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News and Trends
September 17, 2007


Righteous Rats
They're Not Buying It
You Just Can't Win
Pickled Red
Forgiving a Goddess
Hard Work U.

Righteous Rats
Rats may be more caring and selfless than their reputation as "low-down dirty rats" suggests. It turns out that rats can be very kind to each other—even to rats they haven't met before. Swiss researchers put pairs of female rats that were litter-mates in a cage, separated in half with a wire mesh. On one side of the barrier, a rat could pull a lever that would deliver food to her sister on the other side, but not to herself. Each rat was trained in alternate sessions—first as a recipient of food, then as a provider. The rats would pull the lever more often when their litter-mate was present than when the other half of the cage was empty. Researchers then put rats who had been fed by their partners in the cage with unrelated, unfamiliar rats. Rats that had been fed by their partners were 21 percent more likely than those that hadn't received food to pull the lever for the stranger. Researchers say the rats may have developed "generalized reciprocity"—that is, they were generous even with strangers because another rat had been kind to them. Incidentally, the rats used in the experiment were not the usual white lab variety. They were brown or gray Norway rats, which inhabit garbage dumps, sewers, and subway tunnels. Apparently, even tough city rats have a softer side. Rats may be more caring and selfless than their reputation as "low-down dirty rats" suggests. It turns out that rats can be very kind to each other—even to rats they haven't met before. Swiss researchers put pairs of female rats that were litter-mates in a cage, separated in half with a wire mesh. On one side of the barrier, a rat could pull a lever that would deliver food to her sister on the other side, but not to herself. Each rat was trained in alternate sessions—first as a recipient of food, then as a provider. The rats would pull the lever more often when their litter-mate was present than when the other half of the cage was empty. Researchers then put rats who had been fed by their partners in the cage with unrelated, unfamiliar rats. Rats that had been fed by their partners were 21 percent more likely than those that hadn't received food to pull the lever for the stranger. Researchers say the rats may have developed "generalized reciprocity"—that is, they were generous even with strangers because another rat had been kind to them. Incidentally, the rats used in the experiment were not the usual white lab variety. They were brown or gray Norway rats, which inhabit garbage dumps, sewers, and subway tunnels. Apparently, even tough city rats have a softer side.

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They're Not Buying It
Why buy a lamp, a chair, or a head oflettuce when you can find a perfectly good one in the trash? This is the philosophy of the urban scavengers who call themselves freegans. They try to minimize their participation in what they see as an out-of-control consumer culture. So they gather fruit from the supermarket dumpster, dress in cast-off clothes, and furnish their homes with items found on the street. "You can find just about anything in the trash," says Marko Manriquez, 28, of San Diego. "This is how I got my futon, my chair, table, shelves. And I'm not talking about beat-up stuff." Freeganism, which dates to the mid-1990s, grew out of the environmental and anti-globalization movements. Freegans can be found all over the world. And, in a throw-away society, so can a steady stream of useful trash. .

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You Just Can't Win
The game of checkers has been solved. Scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada have developed an unbeatable computer program named Chinook. The best any opponent can do against it is achieve a draw (try it at
www.cs.ualberta.ca/~chinook/play). Jonathan Schaeffer, leader of the Chinook project, began working on it in 1989. With 500 billion billion possible positions, checkers is the most complex game to be "solved" so far. Solving chess, with billions more possibilities, is still a long way off—although in 1997, IBM's Deep Blue computer beat Garry Kasparov, who was then the world chess champion. Schaeffer, who also writes chess programs, is now working on a program to take on the world's top poker players.

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Pickled Red
Imagine a dill pickle that's red when it should be green and sweet when it should be sour. Kool-Aid is the explanation, and kids from Texas to Mississippi are scarfing down these specially pickled pickles. No one knows exactly how the fad started, but the recipe is simple: Soak a gallon of pickles for about a week in double-strength red Kool-Aid (cherry, strawberry, or tropical fruit) sweetened with a pound of sugar. The pickles have their greatest following among children in the Mississippi Delta, where neighborhood grocers sell them for 50 cents to a dollar apiece. "They're not for me," says one Delta grocer. "It's the kids who've done it."

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Forgiving a Goddess
Even a goddess can get fired. Sajani Shakya, 10, had been designated one of about a dozen living goddesses in Nepal who are considered earthly manifestations of the Hindu deity Kali. In July, Sajani visited Washington to help promote a British documentary about the living goddesses. Dressed in a red-and-gold gown, she visited an elementary school, the White House, and the Nepalese Embassy. But a group of priests back home disapproved and stripped Sajani of her title, claiming the trip to the U.S. had made her impure. The priests reinstated Sajani only after the director of the documentary flew to Nepal and convinced them that the girl had not been tainted by her journey.

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Hard Work U.
Like many undergraduates, students at the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri, work while at school. But what's different about "Hard Work U." is that all 1,345 students are required to work 15 hours a week to pay off the yearly tuition of $15,900. They milk cows, bake cakes, water shrubbery, or work as hotel housekeepers. The college is opposed to graduates starting their careers in debt—and 95 percent of its students graduate debt-free. (About two thirds of all college seniors graduate with student-loan debt; the average is about $19,000.) College of the Ozarks is one of seven "work colleges" in the U.S.; most, like Ozarks, describe themselves as Christian. Many students say that working for their education makes them value it more. Sarah Ledoux, an Ozarks sophomore, says, "I find I take more pride in doing well in class when I know I've washed dishes to be able to take that class."

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