it," said Linda Lance, vice president for public policy for the Wilderness Society. "And to the extent that people see this as a way to do business in the future, that would be enormously harmful."

With the GOP seeking to curb spending, the bill — financing every federal agency but the departments of Defense and Homeland Security — limits overall 2005 domestic programs to 1 percent more than last year.

The National Park Service gets $1.7 billion to operate its parks, a 6 percent increase that Blake Selzer of the National Parks Conservation Association called "one of the bright spots of the bill."

Overall federal land acquisition, though, is about $166 million, well below its $444 million peak of three years ago. The Environmental Protection Agency gets $8.1 billion, 3.4 percent below last year, while agricultural conservation is cut 3 percent from 2004 to $999 million.

One section opposed by environmentalists would let up to 900 ranchers forgo full environmental reviews when they submit for renewal their permits for grazing herds on National Forest Service lands.

The provision is aimed at helping the service reduce a backlog of nearly 3,800 permits that are up for renewal and would otherwise require intensive environmental analyses. Ranchers whose lands seem to lack serious environmental problems would qualify for the speedier process, eliminating what otherwise could be years of delay.

"It's horribly wrong to eliminate people's livelihood because the government was not completing its paperwork on time," said Jeff Eisenberg, executive director of the Public Lands Council, which represents ranchers who use public lands.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a chief author of the bill, scored several victories for industry in his home state.

The measure would continue a year-old provision limiting the period for legal action available to opponents of logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest.

It also has a new provision giving 100,000 acres of Alaska's Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge to a company that wants to drill there for oil and gas. In exchange, Doyon Ltd., a private company established by Congress for the benefit of native Alaskans, will give land to the refuge, a haven for waterfowl and other animals that is nearly triple the size of Connecticut.

The provision has angered many environmental groups.

"You shouldn't be swapping land inside a wildlife refuge," said Betsy Loyless, a League of Conservation Voters lobbyist. Supporters say the government will receive valuable habitat land while Doyon gambles that it will find minerals on the parcel it receives.

"We have a charge to tend to the social and economic well-being of our shareholders," said James Mery, a Doyon vice president.

Another section weighs in on a dispute on the other side of the country, allowing continuation of motorized tours of Georgia's Cumberland Island National Seashore. About half of Cumberland, the East Coast's largest undeveloped barrier island, is a federal wilderness area where vehicles are supposed to be forbidden. It also is dotted with historic structures and opulent estates. Environmental groups have sued to try stopping the tours and the use of roads through the wilderness section of the island. The bill will allow the continued use of the roads and up to eight tours daily.

The legislation also:

Thwarts opponents of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park by allowing the same 720 snowmobiles per day as last year, and

Blocks a court order won by environmentalists requiring the removal of three 70-year-old outfitter camps from Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
Artificial Intelligence CyberDetectives

Tom Cruise as a cyber detective
in Minority Report (DreamWorks)


New Scientist Press Release

December 2, 2004 - Many more crimes might be solved if detectives were able to compare the records for cases with all the files on past crimes. Now an artificial intelligence system has been designed to do precisely that.

Working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it could look for telltale similarities in crime records and alert detectives when it finds them. Developed by computer scientists Tom Muscarello and Kamal Dahbur at DePaul University in Chicago, the system uses pattern-recognition software to link related crimes that may have taken place in widely separated areas whose police forces may rarely be in close contact.

Called the Classification System for Serial Criminal Patterns (CSSCP), the system sifts through all the case records available to it, assigning numerical values to different aspects of each crime, such as the kind of offence, the perpetrator's sex, height and age, and the type of weapon or getaway vehicle used.

From these figures it builds a crime description profile.

A neural network program then uses this to seek out crimes with similar profiles. The neural network the DePaul team uses, called a Kohonen network, is particularly good at finding patterns in a set of input data without any human intervention, Muscarello says.

Some neural networks require an operator to "train" them to find patterns in data sets - but this requires foreknowledge of the pattern. If it finds a possible link between two crimes, CSSCP compares when and where they took place to find out whether the same criminals would have had enough time to travel from one crime scene to the other.

In a ring-fenced lab trial of the system using three years' worth of data on armed robbery- it wasn't operating on a live police network- Muscarello claims the system was able to spot 10 times as many patterns as a team of detectives with access to the same data.

Muscarello stresses that CSSCP will not replace human detectives. It simply provides a starting point for detectives by flagging potentially related crimes. While detectives could probably identify the same patterns, the sheer mass of available data usually makes this too time-consuming. In the UK an online version of a manually searchable crime database called Crimelink was launched this week.

Samantha Morton and Tom Cruise in Minority Report.
The movie was based on Philip K. Dick's story of an
AI-controlled crime fighting system run amuck.

But while Crimelink can be used to search for specified patterns of criminal activity- querying if, say, a certain type of car has been used in armed robberies in Cambridge- it will not search for similarities that have not been suggested by a human operator.

Muscarello is now hoping to convince the Chicago police department to run trials of the system. Feedback from six leading detectives in the Chicago area have been positive, and he says one reason for this is that the researchers consulted detectives on how the system should work.

"To a certain extent we based it on the way detectives solve these crimes," Muscarello says. In conventional investigations, the work of finding a pattern may be split between several detectives, with each one handling a different aspect of the case.

For example, one might focus on the witnesses or victims, while another might try to trace a getaway vehicle. CSSCP can do the same by applying different neural networks to find patterns in different facets of the investigation.

The amount of information being filed for each crime is constantly increasing, says John Kingston, director of the Joseph Bell Centre for Forensic Statistics and Legal Reasoning at the University of Edinburgh, UK. This means that "data mining" is likely to become increasingly necessary in crime fighting, he predicts.

This article appears in New Scientist issue: 4 December 2004

New Scientist - http://www.newscientist.com

Cybersuicide On The Rise!
BMJ-British Medical Journal

December 2, 2004 - Is the internet encouraging suicide pacts? A disturbing new trend in suicide pacts involving strangers meeting over the internet (cybersuicide) is emerging, warns a consultant psychiatrist in this week's BMJ.

The deaths of nine people in Japan in October 2004, who met over the internet and planned the tragedy via special suicide websites, have brought the relatively rare phenomenon of suicide pacts into the limelight, writes Sundararajan Rajagopal.

Traditional suicide pacts account for less than 1% of all suicides and almost always involve people well known to each other, mostly spouses, most of them childless. About half have psychiatric disorders and a third have physical illnesses.

An increasing number of websites graphically describe suicide methods, including details of doses of medication that would be fatal in overdose. Such websites can perhaps trigger suicidal behavior in predisposed individuals, particularly adolescents, says the author.

The recent suicide pacts in Japan might just be isolated events in a country that has been shown to have the highest rate of suicide pacts, he adds. Alternatively, they might herald a new disturbing trend in suicide pacts, involving strangers meeting over the internet, becoming increasingly common.

If the latter is the case, then the epidemiology of suicide pacts is likely to change, with more young people living on their own, who may have otherwise committed suicide alone, joining with like minded suicidal persons to die together.

General practitioners and psychiatrists should continue to remain vigilant against the small but not insignificant risk of suicide pacts, he concludes.

Editorial: suicide pacts and the internet BMJ Volume 329 pp 1298-9

BMJ-British Medical Journal - http://www.bmj.com
Did Our Sun Capture Alien Worlds?

Our sun and a passing star may have exchanged small
planets and dust as they flew by each other. In the first
stage shown in this image of a computer simulation, dust
and planets orbit in circular disks in each of the two solar
systems. Credit: University of Utah and The Smithsonian
Astrophysical Observatory

University of Utah News Release

December 3, 2004 - Computer simulations show a close encounter with a passing star about 4 billion years ago may have given our solar system its abrupt edge and put small, alien worlds into distant orbits around our sun.

The study, which used a supercomputer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was published in the Dec. 2 issue of the journal Nature by physicist Ben Bromley of the University of Utah and astronomer Scott Kenyon of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass.

Bromley and Kenyon simulated what would have happened if our sun and another star in our Milky Way galaxy had passed a relatively close 14 billion to 19 billion miles from each other a few hundred million years after our solar system formed. At that time, our solar system was a swirling "planetary disk" of gas, dust and rocks, with planets newly formed from the smaller materials.

Imagine the encounter of two young solar systems by envisioning two circular saw blades brushing past each other while spinning rapidly. When they make contact, their outer edges are buzzed off by the other saw.

But in the case of planetary disks, colliding rocks at the edges of the solar systems are pulverized into pebbles, causing particles to be flung in all directions.

"Any objects way out in the planetary disk would be stirred up greatly," says Bromley, an associate professor of physics at the University of Utah.

Bromley and Kenyon conclude the shearing motion and dueling gravity of the passing stars could have done several things:

* Taken young planets formed with circular orbits in our solar system and catapulted them into highly elongated orbits. That may explain the existence of Sedna, a "planetoid" that orbits beyond Pluto and measures between 600 and 1,000 miles wide.

As the sun and passing star approach each other, gravity
can yank small objects from one solar system to the other,
as shown in this computer image. Credit: University of
Utah and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

* Created a sharp edge to the solar system by shearing off the outer part of the Kuiper belt, a collection of small, rocky-and-icy objects in space starting beyond Neptune's orbit and ending abruptly about 4.7 billion miles from the sun.

* Allowed our sun and solar system to capture a planet or smaller object from the passing star's solar system. Sedna might be an example.

Houston, We Have an Alien … Planet

Astronomers have been searching for years for extrasolar planets, or planets in other solar systems. Few considered the possibility that "the nearest extrasolar planet might be right here in our solar system," says Kenyon.

Computer simulations of a close encounter by two stars – a stellar flyby – demonstrated there is a chance a planet could be captured from another solar system. Bromley and Kenyon predicted locations in our solar system where captured objects would be, based on the angle and shape of their orbits. Finding captured objects in the predicted locations would be "proof that a flyby occurred," says Bromley. He hopes astronomers will look more closely at sections of the sky where he and Kenyon predict alien planets might be.

Between 30 and 50 astronomical units from the sun - that is, 2.8 billion to 4.7 billion miles from the sun - several Kuiper belt objects larger than 600 miles in diameter are known to orbit the sun. Sedna, discovered in 2003, is similar to these cold, rock-and-ice worlds, but orbits 70 to 1,000 astronomical units from the sun. It has a high-inclination orbit, which means it does not travel around the sun in the same plane as the major planets. Sedna's orbit also is highly elliptical or elongated.

Once the stellar encounter is complete, the disk of each
solar system contains a mixture of indigenous and
captured dust and planets, as shown in the final image.
Credit: University of Utah and The Smithsonian
Astrophysical Observatory

Bromley says Kuiper belt objects are influenced by Neptune's gravity, but Neptune alone is too far away to have launched Sedna on its bizarre path, he says.

What caused Sedna's elongated orbit? Answering this question was a key goal of Bromley and Kenyon's study. Their simulations show there is a 5 percent to 10 percent chance Sedna formed within our solar system, probably closer to Neptune or Pluto, and was later launched into its current orbit when our solar system was "buzzed" by another.

"In order for a flyby [between two stars] to put Sedna on its orbit, we need to have Sedna in place at the time of the flyby," says Bromley.

Bromley says it is possible Sedna is an alien planet, formed in a solar system that later flew near our own.

Bromley and Kenyon's simulations suggest that there is a 1 percent chance that Sedna is a planet captured during a stellar flyby.

"There may be thousands of objects like Sedna near the edge of our solar system," Bromley says. "So there is an even greater chance that some may be alien worlds captured from another solar system."

The Kuiper belt ends abruptly at 50 astronomical units from the sun and "there is no evidence that the hard edge of the Kuiper belt is in any sense natural," says Bromley.

If the edge of our solar system were unperturbed, scientists would predict a gradual tapering of debris at increasing distances from the sun. The computer simulations showed that a close encounter another solar system could explain why rocky, icy Kuiper belt objects vanish abruptly at 50 astronomical units.

Does the solar system face another destructive encounter with a neighboring star? Not according to Bromley, who says the chance of that happening is "effectively nil" because the sun no longer is close to other stars in a cluster as it once was.

Genre News: Sub-Mariner, Finding Neverland, Stevie Wonder, Boston Legal, Spell for Chameleon & More!

Marvel's Sub-Mariner. The next
Spider-man? (Marvel Group)
Sub-Mariner Surfaces!
By Borys Kit

LOS ANGELES December 3, 2004 (Hollywood Reporter) - Chris Columbus, who last directed the first two installments of the "Harry Potter" movies, is taking on another literary icon.

He has charted a course to direct and produce "Sub-Mariner," an adaptation of one of Marvel Comics' oldest superheroes, for Universal Pictures.

The Sub-Mariner's other identity is that of Prince Namor, a half-man/half-amphibian creature from the underwater kingdom of Atlantis. He is known for his temper and rebellious nature and sometimes finds himself helping the human race and sometimes fighting against it when humans have polluted the waters.

The Sub-Mariner first appeared in 1939 when Marvel Comics was known as Timely Comics. He made his first modern appearance in the pages of "Fantastic Four" in the early 1960s.

David Self wrote the screenplay for what is intended as an epic film that will highlight various cultures, species and worlds beneath Earth's oceans. At the same time, it will tell the tale of Namor, a man who is torn between the world he grew up in and the world he belongs to.

"This is a giant project," said Marvel Studios chief Avi Arad, who will serve as a producer. "Chris and I have been talking about this for six years, and once he saw where we were going with it and the world we were going to create, he jumped in."

There has been a flurry of activity in comic book movies recently. Earlier this week, it was announced that Nick Cassavetes ("The Notebook") would direct New Line's adaptation of Marvel's Iron Man. Last week Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Supremacy") stepped in to direct the seminal comic "The Watchmen," which is set up at Paramount Pictures.

Columbus will segue to "Sub-Mariner" after completing the feature adaptation of the hit Broadway musical "Rent," which is set up at Sony-based Revolution Studios.

Marvel - http://www.marvel.com

Neverland Best Film of 2004
AP Movie Writer

'Finding Neverland' star Johnny Depp as Peter Pan
author J.M. Barrie and co-star Freddie Highmore.
See this movie! (Miramax)

NEW YORK December 2, 2004 (AP) - "Finding Neverland," the whimsical, wistful story of "Peter Pan" creator J.M. Barrie, topped the National Board of Review's list as the best film of 2004.

Jamie Foxx was named best actor for his convincing portrayal of Ray Charles in "Ray," and Annette Bening took the top female acting honors for "Being Julia," a showy role in which she plays an aging British stage star.

Annie Schulhof, president of the National Board of Review, described "Finding Neverland" as "visually magical."

"The group also felt the movie transported them to another time and place," Schulhof said Wednesday after the winners were announced. "I think all the elements hit the page for a best NBR film — the acting, the costumes, the set design, the music, and especially the cinematography."

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes
in The Aviator, the #2 choice for
best picture. (Miramax)

No single film dominated the group's winners, although "Sideways," about best friends on a wine-tasting road trip, was honored in three categories: Thomas Haden Church won the supporting-actor award for his role as a swaggering, washed-up TV actor; director Alexander Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, shared the adapted screenplay honors; and the film was listed among the group's 10 best of the year.

Laura Linney won the supporting-actress category for "Kinsey," in which she plays the wife of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. The cast of "Closer" — Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman — were honored for best acting by an ensemble.

The Pixar hit "The Incredibles," about a family of super heroes, was named best animated feature. "The Sea Inside," a Spanish film starring Javier Bardem as a quadriplegic fighting for his right to die, was the top foreign language film. And "Born Into Brothels" was the group's choice for best documentary.

Michael Mann won the best-director award for "Collateral," starring Tom Cruise as a hit man on the prowl in Los Angeles. Writer Charlie Kaufman's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," about a man (Jim Carrey) who wants to erase the memory of a failed romance, won for best original screenplay. And Clint Eastwood (news) received special filmmaking achievement honors for the boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby," which he directed, produced and stars in, and for which he composed the score.

The group's top 10, in order: "Finding Neverland," "The Aviator," "Closer," "Million Dollar Baby," "Sideways," "Kinsey," "Vera Drake," "Ray," "Collateral" and "Hotel Rwanda."

The No. 1 choice of "Finding Neverland," starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, came as no big surprise to Tom O'Neil, host of the awards handicapping Web site GoldDerby.com.

Jamie Foxx Best Actor as Ray Charles in Ray
(Universal Pictures, Nicola Goode)

"The board traditionally likes movies based on real-life characters — movies with literary credentials based on real-life characters, like `The Hours' and `Quills,'" O'Neil said.

"And they have certainly demonstrated that they have a profound impact on the Oscars," he added. "They put Halle Berry on the map with `Monster's Ball.' Halle Berry's win at the National Board of Review was the only major industry award she won in the Oscar home stretch."

But the organization — traditionally the first to announce its top film picks each year — doesn't always jibe with the eventual Academy Award winner.

In recent years, the National Board has chosen "Mystic River," "The Hours," "Moulin Rouge" and "Quills," none of which won the best-picture Oscar. In 1999, however, it matched up with the Oscars, picking "American Beauty."

The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, formed 95 years ago, is composed of film historians, students and educators.

[Despite the competition, I'd have to admit that Finding Neverland is the best film I saw this year. There is no formula stuff in a film like this - it is a pure work of cinema. Mr. Depp and his fellow actors and actresses are wonderful beyond words. If you ever saw Peter Pan on stage as a kid, don't wait for the DVD - and you can leave the family home because this isn't a kid's movie.  Thank me later, etc. Ed.]

National Board of Review - http://www.nbrmp.org

Wonder What Happened to Wonder?
By Gail Mitchell

Stevie Wonder (Reuters)

LOS ANGELES December 3, 2004 (Billboard) - After several delays, Stevie Wonder's new studio album, "A Time 2 Love," his first in a decade, is expected to be out in April via Motown.

"As an artist, you get anxious and excited -- you want to show what you can do," Wonder told Billboard. "But for me, I had to make a real decision not to rush. I wasn't feeling that the timing is right. A lot of what I do when I do an album is based on whether the timing is right."

"A Time 2 Love" will be Wonder's first studio set since 1995's "Conversation Peace," which debuted at No. 16 on The Billboard 200.

"I didn't mean for that to happen," he said of the time that elapsed between projects. "On the other hand, it wasn't a panic-mode situation, either, where we've got to do this or we're going to have a problem up in here."

The set will be a single-disc affair, although Wonder said, "in these nine years I've done more than just the songs that will be on the album. And it's going good. In these nine years I've found the songs that feel most comfortable for me."

Among the tracks earmarked for the set are "If the Creek Don't Rise" ("something I wrote a while back that I recently revisited," Wonder said) and "If Your Love Cannot Be Moved," the latter of which features live instrumentation by Wonder and several guest spots.

"I have myself playing, some symphony musicians from (Los Angeles) and Doug E. Fresh doing a little beat-box thing," he revealed. "I also have a female talking-drum player from Nigeria. And we're going to have the West Los Angeles choir sing. I'm going to record the choir at the church."

After "Time" is released, Wonder said he has "three immediate goals": a "jazz album with harmonica," a gospel album and a musical.

[Haven't heard the new one yet, but this guy is welcome back anytime. Ed.]

Minear's Inside Loses Fastlane
By Nellie Andreeva

Peter Facinelli

LOS ANGELES December 3, 2004 (Hollywood Reporter) - Peter Facinelli has exited Fox's upcoming drama series "The Inside," which revolves around a young undercover agent played by Rachel Nichols.

The series has been going through a makeover following the September departure of creators Todd and Glenn Kessler.

Tim Minear was hired to write a new pilot script while keeping the premise.

Nichols and Facinelli, who played her boss, were the only actors from the original pilot to stay on.
But after reading the new pilot script, which features a significantly changed story line, Facinelli asked to be released from the project, sources said.

Recasting of the role is under way.

Facinelli previously starred in Fox's short-lived "Fastlane."

[Tim Minear was Joss Whedon's partner on Firefly and executive producer of Wonderfalls. Ed.]

Fox Eyes Darkside

Hollywood December 3, 2004 (Sci Fi Wire) - Fox is developing the SF series Darkside, a Lost-like thriller in the works from helmer Michael Dinner, Variety reported. From Roundtable Entertainment and writers Brandon Beckner and Scott Sampila, Darkside will follow a group of astronauts who trace an SOS signal to the dark side of the moon and who discover a mysterious compound there, the trade paper reported.

Roundtable's Gina Matthews and Grant Scharbo are executive producing with Dinner (North Shore), who's attached to helm the pilot via his Rooney McP production company, the trade paper reported.

Fox has given a script commitment to Darkside.

[Harumph. The last Fox space series was Firefly - and we all remember what happened to that one. Maybe the Zorro Network ought to stick to nightime teen soaps and cartoons. Ed.]

Murphy Goes to Boston!

Candice Bergen

NEW YORK December 2, 2004 (AP) - Candice Bergen is joining her first prime-time TV series since "Murphy Brown," this time as a cast member of ABC's "Boston Legal."

Bergen will join "Legal" stars James Spader and William Shatner, playing Shirley Schmidt, a founding partner of the show's focal law firm.

In the early `90s, the actress won five Emmys and two Golden Globes for her performance on "Murphy Brown," a sitcom about a single mom in the television news business.

"Boston Legal," a David E. Kelley-created spin-off of "The Practice," focuses on the lives of high-priced civil litigators at an upscale Boston law firm.

Both an ABC spokesperson and Bergen's publicist confirmed that Bergen will be a full time cast member, though she is also to appear as a judge in the new installment of the "Law & Order" franchise: "Trial by Jury." Bergen has already filmed her three episode appearance for that show, which is scheduled to premiere in spring 2005.

Bergen's first episode with "Boston Legal" is planned for Jan. 9. The show airs Sundays at 10 p.m. (ET) on ABC.

Boston Legal Official - http://www.abc.go.com/primetime/bostonlegal

Malkovich as Klimt

John Malkovich

VIENNA, Austria December 3, 2004 (AFP) -  John Malkovich will play the lead in a movie about the life of Austrian artist Gustav Klimt.

The movie, titled "Klimt," will depict the life of the famous art nouveau painter whose masterpieces include "The Kiss." Shooting will begin Jan. 4 in Vienna, the film's leading producer, EPO-Film, said Thursday.

Producers from London, Paris and Munich, Germany, are also involved in making the film, which is expected to premiere in May 2005.

"I see this film as a waltz," said screenwriter-director Raoul Ruiz in the statement.

Malkovich eagerly agreed to play Klimt, said Susanne Biro, an EPO-Film official.

"He was our first choice," she said. "He physically resembles Klimt and he is a good friend of Ruiz."

Spell for Chameleon

Hollywood December 1, 2004 (Variety) — "Secondhand Lions" writer-director Tim McCanlies will adapt the Piers Anthony novel "Spell for Chameleon" for Warner Bros. Pictures and director Wolfgang Petersen.

In "Spell for Chameleon," a young man lives in a country where everyone possesses magical powers and faces exile if he can't figure out what his own powers might be.

McCanlies' credits include writing "Iron Giant" as well as writing and directing "Dancer, Texas Pop. 81."

David Benioff produces with Petersen and his partner in Radiant Prods., Diana Rathbun. Samuel Dickerman is executive producer.

Warners exec VP Courtenay Valenti and creative exec Geoff Shaevitz oversee the project.

"Spell for Chameleon" was the first of Anthony's 30-book Xanth Development series.

Agent Fowley Returns
By Nellie Andreeva

Mimi Rogers

LOS ANGELES December 3, 2004 (Hollywood Reporter) - Mimi Rogers will co-star in Fox's untitled comedy pilot about a guy who becomes the first among his college friends to get a real job.

Rogers will play a VP at the company where the guy (Bret Harrison) works.

Will Gluck and Pam Brady wrote the script and are executive producing the project, which will feature extensive product integration woven into the story lines.

Rogers recently signed on to co-star opposite Tom Selleck in the CBS TV movie "Stone Cold." She was in theaters earlier this year with the indie film "The Door in the Floor."

[Miss Rogers played the ever-unpopular - dare we say, hated? - Agent Diana Fowley in The X-Files. Ed.]

What Time Is It, Kids?

SAN JOSE CA December 1, 2004 (AP) - Television networks are lending new meaning to time-shifting: TV shows don't necessarily start or end right on the hour or half-hour anymore, screwing up some viewers' video recordings.

More programs are running an extra minute or two longer to keep viewers from switching channels. Shows recently padded include CBS's "Without a Trace," Fox's "Renovate My Family," ABC's "The Bachelor" and NBC's "ER," according to Nielsen Media Research.

The tactic has been used on and off for a few years but has grown more popular as competition in network television stiffens.

As a result of the overruns, people who use VCRs and digital video recorders like TiVos end up clipping the beginning or ending of a show. For some, the time conflict could also prevent a later show from being recorded.

TiVo Inc. officials say they have fielded a small number of complaints about the network time-shifting. This season, the company began advising its 2 million subscribers to watch out for such time conflicts and to adjust their recording settings manually.

[Longer shows might sound good to some who don't tape, but I suspect most are lengthened to allow more commercials. Greedy network executives strike again! Ed.]

CBS and NBC Ban Gay Church Ad
By Sue Pleming

Heavies block worshipers in the banned United Church of
Christ TV spot (UCC)

WASHINGTON December 1, 2004 (Reuters) - Two leading U.S. television networks angered gay rights groups on Thursday by refusing to carry an ad by a church welcoming gays to their congregations, a message the networks found too controversial.

The United Church of Christ, a Protestant denomination which has about 1.3 million members, said the 30-second commercial was aimed at making gays feel included and they were disappointed by CBS and NBC's decision to reject it. Cable networks have accepted the ad.

In the ad, heavy-set bouncers stand behind a red velvet rope line outside a church and with bells chiming in the background, hand-holding gay couples are turned away.

"Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we," is the message of the ad.

The church's director of communications, Robert Chase, said the ad grew out of a two-year effort to welcome gays.

Hand-holding gay couples are turned away (UCC)

"There are countless persons who feel alienated, rejected or excluded from the church. What we are trying to say is, you are welcome here," he told ABC's "Good Morning America" show.

Chase said he was surprised the networks had turned down the ads, which ran in six test markets last spring in predominantly Republican states and drew no complaints.

"I think that one of the things we need to be concerned about is what has changed that would cause such a stir?" asked Chase.


The issue of gay unions was a key one in last month's election when millions voted against same-sex unions and backed President Bush who made opposition to gay marriage part of his election platform.

In a written statement to the church, CBS, a unit of Viacom, said the fact that the Bush administration had proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman made the advertisement "unacceptable for broadcast."

NBC said the ad violated a long-standing policy of the network not to allow commercials that dealt with issues of public controversy. NBC is part of NBC Universal, which is 80 percent owned by General Electric Co. ., with the rest owned by Vivendi Universal .

The Human Rights Campaign and other leading gay rights groups denounced the networks. "It's a shameful censorship of diversity and understanding," said HRC's Seth Kilbourn.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination said CBS, in particular, needed to answer for what the group said was a disturbing response to the ad.

...but CBS and NBC did. (UCC)

"CBS saying that they wouldn't run it because the message conflicts with anti-gay legislation put forward by the White House does call into question their actions and business practices," said GLAAD spokesman Michael Young.

Lambda Legal, a group fighting for recognition of full civil rights of gays, called the decision surprising, particularly as these networks ran countless controversial ads during the presidential election campaign.

"I think it's appalling that two major networks have decided that a message of love and acceptance is in any way controversial," said Lambda senior counsel Heather Sawyer.

While gay groups criticized the decision, some churches who oppose gay unions applauded it.

Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, called the ads "masterful propaganda" that should not be aired.

"We are all sinners, but we cannot remain in our sin and just bless a lifestyle by saying we accept it when the scriptures clearly condemn it (homosexuality) as sin," said Mohler.

Click here for last week's Genre News!

Paperback books by Rich La Bonté - Free e-previews!