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News and Trends
February 16, 2009


Roping Sacred Cows
Was Oliver Really Hungry?
Google Gets the Flu
From College to The Circus
Roach Escape Routes
Obama Tourism

Roping Sacred Cows
He doesn't own a wide-brimmed hat or a pair of jeans. But Bravjeer Singh is an authentic urban cowboy: He's one of 165 "cow catchers" who rope cattle on the streets of India's capital, New Delhi. Because Hindus consider cows sacred, killing the animals is banned and they're generally allowed to wander where they please. But in New Delhi, the center of a metropolitan area of 17 million people, judges have ordered cows cleared from the roads. Singh and his colleagues use lassos to capture the animals. It can be dangerous, with some Hindus throwing stones at the catchers, not to mention resistance from the cows themselves, who are sent to shelters run by Hindu charities. For bringing in a quota of 9 or 10 cows per day, the catchers earn 10,000 rupees (about $250) a month. The city says 20,000 cows have been captured in the last two years, with about 12,000 still on the streets. "I don't think Delhi will ever be really free of cows," says the city's longest-serving cow catcher.

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Was Oliver Really Hungry?
Please, sir, I want some more. It may be one of the most famous lines in English literature, known not only to those who've read Charles Dickens's 1839 novel Oliver Twist, but also to all who've seen the Broadway musical Oliver! or any of the plays, movies, and TV productions based on the novel. But did Oliver really need more? A group of British researchers aren't so sure. Dickens wrote that Oliver's workhouse supplied three meals of watery gruel per day, which the British study says provided only 400 calories a day, and would have led to malnutrition and illness. But Oliver Twist is fiction. In fact, the study found, actual workhouse diets from the mid-1800s—typically oatmeal along with modest portions of bread, meat, potatoes, and cheese—provided about 1,650 calories a day, compared with the 1,800 to 2,000 calories now recommended for a 9-year-old. So while the food was far from mouth-watering, in a real Victorian workhouse, Oliver would probably not have had to ask for more: He would have had just about enough.

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Google Gets the Flu
When Americans think they're coming down with the flu, a lot of them type phrases like "flu symptoms" into search engines before they call their doctors. Multiplied across millions of Internet users, that simple act has given rise to Google Flu Trends (
google.org/flutrends). Google researchers found a strong correlation when they mapped five years of flu-related searches against flu reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Their findings helped Google develop an early-warning system, which may indicate regional outbreaks several days before the C.D.C. can report them. It's just one example of the Web's potential as a source of "collective intelligence" that can be used to spot trends and predict anything from epidemics to which movies will be hits and flops.

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From College to The Circus
Many identical twins wear the same clothes and can finish each other's sentences. But the LaSalle brothers can catch each other's juggling clubs while doing back flips with one standing on the other's shoulders. Jake and Marty, who are touring with the Big Apple Circus, also graduated cum laude in 2007 from Columbia University in New York. The 24-year-old brothers began developing their talents while growing up outside Philadelphia, juggling apples from the time they were 8. Over the years, they developed a style combining synchronized juggling with flips and dance moves. Jake says being identical twins gives them an edge in sensing each other's internal rhythms: "With my brother, we're exactly on the same page." The twins are looking outside the tent for their next acts: Marty, who majored in economics, hopes to pursue a career on the business side of entertainment. And Jake, an anthropology major, is applying to medical school.

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Roach Escape Routes
You might want to brush up on your geometry the next time you try to get rid of a cockroach. According to a recent study, these unloved insects choose one of several preferred angles when running from predators, human or otherwise, and that variability is enough to confound their attackers most of the time. Scientists at the National Research Institute of Italy measured how the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) responded to a threat stimulus. All of their test roaches acted similarly, running away at an angle from the direction of the threat. Although there was some variability, the researchers discovered that over repeated tests, the angle of escape ranged from about 90 degrees (at a right angle to the direction of the threat) to 180 degrees (the opposite direction), with peaks, or preferred trajectories, of about 90, 120, 150, and 180 degrees. The researchers have no idea what goes on in roach nervous systems to produce these preferred routes, but they say escape-route variability is not uncommon in the animal world. Cockroaches have long been studied as a model for understanding animal escape response, and further research could help scientists better understand how animals maintain some unpredictability when escaping predators.

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Obama Tourism
Barack Obama's journey to the White House has fascinated the people of Kenya, where the President's father was born. (In fact, while much of the world focused on the election of a black man as America's President, many Kenyans said that as a member of the minority Luo tribe, Obama wouldn't stand a chance of being elected President of Kenya.) Now, Kenyans are hoping that "Obama mania" will bring visitors to the President's ancestral homeland. Kenya's own presidential election in 2007 was accompanied by widespread tribal violence and killings, which brought tourism to a halt. But the Kenyan government predicts that Kogelo—the village where Obama's father lived and where his step-grandmother, Mama Sarah, still resides—will attract Americans looking to explore Obama's roots. The government has built a new road to Kogelo, which played a big role in Obama's 1995 memoir, Dreams of My Father, and is expanding the regional airport, about 215 miles west of Nairobi, the capital. One tour operator knew the time was right to get Kogelo on the itinerary when he visited Mama Sarah's home and flipped through the guest book: "You can see that quite a bit of visitors from all over the world came to see the house."

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