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News and Trends
April 24, 2006


Hairy Helping Hands
Rosy But Rancid?
Wireless Tapping
Live From Marrakesh
Coughing & Sneezing for Cash
Striking Many Poses

Hairy Helping Hands
No other primate shows the same degree of helpfulness to others as humans. But recent studies at the Max Planck Institute in Germany suggest that chimpanzees are also a highly cooperative species. Researchers placed some food outside a cage containing an adult chimp; it was possible to get to the food by pulling on two ropes. In some trials, the ropes were too far apart for the chimp to get the food on its own. The chimp could get help by opening the door to an adjoining cage holding another chimp. The chimps were more likely to open the door when the ropes were too far apart for them. "They know when they need help," says researcher Brian Hare. Chimps even remembered who did a good job: Given a choice between two potential helpers, they usually chose the better rope-puller.

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Rosy But Rancid?
If meat in the supermarket looks rosier than it used to, the reason is that a growing number of markets are selling meat in airtight packages treated with carbon monoxide to keep it looking red for weeks. This "modified atmosphere packaging" has become more commonplace as supermarkets eliminate in-house butchers and buy precut, case-ready meat from processing plants. "This is what's going to happen in the meat business," says John A. Catsimatidis, chief executive of Gristede's supermarkets. "The meat looks great. It looks as red as the day it was cut." And it helps retailers save money: A study conducted at Oklahoma State University in 2003 for the Cattlemen's Beef Board said retailers lose at least $1 billion a year because consumers reject meat that has turned brown from exposure to oxygen, even when it is still fresh. The carbon monoxide is harmless at the levels being used in the packaging. But opponents say that the process allows stores to sell meat that is no longer fresh, and that consumers would not know until they opened the package at home and smelled it. Labels do not indicate whether the meat has been treated with carbon monoxide.

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Wireless Tapping
Piggybacking, which is the usually unauthorized tapping into someone else's wireless Internet connection, is no longer limited to hackers. Ordinarily upstanding people are tapping in, and many say it doesn't feel like theft because it doesn't seem to take anything away from anyone. Piggybacking is increasingly an issue for people who live in densely populated areas, or for those in buildings where Wi-Fi radio waves easily bleed through walls, floors, and ceilings. "The best case is that you end up giving a neighbor a free ride," says David Cole of Symantec Security Response, which makes computer-security software. "The worst case is that someone can destroy your computer, take your files, and do some really nefarious things with your network that get you dragged into court." Most wireless routers come with encryption software for securing the network, but many people don't bother to install it.

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Live From Marrakesh
Every day, Mohammad Jabiri sets up shop in the main square of Marrakesh, Morocco. His work requires little equipment—just a small stool, some color illustrations, and his imagination. For the past 40 years, Jabiri has been a professional storyteller. Crowds still gather to hear him conjure up a real or imagined past filled with ancient battles and populated with sinners, prophets, wise sultans, and tricky thieves. Jabiri, 71, is one of eight bards who still perform publicly in this part of Morocco. Their tradition goes back to medieval times, when itinerant narrators brought news and entertainment from one village to the next. Jabiri, who can barely read and write, learned his trade by listening to older storytellers. In those days, he says, it was easier for storytellers to earn a living. Jabiri now makes two or three dollars a day, spinning tales that last for hours. "Some people feel that television is very far away from them," he says. "They prefer making contact; they prefer hearing live stories."

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Coughing & Sneezing for Cash
It pays to catch a cold in Cardiff. The Welsh capital is home to the Common Cold Center, which researches and tests cold and flu treatments for companies like Procter & Gamble and Pfizer. Based at the University of Cardiff, the center has a ready supply of test subjects: 22,000 mostly cash-poor students who, between them, catch up to 80,000 colds a year. "I did get better," says Anna Taylor, 23, who offered up her stuffy nose for a study of a new decongestant. Every hour, she snorted down a tube hooked up to an airflow-measuring device. Taylor admits that her fee may have contributed to her feeling better: In one day, her nose generated about $90.

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Striking Many Poses
Self-portraits have become a kind of folk art for the digital age, especially among young people. Framing themselves at arm's length, teenagers snap their own pictures and pass the camera to friends at school, e-mail the images, or upload them to the Internet. Amber Davidson, 19, a freshman at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., says she puts a lot of time and thought into the self-portraits she posts online. "I don't want people to think I'm sitting there taking all these pictures of myself," she says, "even though I kind of am." With the increasing availability of cheap, lightweight digital cameras, striking a pose and sharing it with the world seems to come naturally. But inexpensive cameras alone can't explain the trend. "In 1960, a person just wouldn't take a Kodak Brownie picture of themselves," says Guy Stricherz, author of the book Americans in Kodachrome 1945-65. "It would have been considered too self-aggrandizing." To psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, the poses and role-playing in many self-portraits found online are "a form of pretend: the adolescent version of children dressing up."

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