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News and Trends
April 20, 2009


Why Birds Wear Backpacks
Prime-time Recession
How Long Will the Fun Last?
A Hunkier Shakespeare
How Green Is Your Cell Phone?
No More Colds?

Why Birds Wear Backpacks
Figuring out how migrating birds get from point A to point B has long been a challenge for scientists. Now, researchers think a novel device—a tiny bird backpack that contains sophisticated sensors and weighs less than a dime—will help provide the answers. The tracking system relies on instruments called solar geolocators that collect data on where the birds are in relation to the sun. "We knew that purple martins went to Brazil," says Bridget Stutchbury, a biologist at York University in Toronto, Canada. "But the details of what route they take, how fast they fly, how often they stop to rest—these are the kinds of details we have never been able to have." In summer 2007, Stutchbury's team applied the sensors to 34 purple martins in Pennsylvania before they headed south. The birds returned in spring 2008, and seven sensors were recovered. Sensor data showed that the birds flew up to six times faster going north than south, and that one covered 5,000 miles in 13 days. Biologists say the new information on bird migration could help save species threatened by habitat loss and climate change.

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Prime-time Recession
Full-time moms are being forced to take part-time jobs, foreclosure signs are going up in the most familiar neighborhoods, and out-of-work bankers are taking low-level jobs as corporate interns. The economic meltdown has spread from the headlines to prime time: These situations all played out in recent episodes of Desperate Housewives, The Simpsons, and 30 Rock. It's a reflection, producers say, of how widespread the current financial troubles are. "If everyone in America is thinking about it, that means every writer in Hollywood is thinking about it," says Marc Cherry, the creatorand executive producer of Desperate Housewives. ABC is even developing an entire series based on the recession: Canned is a sitcom about a group of friends who all get fired on the same day. .

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How Long Will the Fun Last?
Have you ever wondered why that new iPod seems cooler when you first get it than it does a month later? A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, tried to figure out why, and how unrealistic people are about how they'll feel in the future. Researchers gave 87 college students toy kaleidoscopes and asked them to predict how much they would enjoy them in a week. The enjoyment the students said they'd experienced was 36 percent lower than what they had predicted. "Most people intuitively understand that the first time you do something, it's more fun—the first kiss, the first pair of shoes," says Ravi Dhar, a professor of marketing at Yale and an author of the study. "They have a reasonable theory of adaptation to products, but it's not brought to mind at the time of acquisition."

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A Hunkier Shakespeare
Nearly 400 years after his death, William Shakespeare is looking better than ever, thanks to a recently discovered portrait that may be the only one painted in his lifetime. The portrait, at left, came from the private collection of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, the Cobbes, who inherited it 300 years ago from Shakespeare's patron. Scholars and scientists at Cambridge University in England, who studied the portrait for three years, say it was probably painted in 1610, when Shakespeare was 46—only a few years before his death in 1616. But some scholars doubt that the portrait is actually Shakespeare. And even if it is,they point out that Elizabethan-era portraits often made their subjects look much better than they did in real life. Of course, some people think that Shakespeare was not the author of the plays and sonnets attributed to him.

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How Green Is Your Cell Phone?
For those who want to reduce their carbon footprint while talking/texting/surfing, the mobile-phone industry is experimenting with ways to make its products greener. "E-waste"—discarded cell phones and other electronic items—is the fastest-growing component of household garbage, with millions of phones winding up in landfills where they can pollute surrounding soil and water with toxic substances like mercury and lead. To help address this problem, Motorola recently introduced a phone made from recycled plastic water bottles, and the phone itself is entirely recyclable. It's packaged in 100 percent recycled paper and includes an envelope for customers to send in their old phone for recycling. Sony Ericsson is developing a recyclable phone made with biodegradable components, while other companies are developing phones that are more energy efficient. Nokia plans to equip new phones with natural-light sensors, which will reduce the amount of energy needed to light up screens and keypads. And ZTE, a Chinese manufacturer, along with the Latin American phone company Digicel, has introduced a low-cost, solar-powered cell phone: The target audience is the 2 billion people around the world who have limited access to electricity.

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No More Colds?
A major stumbling block to finding a cure for the common cold has been that there are so many different strains of the human rhinovirus that causes it. But success may be within reach. Researchers say they have decoded the genomes of the 99 known strains of the virus and developed a list of its vulnerabilities. "We are quite certain that we see the Achilles heel," says Stephen B. Liggett, a scientist at the University of Maryland. But don't expect to see anything on the shelves at Walgreens anytime soon. Developing a new drug typically costs around $700 million. And since colds are mostly a minor nuisance, drug developers say people would not be likely to pay for an expensive new medicine. So for now, just stick to chicken soup.

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