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News and Trends
April 4, 2011


Singing for Qaddafi
Can Spit Help Solve a Historical Mystery?
How Green are Your Jeans?
Gossiping Prairie Dogs
Now on the Menu: McWeddings
Jefferson's Bookshelf

Singing for Qaddafi
Their business is music, so why have Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Nelly Furtado, and other pop icons become entangled in a political mess? Each of them was once hired by the son of Libya's ruthless dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, to perform at private parties for at least $1 million a pop. (Rapper 50 Cent also performed for an undisclosed amount.)The appearances came under fire in February amid an uprising by Libyans trying to oust their oppressive leader (just as Tunisians and Egyptians did earlier this year). The pop stars say they didn't realize they were accepting the steep fee from a dictatorial regime, and that they've since donated the money to charity. According to Buck Williams, the agent for R.E.M., music artists routinely accept high-paying gigs without realizing whom they're playing for. "But the majority of my artists, if they knew something was funded by Qaddafi, they would not play it," Williams told Rolling Stone. "And morally it would not rest well with them."

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Can Spit Help Solve a Historical Mystery?
The seven-decade puzzle over what happened to Amelia Earhart may soon be solved. Scientists are hoping saliva—which contains DNA—on envelopes that Earhart probably licked will help them figure out what happened when the legendary aviator vanished in July 1937. The first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic, Earhart disappeared over the Pacific along with her navigator, Fred Noonan, while attempting to fly around the world by circling the equator. Though the duo's remains were never found, researchers believe a bone fragment they discovered in 2009 on the South Pacific island of Nikumaroro is one of Earhart's fingers. DNA from the envelopes can help verify the claim. But first, scientists will try to match the DNA from the letters, which hand been in the hands of her biographers, to that of Earhart's living relatives—to confirm that the spit is, in fact, Earhart's.

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How Green are Your Jeans?
The label on your shirt tells you what size it is, where it was made, and who designed it. But that's not enough, says the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a group that's creating a system to score how garment manufacturing affects the planet. While people near Xintang, China—where most of the world's jeans are made—may be used to seeing blue dye wash downriver from textile mills, Americans rarely see the connection between the environment and their wardrobes because 98 percent of the clothes they buy are made overseas. The coalition hopes to assign scores to all players in the life cycle of a garment—from cotton growers and dye suppliers to packagers and shippers—based on measures like water use, waste, and greenhouse gases; they'll then include a "green score" on clothing labels. "This will put the power in the hands of the consumer," says an executive at Timberland, which is part of the coalition. "The government has standards for miles per gallon on a car, but we have no real standards for clothing."

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Gossiping Prairie Dogs
If you've ever gone hiking in the Colorado Rockies, you've probably heard the prairie dogs. Their chirps, it turns out, weren't just noise. Those prairie dogs were talking—and probably about you. Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University has spent the past 30 years trying to decode prairie dogs' sophisticated language system. What he's learned so far through a series of experiments is pretty remarkable. The prairie dogs—which communicate in squeaks that sound something like "chee chee chee," the professor told NPR News—have different calls for different kinds of predators, such as hawks, coyotes, or humans. They also seem to be able to describe people, by making a different sound if a human in a yellow shirt is approaching, versus, say, someone in a blue shirt. Slobodchikoff has even observed prairie dogs talking about things like height, creating strings of sounds that translate roughly into something like, "Heads up, that little guy in the yellow shirt is headed this way!"

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Now on the Menu: McWeddings
McDonald's patrons in Hong Kong can now order a lot more than Big Macs and fries. The fast-food chain is offering weddings at three of its 226 Hong Kong locations. Starting at $1,285, the receptions include burgers and soda, gifts, and a "cake" of stacked apple pies. The average Hong Kong couple spends 30 times that to get hitched. Unconventional weddings—in shopping malls and underwater theme parks, for example—began springing up in Hong Kong in 2006, when it became legal to marry outside religious venues. Gordon Matthews, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says young people in Hong Kong grew up studying in McDonald's and have fond associations with it. Unlike in other parts of the world, he says, "a McDonald's wedding wouldn't be seen as tacky here."

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Jefferson's Bookshelf
Have you ever gotten lost in the stacks? A bunch of Thomas Jefferson's books did. Researchers from the Jefferson Library at Monticello in Virginia recently discovered that 28 of the titles from the third President's "retirement" library—those he collected and read in the decade before he died in 1826—had been sitting on the shelves at Washington University in St. Louis since 1880 without anyone realizing they were once his. The university now ranks as the third largest repository of books belonging to Jefferson, after the Library of Congress in Washington and the University of Virginia. Jefferson initialed these books (to claim ownership), corrected spelling errors, and occasionally wrote notes in the margins. Endrina Tay, a manager of the Thomas Jefferson's Libraries project at Monticello, says she hopes his scribbles can answer questions about our most well-read President, like "What did he read? Where did he get his ideas? What influenced him?"

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