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(506) 2223-1327                     Published Friday, Feb. 8, 2013,  in Vol. 13, No. 28                Email us
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Arenal hotel operator and two sons found murdered
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
Posted Saturday at 2:20 p.m.
A hotel operator and his two sons became murder victims early Saturday, and their bodies were found in different locations around the tourist community that is dominated by the Arenal volcano.

Dead are  Geovany Soto, the father, and sons Emanuel and Juan. The father was 52 and the sons were 29 and 22, said the Judicial Investigating Organization.

Judicial agents said that neighbors in the vicinity of the Río Fortuna waterfalls, a well-known tourist spot, heard shots about 1 a.m. Fuerza Pública officers who responded found the body of the 22 year old in a microbus. That was about 1 a.m.
At 6:30 a.m. a passer-by notified police that there were two bodied at a lot near a location called  Torre de Monterrey.

The 22 year old, believed killed about 1 a.m. suffered multiple gunshot wounds, said a judicial police report. The two other victims died from knife wounds, it said.

News files identified the father as the manager of the  Hotel Montaña del Fuego in 2008 when he was involved with a consumer action for failing to provide rooms as promised. He later was identified on the Internet as being associated with the Hotel Mountain Paradise, which describes itself online as a 46-room four-star hotel. Judicial agents did not provide the name of the man's hotel in the report.

Maize genetics debate pits science against emotions
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The latest environmental crusade is against genetically modified corn or, perhaps more correctly, against the international business giant Monsanto.

The crusade has a patriotic theme: To protect historical Costa Rican corn species from pollution from the pollen of a Monsanto import.

Lined up against the proposal to import and grow modified corn here also are expat supporters of organic foods, beekeepers, students, the Escuela de Nutrición of the Universidad de Costa Rica medical school, and a host of others. Many municipalities have issued prohibitions against genetically modified crops in their borders.

Yet, the Comisión Técnica Nacional de Bioseguridad has approved the request by a Monsanto subsidiary,  DPL Semillas S.A., to plant a small test patch to produce seeds for export. Opponents and the sole legislator from the left-leaning Frente Amplio have carried the case to the Sala IV constitutional court.

Ironically, genetically modified crops most likely are part of the daily diet here. Two researchers, including a Stanford University molecular biologist, report that there are 1.25 billion hectares (some 3.4 billion acres) planted around the globe with genetically modified drops.

The pair, Henry I. Miller of Stanford, and Graham Brookes, a UK economist, dismiss the idea that there is a genuine controversy over the safety of the crops and foods derived from them.

". . . there is no credible evidence at all that genetically engineered crops or ingredients have disrupted a single ecosystem or caused health problems for consumers or farm workers.  In fact, the health risks associated with genetically engineered crops tend to be lower than those for conventional or, especially, organic crops, because of the lower levels of cancer- and birth defect-causing mycotoxins (in genetically engineered corn compared to organic corn in particular.)  Also, with the reduced need for spraying chemical pesticides on pest-resistant genetically engineered crops, the health risks – primarily poisonings — for farm workers and their families are significantly lower than for conventional crops." The full article is HERE!

Another of the pair's articles is HERE!

Central to the current argument against the modified corn is a recent French study that said that rats fed another type of Monsanto genetically modified corn developed tumors. The French study by Gilles-Eric Seralini and associates even turned up being praised late last year on a segment of the Mehmet Oz television show. Apparently the popular Oz never mentioned that nearly everyone in the scientific community has ripped the study.

In a display of unusual unity, the French national academies of agriculture, medicine, technology, sciences, pharmacy and veterinary sciences said that the study at the University of Caen was deeply flawed.

“Given the numerous gaps in methods and interpretation, the data presented in this article cannot challenge previous studies which have concluded that NK603 corn is harmless from the health point of view, as are, more generally, genetically modified plants that have been authorized for consumption by animals and humans,” said the statement from the French academies.

Still many European Union residents are suspicious of genetically modified crops. Some soybean farmers in Brazil have to grow their crops in regions far removed from genetically modified plants in order to export to Europe.

Some scientists questioned Seralini's motives and noted he was an  anti-modified crops activist. In addition the rats used were of a type that routinely develops tumors.

In turn, the French scientist said many of his detractors are in the pay of Monsanto or are working on modified products themselves. He issued a long rebuttal in the journal that originally published his research. That is HERE!
A.M. Costa Rica file photo
The tassel is where the pollen is produced.

Crops are modified to increase resistance against some diseases and to make it resistant to herbicides  so that corn fields can be sprayed to kill weeds without damaging the crop. Monsanto also makes Roundup, a popular herbicide. In the case of tomatoes, the modification provides longer shelf life. Peanuts also have been modified to resist pesticides.

The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture notes that modified corn is being used in many familiar foods, including corn meal and tortilla chips. In addition, corn is used to make high fructose corn syrup, which is used as a sweetener in many foods such as soft drinks and baked goods.

One strain of corn has been genetically modified by genetic material carried into it by the Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria. So it is called Bt corn. The genetic modification caused the corn plant to produce a toxin that killed the larva of the corn borer, the University of Kentucky notes. The modified corn has been available for two decades. So it is highly likely that when modified corn opponents gather to discuss strategy, they may be munching on imported corn chips or popcorn containing this modified strain. One source estimated that 85 percent of the U.S. corn harvest is from plants modified in some way.

Monsanto does not use a bacterium to modify the corn plant that is controversial here. The firm uses a virus. This is one of several techniques scientists use. Some concern has been voiced about the long-term effects of the virus.

A study released this week by the American Society of Agronomy said that Bt corn resists attack by corn rootworm, a pest that feeds on roots and can cause annual losses of up to $1 billion. Researchers Fred Below and Jason Haegele of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign also found that this Bt trait has also boosted corn yields, in some cases beyond normal expectations. The report is HERE!

Below said Bt corn has healthier and more active roots than corn without the resistance trait. And a better root system can lead to improved function for the plant as a whole, according to a society news release.

Opponents to genetically modified corn stress the possibility that the Monsanto product would pollute the genome of what they call vintage Costa Rican strains. Since corn is pollenated by the air, no one can control where the pollen goes from the male tassels of each plant.

However, no one really knows which corn strains are the so-called vintage variety. One researcher estimated that there are at least 48 different strains, but there could be more. There has yet to be DNA studies of the various plant strains here.

So since corn or maize was developed in México or Central America the various strains have been interbreeding. The original human selective breeding with corn may have started 9,000 years ago.

The appeal to the constitutional court has effectively halted any action by the Monsanto subsidiary in planting the corn. Meanwhile, the opponents, who have little science on their side, will continue protests and marches.

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Scammer used online ad
to defraud auto buyer

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The judicial police outlined a scam Thursday that has all the attributes of a long-distance Nigerian fraud.

A man appears to have sent $6,000 to an account in London, England, at the request of a woman he never met. The money was to buy a Toyota Land Cruiser at a cut-rate price.

The man, who was not identified, spotted the vehicle in a classified ad on the Internet, said the Judicial Investigating Organization. In an email exchange the woman told the man the low price was because she was out of the country and had to sell the vehicle. And she wanted money in advance.

Of course, after the man paid the money, he was unable to contact the woman again.

The words Nigerian scam are used broadly to include fraudsters all over the world. But scammers with Nigerian nationality frequently use London addresses. They have been known to target Costa Rica with low-price offers on electronics and hospitality frauds. If payment for advertising is required, they use stolen credit cards.

The judicial police urged residents to be wary.

A.M. Costa Rica does not accept certain forms of advertising from persons outside of the country. In addition, suspicious advertising is rejected until the customer provides additional information.

In the hospitality scam, well known to most hotel keepers, the fraudster makes a reservation for a visiting group and pays for it with a stolen credit card. Then suddenly and for apparent legitimate reasons the reservation is cancelled and the scammer asks that the money be refunded.

Northeast U.S. bracing
for possible historic storm

by the A.M. Costa Rica staff and wire service reports

There will be another bump for tourism because the northeast United States is bracing for a major winter storm. Airlines have canceled hundreds of flights.

Authorities are urging people to stay home and off the roads, and said the major winter storm was potentially of historic size and strength.

The National Weather Service has issued blizzard warnings from Friday morning through Saturday afternoon from Maine to New York, including Boston and New York City. As much as 61 centimeters of snow is expected, about two feet.

Conditions during the height of the storm are predicted to be deadly, with temperatures below freezing, almost no visibility and wind gusts as high as 105 kph, about 65 mph.

Forecasters say the effects of this storm could rival a blizzard in 1978 that buried Boston under 69 centimeters of snow and crippled New England for days.

Due to the expected impact of a winter storm, Frontier Airlines said it has enacted guidelines for travel to, from or through Allentown, Harrisburg, New York's LaGuardia airport and Trenton.  Customers may make one itinerary change. Rules and restrictions regarding standard change fees, advance purchase, day or time applications, blackouts, and minimum or maximum stay requirements have been waived, the airline said.

The airline's flights from Denver to San José will not be affected, but there may be a problem with feeder flights. Other airlines have waived similar rules.

Find out what the papers
said today in Spanish

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Here is the section where you can scan short summaries from the Spanish-language press. If you want to know more, just click on a link and you will see and longer summary and have the opportunity to read the entire news story on the page of the Spanish-language newspaper but translated into English.

Translations may be a bit rough, but software is improving every day.

When you see the Summary in English of news stories not covered today by A.M. Costa Rica, you will have a chance to comment.

This is a new service of A.M. Costa Rica called Costa Rica Report. Editor is Daniel Woodall, and you can contact him
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Chinese new year arriving with emphasis on sharing culture
By Kayla Pearson
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Those who used the Gregorian calendar have already counted down, popped fireworks and created resolutions to bring in the New Year 2013.  Yet those who follow the Chinese calender must wait until Sunday for the spring festival that welcomes the year 4711.

The Chinese new year always starts with the new moon and ends with a lantern festival 15 days later on the full moon.  For this calendar Tuesday marks the beginning of the year of the snake.  Despite popular western tales that describe the snake as deviant and evil, persons born of the snake are said to possess great intelligence, gracefulness and materialism.

According to the Association Chino de Costa Rica, the traditions are to eat good luck dishes such as whole fish and chickens prepared with the head and feet intact, thoroughly clean the house with old brooms, decorate with reds, pay debts and launch fireworks to ward off bad luck.

In Costa Rica the Chinese chamber in conjunction with the San José municipality will invite residents to celebrate while they work to break a world record by preparing the largest pot of fried rice Tuesday.

The Centro Cultural y Educativo Costarricense Chino will follow with Chinese movie afternoons Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 4 p.m.

The scheduled movies are “The Message,” a story of government assassinations and espionage, “Ocean Heaven,” about a terminally ill man, played by Jet Li, who works in an aquarium and takes care of his son, and The Piano Factory, a depiction of a man who wants to make his daughter's dream of owning a piano come true.

Entry to see the movies are 1,000 colons, about $2.

The cultural center will also have a big celebration Feb. 23 in the Calle Chino walkway off Avenida 2 beginning at 10 a.m. On the program is the lion dance, traditional Chinese music, Tai Chi, Kung Fu and Chinese calligraphy.

Representatives from Templo Shaolin Costa Rica, Puño del Loto Blanco and Choy Lee Fut Hung Sing Gwoon Costa Rica will provide marshal arts and tai chi demonstrations as well as a brief class for visitors.

“We want to be able to share the Chinese culture mainly through the language and cultural customs,” said Juan Paul Da Bosco, cultural gestor.

For the cultural center this will be the first activity of its campaign called ChineArte.  The name comes from the verb chinear, which means to care for, cuddle or nurse a child.  It was chosen to represent the history of Chinese immigrants in Costa Rica, said Da Bosco.

According to Da Bosco, the Chinese came to work on the railroads in the late 1800s, however laws prevented both Asians and Africans to move toward the Central Valley.  Despite this, Chinese women were sought after for domestic labor.  The phrase consigue una china para que chinea tu bebe, became popular, he said.

“Chinese women were what Nicaraguan women are now,” said

Year of the snake
Logo combines the year with the snake
A.M. Costa Rica/Kayla Pearson
Juan Paul Da Bosco at work at cultural center

Da Bosco.  “Something that kept clicking was if you needed someone to take care of your child, call the Chinese.”

The word ChineArte works to encompass that history and also play on the words Chinese and art for a cultural aspect.  The goal is to bring awareness to the Chinese influence through expositions, paintings, music, theater and cultural courses.  The hope is also to open the Chinese residents up to sharing their traditions.

“People from China who live in Costa Rica have a closed culture,” said Da Bosco.  “They are not used to sharing.  They speak Chinese to each other and learn minimal Spanish.  There are families that have lived here for 50 years and don't know more than three words of Spanish.”

The Costa Ricans are just as guilty, he said.

“For Ticos each Chinese person is a copy and paste of the other,” he explained.  “They see them all as Chino, but don't stop to ask who is this person? What is his name? What is his story? Does he even eat what he sells me?”

Da Bosco is working to change this and build a communication bridge between the two worlds, something he thinks is important especially with the high density of Chinese restaurants and stores in the country.

“Now we are in a critical point, looking for funding,” he said.  “But if this works, ChineArte will have activities every month.”

Paseo Colón will host
smokeless Sunday, orchestra

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Municipalidad de San José will kick off its program, Domingos Familiares sin Humo, in Paseo Colón Sunday with a performance by La Gran Orquesta de Costa Rica. 

The grand orchestra has been performing for more than 20 years.  The concert will celebrate the day of friendship and love and the orchestra will play from 12 to 1:30 p.m. on a stage placed adjacent to the Banco de Costa Rica in Paseo Colón, said a release.

There will also be recreational activities of inflatables with water, rappelling, canopies, and tennis.

The event is free to the public.  The street will be closed from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m.

I was going to write this headline, but I got tied up . . .
 “I can’t get anything done in this country!” 

Are you at the stage where you smile when you hear that comment from a newly arrived disillusioned expat, or do you still mutter this to yourself from time to time?

Something that most of us don’t think about is that our orientation to time is influenced by our culture, and is different in different cultures.  It takes a while to learn to look at the ways of our new country in terms of being different, not comparatively better or worse than our own culture — just different. That is a good step forward, but we don’t think of time as being part of a culture. 

For Westerners, time is something that is fixed in nature, something we spend, we lose, we gain, we measure and heaven forbid, we might even waste.  We value being on time and in time and doing something in a timely fashion.  Time orientation is not something we think of as being relative.  However, it is, and it takes a while, for a person coming from what I call a market culture who finds herself in a Latin American culture (or an Asian or African culture, for that matter) to begin to realize and accept that others view and use time differently.

We can imagine time being of the essence but not being subject to the will of God (si Dios quiere.) We expect an appointment made for an appointed hour is kept promptly by both parties.  If it isn’t, we are insulted or decide that the other person lacks responsibility.  We don’t feel that it is acceptable for a doctor or bank president to be late just because he achieved degrees in order to get to his position and we are supplicants for this help.

Nor do we have much patience with the time that is spent just to establish a relationship before the business at hand must be dealt with. 

We especially don’t appreciate someone not showing up on time (or ever, until we call again), because something else came up or perhaps Dios didn’t quiere, or perhaps they don’t even acknowledge that they didn’t show up. Maybe to them it is self-evident and should be to us.  
Butterfly in the City
. . .  Musings from San José

By Jo Stuart

Jo Stuart

Before we reject their interpretation of time, we should remember that stress and pain pills are not sold in such quantities in Costa Rica as they are in the United States.  Market cultures are future oriented.  (Wall Street even reports on futures.)  Maybe the stress and pain comes from trying to be in two places at once.    

Perhaps pura vida means enjoy life now, smell the roses. “Que sera sera.” What will be, will be is certainly not a Western concept. Pura vida is more along the Buddhist idea about doing what you are doing with your whole body and mind, or in the words of Ram Das: “”Be here now.”

Sometime during the early months of settling into a new culture, a reaction known as culture shock sets in.  Probably nine out of 10 people experience it.  The symptoms include suddenly hating the language, finding people purposely devious or misleading, or looking out and seeing "another damn mountain and trees covered in yellow flowers."  Recognizing what you are going through is half the battle, as they say.  Then you carefully take yourself back to where you were and figure out just what got you to where you are. 

Or do something that is entirely satisfactory wherever you are.  I chose to walk to the Tin Jo restaurant and have a lunch of some delicious fresh and perfectly cooked asparagus.  I don’t remember what else I had.  The asparagus made me feel that where I was, was okay.  Smiling at someone I saw on the street brought a smile in return.  That queue line waiting for a bus or for a store to open may be stupidly long, but I noticed how patiently and stoically the people waited.

“Well, naturally,” you say. “They have more time than I do.” Or do they?

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A.M. Costa Rica's Fourth News page
San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, Vol. 13, No. 28
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bike acrobats
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Olman Sánchez gets in some practice before the Sunday event
Bike acrobats will have a chance to show off in Nicoya Sunday
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some 60 bicycle acrobats, including visitors from France and Panamá, are expected to show their stuff in Nicoya Sunday at the BMX War Jam.

The event is being sponsored by the municipality and the Comité Cantonal de la Persona Joven de Nicoya to raise funds to build a skate park.

Young bike experts will pay 5,000 colons, about $10 to enter
the competition, but admission for spectators is free. It will be at the Polideportivo de Nicoya.

Mayor Marco Jiménez said that the skate park will be built in  Barrio Guadalupe in Nicoya. The  project will cost 40 million colons about $80,000. The skate park will have funds from the government's Instituto Mixto de Ayuda Social.

The bike event is in its fourth year. Registration can be done electronically at or by calling  8317-4846

Modified corn produces more gain per acre, study reports
By the American Society of Agronomy news staff

Bt corn resists attack by corn rootworm, a pest that feeds on roots and can cause annual losses of up to $1 billion. But besides merely protecting against these losses, the Bt bacterial toxin has also boosted corn yields, in some cases beyond normal expectations. So what makes it so successful?

Fred Below and Jason Haegele of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign set out to answer that question by determining how Bt corn uses nitrogen in the soil. Nitrogen is an important nutrient for corn, and with better root systems, it's possible that Bt corn uses nitrogen differently than non-resistant strains, the scientists hypothesized, in turn affecting corn production. The study, published today in Crop Science, showed just that – Bt corn had higher yields and used nitrogen more efficiently than non-resistant corn.

With its resistance to corn rootworm, Below explains, Bt corn has healthier and more active roots than corn without the resistance trait. And a better root system can lead to improved function for the plant as a whole.

"If you can protect the investment the plants made in the root system," explains Below, "you can realize everything that roots do like take up nutrients and water and provide anchorage."

The researchers conducted experiments over two years, growing resistant and non-resistant crops and applying five different amounts of nitrogen. The resistant corn had higher yields than the non-resistant crops (nearly 21 bushels per acre) and more easily tolerated low nitrogen levels.
More efficient use of nitrogen in the soil would be especially beneficial in areas where nitrogen is lost through heavy precipitation or erosion. Additionally, Bt corn would fare better at current levels of nitrogen use in the United States.

"In 2010, the average nitrogen application rate for corn production was around 140 pounds an acre," said Haegele and Below. "Our study shows that the resistant strains we evaluated would have higher yields at that rate of nitrogen application."

The healthy roots and efficient nutrient use of Bt corn could lead to changes in management practices that would further increase production. Banded or placed fertility, a method by which a farmer can place fertilizer where the roots are likely to be, would be more effective when used on the robust root system. Additionally, increasing plant populations could further increase yield.

"When you have a higher population of plants, each individual plant has a smaller root system, so that made it difficult to increase plant population when you had insects chewing on the roots," explains Below. "With the Bt corn, though, you can protect the root system and grow more plants."

In addition to its utility in crop production, Below is hopeful that Bt corn will open up new avenues of research as scientists begin to better understand root systems.

"Plant roots are below ground and are hard to study," he said. "It's a big, unexplored horizon, both in agronomics and crop biology. I think that's why the trait is of such value."

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Brennan defends U.S. use
of killer drone aircraft

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

President Barack Obama’s pick for CIA director says U.S. drone strikes are carried out judiciously and in compliance with federal law. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence questioned counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan days after an administration memo surfaced that provided a legal justification for drone strikes targeting U.S. terror suspects abroad.
U.S. drones have killed scores of suspected terrorists in faraway lands. But in approving strikes against a U.S. citizen, Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, fears President Obama could be acting as judge, jury and executioner.

“It is the idea of giving any president unfettered power to kill an American without checks and balances that is so troubling," said Wyden. "Every American has the right to know when their government believes it is allowed to kill them.”

Testifying at his confirmation hearing, Brennan defended the drone program.

“We only take such actions as a last resort to save lives when there is no other alternative to taking an action that is going to mitigate that threat," said Brennan.

The hearing was interrupted by protesters condemning the deaths of innocent bystanders in drone strikes.

Brennan said the American public is misinformed about the drone program, adding that the CIA prefers to capture terrorists.

“I never believe it is better to kill a terrorist than to detain him," he said. "We want to detain as many terrorists as possible so we can elicit intelligence from them in an appropriate manner and disrupt terrorist attacks.”

As for the treatment of detainees, Brennan said waterboarding is reprehensible.

“It is something that should have been banned long ago. It never should have taken place, in my view," he said.

Drones are low-cost, lethal machines, according to Georgetown University national security expert Christopher Swift.

“From a purely counter-terrorism operations standpoint, drones have proven to be extremely effective in Pakistan and in Yemen," said Swift.

But their use comes at a price: They fan local anti-U.S. sentiment.

“To the extent that our use of force in somebody else’s country creates political resentment, or feeds into concerns about colonialism or American imperialism, or to the extent that it reinforces this notion that the United States is at war with Islam, it is highly problematic for us," he said.

If confirmed, Brennan would follow David Petraeus, who resigned as CIA director after an extramarital affair came to light.

Study says trees grow bigger
with higher night temperature

By the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center
news service

Scientists Alex Cheesman and Klaus Winter question conventional beliefs about tropical forest response to higher temperatures.

Rainforest trees grown at higher nighttime temperatures put on more than twice as much weight as their counterparts grown under normal circumstances, according to a new study by the scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. This result may force climate modelers who assume trees grow slower at increased temperatures to reconsider the impacts of climate change on tropical forests.

Although global temperatures rose on average by about 0.2°C per decade since 1975, the tropics warmed more quickly, with an average temperature increase of about 0.26°C per decade. And nighttime temperatures rose even faster than daytime temperatures, at least in central Panamá. According to Cheesman, a post-doctoral fellow who co-authored the study with center staff scientist Winter: “Meteorological monitoring on Panama’s Barro Colorado Island revealed an increase in nighttime temperatures of 1.5 °C since 1971.” Seemingly small changes may appear insignificant but they mean our biological support systems may soon experience temperatures more extreme than anything felt in the last million years.

Researchers subjected fig and balsa tree seedlings to increased nighttime temperatures. The increase in biomass they observed counters conventional wisdom: increased respiration at higher temperatures is supposed to reduce plant weight gain.

“Our results are in total contrast to the assumptions that global climate modelers build their predictions on. As one of my colleagues said: ‘It’s not photosynthesis that’s driving growth; it’s growth that must be driving photosynthesis,’ but we have not shown that yet. We clearly need to scale up from seedlings to trees. All of this would be very easy to test if we had giant temperature-controlled greenhouse domes,” says Winter.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, Vol. 13, No. 28
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Artists give wanted woman
a series of facial makeovers

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Judicial artists have been aging and giving makeovers to the family of Alejandro Jiménez González, who is accused of setting up the murder in Guatemala of musical legend Facundo Cabral. Cabral was in a car with the man who was the presumed target of the ambush.

Jiménez is in custody but judicial agents still are looking for his family. They released speculative graphics of his parents earlier this week. Thursday they released graphics of his wife, Wendy Pérez Sánchez.

His family vanished just as Jiménez was named as the suspected author of the killing. Judicial agents raided their homes, but they have not been seen since shortly after the July 11, 2011 killing.

Jiménez was picked up in Panamá and extradited to Guatemala.

The target of the shooting was Henry Fariñas, a businessman who had dealing with Jiménez. Farinas survived.

There is no indication that his family was involved in the murder, but they are being investigated for money laundering.

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U.S. space agency gutted by low budget

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Two recent U.S. reports, one by the National Research Council in December and another by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel in January, have criticized U.S. space policy for lacking focus and also the funds necessary to carry out the goals set by the president and Congress. The reports echoed the complaints of many critics, including a number of former astronauts, who say the space shuttle program should not have been ended before there was another vehicle to replace it.

When the U.S. space shuttle was still flying, the Johnson Space Center in Houston was a busy place.

But now, all the shuttles are in museums and the Johnson Space Center has laid off hundreds of highly skilled technicians.

That's a shame, according to former Johnson Space Center director George Abbey, who is now at Rice University.

“Those programs and those people are gone to us, and trying to rebuild that now is going to be a real challenge,” Abbey said.

The new director of the Johnson Space Center is former astronaut Ellen Ochoa, who is working with what is left of the U.S. human spaceflight program.

“Programs do come and go. That is not always within our control here, but we want to work as hard at what is within our control, which is making our current operational programs in human space flight successful,” Ms. Ochoa said.

Ms. Ochoa says the Johnson Space Center continues its role as mission control for the International Space Station, while NASA develops new rockets and seeks cost-effective ways of using older technology.

“We understand that we are under budget constraints.  We want to make as much use of many things that we already have in development,” Ms. Ochoa said.

But experts at a recent conference at Rice University said the U.S. space program is being undermined by politics.

Professor Joan Johnson-Freese of the U.S. Naval War College says the 2010 proposal to visit an asteroid is an example of a goal with no plan.

“It's been three years now, and I would suggest if that is, in fact, a goal they are serious about, there ought to be first steps taken,” Johnson-Freese said.

The conference panel also called for more coordination between U.S. government laboratories, the Defense Department and NASA — and for more international cooperation.

A former U.S. astronaut and International Space Station commander, Leroy Chiao, cites successful cooperation with Russia as a guide.

“I think we should expand that leadership to include countries like China.  China is the only other country — only other entity right now — capable of launching astronauts into space,” Chiao said.

But cooperation with China on space endeavors has been blocked by Congress, and funding of the U.S. program is threatened by Congressional budget battles.

Still, Ms. Ochoa remains upbeat about NASA's future.

“We are doing everything we can, day by day, to move exploration forward," Ms. Ochoa said.

But NASA's ambitious plans for space exploration will ultimately depend on cost-conscious lawmakers in the U.S. Congress, now struggling to reduce the nation's massive budget deficit.

NASA captures image of new comet

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

NASA has captured the first images of a distant comet, which may give the world a spectacular light show later this fall.

The images of comet C/2012 S1 (ISON), were taken by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft from Jan. 17 and 18 when the comet was 493 million miles away, according to a NASA release.

"This is the fourth comet on which we have performed science observations and the farthest point from Earth from which we've tried to transmit data on a comet," said Tim Larson, project manager for the Deep Impact spacecraft at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The distance limits our bandwidth, so it's a little like communicating through a modem after being used to DSL. But we're going to coordinate our science collection and playback so we maximize our return on this potentially spectacular comet."

As comets approach, the sun’s energy warms them, releasing gas and dust which form a comet’s luminous tail. While ISON is still distant, NASA says it is already active, with a tail extending more than 40,000 miles form the comet’s nucleus. ISON is expected to come as close as 40 million miles to Earth on Dec, 26 of this year.

ISON is known as a long-period comet. These can have orbits lasting hundreds, thousands or even millions of years. NASA believes this is ISON’s first orbit, which means it is likely “laden with volatile material just spoiling for some of the sun's energy to heat it up and help it escape.” That could mean quite a show, but NASA cautions the comet could break up as well.

ISON was discovered on Sept. 21 by two Russian astronomers using the International Scientific Optical Network's 16-inch (40-centimeter) telescope near Kislovodsk.

Marijuana use linked to risk of strokes

By the American Stroke Association news service

Marijuana, the most widely used illicit drug, may double stroke risk in young adults, according to research presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2013.

In a New Zealand study, ischemic stroke and transient ischemic attack patients were 2.3 times more likely to have cannabis, also known as marijuana, detected in urine tests as other age and sex matched patients, researchers said.

“This is the first case-controlled study to show a possible link to the increased risk of stroke from cannabis,” said P. Alan Barber, study lead investigator and professor of clinical neurology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. “Cannabis has been thought by the public to be a relatively safe, although illegal substance. This study shows this might not be the case. It may lead to stroke.”

The study included 160 stroke patients 18-55 years old who had urine screens upon admission to the hospital. Among the patients, 150 had ischemic stroke and 10 had transient ischemic attacks. Some 16 percent of patients had positive drug screens, mostly male who also smoked tobacco.

A transient ischemic attack is a stroke that comes and goes quickly due to loss of blood flow to the brain.  Ischemic is a more prolonged episode.

Only 8.1 percent of controls tested positive for cannabis in urine samples. Researchers found no differences in age, stroke mechanism or most vascular risk factors between marijuana users and non-users.

In previous case reports, ischemic stroke and transient ischemic attacks developed hours after cannabis use, Barber said. “These patients usually had no other vascular risk factors apart from tobacco, alcohol and other drug usage.”

It’s challenging to perform prospective studies involving illegal substances such as cannabis because questioning stroke and control patients about cannabis use is likely to obtain unreliable responses, Barber said.

In the study, the regional ethics committee allowed researchers to use urine samples from other hospitalized patients. But researchers knew only the age, sex and ethnicity for matching due to a lack of consent.

The study provides the strongest evidence to date of an association between cannabis and stroke, Barber said. But the association is confounded because all but one of the stroke patients who were cannabis users also used tobacco regularly.

“We believe it is the cannabis and not tobacco,” said Barber, who hopes to conduct another study to determine whether there’s an association between cannabis and stroke independent of tobacco use. “This may prove difficult given the risks of bias and ethical strictures of studying the use of an illegal substance,” he said. “However, the high prevalence of cannabis use in this cohort of younger stroke patients makes this research imperative.”

Physicians should test young people who come in with stroke for cannabis use, Barber said.

“People need to think twice about using cannabis,” because it can affect brain development and result in emphysema, heart attack and now stroke, he said.

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