Investors face another Washington deadline

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Investors face another Washington-imposed deadline on government spending cuts next week, but it's not generating the same level of fear as two months ago when the "fiscal cliff" loomed large.

Investors in sectors most likely to be affected by the cuts, like defense, seem untroubled that the budget talks could send stocks tumbling.

Talks on the U.S. budget crisis began again this week leading up to the March 1 deadline for the so-called sequestration when $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts are scheduled to take effect.

"It's at this point a political hot button in Washington but a very low level investor concern," said Fred Dickson, chief market strategist at D.A. Davidson & Co. in Lake Oswego, Oregon. The fight pits President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats against congressional Republicans.

Stocks rallied in early January after a compromise temporarily avoided the fiscal cliff, and the Standard & Poor's 500 index <.spx> has risen 6.3 percent since the start of the year.

But the benchmark index lost steam this week, posting its first week of losses since the start of the year. Minutes on Wednesday from the last Federal Reserve meeting, which suggested the central bank may slow or stop its stimulus policy sooner than expected, provided the catalyst.

National elections in Italy on Sunday and Monday could also add to investor concern. Most investors expect a government headed by Pier Luigi Bersani to win and continue with reforms to tackle Italy's debt problems. However, a resurgence by former leader Silvio Berlusconi has raised doubts.

"Europe has been in the last six months less of a topic for the stock market, but the problems haven't gone away. This may bring back investor attention to that," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.


The spending cuts, if they go ahead, could hit the defense industry particularly hard.

Yet in the options market, bulls were targeting gains in Lockheed Martin Corp , the Pentagon's biggest supplier.

Calls on the stock far outpaced puts, suggesting that many investors anticipate the stock to move higher. Overall options volume on the stock was 2.8 times the daily average with 17,000 calls and 3,360 puts traded, according to options analytics firm Trade Alert.

"The upside call buying in Lockheed solidifies the idea that option investors are not pricing in a lot of downside risk in most defense stocks from the likely impact of sequestration," said Jared Woodard, a founder of research and advisory firm in Forest, Virginia.

The stock ended up 0.6 percent at $88.12 on Friday.

If lawmakers fail to reach an agreement on reducing the U.S. budget deficit in the next few days, a sequester would include significant cuts in defense spending. Companies such as General Dynamics Corp and Smith & Wesson Holding Corp could be affected.

General Dynamics Corp shares rose 1.2 percent to $67.32 and Smith & Wesson added 4.6 percent to $9.18 on Friday.


The latest data on fourth-quarter U.S. gross domestic product is expected on Thursday, and some analysts predict an upward revision following trade data that showed America's deficit shrank in December to its narrowest in nearly three years.

U.S. GDP unexpectedly contracted in the fourth quarter, according to an earlier government estimate, but analysts said there was no reason for panic, given that consumer spending and business investment picked up.

Investors will be looking for any hints of changes in the Fed's policy of monetary easing when Fed Chairman Ben Bernake speaks before congressional committees on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Shares of Apple will be watched closely next week when the company's annual stockholders' meeting is held.

On Friday, a U.S. judge handed outspoken hedge fund manager David Einhorn a victory in his battle with the iPhone maker, blocking the company from moving forward with a shareholder vote on a controversial proposal to limit the company's ability to issue preferred stock.

(Additional reporting by Doris Frankel; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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Hufner wins final luge World Cup meet

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Olympic luge champion Tatjana Hufner edged out two other Germans to win the women's singles in the final World Cup meet of the season, a test event for the Sochi Winter Games next year.

Natalie Geisenberger, the current world champion and Olympic bronze medalist, finished second in Saturday's meet, but had already won the overall World Cup before the competition started. Anke Wischnewski was third.

Geisenberger had the fastest time of the day at 50.894 seconds in the first run, but Hufner's two-run combined time of 1 minute 41.922 seconds was 0.038 faster. Wischnewski placed second in the overall World Cup standings and Hufner was third.

Although bobsledders and skeleton riders had expressed dissatisfaction with the ice quality at the Sanki track earlier in February, Saturday's sliders praised the conditions.

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New Privately Built Rocket Passes Key Engine Test

A new commercial rocket designed to launch unmanned cargo missions to the International Space Station passed a key engine test Friday night (Feb. 22), setting the stage for the booster’s debut flight in the months ahead, NASA officials say.

The Virginia-based company Orbital Sciences Corp. test-fired the first stage engines of its new Antares rocket at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Va. — the home of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The so-called “hot fire” test ignited the Antares rocket‘s engines for 29 seconds without ever leaving the launch pad.

Friday’s engine test was aimed at verifying the fueling systems at the spaceport’s launch Pad-0A and Antares rocket first stage would perform as expected during an actual mission, Orbital officials said.

“Initial review of the test data indicate the primary objectives of the test were accomplished,” Orbital officials wrote in a status update. “The pad and fueling systems will undergo post-test inspections and any necessary reconditioning work will be performed.”

Orbital Sciences is one of two private spaceflight companies with billion-dollar NASA contracts to provide unmanned cargo delivery missions to the International Space Station. Under its $ 1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract, Orbital will make at least eight delivery flights to the space station using its Antares rocket and robotic Cygnus spacecraft. The first Antares rocket test flight is expected later this year. [Antares Rocket and Cygnus Explained (Infographic)]

The Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is the other company with a NASA contract for unmanned space station deliveries. SpaceX has a $ 1.6 billion contract to fly at least 12 missions to the space station using its Dragon space capsules and Falcon 9 rocket. The company launched both a test flight and a bona fide delivery mission to the space station in 2012. The second delivery flight under the contract is slated to launch on March 1.

“This pad test is an important reminder of how strong and diverse the commercial space industry is in our nation,” Phil McAlister, director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. “A little more than one year after the retirement of the space shuttle, we had a U.S company resupplying the International Space Station. Now, another is taking the next critical steps to launch from America’s newest gateway to low-Earth orbit.”

With the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in 2011, the space agency is relying on new private rockets and spacecraft to ferry cargo — and eventually astronauts — to and from low-Earth orbit. NASA is currently dependent on Russia, Europe and Japan for cargo deliveries to the space station. Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft are the only vehicles currently available to ferry astronauts to and from the station.  

Orbital’s engine Friday test marked the company’s second attempt to check the Antares rocket’s dual AJ26 rocket engines, which are designed to provide 680,000 pounds of thrust. A first attempt on Feb. 13 was aborted before engine ignition due to a “low pressurization” detection during a nitrogen purge in the rocket’s aft engine compartment, Orbital officials said in an update.

Orbital officials are now working toward test flights of the Antares rocket and its Cygnus spacecraft. The first demonstration flight falls under a separate contract for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, and is expected to launch later this year.

This story was updated Saturday at 6 a.m. ET to include information on the success of Friday’s Antares rocket engine test and comments from NASA and Orbital Sciences.

You can follow Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter @tariqjmalik. Follow on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & Google+

Copyright 2013, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Analysis: Italian election explained

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


  • Silvio Berlusconi is campaigning to win his old job back for the fourth time

  • The eurozone's third largest economy is hurting, with unemployment surpassing 11%

  • Pier Luigi Bersani of the center-left Democratic Party is expected to narrowly win

  • Italy's political system encourages the forming of alliances

(CNN) -- Little more than a year after he resigned in disgrace as prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi is campaigning to win his old job back -- for the fourth time.

Berlusconi, the septuagenarian playboy billionaire nicknamed "Il Cavaliere," has been trailing in polls behind his center-left rival, Per Luigi Bersani.

But the controversial media tycoon's rise in the polls in recent weeks, combined with widespread public disillusionment and the quirks of Italy's complex electoral system, means that nothing about the race is a foregone conclusion.

Why have the elections been called now?

Italian parliamentarians are elected for five-year terms, with the current one due to end in April. However in December, Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party (PdL) withdrew its support from the reformist government led by Mario Monti, saying it was pursuing policies that "were too German-centric." Monti subsequently resigned and the parliament was dissolved.

Berlusconi -- the country's longest serving post-war leader -- had resigned the prime ministerial office himself amidst a parliamentary revolt in November 2011. He left at a time of personal and national crisis, as Italy grappled with sovereign debt problems and Berlusconi faced criminal charges of tax fraud, for which he was subsequently convicted. He remains free pending an appeal. He was also embroiled in a scandal involving a young nightclub dancer - which led him to be charged with paying for sex with an underage prostitute.

MORE: From Venice to bunga bunga: Italy in coma

He was replaced by Monti, a respected economist and former European Commissioner, who was invited by Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano to lead a cabinet of unelected technocrats. Monti's government implemented a program of tax rises and austerity measures in an attempt to resolve Italy's economic crisis.

Who are the candidates?

The election is a four-horse race between political coalitions led by Bersani, Berlusconi, Monti, and the anti-establishment movement led by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo. Polls are banned within two weeks of election day, but the most recent ones had Bersani holding onto a slender lead over Berlusconi, followed by Grillo in distant third.

READ MORE: Will Monte Paschi banking scandal throw open Italy's election race?

The center-left alliance is dominated by the Democratic Party, led by Bersani. He is a former Minister of Economic Development in Romano Prodi's government from 2006-8 -- and has held a comfortable lead in polls, but that appears to be gradually being eroded by Berlusconi.

Italy's political system encourages the forming of alliances, and the Democratic Party has teamed with the more left-wing Left Ecology Freedom party.

The 61-year-old Bersani comes across as "bluff and homespun, and that's part of his appeal -- or not, depending on your point of view," said political analyst James Walston, department chair of international relations at the American University of Rome.

He described Bersani, a former communist, as a "revised apparatchik," saying the reform-minded socialist was paradoxically "far more of a free marketeer than even people on the right."

Bersani has vowed to continue with Monti's austerity measures and reforms, albeit with some adjustments, if he wins.

At second place in the polls is the center-right alliance led by Berlusconi's PdL, in coalition with the right-wing, anti-immigration Northern League.

Berlusconi has given conflicting signals as to whether he is running for the premiership, indicating that he would seek the job if his coalition won, but contradicting that on other occasions.

In a recent speech, he proposed himself as Economy and Industry Minister, and the PdL Secretary Angelino Alfano as prime minister.

Roberto Maroni, leader of the Northern League, has said the possibility of Berlusconi becoming prime minister is explicitly ruled out by the electoral pact between the parties, but the former premier has repeatedly said he plays to win, and observers believe he is unlikely to pass up the chance to lead the country again if the opportunity presents itself.

Berlusconi has been campaigning as a Milan court weighs his appeal against a tax fraud conviction, for which he was sentenced to four years in jail last year. The verdict will be delivered after the elections; however, under the Italian legal system, he is entitled to a further appeal in a higher court. Because the case dates to July 2006, the statute of limitations will expire this year, meaning there is a good chance none of the defendants will serve any prison time.

He is also facing charges in the prostitution case (and that he tried to pull strings to get her out of jail when she was accused of theft) -- and in a third case stands accused of revealing confidential court information relating to an investigation into a bank scandal in 2005.

Despite all this, he retains strong political support from his base.

"Italy is a very forgiving society, it's partly to do with Roman Catholicism," said Walston. "There's sort of a 'live and let live' idea."

Monti, the country's 69-year-old technocrat prime minister, who had never been a politician before he was appointed to lead the government, has entered the fray to lead a centrist coalition committed to continuing his reforms. The alliance includes Monti's Civic Choice for Monti, the Christian Democrats and a smaller centre-right party, Future and Freedom for Italy.

As a "senator for life," Monti is guaranteed a seat in the senate and does not need to run for election himself, but he is hitting the hustings on behalf of his party.

In a climate of widespread public disillusionment with politics, comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo is also making gains by capturing the protest vote with his Five Star Movement. Grillo has railed against big business and the corruption of Italy's political establishment, and holds broadly euro-skeptical and pro-environmental positions.

How will the election be conducted?

Italy has a bicameral legislature and a voting system which even many Italians say they find confusing.

Voters will be electing 315 members of the Senate, and 630 members of the Chamber of Deputies. Both houses hold the same powers, although the Senate is referred to as the upper house.

Under the country's closed-list proportional representation system, each party submits ranked lists of its candidates, and is awarded seats according to the proportion of votes won -- provided it passes a minimum threshold of support.

Seats in the Chamber of Deputies are on a national basis, while seats in the senate are allocated on a regional one.

The party with the most votes are awarded a premium of bonus seats to give them a working majority.

The prime minister needs the support of both houses to govern.

Who is likely to be the next prime minister?

On current polling, Bersani's bloc looks the likely victor in the Chamber of Deputies. But even if he maintains his lead in polls, he could fall short of winning the Senate, because of the rules distributing seats in that house on a regional basis.

Crucial to victory in the Senate is winning the region of Lombardy, the industrial powerhouse of the north of Italy which generates a fifth of the country's wealth and is a traditional support base for Berlusconi. Often compared to the U.S. state of Ohio for the "kingmaker" role it plays in elections, Lombardy has more Senate seats than any other region.

If no bloc succeeds in controlling both houses, the horse-trading begins in search of a broader coalition.

Walston said that a coalition government between the blocs led by Bersani and Monti seemed "almost inevitable," barring something "peculiar" happening in the final stages of the election campaign.

Berlusconi, he predicted, would "get enough votes to cause trouble."

What are the main issues?

There's only really one issue on the agenda at this election.

The eurozone's third largest economy is hurting, with unemployment surpassing 11% -- and hitting 37% for young people.

Voters are weighing the question of whether to continue taking Monti's bitter medicine of higher taxation and austerity measures, while a contentious property tax is also proving a subject of vexed debate.

Walston said the dilemma facing Italians was deciding between "who's going to look after the country better, or who's going to look after my pocket better."

He said it appeared voters held far greater confidence in the ability of Monti and Bersani to fix the economy, while those swayed by appeals to their own finances may be more likely to support Berlusconi.

But he said it appeared that few undecided voters had any faith in Berlusconi's ability to follow through on his pledges, including a recent promise to reverse the property tax.

What are the ramifications of the election for Europe and the wider world?

Improving the fortunes of the world's eighth largest economy is in the interests of Europe, and in turn the global economy.

Italy's woes have alarmed foreign investors. However, financial commentator Nicholas Spiro, managing director of consultancy Spiro Sovereign Strategy, says the European Central Bank's bond-buying program has gone a long way to mitigating investors' concerns about the instability of Italian politics.

Why is political instability so endemic to Italy?

Italy has had more than 60 governments since World War II -- in large part as a by-product of a system designed to prevent the rise of another dictator.

Parties can be formed and make their way on to the political main stage with relative ease -- as witnessed by the rise of Grillo's Five Star Movement, the protest party which was formed in 2009 but in local and regional elections has even outshone Berlusoni's party at times.

Others point to enduringly strong regional identities as part of the recipe for the country's political fluidity.

READ MORE: Italian Elections 2013: Fame di sapere (hunger for knowledge)

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Charges filed in slaying of Clemente High School student

Authorities filed charges against a 34-year-old man in connection with the shooting death of an 18-year-old Clemente High School student killed on the West Side last week.

Larry Luellen Jr., 34, was charged with first degree murder in the death of Frances Colon. Luellen is due in court today.

Luellen lives in the 3900 block of West Division Street in West Humboldt Park, around the corner from where Colon was shot. Police don't believe she was the target.

Colon is the third student at Roberto Clemente to be killed this school year, according to the school's principal Marcey Sorensen.

Rey Dorantes, 14, of the 2400 block of West Augusta Boulevard, was shot and killed on Jan. 11. His death came about a month after another Clemente student, 16-year-old Jeffrey Stewart, of the 5200 block of West Race Avenue, was shot and killed on Dec. 9.

Colon was a senior who was preparing to attend college. Hours before the shooting, she had watched President Barack Obama speak at Hyde Park Academy on the South Side about gun violence, according to her father.

Check back for more information.
Twitter: @peternickeas

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Abe vows to revive Japanese economy, sees no escalation with China

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Americans on Friday "I am back and so is Japan" and vowed to get the world's third biggest economy growing again and to do more to bolster security and the rule of law in an Asia roiled by territorial disputes.

Abe had firm words for China in a policy speech to a top Washington think-tank, but also tempered his remarks by saying he had no desire to escalate a row over islets in the East China Sea that Tokyo controls and Beijing claims.

"No nation should make any miscalculation about firmness of our resolve. No one should ever doubt the robustness of the Japan-U.S. alliance," he told the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"At the same time, I have absolutely no intention to climb up the escalation ladder," Abe said in a speech in English.

After meeting U.S. President Barack Obama on his first trip to Washington since taking office in December in a rare comeback to Japan's top job, he said he told Obama that Tokyo would handle the islands issue "in a calm manner."

"We will continue to do so and we have always done so," he said through a translator, while sitting next to Obama in the White House Oval Office.

Tension surged in 2012, raising fears of an unintended military incident near the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. Washington says the islets fall under a U.S.-Japan security pact, but it is eager to avoid a clash in the region.

Abe said he and Obama "agreed that we have to work together to maintain the freedom of the seas and also that we would have to create a region which is governed based not on force but based on an international law."

Abe, whose troubled first term ended after just one year when he abruptly quit in 2007, has vowed to revive Japan's economy with a mix of hyper-easy monetary policy, big spending, and structural reform. The hawkish leader is also boosting Japan's defense spending for the first time in 11 years.

"Japan is not, and will never be, a tier-two country," Abe said in his speech. "So today ... I make a pledge. I will bring back a strong Japan, strong enough to do even more good for the betterment of the world."


The Japanese leader stressed that his "Abenomics" recipe would be good for the United States, China and other trading partners.

"Soon, Japan will export more, but it will import more as well," Abe said in the speech. "The U.S. will be the first to benefit, followed by China, India, Indonesia and so on."

Abe said Obama welcomed his economic policy, while Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said the two leaders did not discuss currencies, in a sign that the U.S. does not oppose "Abenomics" despite concern that Japan is weakening its currency to export its way out of recession.

The United States and Japan agreed language during Abe's visit that could set the stage for Tokyo to join negotiations soon on a U.S.-led regional free trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In a carefully worded statement following the meeting between Obama and Abe, the two countries reaffirmed that "all goods would be subject to negotiations if Japan joins the talks with the United States and 10 other countries.

At the same time, the statement envisions a possible outcome where the United States could maintain tariffs on Japanese automobiles and Japan could still protect its rice sector.

"Recognizing that both countries have bilateral trade sensitivities, such as certain agricultural products for Japan and certain manufactured products for the United States, the two governments confirm that, as the final outcome will be determined during the negotiations, it is not required to make a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs upon joining the TPP negotiations," the statement said.

Abe repeated that Japan would not provide any aid for North Korea unless it abandoned its nuclear and missile programs and released Japanese citizens abducted decades ago to help train spies.

Pyongyang admitted in 2002 that its agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s. Five have been sent home, but Japan wants better information about eight who Pyongyang says are dead and others Tokyo believes were also kidnapped.

Abe also said he hoped to have a meeting with new Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who takes over as president next month, and would dispatch Finance Minister Taro Aso to attend the inauguration of incoming South Korean President Park Geun-hye next week.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Doug Palmer; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Paul Simao)

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Wall Street to rebound on HP results after two-day drop

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stock index futures rose on Friday, indicating the S&P 500 would rebound after two days of losses, boosted by better-than-expected earnings from Hewlett-Packard and positive economic data from Europe.

The S&P 500 <.spx> has dropped 1.9 percent over the past two sessions, its worst two-day drop since early November, putting the benchmark index on pace for its first weekly decline of the year. The retreat was triggered by minutes from the Federal Reserve's January meeting released earlier in the week which suggested stimulus measures may end earlier than thought.

Still, the index is up more than 5 percent for the year and has held the 1,500 support level.

"When you get a move like that, you are bound to see a pause and the Fed minutes is a good enough reason to at least reassess," said Michael Marrale, head of research, sales and trading at ITG in New York.

"But if, in fact, things do heat up a bit (in the economy), ultimately we are going to see rates go higher and ultimately, that will take money out of bonds and into equities, which is a major backstop for equities."

Hewlett-Packard Co climbed 5.1 percent to $17.97 in premarket trading after the top PC maker's quarterly revenue and forecasts beat analysts' expectations as it continued to cut costs under CEO Meg Whitman's turnaround plan.

The German Ifo business climate indicator for February surged to 107.4, its best one-month rise in more than two years, boosting optimism after Thursday's disappointing PMI data stoked concerns over the euro zone economy.

S&P 500 futures rose 8.2 points and were above fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures gained 73 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures added 14.75 points.

Abercrombie & Fitch dipped 1 percent to $48.60 in premarket trading after the clothing retailer reported a drop in fourth-quarter comparable sales, even as the latest quarterly earnings topped estimates.

Insurer American International Group Inc posted fourth-quarter results that beat analysts' expectations. Shares advanced 4.4 percent to $38.91 in premarket trading.

Marvell Technology Group Ltd rose 5.8 percent to $10.02 in premarket trading after the chipmaker forecast results this quarter that were largely above analysts' expectations as it gained market share in the hard-disk drive and flash-storage businesses.

Darden Restaurants edged up 0.3 percent to $44.89 in premarket trading after the restaurant operator issued its third-quarter and 2013 outlook.

According to Thomson Reuters data through Thursday morning, of 427 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 69.3 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 5.9 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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Inventor Spills Wine Secret: Put It in a Blender

BOSTON — Decanting wine is a common tactic among some oenophiles, and involves pouring the drink through an aerator or into a special container to let it “breathe.” But inventor and amateur chef Nathan Myhrvold has an even better and faster way: Put it in the blender.

This agitates the wine and makes it react with air more quickly, performing the same role as decanting but faster, Myhrvold said in a speech here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Saturday (Feb. 16).

But the real reason to do it? “The looks on people’s faces,” Myhrvold said. “If you do this with a wine expert in the room — it’s as if you committed some deeply unnatural act.”

“But it’s food,” he continued. “Why is it okay with daiquiris and not with Bordeaux?”

There are several possible explanations for why decanting, or blending, improves the taste, said Myhrvold, who holds nearly 250 technology-related patents and recently wrote a tome about the science of cooking, entitled “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking” (The Cooking Lab, 2011). The practice could lead to the oxidization of certain flavor compounds, vent pent-up gases like sulfur dioxide or release other volatile components from the wine, he said. [Science You Can Eat: 10 Odd Facts About Food]

Myhrvold performed his magic for a Spanish duke, one of the top winemakers in Spain, throwing the royal’s favorite red wine into the blender. The duke did a blind taste test and preferred the blended one, but didn’t believe Myhrvold afterward. If he’d “been a duke from years of old he would have run me through with his sword right there,” said Myhrvold, who was once the chief technology officer for Microsoft and now the CEO of the patent company Intellectual Ventures.

Myhrvold shared several other secrets from his investigations into the science of cooking. Among them:

  • Cucumbers are less solid than milk. The former are 95 percent water, while milk is 88 percent water.

  • Charcoal grills work via radiant energy, which leads to uneven cooking. To greatly improve a grill’s efficiency, layer the inside with aluminum foil, which reflects these electromagnetic waves.

  • If you put ground peas into a laboratory-grade centrifuge and spin it for about an hour, you will eventually get three layers of pea sediment. The middle layer yields “pea butter,” a most delicious substance that contains no fat.

Reach Douglas Main at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Douglas_Main. Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We’re also on Facebook& Google+.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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How troubled Italy fell into a coma

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


  • Bill Emmott: "Good Italy and Bad Italy" represent spit personalities of troubled country

  • In 1950s, Italy was Europe's "emerging economy" and a pioneering center for design

  • Old demons, including corruption and bloated public pensions, nearly bankrupted Italy

  • Today Italy's biggest problem is the country's refusal to take responsibility and change

Editor's note: Bill Emmott is a British journalist and was the editor of The Economist from 1993 to 2006. His book "Good Italy, Bad Italy" was published in English in 2012, and he is the narrator of "Girlfriend in a Coma," a documentary about Italy's current crisis.

(CNN) -- On my first visit to Italy, at the age of 18, I fell in love with the country and its amazing history almost at first sight, as I and my friends sailed across the lagoon on the ferry to Venice. When we returned and found our camper van had been emptied out by thieves, I felt a little less enamored, to say the least.

This was my first glimpse of the split personality of a country that is expressed nearly 40 years later in the title of my 2012 book, "Good Italy, Bad Italy," and is the theme of the new film I have just narrated for the Italian director Annalisa Piras, "Girlfriend in a Coma".

Yet what I didn't realize then, as a (fairly) innocent teenager, was quite how significant Italy's history is for the whole of the West.

Bill Emmott

Bill Emmott

The greatest case study, or cautionary tale, comes from Venice itself. In medieval times La Serenissima, as Venice is known, became the richest and most powerful city-state in the Mediterranean. It was run by a quasi-democratic "grand council", made up of the merchants who were making the city rich, an elite that was open to newcomers if they had new ideas and new energies.

But in the 14th century the elite decided to close its doors to newcomers, allowing in only those related by family to the old guard, and nationalizing trading rights. The decline of Venice began with that decision.

Italy today is like a huge re-run of that sad Venetian story. During the 1950s and 1960s, the country was Europe's own "emerging economy" of the period, enjoying the third fastest average annual GDP growth rate in the world during those decades, beaten only by Japan and South Korea. It was helped by the global move towards freer trade and by the early European Union, but also by its own then very dynamic society and economy.

New, entrepreneurial companies were formed, new ideas blossomed; Italy became a pioneering center for design, for cinema, and for fashion, and the migration of millions of workers from the poor south to the industrializing north provided the factories with labor at a competitive price.

But then old demons came back to haunt Italy. The sharp polarization, combined with fear, between left and right that was a legacy of the fascist period of Mussolini from 1917 to 1943, returned first in the form of a huge wave of strikes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then in a deadly form of political violence. Nearly 500 people died in shootings, bombings and other tragedies during the decade and a half from 1970 as extremists on both left and right fought a running battle.

As well, sadly, as taking part in the violence, governments responded by trying to buy social peace -- first by implementing a very restrictive labor law which had the effect of making the law courts the principal arbitrator in industrial disputes; and second by an explosion of public spending (and thus borrowing) chiefly on pensions and a national health system.

Public pensions became the main form of unemployment insurance, as unwanted workers were permitted to retire early and draw pensions. But public debt became the main albatross around Italy's neck as governments ran budget deficits that in 1975-95 averaged (yes, averaged) almost 10% of GDP each and every year. The result: a pioneering crisis of sovereign debt and a foretaste of the crises now roiling the eurozone, as Italy's debt load reached 120% of GDP in the early 1990s and sent the country into near bankruptcy.

That financial crisis, in the course of which the Italian lira was ejected from Europe's pre-euro exchange-rate system (along with Britain's pound sterling) coincided with a huge political crisis, as corruption investigations brought crashing down the parties that had dominated Italian politics for the past 40 years.

The crisis brought talk of a new start, a "second republic" (to succeed the first, formed with the postwar constitution in 1945-48) and even a renaissance. In the interim, governments led by so-called technocrats (a professor, a governor of the Bank of Italy, an ex-diplomat) were brought in to make reforms and give the country a much needed "reset" before normal politics would be resumed.

It didn't happen. Hence, 20 years later, Italy finds itself in yet another crisis, one that looks eerily similar. The country's sovereign debt is -- you guessed it -- 120% of GDP. A mix of financial crisis and scandals brought down the long-running government of the media billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, while also discrediting establishment politicians of all parties.

In November 2011 a technocrat, the economics professor and former European Commissioner Mario Monti, was brought in to stabilize the country's finances, make reforms and give the country a "reset" before normal politics commence again after the upcoming elections.

It is too soon to say that the "reset" -- or, to use a broader metaphor, the upgrading of Italy's cultural, political and economic software -- will fail again. But it can be said that progress has been slow and disappointing.

Prime Minister Monti succeeded in stabilizing the public finances, but at the cost of a deeper recession than in all other eurozone economies except Greece and Spain. Beyond that, however, no major reforms have been implemented -- so the justice system remains painfully slow, the labor laws still discourage hiring while leaving millions of young people on poorly paid temporary contracts, competition remains overly restricted, too many markets are over-regulated, meritocracy remains stunted, corruption remains rife, and the huge cost of politics and political privileges has been left unchanged.

These tasks all remain for whichever coalition succeeds in forming a government after the elections. They should, however, have been done during the previous 20 years. Some progress in liberalizing markets was made, but not enough to stop Italy's GDP growth rate during 2001-10 from being the 180th worst in the world, just ahead of Haiti's.

Why not? Resistance from entrenched interest groups has been strong. Berlusconi's entry into politics in 1994 was essentially designed to obstruct change, to preserve his quasi-monopolistic businesses, and to ensure the old political ways could continue. On the left, suspicion of capitalism has remained rife, trade union powers have been maintained more successfully than in Germany or even France, and the use of political patronage to build power networks and reward supporters has helped destroy meritocracy.

The big question, however, is why Italians have allowed this to happen. The answer in our film, "Girlfriend in a Coma", is taken from Italy's, and arguably Europe's, greatest ever poet: Dante Alighieri. In his "Divine Comedy" of the 14th century, the sin he condemned most vigorously was "ignavia," by which he meant sloth -- the failure to take responsibility, the failure to show moral courage and to change things.

That is the coma that filmmaker Annalisa Piras and I diagnose as the Italian condition: economic stagnation, yes, but also a failure of consciousness and responsibility, which is in effect a moral failure.

Umberto Eco, the philosopher and novelist, adds a further explanation in the film. Italians, he says, "do not have a sense of the state." They had and respected a very powerful state in Roman times but that collapsed. The only states that have successfully replaced it since then have been the city states of Venice, Florence and elsewhere, which produced great riches and even the Renaissance of art, science, humanism and culture of the 15th century, but never achieved a set of stable, respected, still-less national institutions.

To get Italy out of its coma, its second crisis of 20 years, new governments will have to work hard to fix that problem. To make sure they do so, Italians will need to shed their ignavia and to become more active and demanding -- not in their sectional or local interests, but in the national interest.

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Storm loses punch, but still socks morning commute

A winter storm that buried the Great Plains in more than a foot of snow lost some of its punch as it blew through Chicago overnight, but it still managed to slow the morning commute with slick roads and dozens of spinouts on expressways.

Snow began tapering off around 5:30 a.m., but the National Weather Service was warning of freezing drizzle through the morning and light snow in the afternoon. A winter weather advisory remains in effect until 6 p.m.

At 6 a.m., 2.7 inches had fallen at O'Hare International Airport, tying the highest total recorded there this winter, according to the National Weather Service. Accumulation ranged from 2 to 5 inches throughout the area, according to the Chicago Weather Center.

At the height of the storm shortly after midnight, state police described road conditions as "horrible." But conditions had improved by the time the morning rush hour began. Still, state police said they had responded to 22 accidents as of 7 a.m. but there were many other spinouts that didn't require their assistance.

The city of Chicago sent 284 plows to work clearing main thoroughfares, according to the Streets and Sanitation Department.

Dozens of schools closed because of the storm, or delayed start times.

The storm, which is moving toward the Northeast, has forced the cancellation of nearly 400 flights at O'Hare and delays for 80 more.

Flurries could linger into the weekend, with a chance for light snow on Saturday.  High temperatures both days should be around 30, with lows in the low 20s and high teens both mornings.

Kansas bore the brunt of the storm, with up to 15 inches of snow in some parts of the state, according to the National Weather Service. A 200-mile stretch of Interstate 70 in central Kansas was closed and strewn with cars stuck in snow.

National Guard troops riding in Humvees were dispatched to look for stranded motorists along the interstate and other highways, said Sharon Watson, a spokeswoman for Kansas emergency management services.

The fierce storm triggered severe thunderstorms from eastern Texas to Georgia. Thunder accompanied snow in Kansas City, hit by 2 to 3 inches of snow per hour on Thursday morning.

"When there is thunder and lightning, it's a pretty screaming clue that you are going to have massive snowfall," said Andy Bailey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill, Missouri.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback declared states of emergency because of hazardous travel and possible power outages. Brownback ordered state offices closed because of the storm.

Kansas City International Airport was closed on Thursday while crews cleared runways. It was unclear when the airport would reopen, spokesman Joe McBride said.

At the Denver International Airport, some 55 commuter flights were canceled overnight, spokeswoman Laura Coale said. More than 320 flights in and out of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport were scrapped and nearly 50 flights in and out of Omaha's Eppley Airfield were listed as canceled by midday.

In Nebraska, a 19-year-old woman was killed in a two-car accident on Wednesday on Interstate 80 near Giltner. The Nebraska State Patrol said weather was a factor.

An 18-year-old man died in Oklahoma when his vehicle slid into a semi-truck on a slushy state highway, the state's highway patrol said.

The storm is expected to reach the East Coast this weekend, delivering heavy snow to parts of New England for a third straight weekend, from northern Connecticut to southern Maine.

Reuters contributed

Twitter: @ChicagoBreaking

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Iran appears to advance in construction of Arak nuclear plant

VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran appears to be advancing in its construction of a research reactor Western experts say could offer the Islamic state a second way of producing material for a nuclear bomb, if it decided to embark on such a course, a U.N. report showed.

Iran has almost completed installation of cooling and moderator circuit piping in the heavy water plant near the town of Arak, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a confidential report issued to member states late on Thursday.

Nuclear analysts say this type of reactor could yield plutonium for nuclear arms if the spent fuel is reprocessed, something Iran has said it has no intention of doing. Iran has said it "does not have reprocessing activities", the IAEA said.

In its previous report on Iran, in November, the Vienna-based U.N. agency said installation work at Arak was continuing, without giving any indication of how far advanced it was.

Iran rejects Western allegations it seeks to develop a capability to assemble nuclear weapons, saying its atomic program is entirely peaceful and that the Arak reactor will produce isotopes for medical and agricultural use.

Iran says it plans to begin operating the facility in the first quarter of 2014, the IAEA said. Tehran last year postponed the planned start-up from the third quarter of 2013, a target that Western experts said always had seemed unrealistic.

The Arms Control Association, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said late last year that it was questionable whether Iran would be able to meet the new target date as well, in view of "significant delays and impeded access to necessary materials" because of international sanctions imposed on Iran.

Western worries about Iran are focused largely on uranium enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow, as such material refined to a high level can provide the fissile core of an atomic bomb. But experts say Arak may also be a proliferation issue.

The Arak facility is a "growing source of concern", said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation and disarmament program of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think-tank.

Israel, believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed state, sees Iran's nuclear program as a serious danger and has threatened to attack its atomic sites if diplomacy and sanctions fail to resolve the decade-old dispute.

If it does, the nuclear sites at Natanz, Fordow and Arak in central Iran are likely to be targets. Fitzpatrick said it could be Arak that triggers a conflict because attacking it after it is launched could cause an environmental disaster.


Thursday's quarterly IAEA report showed Iran expanding its uranium enrichment program in defiance of tightening Western sanctions, installing advanced centrifuge machines at its main enrichment plant near the town of Natanz.

The report, issued just a few days before six world powers and Iran are due to resume negotiations after an eight-month hiatus, underlined the tough task facing the West in seeking to pressure Tehran to curb its nuclear activities.

Cliff Kupchan, Middle East director at the Eurasia consultancy, said Iran had adopted a defiant policy of pressing ahead with its nuclear program, despite harsh sanctions.

"As a result, Israel and the U.S. Congress will press a receptive U.S. administration to move forward with new and even harsher sanctions," he said in a research note.

Enriched uranium can fuel nuclear power plants, Iran's stated aim, but also provide the explosive core of a nuclear weapon if refined much further. Making plutonium from spent fuel is a second way of obtaining potential bomb material.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a U.S. think-tank, noted that Iran planned to use a medical research reactor in Tehran, known as TRR, to test fuel for Arak.

"The TRR is now more than a medical isotope production reactor, Iran's stated use for the reactor, and is necessary for the operation" of Arak, it said in a report.

If operated optimally, the heavy-water plant could produce about nine kilograms (20 pounds) of plutonium a year, or enough for about two nuclear bombs annually, ISIS has said previously.

"Before it could use any of the plutonium in a nuclear weapon, however, it would first have to separate the plutonium from the irradiated fuel," it added on its website.

Iran has repeatedly declared it has no plans to reprocess the spent fuel. But, "similarly sized reactors ostensibly built for research" have been used by India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan to make plutonium for weapons, Fitzpatrick said.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Stock futures lower following jobless claims data

TORONTO, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Canada's Rebecca Marino, a rising star in women's tennis, stepped away from the sport in search of a normal life on Wednesday, weary of battling depression and cyber-bullies. Ranked number 38 in the world two years ago, the 22-year-old admitted she had long suffered from depression and was no longer willing to make the sacrifices necessary to reach the top. "After thinking long and hard, I do not have the passion or enjoyment to drive myself to the level I would like to be at in professional tennis," Marino explained in a conference call. ...
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Prosecutors: Pistorius top cop should be dropped

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — Prosecutors reinstated attempted murder charges against a policeman leading the murder investigation into world-famous athlete Oscar Pistorius, in the latest twist in a case that has captivated South Africa and threatens to bring down a national idol.

The announcement that detective Hilton Botha faces reinstated charges in connection with a 2011 shooting incident came a day after he testified for the prosecution in Pistorius' bail hearing, and by all accounts bungled his appearance. He acknowledged Wednesday that nothing in Pistorius' account of the fatal Valentine's Day shooting of his girlfriend contradicted what police had discovered.

The spokeswoman for the nation's prosecutors urged that Botha be removed from the Pistorius case.

Pistorius, an Olympian whose lower legs were amputated when he was less than a year old, claims he mistook girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp for an intruder when he shot her in a locked bathroom in his home.

Bulewa Makeke, spokeswoman for South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority, acknowledged Thursday that the timing of the attempted murder charges is "totally weird" but said Botha should be dropped from the case against the world-famous athlete. However, Makeke said the charges against Botha were reinstated on Feb. 4, before his testimony Wednesday and even before Steenkamp was killed. Police said they were notified Wednesday of the reinstated charges which stem from a 2011 shooting incident in which Botha and two other officers allegedly fired at a minibus.

Makeke indicated the charge was reinstated because more evidence had been gathered. She said the charge against Botha was initially dropped "because there was not enough evidence at the time. But then, obviously the investigation continued up to the fourth (of) February and the senior public prosecutor was in a position to make a decision to reinstate the case."

She emphasized that it is a decision for police and not prosecutors whether to take Botha off the Pistorius case, one that has riveted the world's attention and is bringing scrutiny on South Africa's justice system.

"Is he going to be dropped from the case? I don't know. I think the right thing would be for him to be dropped," Makeke said outside Pretoria Magistrate's Court shortly before Pistorius' bail hearing went into a third day. "Obviously there will be consultations between the two (police and prosecutors) to determine what is the best course of action."

Pistorius' main sponsor Nike, meanwhile, suspended its contract with the Paralympic champion, following eyewear manufacturer Oakley's decision to suspend its sponsorship Monday. Nike said in a brief statement on its website: "We believe Oscar Pistorius should be afforded due process and we will continue to monitor the situation closely."

Botha was summoned by the magistrate at the start of Thursday's proceedings. Pistorius' bail hearing began on Tuesday and is already running behind schedule, with it expected to have been completed on Wednesday.

Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair asked the defense: "Do you think there will be some level of shock if the accused is released?"

Defense lawyer Barry Roux responded: "I think there will be a level of shock in this country if he is not released."

Earlier Thursday, Nair questioned Botha over delays in processing records from phones found in Pistorius' house following the killing of Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and budding reality TV contestant.

"It seems to me like there was a lack of urgency," Nair said as the efficiency of the police investigation was again questioned after Botha conceded to a string of blunders on the second day of the hearing.

They did not discuss anything relating to the attempted murder charges against Botha and if he should continue on the case. Police say that Botha and two other police officers fired at a minibus they were trying to stop, and will appear in court in May to face seven counts of attempted murder.

Pistorius, in the same gray suit, blue shirt and gray tie combination he has worn throughout the bail hearing, stood ramrod straight in the dock as the magistrate arrived Thursday and then sat calmly looking at his hands as Roux picked apart the prosecution's argument. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the athlete was slumped over and sobbing uncontrollably at times as detail was read out of how Steenkamp died in his house.

Roux continued to cast doubt on the state's case and the investigation, following up after lead investigator Botha conceded Wednesday that police had left a 9 mm slug in the toilet where Steenkamp died, had lost track of illegal ammunition found in the home and that Botha himself had walked through the scene without protective shoe covers, possibly contaminating the area.

"The poor quality of the evidence offered by investigative officer Botha exposed the disastrous shortcomings of the state's case," Roux said Thursday. "We cannot sit back and take comfort that he is telling the truth."

Roux also raised issue of intent, saying the killing was not "pre-planned" and referred to a "loving relationship" between the two.

He said an autopsy showed that Steenkamp's bladder was empty, suggesting she had gone to use the toilet as Pistorius had claimed. Prosecutors claim Steenkamp had fled to the toilet to avoid an enraged Pistorius.

"The known forensics is consistent" with Pistorius' statement, Roux said. The lawyer said the evidence does not even show Pistorius committed a murder.

Botha also testified earlier Thursday that he had investigated a 2009 complaint against Pistorius by a woman who claimed the athlete had assaulted her. He said that Pistorius had not hurt her and that the woman had actually injured herself when she kicked a door at Pistorius' home.

Botha was only questioned for 15 minutes before he was excused by Nair, but South Africa's prosecuting authority and the police still had to make a decision over whether the 24-year police veteran would be removed from the investigation because of the charges against him.

In summing up the defense argument in the bail hearing, Roux asked that bail restrictions be eased for Pistorius, who then began crying softly.


AP Sports Writer Gerald Imray in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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Drones Large and Small Coming to US

Most of the drones that have begun to appear in the skies above the U.S. homeland don’t resemble the Predators or Reapers flown by the U.S. military and CIA above Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead, these smaller versions of flying, unmanned vehicles almost rival the animal kingdom in their diversity.

Government agencies such as NASA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection operate aircraft-size military drones that take off from runways like airplanes. Labs in the United States have even built tiny drones that look like hummingbirds. But most drones resemble the radio-controlled aircraft and toy helicopters flown by hobbyists for decades, capable of taking off horizontally, vertically or by being thrown into the air like a trained falcon or hawk.

“To say they’re all the same is not accurate at all,” said Kevin Lauscher, an industrial sales representative for Draganfly Innovations Inc.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration does not plan to permit drones armed with weapons in U.S. civilian airspace, according to an official quoted by the Washington Times. But state agencies, sheriff’s offices and universities have already found more widespread use for drones that carry cameras for taking photos or video from above.

“If you look at the capabilities, there are small, quad helicopters and rotor helicopters that can be fitted with a camera and fit in the palm of your hand,” Lauscher told TechNewsDaily. “They go all the way up [in size] to a Global Hawk,” which is a relatively large military drone.

Draganfly Innovations builds small drones weighing less than 5 pounds that fly under the control of a human operator using two joysticks. The Canadian company has sold some drones to law enforcement for taking pictures or video of traffic accidents or crime scenes, as well as aiding SWAT teams preparing to storm a building or housing compound. [7 Next Generation UAVs]

But law enforcement represents a relatively small part of Draganfly’s business. Many more clients use drones to cheaply inspect the exterior of huge factories, manufacturing facilities or construction sites. Drones could even help check on tall structures such as wind turbines, Lauscher said.

FAA drone license applications tracked by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights organization, suggest many other possible uses. Some U.S. states have begun considering drones for checking on highway traffic conditions, inspecting bridges and fighting wildfires. U.S. corporations, such as FedEx, have already begun planning for the day when drones could deliver packages.

Unlike free-flying birds, practically every unmanned aerial vehicle known as a drone flies under some form of human remote control. But university labs have already shown how pre-programmed drones can carry out intricate flight patterns, and military-grade drones have emergency backup routines in case they lose the signal connection to their human operators.

Bird watchers accustomed to spotting a gaggle of geese or a murder of crows may someday spot similar groupings of drones. Such drone swarms will likely use advanced forms of today’s artificial intelligence programs to coordinate their missions without precise human control, a future with possibilities both delightful and daunting.

“Can drone technology be abused? Absolutely,” Lauscher said. “Can they be beneficial and save lives? Absolutely.”

This story was provided by TechNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. You can follow TechNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @jeremyhsu. Follow TechNewsDaily on Twitter @TechNewsDaily, or on Facebook.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Would the pope vote be hackable?

The Conclave of Cardinals that will elect a new pope will meet in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.


  • Bruce Schneier: Rules for picking a new pope are very detailed

  • He says elaborate precautions are taken to prevent election fraud

  • Every step of the election process is observed by people who know each other

  • Schneier: Vatican's procedures, centuries in the making, are very secure

Editor's note: Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and author of "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Survive." In 2005, before the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, Schneier wrote a piece on his blog about the process. This essay is an updated version, reflecting new information and analysis.

(CNN) -- As the College of Cardinals prepares to elect a new pope, security people like me wonder about the process. How does it work, and just how hard would it be to hack the vote?

The rules for papal elections are steeped in tradition. John Paul II last codified them in 1996, and Benedict XVI left the rules largely untouched. The "Universi Dominici Gregis on the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff" is surprisingly detailed.

Every cardinal younger than 80 is eligible to vote. We expect 117 to be voting. The election takes place in the Sistine Chapel, directed by the church chamberlain. The ballot is entirely paper-based, and all ballot counting is done by hand. Votes are secret, but everything else is open.

Bruce Schneier

Bruce Schneier

First, there's the "pre-scrutiny" phase.

"At least two or three" paper ballots are given to each cardinal, presumably so that a cardinal has extras in case he makes a mistake. Then nine election officials are randomly selected from the cardinals: three "scrutineers," who count the votes; three "revisers," who verify the results of the scrutineers; and three "infirmarii," who collect the votes from those too sick to be in the chapel. Different sets of officials are chosen randomly for each ballot.

Each cardinal, including the nine officials, writes his selection for pope on a rectangular ballot paper "as far as possible in handwriting that cannot be identified as his." He then folds the paper lengthwise and holds it aloft for everyone to see.

When everyone has written his vote, the "scrutiny" phase of the election begins. The cardinals proceed to the altar one by one. On the altar is a large chalice with a paten -- the shallow metal plate used to hold communion wafers during Mass -- resting on top of it. Each cardinal places his folded ballot on the paten. Then he picks up the paten and slides his ballot into the chalice.

Pope may change rules to allow earlier election

If a cardinal cannot walk to the altar, one of the scrutineers -- in full view of everyone -- does this for him.

If any cardinals are too sick to be in the chapel, the scrutineers give the infirmarii a locked empty box with a slot, and the three infirmarii together collect those votes. If a cardinal is too sick to write, he asks one of the infirmarii to do it for him. The box is opened, and the ballots are placed onto the paten and into the chalice, one at a time.

When all the ballots are in the chalice, the first scrutineer shakes it several times to mix them. Then the third scrutineer transfers the ballots, one by one, from one chalice to another, counting them in the process. If the total number of ballots is not correct, the ballots are burned and everyone votes again.

To count the votes, each ballot is opened, and the vote is read by each scrutineer in turn, the third one aloud. Each scrutineer writes the vote on a tally sheet. This is all done in full view of the cardinals.

The total number of votes cast for each person is written on a separate sheet of paper. Ballots with more than one name (overvotes) are void, and I assume the same is true for ballots with no name written on them (undervotes). Illegible or ambiguous ballots are much more likely, and I presume they are discarded as well.

Then there's the "post-scrutiny" phase. The scrutineers tally the votes and determine whether there's a winner. We're not done yet, though.

The revisers verify the entire process: ballots, tallies, everything. And then the ballots are burned. That's where the smoke comes from: white if a pope has been elected, black if not -- the black smoke is created by adding water or a special chemical to the ballots.

Being elected pope requires a two-thirds plus one vote majority. This is where Pope Benedict made a change. Traditionally a two-thirds majority had been required for election. Pope John Paul II changed the rules so that after roughly 12 days of fruitless votes, a simple majority was enough to elect a pope. Benedict reversed this rule.

How hard would this be to hack?

First, the system is entirely manual, making it immune to the sorts of technological attacks that make modern voting systems so risky.

Second, the small group of voters -- all of whom know each other -- makes it impossible for an outsider to affect the voting in any way. The chapel is cleared and locked before voting. No one is going to dress up as a cardinal and sneak into the Sistine Chapel. In short, the voter verification process is about as good as you're ever going to find.

A cardinal can't stuff ballots when he votes. The complicated paten-and-chalice ritual ensures that each cardinal votes once -- his ballot is visible -- and also keeps his hand out of the chalice holding the other votes. Not that they haven't thought about this: The cardinals are in "choir dress" during the voting, which has translucent lace sleeves under a short red cape, making sleight-of-hand tricks much harder. Additionally, the total would be wrong.

The rules anticipate this in another way: "If during the opening of the ballots the scrutineers should discover two ballots folded in such a way that they appear to have been completed by one elector, if these ballots bear the same name, they are counted as one vote; if however they bear two different names, neither vote will be valid; however, in neither of the two cases is the voting session annulled." This surprises me, as if it seems more likely to happen by accident and result in two cardinals' votes not being counted.

Ballots from previous votes are burned, which makes it harder to use one to stuff the ballot box. But there's one wrinkle: "If however a second vote is to take place immediately, the ballots from the first vote will be burned only at the end, together with those from the second vote." I assume that's done so there's only one plume of smoke for the two elections, but it would be more secure to burn each set of ballots before the next round of voting.

The scrutineers are in the best position to modify votes, but it's difficult. The counting is conducted in public, and there are multiple people checking every step. It'd be possible for the first scrutineer, if he were good at sleight of hand, to swap one ballot paper for another before recording it. Or for the third scrutineer to swap ballots during the counting process. Making the ballots large would make these attacks harder. So would controlling the blank ballots better, and only distributing one to each cardinal per vote. Presumably cardinals change their mind more often during the voting process, so distributing extra blank ballots makes sense.

There's so much checking and rechecking that it's just not possible for a scrutineer to misrecord the votes. And since they're chosen randomly for each ballot, the probability of a cabal being selected is extremely low. More interesting would be to try to attack the system of selecting scrutineers, which isn't well-defined in the document. Influencing the selection of scrutineers and revisers seems a necessary first step toward influencing the election.

If there's a weak step, it's the counting of the ballots.

There's no real reason to do a precount, and it gives the scrutineer doing the transfer a chance to swap legitimate ballots with others he previously stuffed up his sleeve. Shaking the chalice to randomize the ballots is smart, but putting the ballots in a wire cage and spinning it around would be more secure -- albeit less reverent.

I would also add some kind of white-glove treatment to prevent a scrutineer from hiding a pencil lead or pen tip under his fingernails. Although the requirement to write out the candidate's name in full provides some resistance against this sort of attack.

Probably the biggest risk is complacency. What might seem beautiful in its tradition and ritual during the first ballot could easily become cumbersome and annoying after the twentieth ballot, and there will be a temptation to cut corners to save time. If the Cardinals do that, the election process becomes more vulnerable.

A 1996 change in the process lets the cardinals go back and forth from the chapel to their dorm rooms, instead of being locked in the chapel the whole time, as was done previously. This makes the process slightly less secure but a lot more comfortable.

Of course, one of the infirmarii could do what he wanted when transcribing the vote of an infirm cardinal. There's no way to prevent that. If the infirm cardinal were concerned about that but not privacy, he could ask all three infirmarii to witness the ballot.

There are also enormous social -- religious, actually -- disincentives to hacking the vote. The election takes place in a chapel and at an altar. The cardinals swear an oath as they are casting their ballot -- further discouragement. The chalice and paten are the implements used to celebrate the Eucharist, the holiest act of the Catholic Church. And the scrutineers are explicitly exhorted not to form any sort of cabal or make any plans to sway the election, under pain of excommunication.

The other major security risk in the process is eavesdropping from the outside world. The election is supposed to be a completely closed process, with nothing communicated to the world except a winner. In today's high-tech world, this is very difficult. The rules explicitly state that the chapel is to be checked for recording and transmission devices "with the help of trustworthy individuals of proven technical ability." That was a lot easier in 2005 than it will be in 2013.

What are the lessons here?

First, open systems conducted within a known group make voting fraud much harder. Every step of the election process is observed by everyone, and everyone knows everyone, which makes it harder for someone to get away with anything.

Second, small and simple elections are easier to secure. This kind of process works to elect a pope or a club president, but quickly becomes unwieldy for a large-scale election. The only way manual systems could work for a larger group would be through a pyramid-like mechanism, with small groups reporting their manually obtained results up the chain to more central tabulating authorities.

And third: When an election process is left to develop over the course of a couple of thousand years, you end up with something surprisingly good.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bruce Schneier.

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Judge poised to rule in Drew Peterson case

Drew Peterson could be sentenced to up to 60 years in prison today if a judge rejects defense team arguments that his former lead attorney's inept trial performance violated his constitutional rights to a fair trial.

Judge Edward Burmila is expected to rule Thursday whether the former Bolingbrook police sergeant will get a new trial, a rarely granted motion.

If not, Burmila will begin a sentencing hearing at which prosecutors have said they plan to argue Peterson also killed his fourth wife, Stacy, who went missing in 2007, in asking for the maximum sentence.

Peterson, 59, was convicted by a jury last fall of first-degree murder in the 2004 bathtub drowning of his third wife, Kathleen Savio.

Among the oddities Wednesday, during the unusual hearing on post-trial motions that has stretched across two days, was former Peterson lead attorney Joel Brodsky chatting in a courthouse hallway with Stacy's sister Cassandra Cales.

Both declined to detail their conversation. “We were just discussing how to make sure that her sister Stacy isn't forgotten after Drew goes away,” Brodsky said.

Much of Wednesday's hearing focused on Brodsky's trial decision to call Wheaton divorce attorney Harry Smith, who represented Savio in her bitter divorce fight with Peterson and also fielded a call from Stacy about her divorce options shortly before she vanished.

Smith testified at trial that Stacy had asked him if the fact that Peterson killed his third wife could be used as leverage in a divorce.

Several jurors said after trial that the testimony convinced them of Peterson's guilt. There was no physical evidence tying Peterson to Savio's death, which was initially treated as an accident.

Retired Cook County Judge Daniel Locallo, called as a witness by Peterson's attorneys, blasted Brodsky for calling Smith, saying the testimony for the first time at trial connected Peterson to Savio's death.

The retired judge said that, in his opinion, Brodsky's decisions constituted ineffective assistance of counsel, which can be grounds for a new trial.

“It was an awful decision,” defense attorney Steve Greenberg later argued in court. “It ruined the case -- we brought out the worst possible evidence, and the best evidence for the state.”

The defense team also attempted to call to the stand Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow to explain his comment in a courthouse hallway during the trial that Smith's testimony was “a gift from God.”

Greenberg wanted to use the statement to contradict prosecutors' argument that Smith's testimony was part of well-thought-out defense strategy.

Burmila first called Glasgow to be sworn in, but stopped the process after prosecutors said Peterson had failed to meet the legal standards necessary to call him.

Assistant State's Attorney Marie Czech argued that Brodsky's decision to call Smith was a calculated risk to discredit Stacy by attempting to show she was out for money, and not grounds for a new trial.

“There was a strategic decision,” she argued. “It was well-conceived.”

Greenberg argued that the upside was so small and the risks so monumental that there was no way Brodsky's decision could have been part of a reasonable trial strategy.

“Whatever kernel of impeachment Mr. Brodsky thought he was going to get out of it paled in comparison to the mountain of damage that it brought out,” Greenberg said. “It was awful strategy, and that strategy alone means Mr. Peterson should get a new trial from this court.”

Brodsky, who could be heard sighing loudly as he listened to Wednesday's arguments in an overflow room, continued to assert that he was not alone in the decision to call Smith, saying Greenberg supported the decision.

“A number of lies and misrepresentations were made about me today, but you know, I've got tough skin,” Brodsky said. “I can handle that.”

Stacy's older sister Cales said she was “very excited” that Peterson could be sentenced Thursday.

“Even if he gets the minimum of 20 years, technically that's life for him because he's an old man,” she said.

Cales said that she still holds out hope that someone will come forward with information about her sister's disappearance. Prosecutors have said they are reviewing the case again with an eye to possibly bringing charges.

“Maybe that person out there will have a conscience and come forward because Drew will be away at prison and will be unable to hurt them,” Cales said.

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Cameroon, Nigeria officials deny French hostages freed

YAOUNDE (Reuters) - The fate of seven French tourists seized in Cameroon by suspected Nigerian Islamist militants was unclear on Thursday after government officials denied French media reports that they had been freed.

The hostages, four children and three adults, were captured this week while on an excursion to the Waza national park near Cameroon's border with Nigeria.

Several French media reported earlier on Thursday that the hostages had been found alive in a house in northern Nigeria and freed.

"The hostages are safe and sound and are in the hands of Nigerian authorities," BFMTV quoted a Cameroon army officer as saying.

"This is a crazy rumor that we cannot confirm. We do not know where is it coming from," Cameroon Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary said by telephone from the capital Yaounde.

Sagir Musa, a spokesman for Nigeria's military, told Reuters the report was "not true."

Kader Arif, France's minister for veterans' affairs, told parliament on Thursday that the seven hostages had been released but retracted his statement minutes later, saying he had been quoting media reports and there was no official confirmation.

It was the first case of foreigners being seized by suspected Islamist militants in the mainly Muslim north of Cameroon, a former French colony.

The region is seen as being within the operational sphere of Nigerian sect Boko Haram and another Islamist militant group, Ansaru.

The threat to French nationals in the region has grown since France deployed thousands of troops to nearby Mali to root out al Qaeda-linked Islamists who took control of the country's north last year.

The kidnapping in Cameroon brought to 15 the number of French citizens being held in West Africa.

French diplomatic sources said the government would not confirm the hostages had been released until it had physical proof, or until they were in French hands.

(Reporting By Emile Picy and Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; Additional reporting by Joe Brock in Abuja and Bate Felix and John Irish in Dakar; Editing by Pravin Char and Tom Pfeiffer)

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Wall Street set for flat open after data, Fed minutes on tap

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were poised for a flat open on Wednesday as data showed the economy continues to show modest improvement before the minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee's January meeting later in the session.

Groundbreaking to build new U.S. homes fell 8.5 percent in January but new permits for construction rose to a 4 1/2-year high while producer prices rose in January for the first time in four months.

The data should enable the Fed to maintain its easy monetary policy in its efforts to stimulate the economy.

Later in the session, investors will look to the minutes from the Fed's January meeting for any indication as to how long the current monetary policy will remain in effect.

"It's hard in any given data point to take a strong conclusion that we are moving dramatically forward, but over time, clearly things are getting better," said Robert Lutts, chief investment officer at Cabot Money Management in Salem, Massachusetts.

Lutts described an economy that was addicted to stimulus.

"The bottom line is the economy is on heroin today and we will at one time move to a diluted form of heroin, but it's very important for people to remember we are still on an unbelievably aggressive, never-seen-before accommodative policy and this economy is going to improve."

U.S. stocks moved closer to all-time highs on Tuesday, as the ongoing flurry of merger activity to start the year has helped protect equities from a pullback.

The S&P 500 <.spx> is up 7.4 percent for the year, fueled by legislators' ability to sidestep an automatic implementation of spending cuts on tax hikes on January 1, better-than-expected corporate earnings and modestly improving economic data that has been tepid enough for the Fed to maintain its stimulus policy.

S&P 500 futures added 0.2 points and were about even fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures gained 6 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures rose 0.75 point.

U.S. oil and gas producer Devon Energy Corp reported a fourth-quarter loss as it wrote down the value of its assets by $896 million due to weak gas prices.

Toll Brothers Inc lost 3 percent to $35.80 in premarket trade after the largest luxury homebuilder in the United States, reported first-quarter results well below analysts' estimates.

SodaStream dropped 3.7 percent to $50.50 in premarket after the seller of home carbonated drink maker machines posted fourth-quarter earnings and provided a 2013 outlook.

According to Thomson Reuters data through Tuesday morning, of the 391 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 70.1 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 5.6 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Nick Zieminski)

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