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News and Trends
January 31, 2011


For Sale: Used Blond Hair
Om Om Om, Ha Ha Ha!
Book Surfing
Naming Rights: Is Everything for Sale?
One Small Step for a Robot?
Semesters Abroad: Who's Going Where

For Sale: Used Blond Hair
Paris Hilton helped popularize blonde hair extensions in the U.S., but where does all that hair come from? Chances are, from poor women in the rougher parts of Russia or Ukraine, where the economies have never completely recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Because that part of the world has a high concentration of blondes—a color prized because it's easy to dye and relatively scarce—buyers of human hair flock there, offering about $50 for a 16-inch braid. The hair is then processed to make wigs, toupees, and, increasingly, hair extensions. People pay about $440 apiece for extensions in the U.S., which spends $250 million a year on them—more than any other country. Until the 1980s, Western Europe supplied most of the blond hair on the market, but women there have since climbed the economic ladder. "It's not hard to understand why people in Ukraine sell their hair a hundred times more often than people in Sweden," says a Ukrainian hair dealer.

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Om Om Om, Ha Ha Ha!
Jeffrey Stephens, 19, a freshman at Santa Cruz University in California, likes to laugh with friends when he's feeling stressed out. But they don't tell jokes; rather, they practice "laughter yoga," an exercise that involves simulated laughter and the breathing methods of yoga. The exercise is based on the theory that the body can't tell the difference between real and fake laughter, so it gets the same physiological benefits from both. Yoga laughter guru Sebastien Gendry says the practice strengthens the immune system, boosts "happy chemistry," and helps people connect with others. Like yoga itself, laughter yoga started in India; it is now practiced in 60 countries. Stephens, who's been doing it for two years, thinks a good laugh can benefit everyone. "I think everyone should take the time for play and not always take themselves so seriously," he says.

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Book Surfing
Did anyone write about "teenagers" in the 1700s? What's been written about more in the 20th century, "hip hop" or "punk rock"? A new tool from Google called Ngram Viewer can figure it all out. With a database of 500 billion words—of books published from 1500 to 2008 in English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese, and Russian—Google allows you to plug in a string of up to five words and create a graph that charts the word or phrase's use over time. Type in "women" and "men," and you'll see that the former was mentioned in books much less frequently until the early 1970s, when feminism gained a foothold. Since 1989, "Tiananmen Square"—now associated with the Chinese government's massacre that year of hundreds of protestors in the Beijing square—has appeared many more times in English than in Chinese. (China's government doesn't like to talk about the massacre.) By the way, "teenager" doesn't appear in written English until the 1900s, and "hip hop" starts outspiking "punk rock" in 1996. Try the tool at ngrams.googlelabs.com.

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Naming Rights: Is Everything for Sale?
From Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, to the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Americans are used to music and sports arenas with corporate names. But now cash-strapped municipalities are getting in on the action, selling the naming rights of train stations, schools—and even towns themselves. A high school in Newburyport, Massachusetts, says the name of its auditorium can be bought for $100,000 and its English classrooms for $5,000 apiece. Philadelphia recently agreed to change the name of Pattison Avenue subway station (Pattison was a 19th-century Pennsylvania Governor) to AT&T Station for $3 million. That troubled writer Yonah Freemark, who blogged about the prospect of taking "the Coca-Cola Trolley from Pizza Hut to AT&T." But Philadelphia doesn't hold a candle to Clark, Texas: The town changed its name to DISH for a decade in exchange for free TV from DISH Network.

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One Small Step for a Robot?
When President Barack Obama balked at the $150 billion price tag to send astronauts back to the moon last spring, engineers at NASA came up with an alternative: They said they can send a humanoid robot for a walk on the moon for less than $200 million (plus $250 million for a rocket) as soon as next year. Using robots has some advantages: They don't need air, food, intensive training—or a return ticket. Next month, Robonaut 2, developed by NASA and General Motors, is scheduled to become the first humanoid robot in space, helping with chores at the International Space Station and giving NASA a sense of how astronauts and robots work together. An upgraded version of the robot may eventually follow in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong and the 12 other Americans who participated in six moon landings from 1969 to 1972. Scientists hope a robot walking on the moon will capture the imagination of students, just as the Apollo landings inspired a generation 40 years ago.

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Semesters Abroad: Who's Going Where
The number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. in 2009-10 surged 30 percent from the previous year, making China the top country of origin of international students in the U.S., with India number two, according to the Institute of International Education. Several factors help explain the increase from China, including its booming economy and the many Chinese families with two working parents and only one child (because of the country's one-child policy, which was implemented in 1979). The study also found that most international students in the U.S. study business management and engineering. As for where foreign students in the U.S. go, California tops the list, along with New York, Texas, Massachusetts, and Illinois. Though China and India are playing increasingly important roles in the global economy, most Americans studying abroad still flock to Europe. In contrast to the 128,000 Chinese students studying in the U.S. last year, only 14,000 Americans headed to China.

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