26 November 2014

Earth DNA survives the extremes of space


DNA hitching a ride on the outside of a rocket has survived the launch, space travel and atmospheric re-entry to remain usable upon return to Earth, according to a new study.

"We were totally surprised," say two of the study's authors, Professor Oliver Ullrich and Dr Cora Thiel, both from the University of Zurich.

"Originally, we designed this experiment as a technology test for biomarker stability during space flight and re-entry. We never expected to recover so many intact and functional active DNA."

The finding raises issues for both the possible contamination of Earth by life from space, and also the contamination of other planets by infected probes from Earth.

"Our findings made us a little bit worried about the probability of contaminating spacecrafts, landers and landing sites with DNA from Earth," say the scientists.

Just add DNA

The scientists tested the ability of DNA samples to withstand high g acceleration during rocket launch, a period of space flight, the extreme heat of atmospheric re-entry, and the impact of landing.

They attached artificial plasmid DNA carrying a fluorescent marker and an antibiotic resistance gene cassette, to the outside of a rocket launched on a short suborbital flight in March 2011. Plasmids are small, circular, double-stranded DNA molecules separate from a cell's chromosomal DNA.

The samples were placed directly on the outer surface of the spacecraft, as well as in the grooves of screw heads on one of the experimental modules, and on the bottom side of the payload.


The rocket was launched on the TEXUS-49 mission from the European Space and Sounding Rocket Range in Sweden on a 780 second flight to an altitude of 268 kilometres.

The probe reached a maximum acceleration rate of 13.5 g during launch and 17.6 g during re-entry, reaching temperatures of over 1000°C.

The authors examined the stability and integrity of the bio-samples immediately after the flight, looking at the degree of DNA degradation and fragmentation.

Much to their surprise, they found almost 53 per cent of the DNA samples survived the flight, and 35 per cent retained full biological function.

The authors found the best survivability occurred to samples placed in the grooves of the screw heads.

Important results

"This is rigorous research and interesting in terms of the transfer of viable biological material between solar system objects," says Professor Malcolm Walter of the Australian Centre for astrobiology sciences at the University of New South Wales, who was not involved in the study.

"This is a different and much more likely version of the panspermia hypothesis with rocks being blasted off somewhere like Mars by an asteroid impact. The rocks, which contain microbes deep inside them, float though space and eventually fall to the surface of a planet such as Earth.

"Over 30 Mars meteorites have so far been detected on Earth, so we know there's a traffic of meteoroids between the planets and potentially a mechanism for transferring microbial life between the planets."

Star Trek-like invisible shield found thousands of miles above Earth

Scientists have discovered an invisible shield roughly 7,200 miles above Earth

A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder has discovered an invisible shield some 7,200 miles above Earth that blocks so-called "killer electrons," which whip around the planet at near-light speed and have been known to threaten astronauts, fry satellites and degrade space systems during intense solar storms.

The barrier to the particle motion was discovered in the Van Allen radiation belts, two doughnut-shaped rings above Earth that are filled with high-energy electrons and protons, said Distinguished Professor Daniel Baker, director of CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). Held in place by Earth's magnetic field, the Van Allen radiation belts periodically swell and shrink in response to incoming energy disturbances from the sun.

As the first significant discovery of the space age, the Van Allen radiation belts were detected in 1958 by Professor James Van Allen and his team at the University of Iowa and were found to be comprised of an inner and outer belt extending up to 25,000 miles above Earth's surface. In 2013, Baker—who received his doctorate under Van Allen—led a team that used the twin Van Allen Probes launched by NASA in 2012 to discover a third, transient "storage ring" between the inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts that seems to come and go with the intensity of space weather.

The latest mystery revolves around an "extremely sharp" boundary at the inner edge of the outer belt at roughly 7,200 miles in altitude that appears to block the ultra-fast electrons from breaching the shield and moving deeper towards Earth's atmosphere.

"It's almost like theses electrons are running into a glass wall in space," said Baker, the study's lead author. "Somewhat like the shields created by force fields on Star Trek that were used to repel alien weapons, we are seeing an invisible shield blocking these electrons. It's an extremely puzzling phenomenon."

A cloud of cold, charged gas around Earth, called the plasmasphere and seen here in purple, interacts with the particles in Earth's radiation belts -- shown in grey-- to create an impenetrable barrier that blocks the fastest electrons from moving in closer to our planet

A paper on the subject was published in the Nov. 27 issue of Nature.

The team originally thought the highly charged electrons, which are looping around Earth at more than 100,000 miles per second, would slowly drift downward into the upper atmosphere and gradually be wiped out by interactions with air molecules. But the impenetrable barrier seen by the twin Van Allen belt spacecraft stops the electrons before they get that far, said Baker.

The group looked at a number of scenarios that could create and maintain such a barrier. The team wondered if it might have to do with Earth's magnetic field lines, which trap and control protons and electrons, bouncing them between Earth's poles like beads on a string. The also looked at whether radio signals from human transmitters on Earth could be scattering the charged electrons at the barrier, preventing their downward motion. Neither explanation held scientific water, Baker said.

"Nature abhors strong gradients and generally finds ways to smooth them out, so we would expect some of the relativistic electrons to move inward and some outward," said Baker. "It's not obvious how the slow, gradual processes that should be involved in motion of these particles can conspire to create such a sharp, persistent boundary at this location in space."

This image shows a color-coded geographic representation of ultra-relativistic electron fluxes, based on orbital tracks of the Van Allen Probe B spacecraft projected onto the geographical equatorial plane. As the spacecraft precesses in its elliptical orbit around the Earth, it forms a “spirograph” pattern in the Earth-centered coordinate system. Inside of this radial distance is an almost complete absence of electrons, forming the “slot” region. The superimposed circle shows a sharp, distinctive inner boundary for ultra-relativistic electrons, and how generally symmetric this boundary is around Earth

Another scenario is that the giant cloud of cold, electrically charged gas called the plasmasphere, which begins about 600 miles above Earth and stretches thousands of miles into the outer Van Allen belt, is scattering the electrons at the boundary with low frequency, electromagnetic waves that create a plasmapheric "hiss," said Baker. The hiss sounds like white noise when played over a speaker, he said.

While Baker said plasmaspheric hiss may play a role in the puzzling space barrier, he believes there is more to the story. "I think the key here is to keep observing the region in exquisite detail, which we can do because of the powerful instruments on the Van Allen probes. If the sun really blasts the Earth's magnetosphere with a coronal mass ejection (CME), I suspect it will breach the shield for a period of time," said Baker, also a faculty member in the astrophysical and planetary sciences department.

"It's like looking at the phenomenon with new eyes, with a new set of instrumentation, which give us the detail to say, 'Yes, there is this hard, fast boundary,'" said John Foster, associate director of MIT's Haystack Observatory and a study co-author.

Putin’s pro-White ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

In France, the Front National was recently granted a €9m loan by a small financial institution to fund the party’s campaign for next year’s regional elections

President Vladimir Putin is widely suspected of being behind an extraordinary Russian cash and charm offensive that is reported to be trying to woo Europe’s pro-White populist parties in order to strengthen the Kremlin’s political influence within the European Union.

In recent weeks, the Kremlin’s targets have included France’s patriotic Front National (FN) party, and politicians from three German parties including the pro-White National Democratic Party (NPD), the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Social Democrats (SPD).

Marine Le Pen’s Front National was recently granted a €9m (£7m) loan by a small financial institution called the First Czech-Russian Bank. The cash will be used to fund the party’s campaign for next year’s regional elections.

French banks were unwilling to fund the FN. “We cast our the net wide: in Spain, in Italy, in Asia and in Russia,” Ms Le Pen told Le Monde. “We have signed with the first catch and we are very happy.” In the past, Ms Le Pen has made no secret of her support for Mr Putin.

The FN’s bank loan was followed this week by the release of details from a leaked Moscow strategy paper that suggests Mr Putin has been advised to try to influence European politics by such wooing.

Marine Le Pen, French National Front party president

On Monday Germany’s mass-circulation Bild newspaper published sections of a paper put out by the Moscow-based think-tank Centre for Strategic Communications entitled “Putin: the new leader of international conservatism”. The paper spelled out how the Russian President could influence EU countries including Germany – the country’s pivotal European trading partner.

Analysts say the move is an attempt by the Kremlin to find European friends who support Russia’s stance in Ukraine. “Russia feels isolated. It is going back to its instinctive conservatism, as in the century before the First World War,” Christian Wipperfürth of the German Foreign Policy Association told Germany’s The Local website.

Mr Putin has so far relied on his German friends such as the former Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to exert a degree of political influence in Berlin. Mr Schröder, who now works for the Russian energy giant Gazprom, once described Mr Putin as a “flawless democrat”. However the Ukraine crisis has persuaded his successor, Angela Merkel, to adopt a much tougher stance towards Moscow.

Vladimir Putin leaves G20 early after criticism from world leaders over Ukraine. David Cameron warned Vladimir Putin, face to face, that Russia’s whole post-Cold War relationship with the West is at a “fork in the road” over Ukraine

The think-tank paper suggested that Moscow could repeat its French FN deal and influence Germany’s newly arrived and increasingly successful pro-White Eurosceptic AfD. The paper recommended funding the AfD with Russian gold, or using the party as a middleman for gold-trading at commission in order to fill its coffers.

Part of the AfD’s anti-euro strategy is to conduct its finances in gold. The party has sold €2.1m-worth of the metal since October. Its deputy leader, Alexander Gauland, is a defector from Ms Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats who has warned repeatedly about a “further weakening of Russia” through Western sanctions. His stance has since divided his party over a so-called “Russian question”.

The Kremlin is also suspected of being behind a Russian-sponsored “peace summit” designed to explain Moscow’s current stance in Ukraine. The summit was held at a luxury hotel in Berlin last weekend, and attended by two members of the pro-White NPD, Mr Gauland and the veteran SPD German detente politician Egon Bahr, in a gesture that embarrassed the SPD leadership.

The pro-White NPD was represented at a summit on Ukraine

The peace summit’s star guest was 66-year-old Vladimir Jakunin, the pro-family head of Russia’s rail network, who is a close associate of Mr Putin and one of the few Russians in Moscow’s inner circle who are not on a sanctions list and therefore still able to visit the European Union.

Bild was banned from the summit. The paper pointed out that Mr Jakunin had caused outrage in Germany during a visit earlier this year when he openly criticised homosexuals, claiming that they possessed an “abnormal psychology”.

The nominal organiser of the peace summit was the German magazine Compact, which is run by a pro-Kremlin journalist. Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper described the publication as a “right-wing populist magazine with a conspiracy theory bent”. The summit was billed as “the most important summit of the year – peace with Russia”.

Earlier this month Moscow also launched a German version of the pro-Kremlin TV news channel Russia Today. The broadcaster has since been criticised in the German media for using journalists with far-right views. One of them was recently sacked from the German public channel RBB for making anti-Semitic remarks.

French pro-White leader Le Pen calls for gold reserves to be repatriated


Marine Le Pen, leader of the pro-White Front National party in France and currently the frontrunner for the presidency of the country, has called on the central bank to repatriate its gold reserves.

In an open letter penned to Christian Noyer, the governor of the Banque de France, Le Pen demanded the urgent repatriation of all gold reserves located abroad and the immediate discontinuation of any gold sales programmes.

She called for a complete audit of the inventory of 2,435 tonnes of physical gold by an independent French body to indicate in which country France’s gold reserves are currently stored.

She also demanded a gradual reallocation of a portion of foreign exchange reserves within the Banque de France, recommending that the central bank buy gold at each significant decrease in spot pricing.

Spot gold has recovered to current levels either side of $1,200 per ounce from four-year lows of $1,131.60 in October.

France is the fifth-largest holder of gold in the world, behind only the US, Germany, the IMF and Italy, according to the November central bank holdings report by the World Golf Council – it holds 2,435.4 tonnes of gold, accounting for 65.1 percent of its reserves.

Between 2004 and 2012, France sold 614.6 tonnes of gold during a period when, according to Le Pen, other central banks in the eurozone had agreed to limit gold sales.

Germany and the Netherlands are already repatriating their gold reserves and Switzerland may follow suit, depending on the results of this weekend’s referendum.

De Nederlandshe Bank (DNB), the Dutch central bank, said last week it has repatriated 20 percent of its gold reserves from the US back into the country’s vaults. Around 122 tonnes of the metal have been shipped to Amsterdam, worth more than $5 billion at current spot prices.

And on Sunday, voters in Switzerland will decide whether or not to outlaw further gold sales from the Swiss National Bank, to make physical bullion at least 20 percent of the bank’s assets and whether to repatriate Swiss-owned gold.

Should the country still vote in favour of these proposals, the SNB will be forced to enter the physical bullion market to raise its gold holdings from around 7-8 percent at present, according to World Gold Council statistics.


It might be that Putin and the European pro-White movement, along with China, is planning to tank the dollar as the world reserve currency, which would destroy the ZOG Empire and free the White Europeans from the yoke of international Jewry - and the new, pro-White powers would have the gold, leaving a collapsed ZOG holding nothing but civil wars and paper.

Putin: the new leader of international conservatism": Russia's Euro influence strategy targets AfD

AfD vice-president Alexander Gauland (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right)

A Moscow strategy paper seen by German media shows how Russian President Vladimir Putin has been advised to influence Europe through right-wing populist parties including Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD).

Bild reported on Monday on a document titled “Putin: the new leader of international conservatism”, in which the Moscow-based Centre for Strategic Communications lays out how the Russian leader could influence key EU member states including Germany.

The paper's authors highlight one of the AfD's financing methods - trading gold - as a way for the Kremlin to buy influence into the party. The advisors suggested the Russian government could sell gold to the party at a loss or use the Germans as a middleman for gold trading at commission as a way of filling the party's coffers.

The AfD has sold gold worth €2.1 million since October, making low profits but aim to maximise the amount of public aid - calculated according to how many votes a party wins and its other income - it receives.

Putin's experts also suggest repeating the strategy of making loans to the party, which has proved successful in France.

There, the First Czech-Russian bank loaned the far-right National Front (FN) more than €9 million – and its leaders have showered Russiawith praise in return.

"Russia feels isolated," Christian Wipperfürth of foreign policy think-tank DGAP told The Local. "A lot of things have changed in West Europeand Central Europe in the last 20 years and Putin and the Russian people don't understand it.

"Russia is going back to its instinctive conservatism, as in the century before World War One."

The Ukraine crisis is a particular sore spot as in the past, "Germany and Russia have found common ground. Germany is very reluctant to take military action.

"In this country we feel like the bombs will be falling on us, whereas the Americans feel like the ones sitting in the bomber."

Russia hasn't agreed with German reluctance to intervene in cases like Iraq or Libya out of pacifist principle, but out of a default position of opposition to Brussels and Washington and a shared dislike for meddling in the Middle East, he said.

But Russia's clear interest in Western Europe shouldn't be taken as confirmation that it would directly fund political parties in the West, Wipperfürth argued.

"I believe it's true that Russia wants closer connections in central and western Europe, but I don't think (Russia) needs to do this."

While AfD was not present at a meeting of Russian representatives with European pro-White parties in Vienna in March, the strategy paper proposes targeting the party's vice-president Alexander Gauland (73).

Gauland was an important voice in favour of a vote against EU sanctions on Russia at the AfD party conference in March 2014.

He was also a special guest of the Russian ambassador in Berlin in September as well as speaking at a pro-Russia conference on Saturday alongside Russian Railways president and Putin confidant Vladimir Yakunin.

AfD spokespeople could not be reached for comment on Monday.

25 November 2014

Magnified Plankton Looks Just Like Outer Space


Sitting in Marine Biology 101 during her first year at the University of South Carolina, Julia Bennett was peering through a microscope at a slide of squirming diatom plankton when wonder struck.

“They look like something constructed for a science fiction movie,” said Bennett, now a senior. “We were making drawings and recording numbers and doing all this science stuff, and I couldn’t get over how perfect and symmetrical and intricate they are. I thought, ‘Why doesn’t everyone want to look at these?’”

So began Bennett’s fascination with capturing the least charismatic—but most critical—of ocean creatures under a magnification 40-100 times their normal size.


“If you change the angle of the light in the microscope, that does amazing things,” she said. “The live samples naturally have these incredible colors and layers.”

For her series Into the Umbra, Bennett collected samples while studying abroad in Brisbane, Australia. She captured specimens with a lens specifically designed for microscopes, sometimes illuminating slides with LED lights from above. She was delighted to find that when photographed through a microscope, drops of seawater look like the outer reaches of the cosmos. To Bennett, it felt fitting that the building blocks of life on earth resembles the celestial.


“More people have been to the moon than to the bottom of the ocean,” she said. “We’re concerned with these extraterrestrial frontiers, but we have this frontier right here on our planet that we are ignoring and destroying.”

Bennett points out there’s nothing exotic about the species in her photos.

“Any liter of sea water will contain up to a million of these organisms with hundreds of different species,” she said. “Take the sapharina with their crazy blues and purple—they’re beautiful and they swim around in the ocean, and nobody ever sees them.”


The photographer believes that some of us are far more likely to be affected by a single, elegant image than a powerfully written scientific paper. Her images pulse with an awe of this overlooked frontier, and she hopes they inspire more careful consideration of our marine environment.

“This family of species are really the first that are affected by ocean acidification,” said Bennett. “People are concerned with charismatic creatures like dolphins, sea turtles, and whales, and those are obviously important. But it’s the huge amount of productivity of these planktons that are responsible for oceanic life. If they fall off, everything else will follow.”

Monster telescope needs mind-bending mathematics to uncover secrets of the universe

Artist’s impression of the Square Kilometre Array at night

Telescopes have come a long way since the days when they were all about lone astronomers watching the night sky through their upstairs windows. Today teams of astrophysicists build and use much more modern instruments, not only to observe light visible to our eyes, but also radio emissions from the universe.

Radio telescopes used to use large single dishes to pick up these emissions, but have since graduated to arrays of antennae. These act as one dish over much a wider area and make it possible to receive signals from further away. We refer to them as radio-interferometric arrays because they study the interference of radio waves between pairs of antennae.

Radio interferometry was developed by the English scientists Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle, who received the Nobel prize in 1974 for using such telescopes to discover pulsars – highly magnetised rotating neutron stars. Pulsars rotate with extreme stability, making them the most precise clocks in the Universe.

In 1993 the American astrophysicists Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor demonstrated the importance of pulsars in understanding our universe by discovering them in a gravitationally coupled pair known as a binary system. This provided the first indirect evidence for gravitational waves, which are an essential unproven part of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Where radio telescopes are headed

There have been numerous arrays of radio telescopes developed since the 1970s. The state of the art includes the Low-Frequency Array (LOFAR) in western Europe, the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) in western Australia, and the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile. These are all just coming online and are regarded as a major step forward in our ability to understand the universe.

Yet they will be soon followed by the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be made up of an unprecedented number of antennae spread across two continents for the first time (Australia and Africa). The SKA will see the radio sky with unprecedented sensitivity and resolution, enabling us to pick up extremely small and faint objects and probe the more distant universe. It is due to come online around 2023.

A computerised pulsar

It is already the case that interferometric data holds only partial information and does not provide immediately recognisable visual images. This is because the antenna array cannot be dense enough to cover each and every position on the ground. To convert the information into images, complex mathematical algorithms are already used.

To add to this existing complexity, SKA will record unprecedented volumes of data. To put it in perspective, astronomers anticipate that it will produce as much as ten times the data as global internet traffic. Radio astronomical imaging therefore urgently needs to be re-invented in this ultra-precision and big data context.

This is where we come in. We have recently received funding to develop new ways to acquire data with radio telescopes using a recent theory called compressed sensing.

This theory enables us to build up whole pictures with far more fragmented data than before, ensuring that each data point contains the maximum amount of information. We will also design image-recovery algorithms that are scalable to the SKA’s big data regime and can reconstruct ultra-high resolution images of the distant universe.

ET, Einstein and the dark universe

This forthcoming radio telescope throws up numerous exciting possibilities. It will be able to observe the formation of Earth-like planets in other galaxies, and detect possible signals sent by extra-terrestrial intelligence. It will also be able to detect amino acids and carbon biomolecules, which are key building blocks for organic life.

The SKA has the potential to produce new pulsar discoveries. It should be sensitive enough to allow tens of thousands of pulsars to be detected, with very good chances of finding one orbiting a black hole for the first time. This would allow us to test Einstein’s theories about what happens in the unexplored strong gravity regime around black holes. We might also be able to directly observe gravitational waves for the first time by monitoring the change of distance between pulsars as waves pass by.

ALMA in Chile, one of the current generation of radio telescopic arrays

The coming leap forward in radio telescopes will also help us to understand the origins of the universe. Although we can infer the existence of the epoch when the first stars formed from our general understanding of the universe and other observations, we have never observed it directly.

Direct observations of hydrogen emission from this period would tell us a lot about how the first stars formed, and also about cosmology in general, including our understanding of the very first moments following the Big Bang. The LOFAR and MWA telescopes will look for this very weak signal. But if they are able to detect it, it would only be in a statistical sense. The SKA will be the first telescope capable of producing images of this epoch when the first stars formed.

Another science goal of the SKA is to develop a deeper understanding of dark energy and dark matter. One way of doing this is to study the distortion of the light from background galaxies by intervening matter as it travels towards us.

In modern cosmology this effect, called weak lensing, has typically been studied with optical telescopes. Yet there is a lot to be gained from similar studies using radio wavelengths. Very high resolution is required, however, so it can’t be done with existing radio telescopes. The SKA will open up this new area, potentially uncovering a deeper understanding of the nature of dark energy and dark matter.

From astronomy to medicine

In short, we could be on the verge of a great leap forward in our understanding of the universe. If so, the new theory of compressed sensing could play an essential role in recovering images from tiny fragments of information far in the distant universe.

Neuronal connections in the brain

Beyond this, compressed sensing has a wide range of other applications. For instance we will transfer our techniques from astronomical to biomedical imaging, using compressed sensing to tackle the challenges of fast high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This is likely to give researchers a much more detailed understanding of neuronal pathways in the human brain.

Pro-White Europe Has a Crush on Moscow

Putin's defiance of the global establishment through his criticism of American and European policymaking has earned him supporters among the leaders of political parties disillusioned with the EU

International headlines have been rife with speculation about Russia's ties to Europe's far right in recent days, since news broke that France's right-wing National Front party had borrowed 9 million euros ($11.2 million) from the Moscow-based First Czech-Russian Bank.

Disillusioned with the EU, European far-right parties have redoubled their efforts to swing Europe's political pendulum back toward Russia, which embodies their yearning for strong leadership and the preservation of traditional values. Russia, in turn, has its eye on using these political parties as a platform to influence European policymaking, pundits said.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who has publicly supported Russian President Vladimir Putin's stance on the annexation of Crimea and chided French authorities for stalling the delivery of an expensive Mistral-class helicopter carrier to Russia, denied that the loan constituted a friendly gesture by the Kremlin.

"These insinuations are outrageous and injurious," Le Pen said in comments carried by French newspaper Le Monde on Sunday. "Does getting a loan dictate our international position?"

Yet Le Pen's party — founded on an anti-immigration and socially conservative platform in 1972 — and other far-right European political organizations have made little effort to conceal their affinities toward Russia. In the case of the National Front, this mutual attraction openly manifested itself during party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen's first visit to Russia in 1991, where he crossed paths with the leader of the far-right LDPR party, the eccentric Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

"We adopted this [pro-Kremlin] stance a long time ago," Le Pen told Le Monde. "If an American bank would repay our loan, we would still maintain our position."

Improbable Alliance

Russian authorities have consistently expressed their disdain for broadly defined "fascism," promoting a collective identity based on the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. In an address to Russian lawmakers last March, Putin partly justified Russia's annexation of Crimea on the basis of the notion that authorities in Kiev were "nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites," and that he would not leave Crimea's ethnic Russian population in the hands of such leaders.

It would seem counterintuitive that the Kremlin — with its vocal anti-fascist stance and its public disregard for right-wing politics — has been cozying up to Europe's far-right parties, including those of France, Hungary, Bulgaria and Greece. Le Pen and a number other leaders of right-wing parties, including Gabor Vona of Hungary's Jobbik and Volen Siderov of Bulgaria's Ataka, have visited Russia and met with high-ranking officials in recent years. Far-right parties in 15 out of 21 European Union member states have openly professed sympathy toward Russia, according to the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute.

This seemingly improbable alliance has far less to do with Russia's anti-fascist state narrative than it does with mutual strategic interests, according to political pundits.

"There seems to be a strategic explanation of the phenomenon," said Alina Polyakova, a senior research fellow at the University of Bern who specializes in far-right movements in Europe. "Right-wing parties in Europe have vastly succeeded in dissociating themselves with fascist elements and have become mainstream through their Euroskeptic rhetoric, which has accompanied growing disillusion with the EU. Relationships with these parties serve as an opportunity for Russia to make EU policy toward it less cohesive."

National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen and its leader Marine Le Pen

Seeking Influence

The National Front, which has reportedly already received 2 million euros from the First Czech-Russian Bank, said seeking a loan from the Russia-based financial institution was not the party's first choice.

"No bank — French or European — wants to lend us a cent," party treasurer Wallerand de Saint-Just told the France Info radio station on Saturday, adding that it was seeking "30 or 40 million euros" to cover campaign expenses for the 2017 legislative elections. "We would have preferred [getting a loan from] a French bank or a European bank, which would make it easier in terms of transportation and communication."

But as the cash-strapped National Front fulfills its need for funds from a Russian-based bank, Russian authorities win by deepening ties with right-wing parties, which they view as a springboard to influence European politics, said political analyst Alexander Tevdoy-Burmuli.

"For Russian authorities, this process is just about keeping ties going," Tevdoy-Burmuli, a professor at the Faculty of European Integration of Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told The Moscow Times. "Strengthening ties with these parties will not have an immediate effect, but in the longer term, they could be used by Russia to influence policy outcomes in Europe."

The prospect of Russia's infiltration into European policymaking became all the more convincing after far-right parties made substantial political gains in last May's European parliamentary elections. The National Front topped the French poll with nearly 25 percent of the vote, earning 23 seats in the European Parliament. According to a poll conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion in October, Le Pen is currently the most popular potential candidate in the lead-up to the 2017 presidential elections.

Other right-wing parties, including Hungary's Jobbik and Greece's Golden Dawn, also made significant gains, respectively winning three and five seats in the European legislature after coming second in national voting.

Strong Leader

"The loss of control of different aspects of state sovereignty, including fiscal policy, makes leaders of these [European right-wing] parties attracted to strong leaders," Polyakova said. "Far-right parties find the idea of a strong statesman, one who is not restricted by entities like the European Union, very inspirational in these circumstances."

Putin's defiance of the global establishment through his criticism of American and European policymaking has earned him supporters among the leaders of political parties disillusioned with the EU.

Siderov of Bulgaria's nationalist Ataka party came to Moscow in 2012 to celebrate Putin's 60th birthday. He said at the time that the EU ought to negotiate for Russia's accession, rather than Turkey's, Bulgarian media sources reported. Le Pen has also clearly demonstrated her admiration for Putin.

"We do not find [Putin's] qualities of courage, honesty, and respect of identity and civilization in other French political movements," Le Pen told Austrian newspaper Kurier in May, taking a subtle jab at French President Francois Hollande, the long-time leader of the country's Socialist Party.

Le Pen even said France should abandon NATO and form a military alliance with Russia along the Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis, which would represent the creation of a Pan-European Union that would include Russia. The party lists this notion as the first of its 11 key principles on foreign policy.

Defender of Traditional Values

What the Kremlin's ties to right-wing parties lack in ideological objectives, they make up for with similar views on public morality and the role of tradition in modern society, pundits said.

Leaders of various European far-right parties have reiterated their support for Russia as a beacon of conservative Christian morality against rampant Western decadence.

Vona of Hungary's Jobbik party said at a lecture at the prestigious Moscow State University last year that Russia represents European values "much better" than Europe itself does because Russia "preserves its traditions and does not follow the culture of money and the masses," according to the party's website.

At his annual state of the nation address in December 2013, Putin asserted Russia's moral superiority over the West amid harsh criticism for the country's law banning the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors," viewed by liberal Western government as an intrinsic violation of the rights and freedoms of the country's LGBT community.

"This destruction of traditional values from above not only leads to negative consequences for society, but is also essentially anti-democratic, since it is carried out on the basis of abstract, speculative ideas, contrary to the will of the majority," Putin said, referring to the West's review of its "norms of morality."

Russia's crusade against what Putin referred to as the "destruction of traditional values" — which includes its stance against gay rights and its crackdown on illegal migration — is in part what draws France's National Front and other European far-right parties to it.

Putin is "conscious that we are defending common values," Le Pen told Kurier. "These are the values of European civilization."


Heinz-Christian Strache

The leader of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), Heinz-Christian Strache, is in Moscow for a discussion on “overcoming the crisis in Europe”.

This comes amid speculation as to whether the FPÖ might have received financial support from Russia, after a Moscow strategypaper seen by German media revealed that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been advised to influence Europe through right-wing populist parties including Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD).

The round-table discussion is being chaired by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Strache is accompanied by the chairman of the Vienna FPÖ Johann Gudenus, the party’s foreign policy spokesman Johannes Hübner, and science spokesman Andreas Karlsböck. In a press statement the FPÖ said that the meeting was being attended by politicians, scientists and experts from across Europe.

After France’s far-right National Front party admitted to securing a €9 million Russian bank loan in what appears to be a Kremlin bet on the future of French politics, Austrian newspapers speculated as to whether the FPÖ might also have benefited financially from its open support for Putin. Gudenus immediately denied this.

The national manager for the social democrats, Norbert Darabos, said that he found "the extent to which the FPÖ has recently courted Russia very striking". He called on Strache to speak out, rather than relying on Gudenus, and explain the nature of the “strategic friendship”.

On Tuesday Strache released a statement from Moscow saying "we are confident of our neutrality and do not receive any financial contributions". He added that he was keen to know if the SPÖ was getting any money from the US for its anti-Russian, pro-Nato position.

Naftali Bennett: "I say to the Americans: we will manage the matters of the state of Israel ourselves"


A war of words has erupted between Israel and its closet ally, the United States, after a leading right-wing politician told Washington to mind its own business over a highly contentious bill to declare the country a Jewish state while stripping Arabs of national rights.

The rebuff was delivered by Naftali Bennett, the economy minister and leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party, after the US State Department suggested the bill - approved by the cabinet on Sunday - undermined Israel's democratic credentials.

"Israel is a Jewish and democratic state and all its citizens should enjoy equal rights. We expect Israel to stick to its democratic principles," said Jeff Rathke, a state department spokesman.

That drew a quick riposte from Mr Bennett, who told Israel Radio: "I say to the Americans: we will manage the matters of the state of Israel ourselves."

The exchange occurred as bitter divisions over the proposed nation-state law threatened to tear apart the rickety coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, amid rising speculation about a possible early general election.

A scheduled vote on the bill in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, was postponed from Tuesday until next week in an effort to find a compromise after two prominent centrists, Tzipi Livni, the justice minister, and Yair Lapid, the finance minister, said they would quit the government - effectively collapsing the coalition - if the legislation passed in its current form.

The bill approved in Sunday's bitterly divisive cabinet meeting would define Israel as "the nation-state of the Jewish people", enshrine Jewish law as the basis of the legal system and relegate Arabic from its current status as an official language.

Opponents say it elevates Israel's Jewish character at the expense of its status as a democracy, set out in the country's 1948 declaration of independence.

Ms Livni, leader of the centrist Hatnua party - who had a heated exchange with Mr Netanayahu during the cabinet meeting - called the bill "jingoistic, divisive and [driven by] a group of extremists" at a conference in Sderot on Tuesday.

The liberal Haaretz newspaper was equally scathing, warning that it would "remove the State of Israel from the community of democratic nations, and give it a place of honor instead beside those dark regimes in which minorities are persecuted".

Mr Netanyahu, who supported a more hardline form of the legislation approved by Ze'ev Elkin, a Right-wing MP from his Likud party, said the change was necessary because of challenges - from Palestinians and others - to Israel's status a Jewish state.

Critics, however, warn that the bill encourages racism at a time when tensions are already running high between Israel's Jews and its Arab minority, who make up 20 per cent of the population.


Russia Gets Greater Control Over Black Sea Region

Russia tightened its control Monday over Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia with a new treaty envisaging closer military and economic ties with the lush sliver of land along the Black Sea.

The move drew outrage and cries of "annexation" in Georgia and sent a chill through those in Abkhazia who fear that wealthy Russians will snap up their precious coastline. It also raised further suspicions in the West about Russian President Vladimir Putin's territorial aspirations after his annexation of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March.

Under the treaty signed by Putin and Abkhazia's leader in the nearby Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russian and Abkhazian forces in the territory will turn into a joint force led by a Russian commander.

Putin said Moscow will also double its subsidies to Abkhazia to about 9.3 billion rubles (over $200 million) next year.

"I'm sure that cooperation, unity and strategic partnership between Russia and Abkhazia will continue to strengthen," he said.

"Ties with Russia offer us full security guarantees and broad opportunities for socio-economic development," Abkhazian President Raul Khadzhimba said.

Russian troops have been deployed in Abkhazia for more than two decades since the region of 240,000 people broke away from Georgia in a separatist war in the early 1990s. Still, Monday's agreement reflected a clear attempt by Moscow to further expand its presence and came only after a change of leadership in the territory.

Coming amid a chill in Russia-West ties over the Ukrainian crisis, the deal raised concern about Moscow's plans. The Black Sea region has always been important for Putin, who justified the annexation of Crimea by saying it would guarantee that NATO warships would never be welcome on the peninsula, the home base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

NATO's secretary-general condemned the treaty, stressing that the alliance supports Georgia's sovereignty. He also called on Russia to reverse its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another breakaway province, as independent states.


"This so-called treaty does not contribute to a peaceful and lasting settlement of the situation in Georgia," Jens Stoltenberg said. "On the contrary, it violates Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity and blatantly contradicts the principles of international law, OSCE principles and Russia's international commitments."

The U.S. also said it wouldn't recognize Russia's move and expressed continued support for Georgia's sovereignty.

"The United States will not recognize the legitimacy of any so-called 'treaty' between Georgia's Abkhazia region and the Russian Federation," the U.S. State Department said in a statement.

Abkhazia's former leader, Alexander Ankvab, was forced to step down earlier this year under pressure from protesters who reportedly were encouraged by the Kremlin. Khadzhimba, a former Soviet KGB officer, was elected president in an early vote in August that Georgia rejected as illegal.

Unlike Ankvab, who had resisted Moscow's push to let Russians buy assets in Abkhazia, Khadzhimba has appeared more eager to listen to Russia's demands.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry denounced the new agreement as a "step toward the de-facto annexation" of Abkhazia and called on the international community to condemn the move.

Russian-Georgian relations were ruptured by war in August 2008 after former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili attempted to restore control over South Ossetia. The Russian military routed the Georgian forces in five days and Moscow recognized both rebel provinces as independent states.

The Georgian Dream bloc led by Russia-friendly billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, which unseated Saakashvili's party in the 2012 vote, has sought to repair ties with Moscow. But while economic relations have improved, political ties have remained frozen because of Moscow's refusal to compromise on the status of Georgia's separatist regions.

Saakashvili's United National Movement party has accused the Georgian government of kowtowing to Moscow.

"The Georgian government has done practically nothing," said party leader David Bakradze, who urged the government to join Western sanctions against Russia and opt out of political talks with Moscow.

The deal with Abkhazia appears to reflect Moscow's concerns that Saakashvili's party could mount a political comeback and push for stronger ties with the West.

24 November 2014

New Counter-Terrorism Bill Will Prohibit 'Extremist' Speakers from British Universities

Extremest Speakers = Truth Tellers

British schools and universities will soon be legally obligated to prevent terrorist radicalization on their campuses, Home Secretary Theresa May announced on Monday.

Under Britain's new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which will be introduced on Wednesday, universities will be barred from hosting extremist speakers — although May did not elaborate on what will constitute "extremist" speech. In addition to prisons, probation providers, and local councils, schools and colleges will also have a statutory duty "to help prevent people from being drawn into terrorism." This new duty, said May, "will be enforceable by court orders."

"It is far from clear how universities and other public bodies will be required to 'cooperate' or how they will be able to identify 'extremist' speakers," Thomas Hughes, executive director of the human rights organization Article 19, told VICE News. "A flourishing education system depends on lively and diverse debate. The vague measures that Theresa May alluded to in her speech raise serious concerns regarding academic freedom."


Thanks for the precedent: 'Dropping Pretense of Democracy,' Israel Advances Bill for Jewish Nation-State

Critics warn that the measure, which still requires approval by parliament, would further codify religious and ethnic discrimination against Palestinians and other non-Jews while institutionalizing a theocratic shift to the right.

"The cabinet's vote is another clear indication that Israel is dropping any pretense of it being a democracy," Josh Ruebner of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, told Common Dreams. "Israel more than ever self-identifies as an apartheid state which exists for the privilege and benefit of one set of people and discriminates against another."

The bill, which is backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would amend Israel's Basic Law to designate Israel "the national homeland of the Jewish People."
"The right to self-determination in the state, according to the bill, is limited to Jews," writes Aeyal Gross for Haaretz. "Others only have 'personal rights according to any law.' Most of the principles in the bill, relating to heritage, symbols, holidays, and the role Hebrew law plays in legislation, equate the state with only one group."

According to Ruebner, the bill would further subject the approximately 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian to deeper levels of oppression and mistreatment by adding to the more than 50 discriminatory laws on Israel's books.

"This bill is, in many respects, a logical outcome of Israel's turning inward, becoming more of a fascist culture and society, and developing a politics that's growing increasingly intolerant of any Palestinian presence in all of historic Palestine, not just Israel's armistice borders," said Ruebner.

Michael Marder argues in Al Jazeera that much of the bill, if passed, "will only confirm the ongoing discrimination that [Palestinian Israelis] have been subjected to well before the drafting of the new law."

23 November 2014

Europa: Ocean World

Forget moonmen and those old “canals” on Mars , if you want to find life in our solar system, your best bet might be to set your sights beyond the asteroid belt to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which appears to be frozen stiff at first glance.

But appearances can be deceiving, and scientists now believe that beneath Europa’s icy shell lies a tidally-heated liquid water ocean that could contain all the building blocks for life. In February, suspicions that the jovian moon is not frozen solid were bolstered by the observation of vapor plumes emanating from its surface in a new analysis of Hubble telescope data.

NASA has requested public funds to begin planning a mission to Europa, and in July it put out a call for proposals for science instruments that could ride along on the long trip, potentially to help search for signs of life there.


“The possibility of life on Europa is a motivating force for scientists and engineers around the world,” said NASA’s John Grunsfeld at the time.

Last week, NASA seemed to turn up the Europa charm offensive a notch, putting out some “re-mastered” images of the icy world and a new video touting its potential as a dark water world hidden beneath a frozen shell.  

While there are those who are skeptical about NASA’s enthusiasm for Europa’s biological potential, Kevin Hand, an astrobiologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lays out the preponderance of evidence in the video below. He says there is a “high degree of confidence” that a liquid ocean on Europa exists today and has existed for billions of years.

“For the first time in the history of humanity we have the tools and technology and capability to potentially answer this question (of the existence of life beyond Earth), and we know where to go to find it.” Hand says. “Jupiter’s ocean world, Europa.”

A new "remastered" image of Jupiter's moon Europa has made it look like the beginning of life itself - an embryo

France’s pro-White National Front funded by Russian lender


The French pro-White National front’s cosiness with Vladimir Putin’s Russia is back in the spotlight as Marine Le Pen’s party confirms it borrowed nine million euros from a Russian lender, saying “no one else will give us a cent”.

France’s pro-White National Front (FN) said Sunday it had borrowed the money from Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank (FRCB), confirming a report by the investigative news website Mediapart.

The party treasurer Wallerand de Saint-Just told France Info radio a deal was signed with the Russian lender in September.

Saint-Just said the party had received a first installment of two million euros.

“We have been looking for loans for some time, to fund our election campaigns. But our bank, like most French and European lenders, categorically refuses to give the FN and FN candidates the slightest cent,” he said.

Saint-Just has expressed similar concerns in the past, saying banks were reluctant to lend money to political parties since former president Nicolas Sarkozy was fined 500,000 euros for undisclosed expenses in his failed 2012 presidential bid.

Last November, the FN’s longtime bank Société Générale said it would no longer lend money to its client.

The surging anti-immigration party, which has made a breakthrough in the French parliament and came first in European elections in May, has long struggled to raise the cash needed to match its political ambitions.

French investigators are currently probing suspicious loans paid to FN candidates by affiliated group “Jeanne”, set up by party leader Marine Le Pen and named after French heroine Joan of Arc.

Russian influence

News of the Russian loan comes at a critical time in relations between Russia and the Judeo-plutocratic EU, which have been soured by the Ukrainian crisis.

Brussels has slapped sanctions on five Russian lenders and more than 100 businessmen and politicians, including Russian nationalist lawmaker Alexander Mikhailovich Babakov, who allegedly acted as go-between in the FN’s loan deal.

FN veteran Christian Bouchet told Mediapart there was nothing wrong with reaching out to Russian banks.

“It’s certainly no worse than borrowing from [Muammar] Gaddafi,” he said, in a thinly veiled reference to ongoing investigations into claims Sarkozy received funding from the late Libyan leader for his 2007 presidential campaign.

Pointing to Le Pen’s well-known penchant for Moscow, Mediapart said the FN’s Russian funding raised concerns about “possible foreign interference in French politics”. [Mediapart made no mention of the “possible foreign interference in French politics” by the Zionist Lobby, however.]

The pro-White leader has made multiple trips to Moscow since taking over from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011.

She has made no secret of her respect for President Vladimir Putin, repeatedly slamming EU leaders for stoking a “new Cold War” with Russia.

She has been particularly critical of French President François Hollande’s decision to suspend delivery of two Mistral-class warships to Moscow, accusing the government of bowing to pressure from the US.