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Gays outraged by pope's 'homophobic attack'
December 28, 2008

VATICAN CITY - A suggestion by Pope Benedict XVI that homosexuality is as much of a threat to the survival of the human race as climate change sparked outrage among gay rights campaigners on Tuesday.

"It's the latest homophobic attack by this pope," said Gustav Hofer, co-director of a documentary on the life of a gay couple in Italy called "Suddenly Last Winter".

"The Vatican talks about homosexuality or transsexuality as if it were a whim, never as suffering," Hofer told AFP, adding that the Roman Catholic Church "reduces sexual orientation to the sexual act as if it had nothing to do with a person's identity."

In his end-of-year speech at the Vatican on Monday, the pope said gender theory blurred the distinction between male and female, and he called for "an ecology of the human being" to protect mankind "from self-destruction."

Gender theory, which Benedict referred to in English, explores how society designates fixed roles to people based on their gender and many gay groups see it as helpful to improving tolerance and understanding.

Pakistan redeploying troops to Indian border
December 28, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan began moving thousands of troops from the Afghan border toward India, officials and witnesses said Friday, raising tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors and possibly undermining the U.S.-backed campaign against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

The country also announced that it was canceling all military leave in the aftermath of last month's terror attack on the Indian financial capital of Mumbai.

India has blamed Pakistani militants for the terrifying three-day siege; Pakistan has demanded that India back this up with better evidence.

Pakistan's latest moves were seen as a warning that it would retaliate if India launches air or missile strikes against militant targets on Pakistani soil — rather than as an indication that a fourth war was imminent between the two countries.

China targets pirates in groundbreaking mission
December 28, 2008

GUANGZHOU, China – Chinese warships headed toward Somali waters Friday to combat piracy, the first time the communist country has sent ships on a mission that could involve fighting so far beyond its territorial waters.

The deployment to the Gulf of Aden, which has been plagued by increasingly bold pirate attacks in recent months, marks a major step in the navy's evolution from mostly guarding China's coasts to patrolling waters far from home.

The move was welcomed by the U.S. military, which has been escorting cargo ships in the region along with India, Russia and the European Union.

But analysts predicted the Chinese intervention could be troubling to some Asian nations who might see it as a sign of the Chinese military becoming more aggressive.

Calif. teen's family sues Cigna over transplant
December 28, 2008

LOS ANGELES – The family of a 17-year-old leukemia patient has sued health insurance giant Cigna Corp. for her death in 2007 after the company initially refused to pay for a liver transplant.

The lawsuit filed last week in Los Angeles County Superior Court by the family's attorney, Mark Geragos, alleges breach of contract, unfair business practices and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The suit accuses Cigna of delaying and rejecting valid claims, which resulted in the wrongful death of Nataline Sarkisyan.

The Philadelphia-based insurer eventually approved the transplant after Sarkisyan's family held a rally outside Cigna's suburban Los Angeles office.

Nataline, however, died hours after the approval was secured.

Amateurs are trying genetic engineering at home
December 28, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO – The Apple computer was invented in a garage. Same with the Google search engine.

Now, tinkerers are working at home with the basic building blocks of life itself. Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms through genetic engineering — a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories.

In her San Francisco dining room lab, for example, 31-year-old computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby formula and pet food deadly.

"People can really work on projects for the good of humanity while learning about something they want to learn about in the process," she said.

Millions of older Americans use risky drug combos
December 28, 2008

CHICAGO – At least 2 million older Americans are taking a combination of drugs or supplements that can be a risky mix — from blood thinners and cholesterol pills to aspirin and ginkgo capsules — a new study warns.

Among older men, the numbers are particularly alarming — one in 10 are taking potentially harmful combinations, according to the study.

The results aren't always disastrous, but older people are more vulnerable to side effects and drug-to-drug interactions.

And patients need to know that just because lots of medicines and supplements don't require prescriptions doesn't mean they're harmless.

Nor are some of these safe to take when you're prescribed other medications.

Single male rhino, 20, seeks mate to save species
December 28, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – He probably hasn't dated in two decades, but the survival of a species may depend on whether Tam can get lucky soon.

A male rhinoceros recently rescued on the edge of Borneo's rain forest is expected to become the first participant of a Malaysian breeding program for his critically endangered ilk, a wildlife expert said Wednesday.

The roughly 20-year-old Borneo Sumatran rhino, nicknamed "Tam," was found wandering in an oil palm plantation in August with an infected leg likely caused by a poacher trap.

Tam, whose species is known for its solitary nature, has been resettled in a wildlife reserve in Malaysia's Sabah state, the last preserve of the Borneo Sumatran rhino — a subspecies of the bristly, snub-nosed Sumatran rhino.

US, Russian space station crew conduct spacewalk
December 28, 2008

MOSCOW – American and Russian crewmen installed a probe Tuesday aimed at tracking down problems with a Russian module attached to the international space station and conducted an array of other maintenance and scientific work during a six-hour spacewalk.

But in a setback toward the end of the Russian-controlled mission, American Michael Fincke, the station's commander, and Russian Yury Lonchakov had to remove a device they had just installed because of data transmission problems.

A NASA video feed showed Fincke and Lonchakov in their Russian-built space suits leaving the station from a hatch on its docking compartment 200 miles above the Earth.

"OK, going out into space again," Fincke said in Russian. "It's good to be here again."

4,300-year-old pharaonic tombs unveiled near Cairo
December 28, 2008

SAQQARA, Egypt – A pair of 4,300-year-old pharaonic tombs discovered at Saqqara indicate that the sprawling necropolis south of Cairo is even larger than previously thought, Egypt's top archaeologist said Monday.

The rock-cut tombs were built for high officials — one responsible for the quarries used to build the nearby pyramids and another for a woman in charge of procuring entertainers for the pharaohs.

"We announce today a major, important discovery at Saqqara, the discovery of two new tombs dating back to 4,300 years ago," said Zahi Hawass, as he showed reporters around the site Monday.

"The discovery of the two tombs are the beginning of a big, large cemetery."

Retailers' holiday sales plummet
December 28, 2008

NEW YORK – Retailers' sales fell as much as 4 percent during the holiday season, as the weak economy and bad weather created one of the worst holiday shopping climates in modern times, according to data released on Thursday by SpendingPulse.

The figures, from the retail data service of MasterCard Advisors, show the 2008 holiday shopping season was the weakest in decades, as U.S. consumers cut spending as they confront a yearlong recession, mounting job losses and tighter credit.

"It's probably one of the most challenging holiday seasons we've ever had in modern times," said Michael McNamara, vice president of Research and Analysis at MasterCard Advisors.

"We had a very difficult economic environment. Weather patterns were not favorable toward the end of season, and that resulted in one of the most challenging economic seasons we've seen in decades."

The figures exclude auto and gas sales but include grocery, restaurant and specialty food sales. Although SpendingPulse did not exempt the food prices, McNamara said the decline would have been steeper without them.

Wall Street edges up on GMAC
December 28, 2008

NEW YORK - Stocks inched higher in thin volume on Friday as energy shares rose alongside oil and General Motors climbed after its financing arm qualified for government funds, helping it stave off potential bankruptcy.

The Federal Reserve paved the way for GMAC LLC to become a bank holding company on Wednesday, giving it access to government lending programs.

But stocks were unable to make much headway in the holiday shortened week as one of the worst years for Wall Street draws to a close.

"Everyone is hoping for a Santa Claus rally but you look at the underlying data and it's still weak," said Chip Hanlon, president of Delta Global Advisors, Inc. in Huntington Beach, California.

Retail stocks suffer but some defy dismal sales data
December 28, 2008

NEW YORK - Retail shares traded lower on Friday following data showing the first decline in holiday sales in at least 40 years, though a handful of stores defied the trend.

The Standard & Poor's Retail Index (.RLX) fell 0.3 percent, with department store chains like Dillard's (DDS.N), Macy's Inc (M.N) and the more upscale Saks Inc (SKS.N) posting share declines of 9.4 percent, 2.7 percent, and 5.7 percent respectively.

Among specialty retailers, American Eagle Outfitters (AEO.N) fell 0.7 percent, while Gap Inc (GPS.N), which owns the Banana Republic and Old Navy chains, was down 0.4 percent.

The latest data on the holiday shopping season came from SpendingPulse, the retail data service of MasterCard Advisors, which showed that sales fell 2 percent in November and 4 percent from December 1 to December 24.

Amazon says 2008 holiday season was 'best ever'
December 28, 2008

SEATTLE - Online retailer Inc. called this holiday season its "best ever," saying Friday that it saw a 17 percent increase in orders on its busiest day — a rare piece of good news in a season that has been far from merry for most retailers, including online businesses.

Amazon customers ordered more than 6.3 million items on Dec. 15, compared with roughly 5.4 million on its peak day last year, the company said.

It shipped more than 5.6 million products on its best day, a 44 percent rise over 2007, when it shipped about 3.9 million on its busiest day.

The company did not provide dollar figures and wouldn't say whether the average value of orders had changed, and the jumps it reported Friday are in line with increases Amazon has seen since it started releasing the figures in 2002.

Uproar in Australia over plan to block Web sites
December 28, 2008

SYDNEY, Australia - A proposed Internet filter dubbed the "Great Aussie Firewall" is promising to make Australia one of the strictest Internet regulators among democratic countries.

Consumers, civil-rights activists, engineers, Internet providers and politicians from opposition parties are among the critics of a mandatory Internet filter that would block at least 1,300 Web sites prohibited by the government — mostly child pornography, excessive violence, instructions in crime or drug use and advocacy of terrorism.

Hundreds protested in state capitals earlier this month. "This is obviously censorship," said Justin Pearson Smith, 29, organizer of protests in Melbourne and an officer of one of a dozen Facebook groups against the filter.

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