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News and Trends
April 3, 2006


Cracking Down on PDA
Sniffing Out Cancer
If Robots Ever Rule
Where Games Are Homework
A Porsche for Perfect Attendance?
Ken's Back—With a Makeover

Cracking Down on PDA
Stick-wielding police officers descended on young couples sitting in a park in Meerut, India, this past December. Accompanied by TV news cameras, they yanked the couples by their necks and slapped them. The nationally televised incident, which was intended to discourage public displays of affection, set off a firestorm of criticism against police brutality and revealed a generational divide in a culture where dating is frowned upon. Officers defended their actions, saying that many of the young couples were sitting in "objectionable poses." Students at the local university say they are frequently harassed by police if they are seen in public with a member of the opposite sex. "This is a basic infringement of our right to freedom," says Vikas Garg, a 21-year-old graduate student. "We are free to sit where we want."

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Sniffing Out Cancer
A clinic in California claims that it has trained five dogs to detect lung cancer in patients' breath samples with 99 percent accuracy. The Pine Street Foundation in San Anselmo borrowed the dogs from their owners and Guide Dogs for the Blind and trained them like bomb-sniffing dogs: The canines would get a treat whenever they found the desired smell. Then, breath samples taken from cancer patients and healthy people were placed in plastic containers and presented to the dogs. If a dog smelled cancer, it would sit. The dogs sat correctly 564 times and did not sit 10 times for breath from cancer patients. For samples from healthy people, they did not sit 708 times and sat 4 times. Some experts said that smells from chemotherapy or smoking might have clued in the dogs. But Michael McCulloch, the lead researcher, says patients on chemotherapy were excluded and there were smokers in both groups. The next step is to repeat the study with other dogs and do chemical analysis of the breath samples. "It's biologically plausible," says Dr. Ted Gansler of the American Cancer Society. "But there has to be a lot more study and confirmation of effectiveness."

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If Robots Ever Rule
Will we eventually face the day when robots rise up against humanity? If so, a new book by Daniel H. Wilson may come in handy. In How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Wilson offers detailed, often-humorous advice on hand-to-hand combat with a humanoid (go for the "eyes"—its cameras); eluding robotic vehicles (drive in circles); and outsmarting your "smart" house (be suspicious if the house suggests you test the microwave by putting your head in it). Wilson—a 27-year-old native of Tulsa, Okla., with a doctorate in robotics—wrote the book out of annoyance with the way popular culture portrays robots. "I was kind of tired of them getting a bad rap," says Wilson. But if the scenarios in his book seem outlandish (for now), the information and the technology are real. Readers are taken on a tour of the world's robotics labs, where, Wilson says, all of the technology in the book already exists or is under development.

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Where Games Are Homework
Three decades after bursting into arcades and living rooms, video games are taking their place in college and university classrooms. A small but growing group of schools, from the University of Southern California to the University of Central Florida, have started formal programs in game design and the academic study of video games as contemporary culture. Detractors in the educational and video-game fields say it's just an attempt by colleges to cash in on a fad. But others believe that video games will be one of the dominant media of the 21st century. This fall, Parsons The New School for Design in New York started an undergraduate program in game design. Bob Kerrey, president of The New School, says graduates of the program could wind up working on Wall Street as well as for video-game companies. "To me," says Kerrey, "there is no significant difference ... between people who are making games and people who are manipulating huge database systems to try to figure out where the [stock] market is going."

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A Porsche for Perfect Attendance?
Across the U.S., schools have begun to offer students rewards just for showing up every day: iPods, laptops, DVDs, grocery money for their families, even cars. Some experts say these rewards parallel the working world, where financial incentives are often given to employees who work harder or better. But Jeff Bostic, director of school psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, disapproves. "Where does it end?" he asks. "Are we going to need to give out a Porsche Boxster? Rather than say we're going to pay you if you show up, we've got to work harder at showing how school really does have relevance to these kids' lives."

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Ken's Back—With a Makeover
Now, after a heart-wrenching, two-year separation, Barbie and Ken are back together. Perhaps it's because of Ken's new look: Gone are his outdated swimming trunks and dull T-shirts. Ken now sports a motorcycle jacket and cargo pants, and his face has been resculpted to give it a more rugged jaw line. Ken's makeover and his reunion with Barbie are all part of an effort by Mattel, the dolls' manufacturer, to revive a sagging brand. For nearly 50 years, Barbie has been at the heart of Mattel's success. But now the qualities that drew girls to Barbie—a wholesome image and virtually no electronic bells and whistles—are turning them off. Girls are becoming more interested in MP3 players and other electronics designed for children. Barbie sales have plunged, retailers are cutting back on shelf space for the doll, and for the first time, a competitor has edged her out as the No. 1 fashion doll. Bratz, a line of dolls with pouty lips and big heads manufactured by MGA Entertainment in Van Nuys, Calif., overtook Barbie in sales during the 2005 holiday season. Mattel hopes the Ken-and-Barbie drama will help reignite sales. The company enlisted Phillip Bloch—who has dressed stars like Johnny Depp and Sean Combs—to help with Ken's makeover. Bloch describes the doll's new look as "Matthew McConaughey meets Orlando Bloom."

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