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Megan McArdle

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For a number of reasons, natural and human, people have recently evacuated or otherwise abandoned a number of places around the world -- large and small, old and new. Gathering images of deserted areas into a single photo essay, one can get a sense of what the world might look like if humans were to vanish from the planet altogether. Collected here are recent scenes from nuclear-exclusion zones, blighted urban neighborhoods, towns where residents left to escape violence, unsold developments built during the real estate boom, ghost towns, and more. [41 photos]

A tree grows from the top of a chimney in an abandoned factory yard in Luque, on the outskirts of Asuncion, Paraguay, on October 2 , 2011. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

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Today is Valentine's Day, a day set aside for expressions of love and affection. The traditional western holiday has spread to many countries around the globe, despite some efforts by religious and cultural groups to fight its adoption. Valentine's Day spending in the U.S. this year is expected to reach nearly $15 billion -- $2 billion of it on flowers alone. Ninety percent of the flowers Americans will give to their sweethearts are imported, and nearly all of those imports originate in Colombia and Ecuador. Included in today's posting is an 18-photo series depicting the voyage of the roses from South American farm to florists worldwide. [37 photos]

A couple kisses during a flashmob organized by a local television station on the eve of Valentine's Day in the Russian city of Stavropol, on February 13, 2012. (Reuters/Eduard Korniyenko)

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The Chinese Lantern Festival takes place on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year. As they mark the end of the Spring Festival, celebrants create colorful lanterns, set off fireworks, and hold parades. In one village, residents hurl molten metal against a wall to create an impressive display of sparks in a 300-year-old tradition. Gathered below are some vibrant images from this year's Chinese Lantern Festival. [29 photos]

A blacksmith throws molten metal against a cold wall to create sparks, as he and others celebrate the Lantern Festival which traditionally marks the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations, in Nuanquan, Hebei province, China, on February 6, 2012. For over 300 years, the village, which is famous for its blacksmith skills, has maintained the tradition which they consider a cheaper alternative to buying fireworks during the Lantern Festival. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

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Earlier this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta indicated that American forces in Afghanistan would be accelerating their withdrawal. "Hopefully by the mid-to-latter part of 2013," Panetta said, "we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advice, and assist role." This announcement came shortly after the Taliban declared its plans to open a political office in Qatar, allowing for direct peace negotiations. At the moment, the U.S. still has 90,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan, with 22,000 scheduled to return home later this year. Gathered here are images of the people and places involved in this conflict over the past month, as part of an ongoing monthly series on Afghanistan. [42 photos]

Men of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, during an operation near the end of their third deployment in three years in Afghanistan. They were securing route 611, which runs Kajaki Sofla, an area that had long been a safe haven for insurgent sub-commanders and for arms and drug trafficking. (Cpl. James Clark/USMC)

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Yesterday I decided to try an experiment: I solicited reader requests for news photos. I asked people on Twitter and Google+, "Would you like to see a good photo of a particular subject? A high-res version of a photo you've already seen somewhere else? A photo from a particular photographer or event? If I have access and can find it, I'll try to post it" (details). The response was great, the subject matter was varied, and the task of finding the images and composing this entry was great fun. Images ranged from massive solar flares to tiny insects, taken in places from Thailand to outer space. If you enjoy this experiment, let me know in the comments, and I may develop it into a more regular feature. To all those who made requests, thanks so much, I hope you like what I was able to find. [29 photos]

Beth Winter (@bwinter) and Spidler both asked for a higher resolution version of "Anonymous in Polish parliament". -- Lawmakers from the leftist Palikot's Movement cover their faces with masks as they protest against ACTA, or the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, during a parliament session, in Warsaw, Poland, on January 26, 2012, after the Polish government signed the agreement. Poland's plans to sign ACTA sparked attacks on Polish government websites and street protests in several Polish cities this week. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

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