Science welcomes Megavirus, the world’s most ginormous virus

There are many weird viruses on this planet, but none weirder–in a fundamentally important way–than a group known as the giant viruses.

For years, they were hiding in plain sight. They were so big – about a hundred times bigger than typical viruses – that scientists mistook them for bacteria. But a close look revealed that they infected amoebae and built new copies of themselves, as all viruses do. And yet, as I point out in A Planet of Viruses, giant viruses certainly straddle the boundary between viruses and cellular life.

Flu viruses may only have ten genes, but giant viruses may have 1,000 or more. When giant viruses invade a host cell, they don’t burst open like other viruses, so that their genes and proteins can disperse to do their different jobs. Instead, they assemble into a “virus factory” that sucks in building blocks and spits out large pieces of future giant viruses. Giant viruses even get infected with their own viruses. People often ask me if I think viruses are alive. If giant viruses aren’t alive, they sure are close.

Ever since giant viruses were first unveiled seven years ago, scientists have argued about the origins of these not-so-wee beasties. Many of their genes are different from those found in cellular life forms, or even other viruses. It’s possible that giant viruses amassed their enormous genetic armamentarium over billions of years, picking up genes from long-extinct host or swapping them with other viruses we have yet to find. Other scientists have suggested that giant viruses started out giant – or even bigger than they are today. Some have even argued that they represent a new domain of life, although others aren’t so sure.

A new study suggests that giant viruses are indeed ancient. It is the work of a team of French researchers led by Jean-Michel Claverie, who went searching for new giant viruses in the waters near a marine biology station in Chile. They found a new kind so different from other giant viruses that they gave it a name of its own: Megavirus.

Carl Zimmer’s blog post is enjoyable – as ever.

RTFA for the methods Claverie’s research crew used to isolate Megavirus. And look forward to the next installment in this adventure.

Bomb hoax phone call gets jail time for spurned hubby

A hoax bomber has been jailed for claiming his wife was carrying explosives aboard a transatlantic flight because he wanted to “humiliate” her after their relationship ended.

Kevin Flynn, a 31-year-old chef, phoned police to say a device was being taken on a New York-bound aircraft by his wife, Kerensa, from either Heathrow or Gatwick airport.

Flynn made the anonymous call from a phone box in Bognor Regis, West Sussex, after the couple decided to end their relationship and she was travelling home to the United States…

Judge William Wood QC said: “When there is a chance of large-scale disruption or evacuation of buildings or aeroplanes and airports, this class of misconduct is so serious there is no possibility to do anything but impose an immediate custodial sentence…”

Following the sentencing, a spokesman for Sussex Police said: “Flynn acted without care for any anxiety or disruption he might cause and our investigation and the sentence reflects the seriousness with which we and the courts take such hoaxes.”

RTFA for the details of the soap opera.

Fact is that if the coppers hadn’t been sharp and connected Flynn to an earlier call from his home they might have gone for an emergency evacuation of the plane and the nearby terminal. You don’t always succeed in something like that being safe and orderly. Some innocent person could have been injured in a fear-driven stampede – just for his anger at his wife.

Dad harassed for taking photos of daughter eating ice cream

One of the “terrorist” photos

A father has been questioned by police under anti-terror laws for taking pictures of his own daughter in a shopping centre.

Chris White was approached by staff after taking a photograph of four-year-old Hazel eating an ice cream in the Braehead shopping centre near Glasgow on Friday afternoon. Mr White was questioned by a security guard, who told him it was illegal to take pictures in the centre. He was then asked to delete any photos he had taken from his mobile phone.

Mr White explained that he had already uploaded two photos, in which his daughter was pictured riding a novelty motorbike in an ice cream parlour, to his Facebook page.

The police were called and Mr White was told there were “clear signs” saying no photographs were allowed. He said one officer claimed that he was within his rights to confiscate the mobile phone containing the pictures under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Lazyass coppers everywhere in the Western world have learned they can shout “Terrorist” and get away with crushing the civil rights of any ordinary citizen.

A Facebook group set up in support of Mr White has called for supporters to boycott the Braehead shopping centre in protest over his treatment. By Monday afternoon, more than 7,700 people had “liked” the ‘Boycott Braehead’ campaign page.

A spokesman for Braehead said…”We have a ‘no photography’ policy in the centre to protect the privacy of staff and shoppers and to have a legitimate opportunity to challenge suspicious behaviour if required. However, it is not our intention to – and we do not – stop innocent family members taking pictures.”

Then put up longer signs with all the ifs, outs and excuses. Meanwhile, the question remains about the legitimacy of inventing private regulations which are counter to constitutional rights. Even for Glaswegians, right?

Supt George Nedley, of Renfrewshire and Inverclyde division…said a full review had been launched.

California bookkeeper — with at least 398 bank accounts — may be the “Bernie Madoff of campaign finance treasurers”

In Democratic circles, the 58-year-old bookkeeper with at least 398 bank accounts for political campaigns and nonprofit groups had a reputation for being prompt and responsive.

Neighbors and associates say there’s nothing in Kinde Durkee’s background, demeanor or lifestyle to suggest that she “masterminded a multimillion dollar fraudulent scheme,” as U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein charged in a Sept. 23 lawsuit. While Feinstein reported $5 million in cash to the Federal Election Commission as of June 30, the bank found only $662,100 on Sept. 21, according to court documents…

The scope of the alleged embezzlements from Durkee- controlled funds for federal politicians is the largest at least since the Federal Election Campaign Act became law in 1972, said Kent Cooper, a former Federal Election Commission official.

“There’s been no one else who even comes close,” Cooper, who now runs the money-in-politics database Capitol Hill Access…

Feinstein’s campaign also sued First California Bank, the operating unit of Westlake Village, California-based First California Financial Group Inc. (FCAL), where Durkee had 398 accounts. Chief Executive Officer Chong Guk Kum didn’t respond to voice mail messages requesting comment. Gary Horgan, a company lawyer, said in an e-mail that the bank would not comment.

Things started to unravel for Durkee in 2010, when the California Fair Political Practices Commission found irregularities while auditing the political finances of Jerome Horton, the chairman of the Board of Equalization, the state’s tax administrator. Horton said Durkee “acknowledged her mistakes” during the audit and agreed to pay the commission’s $13,000 fine and his legal bills.

“I had no knowledge of the magnitude of her fraud or the extent to which others were involved until I read it in the paper,” Horton wrote in an e-mail message to Bloomberg News.

After auditing another Durkee-managed account, the commission in November 2010 called the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Public Corruption Squad in Sacramento, according to court documents. In an affidavit, FBI Special Agent Reginald Coleman said it appeared that Durkee moved money from campaign accounts to her company’s bank accounts and then transferred other candidates’ funds to cover shortfalls. She covered up her actions by filing false disclosure forms, according to the affidavit…

Several lawyers for Durkee-managed campaign accounts said they’re mystified about where any misappropriated money might have gone, noting that Durkee [and her hubbie, her staff] gave no signs of flaunting wealth.

“I find the whole thing remarkable,” said Stephen Kaufman, the lawyer for the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and several other Durkee clients, in an interview. “We have no idea where all the money went.”

Surely does sound like Madoff all over again – especially everyone being astounded at the revelations. Apparently California bureaucrats are as diligent as the SEC at oversight.

RTFA. Example after example of folks thinking they had millions in the bank when they really had a tenth of what Kinde Durkee’s paperwork told them. Personally, I can never understand how people can become divorced from their funds. Even my little checking account gets checked online every month when my social security check is due to arrive.

Coming soon to a country/city near you – the Drone Arms Race

Eventually, the United States will face a military adversary or terrorist group armed with drones, military analysts say. But what the short-run hazard experts foresee is not an attack on the United States, which faces no enemies with significant combat drone capabilities, but the political and legal challenges posed when another country follows the American example. The Bush administration, and even more aggressively the Obama administration, embraced an extraordinary principle: that the United States can send this robotic weapon over borders to kill perceived enemies, even American citizens, who are viewed as a threat…

What was a science-fiction scenario not much more than a decade ago has become today’s news. In Iraq and Afghanistan, military drones have become a routine part of the arsenal. In Pakistan, according to American officials, strikes from Predators and Reapers operated by the C.I.A. have killed more than 2,000 militants; the number of civilian casualties is hotly debated. In Yemen last month, an American citizen was, for the first time, the intended target of a drone strike, as Anwar al-Awlaki, the Qaeda propagandist and plotter, was killed along with a second American, Samir Khan.

If China, for instance, sends killer drones into Kazakhstan to hunt minority Uighur Muslims it accuses of plotting terrorism, what will the United States say? What if India uses remotely controlled craft to hit terrorism suspects in Kashmir, or Russia sends drones after militants in the Caucasus? American officials who protest will likely find their own example thrown back at them.

The problem is that we’re creating an international norm” — asserting the right to strike preemptively against those we suspect of planning attacks, argues Dennis M. Gormley…“The copycatting is what I worry about most…”

Last December, a surveillance drone crashed in an El Paso neighborhood; it had been launched, it turned out, by the Mexican police across the border. Even Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, has deployed drones, an Iranian design capable of carrying munitions and diving into a target, says P. W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, whose 2009 book “Wired for War” is a primer on robotic combat…

“I think of where the airplane was at the start of World War I: at first it was unarmed and limited to a handful of countries,” Mr. Singer says. “Then it was armed and everywhere. That is the path we’re on.”

Radio-controlled model airplanes – nowadays – aren’t a whole boatload away from capabilities of our military drones. They may be limited to smaller, lighter payloads. That doesn’t limit the inventiveness of terrorists who design underwear bombs. And no more reliance on suicide volunteers who may get nervous when the time comes to go BOOM!

But, Uncle Sugar presumes that only American genius can design these death-goodies. Just as our government thinks we’re above international law on torture, financing breakaway provinces, freedom fighters headquartered in foreign yacht clubs – our arrogance usually comes back to bite us on the butt.

Hide your credit cards from yourself – in the peanut butter jar!

Worried that you’ll break down and use your credit cards on a frivolous purchase before you pay off the balance? Make the physical cards difficult to access by placing them in a jar of peanut butter. You’ll probably want to put the cards in a plastic baggie before burying them in the jar, but if not you’ll have even more incentive not to use the card.

We’ve all seen the freeze your credit card in a block of ice trick before – hiding them from burglars – but personal finance blog Squawkfox recommends placing your credit cards in a jar of peanut butter. I can see a few advantages of using peanut butter as a delay mechanism rather than ice; it doesn’t take up any freezer space, and while most burglars know to check the freezer, very few of them will take out enough peanut butter to find your cards.

The idea being that if it’s too difficult for burglars to steal your credit cards it’s unlikely you’ll spend less-motivated energy schlepping them out of the peanut butter yourself and cleaning them up to use for an impulse purchase.

I know. It’s a pretty dumb idea. Lots wrong with it. But, every time I wander past it in the file I keep for blog ideas – I can’t help smiling. Maybe you will, too.