Month: January 2019

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Scientists unravel Eucalyptus DNA

Scientists have unravelled the genome of a eucalyptus tree, gaining insights into its fast growth and adaptability that could one day enhance forests grown for biomass and timber.

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Eucalyptus is native to Australia, but has become the most widely-cultivated hardwood tree; an important source of paper, wood and essential oils grown in more than 100 countries on six continents.

It is also considered a potentially major source of biofuels.

An international team of scientists have now sequenced the genetic code of one of the most widely-bred species: Eucalyptus grandis.

“We were interested especially in understanding its ability to produce very high cellulose-content wood, which is what makes it desirable for pulp and paper production,” explained study co-author Alexander Myburg of the genetics department of the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

“We were able to identify almost all of the genes involved in converting sugars into cellulose … in the tree and also the other main component of wood which is lignin,” he said in a podcast carried by the journal Nature, which published the study.

“These are important pathways to understand because they are the main components that will be used in terms of biofuels and other biomaterials that are harvested from woody biomass… trees.”

The team found the Eucalyptus grandis genome contained just over 36,000 genes, “an average, medium-sized plant genome”.

It also contained the largest number of tandem duplications – two identical sequences, one following the other, in a chromosome segment – than any other plant genome sequenced so far.

Myburg said the findings may prove valuable in understanding how to boost the cellulose content of trees, but also how to extract it more easily.


23/01/2019 0

Abbott resists winds of climate change

Is Tony Abbott on the right side of politics for our times?

As he makes his way across Canada and the US, it’s hard to avoid comparing the prime minister with other world leaders and consider the shifts in global politics.

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There is a growing “club” of conservative leaders: Abbott, New Zealand’s John Key, Canada’s Stephen Harper and India’s Narendra Modi.

Harper came in for high, bordering on gushing, praise from Abbott when he visited Ottawa.

The Canadian prime minister was something of a beacon to centre-right parties around the world, he said.

Personally, Abbott regards Harper as an “exemplar” of a contemporary, centre-right prime minister.

The Conservative Party of Canada liked the description so much it grabbed it for a political fundraising campaign.

In Harper, Abbott has found a political soul mate. They share a belief in getting public spending under control and ensuring nothing stands in the way of the resources sector and cheap coal-fired power, so crucial to both nations.

Signs of the pair’s closeness included an elaborate welcoming ceremony in Ottawa and a joint press conference in which the Canadian leader declared strong support for the repeal of Australia’s “job-killing carbon tax”.

But as he made the rounds of the United Nations and the White House, there are signs Abbott’s views may put him on the wrong side of history.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wants to reinvigorate the climate change debate, scheduling a summit while leaders are in New York for the General Assembly in September.

US President Barack Obama has announced he wants the states to put forward programs to reduce carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 by whatever means, including emissions trading schemes.

It’s easy to write off both Ban and Obama as being in “legacy” mode as they complete their terms.

But they represent a growing concern that the wheels are falling off the climate action bandwagon, as countries such as Australia put a focus on economic growth well ahead of the environment.

While he has been in Canada and the US, Abbott has talked down the prospects of any greater ambition in cutting emissions as the UN seeks a new global agreement on climate change next year.

He insists that Australia is pulling its weight in terms of tackling carbon emissions, even though the $2.5 billion being spent on direct action pales when compared with the revenue and renewable energy incentive created by carbon pricing.

There is evidence carbon pricing – which will be scrapped by the new Senate within weeks – is a global trend that is only going to increase.

China is rolling out pilot emissions trading schemes in seven provinces covering almost twice the emissions of Australia’s scheme, with a view to setting up a national scheme in 2016.

Other Asian countries are watching China closely.

The European carbon market is well entrenched.

Public support for greater steps to address climate change appears to be solidifying, having waned in recent years.

A recent Lowy Institute poll showed 45 per cent of Australians believed climate action should be taken, even if it involved significant cost – up 12 points on the low set in 2012 – while 63 per cent said Australia should take a leadership role on the issue.

However, having put so much political capital into axing the carbon tax – which he says is “clobbering the economy” – there is no chance Abbott will pull back from his direct action stance.

Any chance of carbon pricing staying in place will depend on the attitude of the new Senate crossbenchers who take their seats from July 1.

Senators from the Palmer United Party, the Liberal Democrats and Family First favour Abbott’s position.

The risk for Abbott, though, as Obama has said, is the “public may get out ahead of some of their politicians”.

Abbott might then face the choice of electoral retribution or reworking his direct action plan to a form of carbon market involving the trading of permits and incentives to adopt cleaner and greener technology.

Both John Howard and Bob Hawke “discovered” the environment as an issue during their time in government, which delivered political as well as green benefits.

It remains to be seen whether Malcolm Turnbull’s comment about Abbott being a “weathervane” on the issue forces the prime minister to switch tack.


23/01/2019 0

French lament their scrum dramas

The rugby world has turned upside down.

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Australia, with its infamous history of scrum woes, has forced France – who fete their props like heroes – into drastic front-row changes for Saturday night’s second Test at Etihad Stadium.

Powerful and crafty scrummaging props are as French as croissants – it’s their bread and butter.

But Les Bleus coach Philippe Saint-Andre has lamented the dearth of quality front-rowers in his country following their 50-23 opening Test pounding by the Wallabies.

Saint-Andre has dumped both of his starting props, veteran tighthead Nicholas Mas and grizzled loosehead Thomas Domingo, to expose the uncapped Alexandre Menini and seven-Test Rabah Slimani in Melbourne.

The coach admitted the changes were a result of a poor scrum in Brisbane, continuing their dramas with referees during this year’s Six Nations, as well as a need to build depth.

France’s cashed-up Top 14 league is growing bigger each year but it’s costing Les Bleus in several positions, particularly in the front-row.

“We don’t have too many props in France because they’re all foreigners so we need to (expose them),” Saint-Andre told AAP.

“If we don’t try out some props in a tour 15 months from the World Cup, we’ll never try them.

“This is an opportunity to see them in a fantastic contest.”

Normally the tourists enter Test matches against Australia targeting the scrum, but not at the moment.

As well as English, New Zealand, Argentinian and Georgian props filling about half the prop positions in the France’s Top 14 league, the Wallabies are patching up their long-time Achilles heel.

Rising loosehead James Slipper underlined his talent at Suncorp Stadium by outpointing 72-cap Mas, 34, in his 50th Test – just a day after turning 25.

Two days later Slipper was elevated to the vice-captaincy.

The Australian scrum’s stocks have gradually started to rise since last year’s Rugby Championship after coming to terms with the new soft engagement laws.

“If you have a good scrum the morale of the team picks up and everyone gets excited and looking for a result at the scrum,” Slipper said.

But chinks still remain in the Aussie armour.

The French, with their front-row reserves opposing the Wallabies replacements, scored a pushover penalty try on fulltime, which led to back-up tighthead Paddy Ryan’s axing.


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Mozzie squad buzzing for Lions

Greater Western Sydney might want to bring the bug zapper north with them as Brisbane’s “Mosquito Fleet” gets ready for another AFL sortie.

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The Lions welcome the Giants following back-to-back wins over Carlton and the Western Bulldogs which have hauled them off the bottom of the competition ladder.

Small forwards Dayne Zorko, Josh Green and Lewis Taylor have all played a key role in those victories, using their speed to move the ball quicker and open up spaces for scoring opportunities.

Lions skipper Jed Adcock is in no doubt how vital the trio, who measure in at 176cm or shorter, are to the Lions’ recent form turnaround.

“Leppa’s (coach Justin Leppitsch) called them the Three Amigos, but they like to be known as the Mosquito Fleet,” Adcock said.

“They’ve been real important for us. They’re a hard match-up for any defence, to have three defenders to match our small forwards.

“That’s definitely a strength of ours now. We’ve probably gone from being a slow outfit to now quite a quick outfit with those three in the side, playing well.”

Adcock says it’s frustrating the Lions haven’t received the credit they’ve deserved following their past two wins, after many had sunk the boot in when the club slumped to the bottom of the ladder.

But despite the recent successes, he says there’s no room for complacency against a Giants’ team which have lost their past eight matches and have replaced the Lions as the competition’s basement team.

“Essendon and Hawthorn, they challenged both all the way through,” Adcock said of the Giants.

“It’s important for us to start well. Against any young team, if you give them a chance early they can get up and about and use their young legs to get on top of the older guys early, so it’s important for us to get a good start and shut them down.”


23/01/2019 0

Australia considers New Zealand model for welfare reform

He said the New Zealand model – based on the country’s accident compensation scheme – would enable the government to provide more targeted assistance for those who need it most.

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“I think it would give us better information and enable us to do a better job in terms of helping people, particularly young people. In terms of the welfare system in Australia,” he said in his address at the ACOSS national conference in Brisbane.

He said such measures would redress the current situation where 1 in 2 people who receive Newstart payments stay on it beyond six months.  

The model is explored in detail in the government’s review of the welfare system, which Minister Andrews said will be handed down soon after Prime Minister Abbott returns from overseas.

He said new measures proposed for welfare reform will focus on early intervention. 

“The reality is that most programs in amelioration come too late,” he said. 

He said a new expert panel to be established in the next month would advise the government on how to implement early intervention measures. 

Minister Andrews said without reform the age pension is set to cost $68 billion in a decade’s time.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten told the ACOSS conference that Australia risks not meeting its obligation to the vulnerable.

He condemned budget measures to introduce a GP fee, increase the pension age and tighten Newstart eligibility; saying the plans “distorts the domestic destiny of hundreds of thousands of Australian families”.

“We believe in a strong and generous safety net not because it catches of all those who fall but because it also supports Australian to climb. We understand that the best investment that a nation can make is in its citizens.”


23/01/2019 0

UN Security Council to meet on Iraq

The UN Security Council will meet to discuss Iraq in a sign of growing international alarm as a lightening offensive by heavily armed jihadists sweeps closer to Baghdad.

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Diplomats say the closed consultations will begin at 11.30am on Thursday (0130 AEST Friday) and will include a briefing by video link from the UN special representative to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier urged the international community to unite behind Iraq as the country confronts the “serious security challenge”.

Since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant began its spectacular assault in Mosul late on Monday, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes.

The speed with which ISIL and its allies have advanced after their seizure on Tuesday of Mosul – a city of two million people – has sent alarm bells ringing in Western capitals.

The UN chief strongly condemned the surge in violence and warned that “terrorism must not be allowed to succeed in undoing the path toward democracy in Iraq”, his spokesman said.

Ban also called for the immediate, unconditional and safe release of 49 Turkish citizens kidnapped from their consulate in Mosul, including the consul general and several staff.

“The secretary-general calls on the international community to send a clear message that terrorist acts are unacceptable and those responsible must be held to account,” the spokesman said.

The United Nations says more than 2500 families are displaced inside Mosul, mostly living in schools and mosques, and an estimated 100,000 have entered Arbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR has mobilised tents with essential relief items, including water and sanitation, being delivered.

The UN says the displacements complicate “an already severe displacement crisis” that saw hundreds of thousands of people leave their homes since January due to unrest in Anbar province.

“Resources are extremely limited,” Ban’s spokesman told reporters, saying that donor funding to displaced families has reached only 10 per cent of the $US103 million required.


23/01/2019 0

Flight 370 families seek information

About two dozen relatives of Chinese passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight have demanded more information at a Beijing building that houses the airline’s regional office, more than three months after the plane disappeared en route to the city.

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Under the tight watch of at least a dozen Chinese police and several building employees, the relatives were kept from entering the office building.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is thought to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board, but a seabed search has found no trace of the plane.

“Please give us the truth and tell us the right way to find our beloved ones,” said Dai Shuqin, whose sister was on the plane with her husband, daughter, son-in-law and grandchild.

“It has been extremely hard for us, and we can’t take it anymore.”

The relatives have long criticised Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian government for not being more forthcoming with information.

They say they have been demanding the flight data of the plane, an analysis of its possible tracks and video footage of the passengers boarding the plane.

They say their goal is to account for the whereabouts of the plane and the people it was carrying.

Some relatives say they are in touch with lawyers, but that it’s too early to discuss compensation until the plane is located.

“We do not care about compensation, but please let us know more information,” said Zhang Qian, her tears falling as she spoke of her missing husband, Wang Houbin, 28.

“We’ve gone from days of wearing down jackets to now, summer, and we are still waiting.”


23/01/2019 0

Elle Macpherson flogs ‘super elixir’

Elle Macpherson is telling an audience of women at Selfridges, London, what it feels like to struggle with a muffin top, fatigue and finding herself so irritable she shouted at the kids.

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The big difference between Macpherson and the rest of us who accept being sleep-starved and stroppy is that, in true celebrity style, she countered her slump two years ago by creating her own sellable solution, an “alkalising greens” food supplement.

“I just wasn’t feeling my super-self and I’d lost the spark which keeps you feeling energised and motivated,” she said at the launch of her Super Elixir in the London store.

“My skin was dry, I was gaining weight around my waist, feeling moody and my joints ached.

“I put it down to ageing but then I thought, I don’t like that feeling it, whatever the cause, and knew things had to change. So I got help with nutrition, threw out the ton of tablets I’d been taking daily, and helped create this brilliant alkalising supplement instead.”

Without a hint of irony, she describes it as “my birthday present to women”.

Even so, the model, who turned 50 in March, still has to deal with ageing.

“Do I look back to how I looked in my 20s? Yeah, just like most women do and I think, ‘Wow, did I really look like that?’ At the time I didn’t realise I was that big a deal and wasn’t so confident, even though I pretended to be so cool.

“I feel better now than I’ve ever felt because I’m older, wiser and truly believe that being strong, inspired and capable is as important as our body shape.

“That’s why I truly didn’t have a problem with becoming 50, and I wanted to go into it with grace rather than fighting it. At this age, of course, you have to make more effort and being fit and being healthy from the inside is really important – if things are good on the inside, it shows on the outside.

“I just think women today want to look good at whatever age and realise it’s pointless chasing after youth.”

Her own youth was certainly charmed. She opted for modelling from the age of 17 rather than studying law and survived the demands of the often brutal fashion industry as well as high-octane, jet-setting and partying as her success grew through the 1980s.

“I have certainly gone through periods in my life where I haven’t treated myself kindly,” she says drily.

“I grew up young. I’ve done everything, I’m no angel and haven’t led a sheltered life. In a sense I’ve experienced everything, partying with Andy Warhol, going to New York’s Studio 54, and meeting Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.

“I think I survived thanks to the values instilled in me as a child – a strong sense of family, commitment to what I love, self-discipline and a desire to methodically work through problems.”

She adorned the much-coveted cover of Sports Illustrated a record five times, and, in 1986, Time Magazine put her on its cover and dubbed her “The Body”.

“I thought, great moniker, brilliant for business – I’ll use that, thanks,” she says.

It’s the name of her hugely successful brand and her lingerie range, Elle Macpherson Intimates, is sold globally.

She’s also hosted – and been an executive producer for – fashion reality shows in America and is well recognised in the UK, which she’s made her home, as a judge on Britain & Ireland’s Next Top Model.

She has two sons, Flynn, 17, and Cy, 10, from her nine-year relationship with financier Arpad Busson, and wed billionaire, Jeffrey Soffer, a father-of-three, in 2013. Although she was married in her 20s to a man two decades her senior, Gilles Bensimon, a former creative director of Elle magazine, she admits she never thought she would marry again.

“I’ve never put much importance on it, but then the love of my life asked me to marry him and I didn’t hesitate,” she says, as she talks of the romance that broke up a few years after they got together but was rekindled when he narrowly survived a helicopter crash in the Bahamas.

Her anti-ageing tip is drinking three litres of water a day, and staying active – she’s a keen skier and off-road cyclist.

“I don’t like the word exercise – it sounds like a punishment. I prefer to say activity. Just 45 minutes a day is good and it can just be a walk. It doesn’t have to be a gym session.”


23/01/2019 0

Ex-priest in US admits abusing 10 boys

Thomas Adamson, a former priest in Winona and the Twin Cities, has testified in a US court deposition that he sexually abused at least 10 boys as he moved from parish to parish in the 1960s through the `80s.

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Adamson testified that he met his first victims while coaching junior high and high school basketball teams at St Adrian High School in Adrian, Minnesota, in the 1960s, according to a deposition made public on Wednesday.

He said he later admitted the abuse to the bishop of Winona – but no action was taken to remove him from ministry or to warn parents and children.

Instead, Adamson was eventually transferred to the Archdiocese of St Paul-Minneapolis in 1975, where he allegedly abused a young man who is behind a 2013 lawsuit that has put a relentless spotlight on far broader sex abuse in the archdiocese.

During his deposition, Adamson calmly explained which boys he abused and in which parishes, sometimes adding details of sexual activity that happened in school gymnasiums, his car and his home.

Plaintiff’s lawyer Jeff Anderson, who held a list of 37 men who have claimed Adamson abused them, asked the former priest how many boys he abused after moving to the archdiocese.

“I don’t know,” Adamson said. “I’d have to study that out.”

Adamson’s deposition is the latest in a series of depositions released by Anderson, who is representing “John Doe 1”, a man who claims he was abused by Adamson in the `70s at his St Paul Park parish. Unlike the top-ranking church officials whose depositions were released previously, Adamson, now 80, answered most questions.

It is the first time that an Adamson deposition has been made public, said Anderson.

“This is the first time people will have a glimpse into the mind of the molester,” said Anderson.


23/01/2019 0

Poppies still dance at Flanders Fields

Crimson poppies still dance in the breeze as if nothing horrific happened in Flanders Fields.

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But a century after the start of World War I, the flowers endure as a symbol of war dead, in part because of a celebrated poem:

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow – Between the crosses, row on row.”

The famous flowers are among many reminders of the region’s connection to the Great War. Amid monuments and headstones in this western corner of Belgium, Flanders’ eerie landscapes, trenches and bunkers continue to evoke the soldiers who died here by the hundreds of thousands. As carefree 21st-century travel goes, a tour of Flanders Fields packs a punch that can long stay with you.

The haunting poem, In Flanders Fields, was written by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor who ran a field hospital during the war.

During a recent wreath-laying ceremony at the massive Tyne Cot burial grounds to honour the dead, the poem was read aloud by a student visiting with a group from St George’s Academy in Sleaford, England.

“The kids are really moved by it,” teacher Charlotte Tilley says. “We had about half a dozen crying.”

One stunning aspect of a visit here is the region’s beauty and serenity. A spectacular springtime has turned the once-barren, muddy battlegrounds lush with ripening wheat fields and pastures where cattle chew thick grass.

Walk through Ypres, which has four battles named for it, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in a splendidly preserved medieval town with a Gothic hall, gabled houses and spires. But what was left of the town on November 11, 1918 – when the war ended – were stumps, rubble and vague memories where homes once stood. Ypres’ second battle saw the first use of chemical arms in warfare, and its third, named for the tiny village of Passchendaele, saw 150,000 men die in 100 days.

Some wanted Ypres to stay in ruins as remembrance. The people immediately decided otherwise and started rebuilding, “as if there never had been a war. It was very much a psychological reaction,” says Piet Chielens, the co-ordinator of the In Flanders Fields museum, which is housed in the rebuilt neo-Gothic hall on the marketplace.

“Ypres immediately became a centre of remembrance. The first tourists and pilgrims arrived in early spring of 1919,” Chielens says.

Massive crowds are expected this year. “We believe there will be something like half a million visitors this year coming from at least 70 different nations,” Chielens says.

Even ahead of the official start of the centenary in August, hundreds, sometimes a few thousand flock to the 8pm playing of the Last Post, the daily salute at Ypres’ Menin Gate, where walls list 54,000 soldiers who perished but were never found.

The deafening silence once the bugle stops playing is a must in remembrance tourism, as is the In Flanders Fields Museum.

But visitors should also take time away from the ceremonies and crowds to wander across the flat fields dotted with low-flung ridges where so many fought and died.

“The real museum is still out there,” Chielens says. “The traces, the scars in the landscape, the numerous monuments and cemeteries that will give you that sense of loss and tragedy.”

It might be a tiny cemetery where only dozens of soldiers lie, a rain-sodden trench, or a derelict German bunker.

The city of Diksmuide has the Ijzertoren memorial with sweeping views of battlefields from atop its 84-metre tower. Nearby, the warren of Dodengang trenches brings the claustrophobia of war, even if it no longer has the rats, stench and enemy within shouting distance.

Yet tourists should not limit their trip to pondering war. “You learn to understand what the importance of living and enjoying life is after you have been confronted with the experience,” Chielens says.

For kids, that might mean a visit to the Bellewaerde theme park. For grown-ups, gastronomy stands out. Those with money and sense to reserve ahead should try In De Wulf, considered one of the world’s best restaurants, in the village of Dranouter, close to the Kemmel ridge battle site. You might spot a chef picking flowers in the fields that will turn up on your dinner plate, or you might be served, as a vegetable, shoots from hop plants used in brewing the region’s famous beer.

For tourists, there’s nothing like a summer’s evening with a Hommelbier or St Bernardus tripel on a terrace to let the day sink in. And while the memory of those fluttering poppies may fade, the sense of what happened here will likely grow stronger.

As McCrae wrote: “If ye break faith with us who die – We shall not sleep, though poppies grow – In Flanders fields.”


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