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News and Trends
February 8, 2010


Syntax From Simians?
Time To Re-Zone?
Pricey Pixels
No More Mister Nice Guy
Running For Congress?
All Aboard! (Except the Men)

Syntax From Simians?
Many animal species make individual sounds with specific meanings. But the Campbell's monkey, which lives in the forests of Tai National Park in Ivory Coast, combines two or more of its six basic calls into different messages. Researchers who spent months recording the monkeys' calls say the animals have a primitive form of syntax—combining words into sentences. The researchers, led by Klaus Zuberbühler from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, figured out that krak-oo is a predator warning and boom-boom means "Come here!" But boom-boom krak-oo, krak-oo, krak-oo is the monkeys' way of yelling "Timber!"—warning others of falling trees. The scientists' new claim is controversial because syntax, a basic part of language, has long been considered a uniquely human capability. Even chimpanzees, which share more than 98 percent of our DNA, have shown little ability to combine sounds into phrases.

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Time To Re-Zone?
Since 1919, Russia has had 11 time zones—more than any other country. The Soviets thought it showcased the size of their empire, but now President Dmitri Medvedev says losing a few zones could help the economy. The current system does make for some crazy days: When it's noon in Vladivostok, it's 10 a.m. just over the border in China. And businesses in regions nine hours ahead of Moscow have trouble dealing with clients in the capital. But Medvedev's suggestion has triggered debate, as well as suspicion: It's not unheard of for governments to try to manipulate time zones for political reasons: China uses a single zone mandated by Communist leaders to help unify the country in 1949. And in 2007, President Hugo Chávez ordered Venezuela's clocks turned back a half hour in an effort, however illogical, to boost productivity.

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Pricey Pixels
Virtual goods, like the $2.50 Halloween costume in the online game Sorority Life, are no more than collections of pixels on a Web page. But plenty of folks seem willing to spend real dollars to get ahead in social-network games or send virtual birthday cakes to Facebook friends. Although they cost almost nothing to produce, virtual goods brought in $5 billion worldwide in 2009. They've long been popular in Asia, but in the U.S. they've been mostly of interest to serious gamers, who bought things like swords and spells for fantasy games. Now, casual players are starting to put up real money to plant virtual crops or raise pixel goldfish. A fan of the Facebook game Pet Society says: "It's an experience, like going to the movies."

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No More Mister Nice Guy
Like Coca-Cola and Microsoft, Mickey Mouse is a brand recognized around the world: To his parent company, Walt Disney, he's worth $5 billion a year in merchandise sales. But sales are down in the U.S., and Disney—concerned that texting, tech-savvy kids don't relate to Mickey—is giving him a makeover. The company is rethinking his personality, how he walks and talks, and how he interacts online. A feistier and more mischievous Mickey will debut next fall in Epic Mickey, a new game for Nintendo Wii.

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Running For Congress?
Every state gets to put two statues of its sons and daughters in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Ohio has long been represented by Governor William Allen (1874-76) and President James Garfield (1881), but Ohioans have decided it's time for new blood: Allen will lose his pedestal when state legislators in Columbus choose a replacement this spring. Ohioans in the running include Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, and William Howard Taft, and black Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, who frustrated Hitler's plans to showcase "Aryan supremacy" at the 1936 Games in Berlin. And students at Washington High School in the town of Washington Court House are backing James Ashley, a Civil WarŠera Congressman who helped write the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery.

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All Aboard! (Except the Men)
As millions of women have joined India's workforce in recent years, they've faced a number of challenges in a very traditional, patriarchal culture. For many women, just getting to work has been one of the most annoying, with men taunting or harassing them in what's known as "eve teasing." To make their commutes less stressful, the government has banned men from some trains, and eight Ladies Specials—commuter trains exclusively for women—are now running in India's four largest cities: New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Calcutta. India's Constitution guarantees equal rights for women and Indian law guarantees equal pay; several women—including the new Minister of Railways—hold high public office; and since gaining independence from Great Britain in 1947, India has had a female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who served for nearly 15 years. But some men resent the women's trains, which are generally cleaner and more comfortable than the regular trains. "Even on this train, men sometimes board and try to harass the women," says a Ladies Special passenger. "Maybe they think the government is helping out women and not men."

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