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News and Trends
September 18, 2006


China's Lucky Numbers
Before There Were Newtons
Scalpel, Suture, iPod
A Striking Woman
He Thanks Heaven for 7-Eleven
India Elects a New Idol

China's Lucky Numbers
Achieving China's new middle-class dream means owning a car. But the car is not always enough: A license plate with lucky numbers has become almost as much of a status symbol as the vehicle itself. In Chinese culture, the luckiest number is 8; the unluckiest is 4. Many people were resorting to bribery to obtain lucky numbers, so officials in southern China decided to put plates up for public auction. In Guangzhou last July, plate AC6688 fetched $10,000; one young man snagged APY888 for $6,750. "Since I have a nice car, I thought I should get a nice plate," he said. But Zhao Shu, chairman of the China Folk Art and Literature Association, says the obsession with lucky plates is a gross distortion of Chinese tradition. "It shows a very superficial culture," says Zhao. "It's bragging by the new rich."

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Before There Were Newtons
In the ruins of a prehistoric village in the West Bank, near Jericho, scientists have found the charred remains of figs that appear to be the earliest-known cultivated fruit. Researchers say the figs, which are about 11,400 years old, came from trees that were grown about a thousand years before the development of staple crops like wheat, barley, and chickpeas. Ofer Bar-Yosef, an archaeologist at Harvard's Peabody Museum, contends that the first cultivated grains were introduced in what is now Israel and north into the upper Euphrates River valley, in today's Iraq. (Other researchers think these crops most likely originated in southern Turkey.) When scientists compared the ancient figs with modern ones, they concluded that the ancient fruit was a mutant strain that yielded no fertile seeds. The figs could have been reproduced only by people deliberately planting shoots from the trees. "Eleven thousand years ago," says Bar-Yosef, "there was a critical switch in the human mind … . People decided to intervene in nature and supply their own food rather than relying on what was provided by the gods."

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Scalpel, Suture, iPod
Like most of modern life, surgery has acquired a soundtrack. Surgeons say music relaxes them and focuses their attention, and recent research shows that there are also mild benefits for the patient. Some doctors choose loud rock 'n' roll for routine operations and Mozart for trickier ones; others prefer jazz, reggae, or opera. There is even a category known as "closing music"—raucous sounds to suture by. Many operating rooms come equipped with a sound system, and surgeons often plug their iPods into speakers. Patients may be given headphones. Brian Jacob, a surgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, says music helps everyone in the operating room. "You're basically sending a message to the people around you that it's a cool place to be," he says. "I found I get a lot done when I have U2 in the background." Jacob sometimes asks patients for requests, but they usually say that whatever is on is fine: "They want me happy."

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A Striking Woman
Kelly Kulick is trading in a job at her father's auto-body shop, where she is the lone woman surrounded by men, for life on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour—where she will also be the lone woman surrounded by men. Kulick, a 29-year-old from Union, N.J., has become the first woman to qualify for the P.B.A. Tour. At the five-day qualifying event in June, she finished sixth out of 140 bowlers and rolled a perfect 300 game. "I do pretty well against the men, maybe because working at the shop has made me tough," says Kulick, who excelled on the Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour until it folded in 2003. Some men object to a woman joining the P.B.A. Tour because it has traditionally been all-male. But Tommy Jones, 27, winner of eight P.B.A. titles, is fine with having a woman on the Tour. He thinks Kulick deserves a chance to play against the men. Meanwhile, Kulick has already set her sights even higher: She wants to become the first woman to win a P.B.A. title.

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He Thanks Heaven for 7-Eleven
Marty Siegel's passion for 7-Eleven began 21 years ago, when he first laid eyes on one that had just opened in Brooklyn, N.Y. "It was such a bright, nice-looking new store, a real fresh breath of suburban air," says Siegel, 46, a train conductor for New Jersey Transit. Since then, Siegel has visited nearly 2,000 7-Elevens in the U.S. and Canada. He has taken hundreds of photographs and collected 7-Eleven caps, T-shirts, beach towels, and coffee cups. In 1987, Siegel tried working at a 7-Eleven in Brooklyn but quit after four months. "I couldn't take it any longer," he says. "Too many kooks walking in and out of there."

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India Elects a New Idol
This past spring, eight finalists gathered at a TV studio in Mumbai (also known as Bombay) for the weekly taping of Indian Idol. The singers were all in their late teens and 20s; each dreamed of making it big in Bollywood, India's movie industry. The winner, chosen by popular vote, would get a Sony recording contract and a brand-new car. Indian Idol, similar in format to American Idol, is among several TV talent shows that have become popular in India. Most of the contestants come from small towns and villages. This year's winner of Indian Idol, Sandeep Acharya, became known as "the boy from Bikaner," a town in northwestern India. The popularity of these contests seems to reflect a belief among Indian youth that they can make it on merit, and that democracy will win out over favoritism or family connections.

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