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News and Trends
March 13, 2006


Fire-Alarm Belles
The 'Cute' Factor
E-Buyers, Beware!
Has Sudoku Got Your Number?
Men May Be 'Natural Avengers'
Varsity Stays Out of the Gutter

Fire-Alarm Belles
When San Diego's Fire Engine Company 22 answers a call, their big red truck is missing a typical feature: a man. Engine 22, Division A (consisting of a captain, an engineer, a firefighter-paramedic, and a firefighter) is among the few all-female fire crews in the nation. The four women were assigned to Engine 22 entirely by chance last October. Together, they work, train, sleep, watch TV, and cook meals at the station house, in 24-hour shifts, 10 days a month. They must also be able to carry 75 pounds of equipment on their backs while fighting a fire. Women represent 2.5 percent of the fire service nationwide; in San Diego, they account for about 8 percent. Engine 22 answers mostly medical emergencies, and all four crew members helped fight the wildfires that ravaged Southern California in 2003.

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The 'Cute' Factor
How has Tai Shan, a baby panda, attracted thousands of visitors to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., just to ooh and aah over him? Why are the stars of March of the Penguins so beguiling? And why have sales of small cars like the Mini Cooper soared? Answer: They are all, in the eyes of most humans, cute. But just what are the ingredients for cuteness? Scientists who study visual signaling have identified a wide assortment of features that make something look cute. Among them are small size; bright, forward-facing eyes set low on a big, round face; a pair of big, round ears; floppy limbs; and a teeter-totter gait. Scientists say these "cute cues" indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness, and need. And, as a species whose young are born so helpless, human beings must be wired to respond positively to anything that even remotely resembles a human baby. Advertisers and product designers frequently use cute cues to lend their merchandise instant appeal. Cuteness is distinct from beauty, researchers say, because it favors rounded over sculptured, soft over refined, clumsy over graceful. Beauty attracts admiration and demands a pedestal; cuteness attracts affection and demands a lap.

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E-Buyers, Beware!
Counterfeit merchandise is rampant on the Web, and buyers using online auction sites like eBay are especially vulnerable. Jewelry, watches, artwork, designer goods, and autographed sports memorabilia are just a few of the items most frequently faked. EBay, which has 180 million members, says that it has no responsibility for fakes listed on its site because it is merely a marketplace. But Tiffany & Co. is suing eBay for facilitating the trade of fake Tiffany jewelry and other items, and contends that eBay "charges hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees" for counterfeit sales. If Tiffany wins, it could threaten eBay's entire business model: It would be nearly impossible for the company to police a site that has approximately 60 million items listed at any given time. "We're not jewelry experts," says Hani Durzy, an eBay spokesman. "We're experts at building a marketplace and bringing buyers and sellers together."

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Has Sudoku Got Your Number?
Humans seem to have an innate desire to fill in empty spaces. Perhaps that is part of the appeal of sudoku—the new international puzzle craze. The object is to fill in a grid with numbers so that every row, every column, and every 3-by-3 box contains the digits 1 to 9 without repeating. There is no math involved. In Japan, the puzzles have become as popular as crosswords are in the U.S. Sudoku spread to the West in November 2004, when Wayne Gould, a retired judge in London, persuaded The Times of London to print a sudoku puzzle. Gould had seen sudoku in a Japanese magazine and developed a computer program for creating the puzzles. Since April 2005, when the New York Post introduced sudoku in the U.S., more than half of America's leading newspapers have begun printing one or more of the puzzles each day. Nearly all sudoku are generated by computer programs that understand the solving strategies and determine the difficulty of the puzzles. And sudoku fans don't need to worry about the puzzles running out: The number of possible ways to fill a 9-by-9 sudoku grid is calculated at 6,670,903,752,021,072,936,960.

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Men May Be 'Natural Avengers'
Revenge may be far sweeter for men than it is for women, suggests a study released in January. When male test subjects witnessed people they perceived as "bad guys" being zapped with a mild electrical shock, their M.R.I. scans lit up in primitive brain areas associated with reward, but their brains' empathy centers stayed dull. Women watching the same punishment showed no pleasure response, but their brains' empathy centers glowed. Tania Singer, the lead researcher at University College London, says that the men "seemed to feel satisfaction when unfair people were given what they perceived as deserved physical punishment."

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Varsity Stays Out of the Gutter
Bowling may not be a sport that inspires pep rallies, but according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, it is the fastest-growing high school varsity sport. In 2005, there were nearly 40,000 high school bowlers nationwide, on 1,768 boys' teams and 1,676 girls' teams. The number of participants and the number of schools with varsity bowling teams both doubled over the past five years. Bowling attracts a new group to the athletic department—those who might lack the speed or height for other sports. Varsity bowlers also enjoy the social perks. "You just have to be serious for a few minutes when it's your turn, and then you can hang out," says Tim Wheeler, a junior at Bergenfield High School in New Jersey. "But when it's your turn, bowling takes a lot of concentration because it's all on yourself." There are, however, some image issues. "It's definitely nerdy," says Rachel Patti, a senior at Ramsey High School in New Jersey. Patti, who also plays soccer and softball, joined the bowling team four years ago when her parents urged her to sign up for a winter sport. At first, she could barely break 100; recently, she bowled 221. (A perfect score is 300.) "It's really a great sport," says Patti. "It's competitive, it's a team, and it's fun."

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