Beatles No. 1!
Marlene Dietrich,
John Doe, King Pong,

Australia On Fire!
& Have a Great 2002, OK?
Beatles Top US 2001 Chart!
London December 28, 2001 (BBC) - The Beatles have scored their first number one in the America Billboard Album of the Year Chart - 31 years after the group split. A collection of the band's 27 US number one singles occupied the music trade magazine's top slot for eight weeks in 2001.

The magazine describes the Beatles' taking pole position as a "stunning fact", and "the biggest shock of the chart year 2001".

The number two album is Shaggy's Hot Shot - whose single It Wasn't Me heads the UK chart for 2001.

In 1964, the Beatles' first album, Meet the Beatles - called With the Beatles in the UK - was the number eight album of the year. The bestseller that year was Louis Armstrong's Hello, Dolly!

In 1965, the Beatles had their highest year-end ranking until now, when Beatles '65 - a US-only release - came second. Another US-exclusive album, Beatles VI, came in 10th. In 1966, two of the band's finest albums made the top 10. Rubber Soul came in at number four, and Revolver was number eight.

In 1967, the revolutionary Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was number 10 in the annual chart. The same album was sixth in 1968, the year that saw Magical Mystery Tour at number four. In 1969, the double album called The Beatles, popularly known as The White Album, was number eight. In 1970, Abbey Road was number four and Let It Be number 31.

Twenty-five years later, in 1995, Live at the BBC was number 46. Anthology I put them at number eight in 1996 as Anthology II came in at number 39. In 1997, Anthology III reached 107.
Probability of Antarctic Ice Collapse Announced

By Christine McGourty
BBC Antarctic Science Correspondent

Antarctica December 27, 2001 (BBC) - Scientists think there is just a one in 20 chance that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) will collapse in the next 200 years.

The integrity of the WAIS is crucial to future sea levels; if all the ice melts in this region of the White Continent, it could raise the oceans by several meters.

The 5% probability of disintegration has been worked out by researchers commissioned by the British Government. Their work will be published in the journal Climate Change next month. It is the first time a risk assessment of a WAIS collapse has been attempted.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet contains about 13% of all the ice in Antarctica, and scientists believe it has melted in the past - about 120,000 years ago when temperatures were 7-10 degrees Celsius warmer than they are today. In parts of the West Antarctic, temperatures are now rising much faster than in the rest of the world, and the researchers involved in the UK study have concluded there is now a one in 20 chance in the next two centuries of the ice sheet once again collapsing.

Lead scientist Dr David Vaughan, of the British Antarctic Survey, said: "Although this study shows the probability of ice sheet collapse is reasonably low, there's a huge health warning attached. The potential impacts of a major change in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet are severe - fantastically expensive for developed nations with coastal cities, and just dire for poor populations in low-lying coastal areas.

"This is the first time a risk assessment of ice sheet collapse has been attempted and it is the best estimate we can make based on the current information. More data on the ice sheet is urgently required to be more certain about the future of the ice sheet and possible future sea-level rises."

The research, carried out for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), concluded that these rises would be spread out over at least several centuries and probably much longer. It would be at most a one-meter rise per century, which is about five times the current rate of sea-level rise.

It said: "If this occurred, it would be slow enough for a managed retreat from low-lying coastal areas, and a progressive raising of flood defenses around populated areas. However, this would be expensive. Economists estimated a cost of 0.1% of gross domestic product for many nations such as the UK, but it would be much higher for smaller island states."

Is Atlantis A Myth? Maybe Not...

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer

France December 24, 2001 (Washington Post) - It was Plato, around 360 B.C., who first described an ancient, exotic island kingdom catastrophically buried beneath the sea when its once-virtuous people angered the gods with their pronounced tilt toward sin and corruption.

Since then, creative souls ranging from Jules Verne to Kirk Morris, Maria Montez, Fay Spain, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Michael J. Fox and Walt Disney have sought to explain and exploit the terrible fate that befell Atlantis. Scientists and scholars, meanwhile, for 2,000 years have mulled the tale recounted by Critias in Plato's "Dialogues" in hopes of finding clues as to whether Atlantis actually existed, and, if so, where it was, and how exactly it vanished.

This fall, French geologist and prehistorian Jacques Collina-Girard presented research suggesting that Atlantis was a real place -- a small mid-channel island sitting in what is now the Strait of Gibraltar.

Its doom was sealed 11,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, when rising seas swamped it along with six other nearby islands, Collina-Girard said. Today the islands are shoals crouched anywhere from 175 feet to 410 feet below the ocean's surface along the coasts of Spain and Morocco.

Collina-Girard said the legend of Atlantis likely grew as storytellers embellished it on its way to Plato and Athens 9,000 years later. He compared the story to Noah's flood, an idea that he said probably arose after the rising Mediterranean overran the Bosporus 7,600 years ago to cascade into what is now the Black Sea basin.

"It is the same thing," Collina-Girard said. "Everywhere -- in the Middle East, Europe and Asia -- people have stories that speak of the time when the sea came in. Atlantis is another discrete story of the flood."

The world has not lacked for theories about Atlantis, whose location has been placed anywhere from the Atlantic abyss to waters off the Americas or even the South China Sea. The most popular current view among scholars is that Atlantis was probably the Aegean island of Thira, about 70 miles north of Crete, destroyed by volcanic eruptions in 1470 B.C.

The flaw here, Collina-Girard said, is that the Thira story ignores Plato. "The trouble up to now has been that geologists are not generally interested in Atlantis, while the people who are interested in Atlantis are not geologists."

Reporting this fall in the Proceedings of the French Academy of Sciences, Collina-Girard instead suggested that Atlantis can probably be found where Plato said it was: "an island situated in front of the straits which are by you [the Athenians] called the Pillars of Hercules [Gibraltar]," as Critias tells Socrates.

Oceanography shows that sea level at the height of the ice age about 20,000 years ago was more than 400 feet lower than it is today, Collina-Girard said. For the next 15,000 years the sea rose as ice melted -- as little as two feet per century at first and as much as 12 feet per century later on.

When the thaw began, there were seven islands at the western end of the Strait and a bit further west, framing a section of the Atlantic in an "inland sea" described by Plato. Atlantis was in mid-channel, about 20 miles southwest of modern-day Tarifa, Spain, and 12 miles northwest of Tangier, Morocco, according to Collina-Girard.

As time passed, the rising sea consumed the islands one by one, until only Atlantis and one other remained. And for its last 300 years, Collina-Girard calculated that sea level at Atlantis was rising about eight feet per century. "A man with a 50-year lifespan would notice it," he said.

From a geological point of view, the Collina-Girard theory is "plausible, depending on the accuracy of sea level measurements," said marine geophysicist John Diebold, of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. "Of course, you really won't know until you get down there." Collina-Girard said he plans to dive in the Strait next summer.

Most of his theory fits comfortably with the Dialogues. What does not is Critias's estimate that Atlantis was "larger than Libya and Asia put together," and his assertion that Atlantis succumbed to volcanic eruption. Collina-Girard's Atlantis is nine miles long and three miles wide.

Collina-Girard said these discrepancies can be explained by different methods of measuring distances in Athens and in Egypt, the origin of the Atlantis story, according to Critias, and the Athenians' familiarity with volcanoes and earthquakes -- and unfamiliarity with glacial melt.

Indeed, history, both before and since Plato, is full of stories of "lost cities" brought low by natural disaster, whether it be the Thira eruption, the volcanic ash burying Pompeii, or the earthquakes that sank the Egyptian city of Herakleion and tumbled Alexandrian monuments and statuary into the Mediterranean.

Just this month in the Caribbean, a Canadian team of deep water explorers said it had found large stone blocks on a submerged plateau in waters 2,000 feet deep off western Cuba, suggesting the presence of man-made structures.

The Exploramar expedition, a joint salvage venture with the Cuban government, used special sonar to record images of what project shore manager Paul Weinzweig called a "very large series of structures stretched over several kilometers." During a subsequent pass over the site by an unmanned submarine, the team took pictures of "granite, or granite-like stones," Weinzweig said.

Scientists have greeted this news with skepticism, wondering how structures could fall such a distance and remain intact. Caribbean expert Donny L. Hamilton, chief of Texas A&M University's Nautical Archaeological Program, also questioned the findings because the team found no dry land artifacts related to the underwater site.

All this is not to say that bad things don't happen in the Caribbean. Hamilton, in fact, has spent 20 years investigating the most spectacular city-sinking event in the modern history of the New World -- the 1692 earthquake that collapsed two-thirds of the town of Port Royal into the bay of Kingston, Jamaica.

Port Royal, a notorious privateers' hangout and den of thieves, was built on a narrow spit of what Hamilton called "unconsolidated sand" framing Kingston harbor. The earthquake, caused by tectonic slippage along the Cayman Trough between Jamaica and Cuba, "liquefied the sand," Hamilton said.

"It got suspended by the water, which carried the sand away," he said. The quake lasted perhaps 15 minutes, and "two-thirds of the town sank straight down into the harbor." then came three "seiches," the harbor equivalent of a tidal wave. "Water oscillates like the surface of a cup of coffee when somebody heavy is walking across the floor," Hamilton said.

Port Royal's remains are at most 40 feet below the ocean's surface, and much of the old town can be reached by digging eight-foot holes in the sand. This sort of site continuity is what the Cuban expedition lacks.

"You don't start attributing cultural relevance until you find some definite man-made structures or artifacts," Hamilton said. "And believe me, they will find no artifacts."

Nudist Motors Long Distances in the Buff
DES MOINES, Iowa December 28, 2001 (Reuters) - A nudist with a streak of boldness said he reached his 2001 goal of driving 15,000 miles in the buff, a newspaper reported.

Dave Wolz, 47, sent an e-mail message to the Des Moines Register on Thursday claiming to have driven the distance without clothes mostly on several Midwestern trips to chess tournaments.

A few times Wolz said he was spotted by passing motorists who reported him to police, but he managed to don shorts before being stopped.

One deputy who stopped the naked Wolz for a broken light was "not at all distressed and was amused when I told him of my goal," he wrote.

Wolz told the newspaper he had set a goal of 20,000 miles of "buff motoring" for 2002. "I may decide to rent a car to do it, though," he said.
Tolkien's Birthplace More Mordor Than Shire

By Jodie Ginsberg

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa December 27, 2001 (Reuters) - While Hobbits, wizards and rings dazzle audiences worldwide this festive season, one South African town seems curiously immune to the allure of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy classic.

Visitors to the dusty town of Bloemfontein last week would little have suspected that the pipe-smoking author of "Lord of the Rings" was born here just over a century ago. No plaque marks his birthplace -- now a furniture shop. No tourist maps mention his name and some bookshops do not even stock his works.

"'Lord of the Rings?' Who wrote that?" said one shop assistant the weekend that the first of a three-part film version of Tolkien's best-loved work was playing to packed cinemas and smashing box office records in the process.

Tolkien, born in 1892 after his British parents moved here to start a new life, was no more than four when he left South Africa, but his memories of the place his mother called an "Owlin' Wilderness! Horrid Waste!" were vivid. And his descriptions of those early impressions are more suggestive of Mordor -- the barren wasteland of evil overlord Sauron -- than the rural homeliness of the Hobbits' Shire land.

"If your first Christmas tree is a wilting eucalyptus and if you're normally troubled by heat and sand then, to...suddenly find yourself in a quiet...village, I think it engenders a particular love of what you might call central Midlands English countryside," he once said.

Modern Bloemfontein, a stopping point for visitors traveling through the dusty Free State province on their way to Cape Town or Johannesburg, may be less bleak than the town of Tolkien's memory but it remains functional rather than graceful.

A quick tour of the city's sites reveals its strong Boer roots -- the descendants of mainly Dutch immigrants -- but it takes more persistence to discern any links to the Oxford professor born just before war between Boers and British broke out.

"I think people think Bloemfontein people are not literary people," says Jake Uys, the leader of a small band of Bloemfontein Tolkienites trying to change that image.

Uys, who owns the town's one and only Tolkien-themed guesthouse, organized a feast of meat, berries, fruit and ale before a special midnight showing of the film after trying without luck to secure the South African premiere.

Although most of the local dignitaries left during the interval, Uys says he is hopeful that the global success of "Lord of the Rings" will encourage the authorities to do more to honor their forgotten son.

"I want to ring Peter Jackson, the director, and thank him personally," he says.

For now, visitors will have to be content with Uys's personal Hobbit Trail -- a leaflet that points visitors to the town's few remaining links with Tolkien. It starts with the grave of Tolkien's father, takes in the location of the bank where he worked and over which the family lived, and includes the Anglican church and font in which Tolkien was baptized.

Uys's guide starts and ends at his own "Hobbit House" -- a loving homage to the author's works, where cozy rooms are named after Tolkien characters and food and drink is a top priority.

Did Marlene Dietrich Take Her Own Life?

By Paul Carrel

PARIS December 27, 2001 (Reuters) - Bed-bound and a shadow of her former entrancing self, diva Marlene Dietrich may well have taken an overdose of sleeping pills to end her life, confidante and friend Norma Bosquet said on Thursday.

The blonde Hollywood star, whose 100th birthday was celebrated by her native Germany on Thursday, died in Paris in 1992 after spending her final years as a recluse -- determined the world would remember her at her gorgeous best.

"I just can't believe that she died a natural death," said Bosquet, an American who started out as Dietrich's secretary and knew her for her last 15 years.

"I just think she had the courage to do it," she told Reuters in a telephone interview.

A cabaret singer in the 1920s, Dietrich made her breakthrough in the 1930 film "The Blue Angel" and went on to entrance audiences for decades with her husky voice, high cheekbones, and fabulously long legs.

Dietrich moved to the United States and became an American citizen in 1937, spurning efforts by Hitler's Nazis to lure her back to Germany. She later wore a U.S. uniform for performances for the troops on the front lines during World War Two.

But she spent her last 12 years unable to leave her Paris apartment after falling and fracturing a leg in 1980 and suffering chronic pain in the limb.

A stroke just before her death was more than Dietrich could take, said Bosquet, 76. The aged star was unable to face the prospect of being moved from her apartment to a clinic, she believes.

SLEEPING PILLS

Bosquet, who was married to the late French writer Alain Bosquet, said she took Dietrich some sleeping pills just before her death, after asking her doctor if it was alright to do so.

She went out to make arrangements for Dietrich to be transferred to a clinic and was then contacted by a maid who told her of the star's death.

Bosquet said that when she returned to Dietrich's apartment: "I couldn't find any trace of that new box of sleeping pills."

"I just can't believe that someone who was so intelligent and lucid as she was at the time, in spite of everything...would accept to be taken out to the clinic knowing that it was the end for her," Bosquet said from her Paris home.

"I think she just realized that it was finished for her, I mean independent life," she said, before adding: "I have no proof...Maybe I'm wrong."

Confined to her bedroom, Dietrich chose not to let the world see her in her weakened state of health.

"Her domain was in her bedroom. Everything she did was in her bedroom," Bosquet said. "She didn't want anybody to know. She didn't want her friends to know, she didn't want the world to know."

"Whenever someone came to town, some friend from Hollywood came to town, she would always say 'Oh, I'm just about to leave for the country' or something like that. She was never available."

Dietrich's wartime performances for adoring Allied soldiers led to lasting resentment in Berlin. When she returned there for a concert in 1960, demonstrators spat at her and waved posters saying "Go Home Marlene."

She never again returned to Germany.

"Like a lot a celebrities, she was surrounded and followed by all sorts of parasites," said Bosquet. "That's one thing I discovered about celebrities...it's not something to be envied, I can tell you."

Germany remembered Dietrich on Thursday with a tribute from President Johannes Rau and a formal apology from the city of Berlin for treating her as a traitor.

Argentina's 'Blond Angel' Arrested

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina December 28, 2001 (Reuters) - Argentina has arrested an infamous navy officer from the 1976-83 military dictatorship, dubbed the "Blond Angel," at the request of Sweden, which wants to extradite and try him for the death of a young Swedish girl in 1977, a court said on Friday.

Alfredo Astiz was a member of a death squad operating out of the Navy School for Mechanics, a clandestine camp in Buenos Aires where many of the 30,000 people who died or disappeared in the "Dirty War" against leftists met their grisly end.

He is also wanted by Italy and Spain and has been condemned to life in jail by France, in absentia, for killing two nuns.

As a young man with cherubic looks he infiltrated the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo human rights group and is suspected of killing 15-year-old Swedish student Dagmar Hagelin, who was living in Argentina and was mistaken for a suspected leftist.

"Yesterday his arrest was ordered and carried out after a request from Swedish courts via Interpol," a court official who asked not to be identified told Reuters. Astiz was due to appear in court on Friday, after which Sweden would be formally notified of his arrest.

Argentina has proved reluctant in the past to extradite Dirty War criminals, arguing that its own courts tried and sentenced the men who organized the repression in 1985. But the top brass and subordinates like Astiz were freed or pardoned by a series of amnesty laws by elected presidents from 1986-90.

France criticized Argentina in August for refusing to hand over Astiz, although he was held for a month while extradition hearings took place. Italy wants him for the murder of three Argentines of Italian origin, one of whom was pregnant.

The Dirty War pardons do not cover crimes against children and Argentine and foreign courts alike have been prosecuting former officers involved in the thefts of babies from women held in torture camps who were killed after giving birth.

Sweden will have 40 days to formalize its extradition request. Argentina agreed last year to compensate Hagelin's father for the "emotional damage" of his daughter's death.

Robbers Snatch $9.5 Million Plus Diamonds
JOHANNESBURG December 28, 2001 (Reuters) - Armed robbers snatched $9.5 million and an undisclosed amount of jewelry and diamonds at South Africa's main airport, police said on Friday.

Police said between five and eight armed robbers surprised three security guards inspecting cargo from Amsterdam at Johannesburg International Airport on Thursday.

"We are still questioning the three security guards with regard to establishing whether they were involved, but we cannot exclude the possibility of an inside job at this stage," police inspector Mary Martins-Engelbrecht told Reuters.

Engelbrecht said the $9.5 million in cash was destined for Angola, while the diamonds and jewelry were meant to be delivered to a South African-based company.

Police gave no further details of the haul and said they had so far made no arrests.

South Africa suffers rates of armed robbery, murder and rape many times higher than those in Europe and the United States.

Analysts say crime has its roots in South Africa's apartheid past and poses the biggest threat to its future. It is seen as the primary reason for an exodus of skilled and educated people and an obstacle to badly-needed investment.
Egypt Wants McDonald's Mummies
By Michelle Nichols

Tamworth UK December 28, 2001 (The Scotsman) - Egyptian authorities have asked for the return of two ancient mummies which are buried in the foundations of a McDonald’s restaurant in Britain, it was revealed last night.

The mummies, which are believed to be among just a few that remain buried in British soil, were excavated from Egypt along with a number of other artifacts at the end of the 19th Century by the Rev William MacGregor.

He used the artifacts to set up a museum at his rural home Bolehall Manor, near Tamworth, Staffordshire. But shortly after going on display the mummies began to deteriorate, and Mr MacGregor had to bury them in his back garden. He later decided to rebury them in the foundations of a new cinema which was built in Tamworth in 1935. But 70-years on, the cinema has become a McDonald's restaurant and the Egyptian authorities have said they would like to see the mummies returned home.

Dr Zahi Hawass, director of the Pyramids region, based in Cairo, said that during the 19th century many Egyptian tombs were raided and their contents shipped abroad.

He said: "There are as many mummies in England and America as there are in Egypt. A lot were taken in the 19th century - many mummies left Egypt and were taken to museums and private collections. I think it’s important to study them and I would suggest that someone is invited to look at them. They should be given to a museum or handed back to Egypt. I don’t think there is any mummy which is not important - they are part of Egyptmania and I think it’s important to look at them, to study them. It would be wonderful if they were brought back."

John Harper, chairman of the Tamworth Heritage Society, said that the burial of the mummies in the foundations had been revealed by the former owner of the Palace Cinema.

However, the identity of the mummies remains unknown and Mr Harper added: "You have to remember that during the 1920s and ’30s there was a craze for them and people were shipping mummies over here by the boatload."

The Staffordshire history expert said Mr MacGregor had the mummies reburied after walking through the Tamworth town center and deciding that the cinema’s foundations looked like the kind of burial sites he had seen in Egypt. Mr Harper added: "So he asked the foreman if he would mind if he deposited a couple of his mummies in the foundations."

The Palace Cinema and the George Street area has since been redeveloped and the foundations in which the mummies are buried now find themselves supporting the McDonald’s restaurant.

A spokesman for McDonald's said: "It is something we were completely unaware of, but it is fascinating. We understand they are well within the foundations so an excavation is out of the question, unfortunately."

Nebraska Woman Returns Sister's Ashes to Wal-Mart

OMAHA, Nebraska December 28, 2001 (Reuters) - A Nebraska woman who received an ornate box for Christmas and returned it to Wal-Mart without looking inside discovered later it contained the ashes of her recently deceased sister, a newspaper reported on Friday.

Judy Money received the box as a gift from her brother who lives in Iowa. But after unwrapping the package on Christmas Eve she saw the box had a broken knob and decided to return it to Wal-Mart without ever looking at the contents inside, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

When Money later confessed to her brother that she had returned his gift, he told her the box contained the ashes of their sister, who had died Dec. 11, the Herald said. Marvin Tippery, Money's brother, told the Herald he was shocked when he found out she had returned the box.

"No, no, you didn't! Your sister was in there," the Herald quoted him as telling Money.

Money told the Herald she made a mad dash back to Wal-Mart, but the box had already been thrown out with the trash. Money and her brother finally found the box on Thursday amid trash piles at an area landfill.

"My prayers have been answered," she told the Herald. "Just the thought of having her in the dump was awful."

NASA Captures Plight of Periled Penguins

Pasadena December 27, 2001 (NASA) - A NASA remote sensing instrument is capturing an unfolding ecological disaster affecting hundreds of thousands of penguins at Earth's southern tip.

Images from the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer, a remote sensor built and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., are documenting the movement of huge icebergs and spreading sea ice in Antarctica's Ross Sea. These natural phenomena are adversely affecting the region's penguin population, according to a new study funded by the National Science Foundation.

Two massive icebergs, initially designated B-15 and C-16, broke away from the Ross Ice Shelf in March 2000 and migrated west to a point northeast of McMurdo Sound. The resulting barrier altered wind and current patterns. In addition, earlier this season sea ice in the region of the main U.S. Antarctic facility, McMurdo Station, expanded from its normal distance of 24 to 32 kilometers (15 to 20 nautical miles) north of the base to approximately 128 kilometers (80 nautical miles). The combination of icebergs and sea ice has made it difficult for entire colonies of penguins to return from their feeding grounds in the open sea to their breeding areas. The result is expected to be a significant reduction in regional penguin populations, with one colony in danger of extinction.

An image sequence is available online at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/images/earth/antarctica

The images, taken between December 2000 and December 2001, depict the rapid motion of the C-16 iceberg in late 2000 and early 2001 and its subsequent stall, as well as the incursion of the B-15A iceberg, a large fragment of the original B-15 iceberg. The increase in sea ice is particularly pronounced in the final image.

The Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer is one of several Earth-observing experiments aboard the Terra satellite, launched in December 1999. The instrument acquires images of Earth at nine angles simultaneously, using nine separate cameras pointed forward, downward and backward along its flight path. More information is available at http://www-misr.jpl.nasa.gov

The National Science Foundation manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, which coordinates almost all U.S. scientific research in Antarctica. More information is available at http://www.nsf.gov

Genre News: John Doe, Buffy and Joss Whedon

John Doe: The Coolest Dad Ever

By Rick Porter

LOS ANGELES December 24, 2001 (Zap2it.com) - When John Doe released his last solo album, "Freedom Is..." he did a number of appearances in Borders bookstores to promote it. He'd play a few songs, then sign the CDs.

Most of the fans who'd come to see him, Doe tells Zap2it.com, were what you might expect: a mix of younger and older folks who knew his work from the landmark Los Angeles punk band X and have since followed his solo career.

"But every once in a while, maybe every other one," Doe says, "there would be this little clump of 15-year-old girls. And they of course would want to know ..."

How he balances his acting and singing career? If he would be collaborating with the Old 97's again? When X might get together again for a couple of shows?

"'Is Shiri cool?', No. 1 -- well, actually it's a close call, with 'How hunky is Jason Behr?'"

Doe is in a position to have this information by way of his role on "Roswell," the aliens-in-high-school drama on UPN. He plays Geoff Parker, owner of the Crashdown Cafe and father to Liz Parker (Shiri Appleby), the girlfriend of Behr's brooding alien Max.

For the record, Doe says the answer to the first question is yes, and he doesn't feel qualified to answer the second.

"I'm also unable to tell them if Jason is a good kisser," he says, laughing. "Shiri says he's pretty good, but I don't have any personal experience. Yet. But you never know -- I did line dance. If they're gonna make a punk-rock guy do line dancing, they may have him french-kissing a man any second."

Doe is working more steadily on "Roswell" this season, as the show's adults re-enter the story after being pretty much absent from the second season, its last on The WB before moving, along with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," to UPN.

"I think I worked twice the second season," he says. "This season has been much more family oriented. I think people got a confused with all the plotlines last year. It was a little too 'X-Files.' "

That the shift in storytelling and the shift from The WB to UPN occurred at the same time is merely coincidence, Doe believes. "As far as it being more family-oriented [this season], that's just what the first season was about -- the human drama, dealing with the fact that there are aliens in our midst. That's a lot to deal with right there."

Doe, who's appeared in about 30 movies since the mid-1980s, says the thing he values most about his work on "Roswell" is "the chance to keep my chops up."

"If you go three or six months between jobs, for the first couple days you're flopping around like a fish, thinking 'Do I remember how to do this?'" he says. "Here, there's more time to develop a character, more different situations."

He plans to continue his movie work during the show's off time; he recently completed work on an independent thriller called "Jon Good's Wife."

"I know I'll be doing more independents because that's what I like, and that's what directors and casting directors like me for," he says. "It's where I'm comfortable. Basically, my take is more money, more bulls---."

He's also continuing his music career. X reunites several times a year "for fun, and some profit," and he's working with songwriter-producer Joe Henry on some new tracks. He recently recorded a song with the Old 97's for a tribute album to the Knitters, X's countrified alter ego. "That was very strange, to be on your own tribute record," he says.

His song "Totally Yours," from "Freedom Is..." will be featured in the Jan. 8 "Roswell," playing at the end of an episode in which one of the show's couples breaks up.

Doe won't say who it is. He will admit, though, that he believes UFOs exist. "I saw one," he says. "It was definitely an unidentified flying object. Whether it was a spaceship or not, I couldn't tell you."

He then adds, conspiratorially, "I think that's classified information. I'll have to check with the sources. We have more information than a lot of people. Being on the show 'Roswell,' they tell us stuff."

[Note: The LA group X was the only LA punk band to get signed to a major label in glory days of LA punk and their first LP was produced by Ray Manzarek of The Doors. They also contributed to the soundtrack of Fight The Future, the X-Files feature film. Man, you shoulda' been there back in '79! :o)>Ed.]

"Roswell" airs at 9 p.m. ET Tuesdays on UPN. Visit the ultimate Roswell Fan site at http://www.crashdown.com.

The Slayer Attacks ... Her Hair

LOS ANGELES December 27, 2001 (Zap2it.com) - The Jan. 8 episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is titled "Gone." It could refer to a number of things that play crucial roles in the story, but the most noticeable missing item might be Sarah Michelle Gellar's hair.

As Zap2it.com reported last week, Buffy will take scissors to her blonde locks in a moment of panic over her relationship with Spike (James Marsters). She also has to deal with a social worker threatening to take Dawn out of her custody and the Troika experimenting with an invisibility ray.

The hair angle seems to have taken on a life of its own, however, with a number of publications wondering whether a "Felicity"-esque tizzy will ensue. When star Keri Russell chopped her voluminous hair before that show's second season, fans were shocked, ratings fell, and The WB issued a no-haircuts-on-hiatus policy for its stars.

Gellar's hair has changed from season to season, and it's never been a big deal before. Sources close to the actress say she decided to get a new 'do in November, when the episode was filmed. The new look isn't all that different from the old -- just a few inches shorter.

The "Gone" episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" airs at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday, Jan. 8 on UPN.


Whedon Talks 'Buffy' on DVD

By Kate O'Hare

LOS ANGELES December 25, 2001 (Zap2it.com) - During an online chat in March 2000, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon was asked about the possibility of his series being released on DVD.

Whedon replied, "I have heard no plans of releasing anything on DVD. I do, however, hope that, in the future, maybe after the running of the show, the entire series will be released on DVD. Then I can do a biting, witty and possibly drunken commentary over the whole thing."

In an interview on Dec. 18, Whedon says, "It was none of the above, I'm sorry to say."

He's referring to the commentary he does on the two-hour pilot of "Buffy," part of the DVD release of the series' first season, due out Jan. 15 from Fox Home Entertainment.

The three-disc set includes the first 12 episodes, the aforementioned commentary, interviews with Whedon and star David Boreanaz (Angel), the original pilot script and trailer.

Whedon didn't find the commentary easy. "Those things make me very nervous. That was my first one, ever. There were people around, and I'm like, 'Oooh, I don't know what to say.'"

"That's the only one I did a commentary on that I didn't direct, although I did direct parts of it. It's easier when you directed it, then you have more say about every frame."

But don't you have say over every frame anyway? "I do."

Whedon doesn't, though, do commentary for "Prophecy Girl," the first-season finale, in which Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) dies for the first time (albeit way more briefly than the second time). "Either I didn't have the time," says Whedon, "or they didn't ask, or I was so frightened by my experience of doing the first two hours, I said, 'I can't. Never again. I have nothing to say. I must run.'"

He has, though, recorded some commentaries for upcoming DVD releases. "I know I did 'Hush' and 'Restless,' and I expect I would probably do the musical, but it's not my favorite thing to do."

"Sometimes it is enlightening. I wanted very much to do (the fourth-season finale) 'Restless,' because it is a dream episode, and everything has a very literal interpretation I wanted to talk about. But generally speaking, there's a lot of vamping."

But there is a part of him that enjoys the process. "I shoot it the way I see it, and I can definitely articulate what I was trying to accomplish, and that can be useful for people. I love teaching. I love going through the process."

"DVD commentary sometimes is intimidating, but I actually love breaking things down. Martin Scorsese, I think, is the greatest at creating a completely visceral, primal, inarticulate image, and then articulating exactly how and why he did it. To me, it's very interesting to do something from your gut and explain what it turned out to be, how you accomplished it. It's not about lenses and cameras."

One thing that's evident from Whedon's commentary how steep his learning curve was, coming to series television from a background writing for such films as "Toy Story" and "Speed" (and the movie version of "Buffy" ). "Yes," he says, "I've figured it out. I've become the hack that I always dreamt of being."

While "Angel," the "Buffy" spin-off, continues to be aired in widescreen on The WB, Whedon doesn't envision the same for "Buffy" on UPN.

"I like the idea that 'Buffy' stays square. It started that way, and most TVs are still square. Whereas 'Angel,' I think of as a dark, melodramatic film, I think of 'Buffy' as a comforting TV show, even though it's the darkest, bleakest world, and I want to keep it that way."

Things have come along way since the first season. Now, mired in season six, Buffy is battling her feelings about her reluctant return from the blissful hereafter, and her love/hate relationship with vampire Spike (James Marsters); while pal Willow (Alyson Hannigan) suffers heartbreak and addiction to magic.

"It's just going to get worse," says Whedon. "We have a lot of humor in store, and a lot of goofy, crazy stuff, but are we bringing on the pain? We're bringing on the pain. We love pain. But yes, there's happiness. There's hope. There's always hope."

Before the light at the end of the tunnel, Buffy's life is going to get a lot more complicated. Returning in the new year is Marc Blucas, as Riley, Buffy's demon-hunting, soldier ex-boyfriend, last seen heading off on a jungle mission.

"We have him doing an episode for us after Christmas," says Whedon. "We're really excited."

This should answer the question of what happened to Riley in the jungle, whether a demon or something squished him. "Not squished," says Whedon. "Something rather more dramatic happened to him."

Season One of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" will be released on a three-disc set on Jan. 15, 2002.

Jail for Thieves Who Nabbed Lizard From Oz

SINGAPORE December 26, 2001 (Reuters) - Frilly the lizard has had a tough life.

After being smuggled into Singapore, the Australian native was stolen from the local zoo by three men who bundled him into a bag and offered him for sale on the Internet to make a quick buck. The exotic reptile is worth about $490.

The frilled-neck lizard, a protected species that displays a distinctive ruffle around the head when upset, is back in safe hands and the thieves will spend three weeks behind bars, a zoo spokesman told Reuters Friday.

"The lizard is shrouded with bad things, shrouded with things that are against the law," Robin Goh of the Singapore Zoo said.

Police nabbed the culprits last year after posing as potential buyers. A district judge sentenced Mohamed Jeffry Mansoor, Hairul Hakim Mustafa and Aloysius Lim to the jail term this week.

Frilly, middle-aged at eight years old, joined the zoo in 1998 after a failed smuggling attempt.

He has gained weight since the heist but is no longer on display. Zookeepers are now hoping to find him a mate.

Exotic pets such as lizards are popular in wealthy Singapore, where most of the population live in apartments.

Professor Creates Calendar of Standing Stones

By Trudy Tynan
Associated Press

AMHERST, Mass. December 12, 2001 (AP) - Even with big, powerful earth-moving machines it isn't easy to build a calendar of standing stones to mark the seasons, says Judith Young.

But using an ancient design and 56 tons of Berkshire granite, the astronomy professor has created a teaching tool for a new millennium with her massive modern stone circle outside the football stadium at the University of Massachusetts.

The rough granite blocks mark the rising and setting of the sun on the solstices and equinox as well as the waning and waxing of the moon in its journey through the seasons.

Young's stone circle, 130 feet in diameter, has evolved over the past six years. It is no mere replica of Stonehenge, the 4,000-year-old stone circle that rises from Britain's Salisbury Plain, aligned along the rising of the sun at the summer solstice.

Her standing stones are precisely aligned to Amherst's latitude so they form a working calendar that allows university students, schoolchildren and just ordinary folks to explore the mysteries of the universe.

''It's a way to teach people about the sky and to love science and the universe without using electricity or computers,'' said Young, who has developed special lessons for middle and elementary school teachers using the sunwheel.

''This isn't something you find in a book,'' she said measuring her shadow as the early December sun set just shy of the 7-foot-three inch tip of a 5,800-pound granite slab marking the winter solstice. ''It was the first science.''

The most popular times for visitors about 3,000 have visited in the past year are the Midsummer and Midwinter Days.

On a winter afternoon with dark shadows stretching across the great stones and the frost-seared grasses in a field outside the football stadium, it's easy to understand why the solstices were so important to ancient civilizations.

''The word solstice means to stand still,'' Young said. ''For two weeks around the summer and winter solstice the sun appears to stand still rise and set in the same spot. They couldn't miss it.''

This year, for example, the sun will set and rise on the university's solstice stones from Dec. 13 through Dec. 29.

The spring and fall equinoxes last only a few hours, she said, as the sun appears to pick up speed like a pendulum swinging through its annual arc across the sky. Then it appears to slow and pause as it reaches the tips of the arc the solstices before swinging back.

Young's first sunwheel was made of one and two-foot-high boulders. Then, armed with a $35,000 National Science Foundation grant, she began building the existing stone circle.

She admits she developed a bit more respect for the ancient calendar makers. The first thing she discovered is that most modern quarries produce smooth, shaped stones, not rugged, natural menhirs like those used by ancient monument builders.

She finally found the stones at the small Chester Granite Co. in East Otis, about 45 miles away. The largest is 10 feet high, weighs 7,000 pounds and marks sunrise on the summer solstice. The smallest are the six-foot high stones that mark the moon's passage.

The ancients handled the problem of the heavy stones settling and knocking their calendars out of alignment by choosing boulders big enough so they could bury the base deep in the earth.

''I couldn't afford that much stone,'' Young said.

To keep her 12 stones in trim, Young had four-foot-deep holes dug for each stone. The holes were lined with a water permeable fabric and filled with some 51 tons of crushed stone. A two-foot stainless steel pin and a coating of modern epoxy anchored each stone to a foot-thick granite base.

Even with a modern crawler excavator and the help of civil engineering professors it took four days to erect the stones.

''The only easy part was calculating where to place them,'' Young said.

University of Massachusetts sunwheel: http://www.umass.edu/sunwheel

Scientist Finds Sugar Meteorites

NASA December 21, 2001 - A discovery by a NASA scientist of sugar and several related organic compounds in two carbonaceous meteorites provides the first evidence that another fundamental building block of life on Earth may have come from outer space. A carbonaceous meteorite contains carbon as one of its important constituents.

Previously, researchers had found in meteorites other organic, carbon-based compounds that play major roles in life on Earth, such as amino acids and carboxylic acids, but no sugars. The new research is reported in a paper, "Carbonaceous Meteorites as a Source of Sugar-related Organic Compounds for the Early Earth," by Dr. George Cooper and co- workers at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. The work is published in the Dec. 20 issue of Nature.

"Finding these compounds greatly adds to our understanding of what organic materials could have been present on Earth before life began," Cooper said. "Sugar chemistry appears to be involved in life as far back as our records go." Recent research using ratios of carbon isotopes have pushed the origin of life on Earth to as far back as 3.8 billion years, he said. An isotope is one of two or more atoms whose nuclei have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons.

Scientists have long believed meteorites and comets played a role in the origin of life. Raining down on Earth during the heavy bombardment period some 3.8 billion to 4.5 billion years ago, they brought with them the materials that may have been critical for life, such as oxygen, sulfur, hydrogen and nitrogen. Sugars and the closely related compounds discovered by Cooper, collectively called "polyols," are critical to all known life forms. They act as components of the nucleic acids RNA and DNA, constituents of cell membranes and cellular energy sources.

"This discovery shows that it's highly likely organic synthesis critical to life has gone on throughout the universe," said Kenneth A. Souza, acting director of astrobiology and space research at Ames. "Then, on Earth, since the other critical elements were in place, life could blossom."

Cooper identified a small sugar called "dihydroxyacetone" and several sugar-like substances, known as sugar acids and sugar alcohols, in his study of the Murchison and Murray meteorites. All these are important for life today. He also found one sugar alcohol, glycerol (also known as glycerin), that is used by all contemporary cells to build cell walls. In addition, Cooper discovered preliminary evidence of other compounds that may contain larger sugars critical in cellular metabolism, such as glucose.

There still are many unknowns though about the chemistry that existed before the origin of life on Earth, according to Cooper. "What we found could just be interesting space chemistry, and polyols could be just relatives of the compounds that actually gave rise to early life." More research on the meteorites is essential to determine the significance of these findings, he concluded.

The Murchison meteorite, found in Australia in 1969, is a famous example of a carbonaceous meteorite that contains numerous amino acids and a variety of other organic compounds that are thought to have played a role in the origin of life. The Murray meteorite, which fell to Earth in 1950, is similar to Murchison in its organic content.

King Pong Reaches Berlin

Berlin December 25, 2001 (BBC) - Frustrated by the size of the display on your mobile phone? Wish the games on that small screen were easier to see and play? How about playing a game of Pong on a display as tall as an eight-story building?

You can do just that on the huge interactive screen currently to be found on the front of one of Berlin's more famous office blocks.

A group of German ethical hackers called the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) have turned the famous Haus des Lehrers in Berlin's Alexanderplatz into a vast interactive display dubbed Blinkenlights by CCC members. The group created it to celebrate their 20th anniversary.

The top eight floors of the building have been turned into a 144-pixel display by putting computer-controlled lamps behind the front windows. The windows have been painted white to make them more reflective. The lights can be turned on and off independently to create a monochrome display eight pixels high by 18 across.

The CCC said it laid almost five kilometres of cable while wiring up the 144 windows to the computers that control the lighting patterns. By dialling the Blinkenlights computer with a mobile phone, passers-by can play the classic computer game Pong on the giant screen.

Typically, players are pitted against the computer, but, if someone else dials in, they get to take over the paddle usually controlled by the computer. When not being used to play pong, the display either shows love letter movies sent in by members of the public or movies created just for Blinkenlights.

The group has created a simple editing program that can be used to create and edit movies for the display.

Even if you cannot get to Berlin to see the movies played on the Blinkenlights screen, the website for the building is hosting most of them. Current titles include a rotating 3D cube, Tetris and a recreation of the entire nativity story including angels and the baby Jesus. The huge display caught the interest of antipodean pop star Kylie Minogue who featured it in the video for her song Can't Get You Out Of My Head.

Currently, the CCC is running a competition to find both the best Blinkenlights movies as well as the most useful software tools that help budding directors create films for the building. The competition closes after Christmas, and winners will be chosen by CCC members attending the winter conference held by the group from 27-29 December.

The CCC said the Blinkenlights display would remain until February 2002 when it will be upgraded.

Blinkenlights - http://www.blinkenlights.de

CCC - http://www.ccc.de

Blinkenlights Web Cam - http://berlin.ccc.de/~hans/cam2.jpg

Cursed Pirate Treasure

By Rich McKay

INDIALANTIC December 28, 2001 (Orlando Sentinel) - Letting a fistful of pirate silver taken from a sunken Spanish galleon drip through his fingers, clinking and clattering on his kitchen table, marine archaeologist Joel A. Ruth knows this is cursed treasure.

"I have no doubts about that," he said as his pet parrot, Euclid, squawked at the commotion and then, in finest pirate tradition, jumped on his shoulder for a closer view. It was created with blood and misery."

A bloody past may be why silver pieces-of-eight and gold doubloons capture the imagination of beachcombers who even today scour the shores with metal detectors. Smart hunters know to look for the Spanish coins -- called cobs -- on Florida's shores after the big storms. The coins are tangible pieces of early American history, a time of pirates, buccaneers and ships wealthy beyond imagination.

Both novice and serious American coin collectors -- called numismatists -- have largely ignored the coins. The problem, professional coin dealers say, are modern pirates, who for decades have flooded the market with overpriced coins and outright fakes. Until recently, no one has made a reliable catalog of the Spanish coins, from the finest examples to the worst, along with pictures and a third-party, independent rating system.

Enter Ruth and his associate, retired treasure hunter Lou Ullian of Melbourne Beach.

Their new system of cataloging Spanish coins will make its debut at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando on Jan. 10 during the four-day Florida United Numismatists Show, which is billed as the nation's largest coin show. The move is being hailed as a watershed moment for coin collecting, said Steve Hodges of the West Bay Trading Co. in Vero Beach. He's been in the coin business for 30 years.

Such books, which are common for every other kind of collectable coin, act as safety nets for the buyers, he said. People know what they're getting and a range of what something might cost. That's never been part of the colonial-Spanish coin market before, largely because such coins don't fit the neat categories of American machine-made coins, Ruth and other collectors say.

Even though this was America's first money, most collectors just found it tidier to deal in the earliest coins minted by the new U.S. republic. Those who ventured into Spanish coins too often got burned. There were dishonest people in the coin trade who will sell collectors cheap Spanish coins worth just a few dollars for hundreds, even thousands, Ruth says.

It was such a big problem that it spoiled popular interest in collecting. Even the late Mel Fisher, a world-renowned Key West treasure hunter, was accused of selling fake Spanish coins. His company, Mel Fisher's Key West Sales Co., pleaded no contest to those charges in 1998 and was ordered to pay $67,000 to customers who bought fakes.

Once someone gets burned, Ullian added, they rarely take another serious look at the coins. That means a lot of people who love coins or might love coins are missing out on a fascinating part of history.

The coins made in South America were the money of North America. You can't separate the two, Ruth said. For instance, the booty Ruth poured onto his kitchen table comes from the sunken galleon Santa Maria De La Consolacion. Ruth recently got back from Ecuador where he worked for a salvaging company. His job was to preserve the coins, removing the grime of the sea.

The treasure he brought back has a rich, bloody history. The ship was attacked by pirates off the Ecuadorian coast in 1681. The Spanish sailors, unable to escape the pirates, burned and sank the Santa Maria to keep the pirates from getting their treasure.

The pirates retaliated by beheading the survivors.

Ignorance of this era in coins is so prevalent that serious numismatics call it "the Spanish dark ages." Ruth and Ullian hope to change all that. Their system has the heavyweight backing of the American Numismatics Association Certification Service. The service is one of the top authorities on coins. Its only purpose is to be an independent and learned authority that grades and rates coins.

The new system -- without going into more detail than non-numismatists could bear -- takes into account sea corrosion, rarity of coins, and where and when cobs were minted. In an unusual distinction of coin-collecting, the coins have greater value if they are positively linked with a certain shipwreck or pirate.

Ruth and Ullian got the idea for the system from retired stockbroker and history buff Bernard Sherman, who approached them last year. Sherman said if they could come up with a system, he would back them by getting it published.

The idea is to stop people from "profiteering on the public's ignorance," Sherman said, and to get people interested in "this part of history."

Ruth and Ullian hope it will open American coin collectors' eyes to a little-known but important part of our history. Even our dollar sign comes from the Spanish coins minted in Bolivia. It's a pillar with a fancy ribbon through it. It's the symbol of the largest silver mine in the world, the Potosi mint, Ruth said.

Besides, Ruth said, who could resist coins that "fueled an empire. These really are America's first coins."

'Mystery' Squid Delights Scientists

Florida December 21, 2001 (BBC) - A new and bizarre type of squid has been reported by marine biologists.

The cephalopod, which has spidery, seven-meter-long (20 feet) arms, is detailed in the journal Science.

The creature has been spotted in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and in the Gulf of Mexico. One sighting was made at a depth of 4,734 meters (15,534 feet) - almost five kilometers (three miles) below the surface - in the western Atlantic, off the coast of Brazil.

The researchers behind the discovery say the find indicates how little we know about life in the Earth's largest ecosystem.

The squid's arms are longer than those of any known squid species and held in an unusual position: spread outward from the body and then bent anteriorly.

The scientists speculate that the squid may be an adult member of the recently identified family called Magnapinnidae (which means "big fin"). Only juvenile squids in this family have been seen before. More research will be required, however, before the animals can be properly classified.

"I call it a mystery squid,'' said Mike Vecchione, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researcher and first author on the Science paper. "It's unlike any other squid I've ever seen.''

The assessment of the squid is based on photographs and video images taken by eight independent scientists from eight institutions in four countries.

"It is very distinctive with the very long skinny arms, with an elbow,'' said Vecchione. "There are 10 appendages there, but they all seem to be pretty much the same. In most squid, two would be tentacles.''

Natural Disasters Kill 25000 Worldwide in 2001

By Jan Dahinten

FRANKFURT December 28, 2001 (Reuters) - Natural disasters caused at least 25,000 deaths worldwide in 2001, more than double the previous year, the world's largest reinsurer said on Friday.

Putting total economic losses at $36 billion, Munich Re said catastrophes related to extreme weather were a result of continued global climate change.

It said the 2001 figures -- with 14,000 people killed in an earthquake in India in January alone -- compared with 10,000 deaths the previous year and losses of around $30 billion.

Storms and floods dominated this year's statistics, contributing more than two thirds to the 700 major disasters and causing 91 percent of all insured natural disaster losses, Munich Re said.

Total insured losses were at $11.5 billion compared with $7.5 billion the previous year.

"Forest fires in Australia, floods in Brazil and in Turkey, snow chaos in central and southern Europe and a typhoon in Singapore, which was meteorologically seen as impossible, are all indications for a link between climate changes and a rise in weather catastrophes," the company said in a statement.

Citing World Meteorological Organization (WMO) statistics, the reinsurer said 2001 had been the second warmest year since the beginning of systematic temperature recording 160 years ago.

Munich Re said the worst event in terms of the number of deaths was an earthquake in the densely-populated northwestern Gujarat region of India with 14,000 deaths confirmed and many more feared dead.

It said it had counted 80 major earthquakes, burdening economies with around $9-billion losses.

The worst weather-related disaster in 2001 was tropical storm Allison, which caused losses of some $6 billion, making it "the most expensive tropical storm in history."

Munich Re -- which faces $1.85 billion in claims resulting from the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York -- said losses from extreme natural disasters would be even bigger than those arising from the attacks on the United States.

"Clients, insurers and reinsurers have to take into account the unthinkable. According to our estimates extreme losses from natural disasters can be even higher than the insured losses from September 11," Munich Re board member Wolf Otto Bauer said in the statement.

Claims resulting from the attacks in the United States -- its biggest ever loss -- will push Munich Re's profits sharply lower this year, but the company expects to remain profitable.

Australia On Fire

By Michael Byrnes

SYDNEY December 28, 2001 (Reuters) - The bush fires which devastated areas around Australia's largest city over Christmas are part of a naturally recurring cycle, although this maybe becoming more frequent, a leading Australian fire scientist said.

More than 100 fires have sent hundreds fleeing, destroyed homes, blanketed Sydney in thick smoke and dumped ash and charred leaves in backyards. They have erupted just seven years after 1994 bush fires which swept through the city's suburbs and while police believe nearly half of them could have been deliberately started, in the natural cycle it still seems too soon.

"Conditions like this usually occur somewhere in Australia about every three years. But in any particular location, maybe once every 10 years or so," Phil Cheney, senior principal research scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), told Reuters.

"It's at the high end of the range," he said of the outbreak of two major fires around Sydney with only a seven year gap.

Research back to 1850 showed bad fire seasons occurred in particular parts of Australia every 13 years or so. Fires of the intensity of the Ash Wednesday fires, which swept through South Australia and Victoria states in 1983 to cause 76 deaths and the loss of many thousands of homes, would occur only on a 50 year cycle.

"We've probably recorded that sort of condition (intensity) maybe four or five times in 200 years," Cheney said.

CYCLE OF FIRE

Debris builds in native Australian bushland, where eucalyptus and banksias have adapted to fires, waiting for them to crack their seed pods, stimulating regeneration. With ideal bush fire conditions of six months drought and a 13-year gap between major fires, a lightning strike is enough to explode native Australian trees, full of their combustible oils.

Authorities believe lightning set off the first of the fires now ringing Sydney. This, New South Wales Rural Fire Commissioner Phil Koperberg believes, then sparked thrill-seeking arsonists into lighting fires which were whipped by 60-km (36-mph) winds.

The fury of the Sydney fires was so great on Christmas day that they jumped Warragamba Dam, Sydney's major water supply, as if it wasn't there, Koperberg said.

Waterbombing is virtually useless, fire experts say. Only wind shifts or rain can counter fires of this intensity.

TO BURN OR NOT TO BURN?

As Sydney waits, with no rain forecast for days, the fires are reigniting debates over whether authorities should have been fighting fire with fire through controlled burning.

"It's futile to be suggesting that extra hectares of fuel reduction could have had any significant reduction at all on the type of fires we've been experiencing," NSW Emergency Services Minister Bob Debus told a press conference on Thursday.

The main body of the fire on Christmas Day shot flames more than five kilometers ahead of it in some areas, he said. Others believe environmental trendies and a widespread lack of understanding of the use of controlled burning is helping to increase the frequency of major bush fires.

"People don't use fire as much as they used to. Thirty or forty years ago fire was used commonly," Cheney said.

Regulations have tightened restrictions on fires. Graziers burned bushland more before intensive agriculture arrived.

"With management and careful planning I believe much more fire can be applied by land management agencies in an ecologically sensible way," he told Reuters. "A lot of the population is urban-based and don't understand the role of fire in the natural environment. And there is a natural aversion against fire, longstanding in our heritage, being largely European based."

This was quite different from indigenous Australians, who used fire to manage the land.

"I believe that in many areas National Parks can use prescribed fire as part of their park management," Cheney said. Part of the solution might be in everyone's back yard. "It really has to be managed at the interface. People that live within 200 meters of the bush (need)...to create some sort of a break between urban areas and the bush."

Scientists admit that forces behind the big fires are imperfectly known. Records are not extensive enough. Reactions between bush fires, ocean currents and El Nino weather events, which send dry weather over eastern Australia every four or so years from changing Pacific Ocean sea temperatures, are not fully clear.

But mainstream scientists see a buildup of greenhouse gases and global warming increasing the frequency of El Ninos. Could they be helping to unleashing more frequent bush fires too?


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