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News and Trends
October 10, 2005


Power From a Placebo?
No Skillet Big Enough
Basically Clueless
An End to Pesky Stickers?
Do Those Menus Come With Egg Roll?
Grim Reality Spawns Reality TV

Power From a Placebo?
An increasing number of pro ballplayers and their fans have begun wearing jewelry embedded with titanium for its supposed energy-boosting properties. Phiten, the Japanese company that makes the jewelry, claims that it enhances the body's "energy-management system, increasing the capacity of every cell." Although there is no scientific evidence supporting this claim, some experts say the jewelry may have a placebo effect: If someone strongly believes a particular "cure" works, it often does. According to Jeffrey Wildfogel, a psychologist at Stanford University, the resulting boost in confidence can "improve performance and focus, regardless of whether there are any real physical effects from the necklace." Perhaps the colorful jewelry, which costs from $15 to $25, is the high-tech version of a lucky rabbit's foot.

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No Skillet Big Enough
Announcing itself with four huge whacks of its tail, it thrashed against the net that had trapped it in the pale brown water of the Mekong River. It may have been the biggest freshwater fish ever recorded—a rare giant catfish 9 feet long and weighing 646 pounds. It took five boatmen an hour to pull it in and 10 men to lift it when they reached the shore of Hat Khrai, a village in northern Thailand. When this monster catfish was caught in May, Zeb S. Hogan, an American biologist, rushed to Hat Khrai to take a look. It was his first specimen in a project to study the world's largest freshwater fish, in the hope of slowing their extinction. Hogan says that the Mekong has seven species of giant fish. All are threatened by overfishing, development, and pollution. The monster fish was one of just three giant catfish caught in Thailand this year. The Hat Khrai fishing association paid the owner of the boat nearly $2,000 for it—a fortune in rural Thailand. As required by law, the fish was then sold to the Department of Fisheries, which harvests the eggs and sperm from endangered fish for a captive-breeding program. When the catfish was finally returned to the fishermen, they promptly sliced it into giant steaks and sold it.

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Basically Clueless
When it comes to basic science, says Jon D. Miller of Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, around 75 percent of Americans "don't have a clue." According to Miller's research, one adult American in five thinks the sun revolves around the Earth. Most don't understand what molecules are, and fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only 10 percent know what radiation is. At a time when science permeates debates on everything from global warming to stem-cell research, Miller says, a lack of scientific knowledge undermines a person's ability to take part in the democratic process. He points out that in 18th-century New England, "Even if you could not read and write—and most New England residents could not read or write—you could still be a pretty effective citizen." This is no longer the case today, he says: "Acid rain, nuclear power, infectious diseases—the world is a little different."

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An End to Pesky Stickers?
Consumers tired of picking those tiny stickers off pears, peaches, and plums can take heart: Fruit with edible "tattoos" is on the way. A new technology uses lasers to etch fruits and vegetables with their names, identifying numbers, countries of origin, and other information. The stickerless technology is part of the produce industry's effort to identify and track everything Americans eat. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the industry has been encouraged to develop ‘'track and trace'' technology to allow protection of the food supply at various stages of distribution. The tattoos will also help consumers and cashiers distinguish among the different varieties of fruits and vegetables. "When there was only one kind of apple at the supermarket, it was easy," says Don Harris, a vice president at Wild Oats, a national market chain. "But now at some supermarkets, you will have 12 different kinds of apples." Will some consumers shy away from tattooed produce for aesthetic reasons? "Anything that permanently changes the fruit is going to be a hard sell," says Harris, "especially to buyers of organic produce."

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Do Those Menus Come With Egg Roll?
How many Chinese takeout menus does it take to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records? Harley Spiller, 46, of Brooklyn, N.Y., hopes that his collection—between 10,000 and 15,000 Chinese menus from around the world—will suffice. The current Guinness record for menu-collecting is 4,001 (no distinction is made for Chinese or other specialty menus). Spiller counted out 5,006 from his own collection, clearing the record by a safe margin, and submitted that figure to Guinness officials. He now awaits their decision. Spiller, a menu collector since 1981, says he is fascinated by the odd spellings and trends in Chinese-restaurant names.

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Grim Reality Spawns Reality TV
Laborers were busy hammering planks, laying bricks, and pouring concrete. Al Sharqiya, an Iraqi TV network, had contracted them to rebuild the Baghdad home of Amal Ramzi Ismail, whose house was destroyed when U.S. troops blew up a munitions cache nearby. TV crews were taping an episode of Materials and Labor, a reality show inspired by ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. It offers Baghdad residents the chance to have homes destroyed by the war rebuilt at no cost to them. Reality TV could turn out to be Iraq's most durable Western import. Since spring 2004, when Materials and Labor premiered, a constellation of reality shows has burst onto TV screens across Iraq. Al Sharqiya also broadcasts a show called Congratulations! which helps young, poor couples get married. A rival network boasts Iraq Star, an amateur-singing contest that resembles American Idol. Since its start, Materials and Labor has financed the repair of six homes. Majid al-Samarraie, the show's writer, says each episode, by showing the ravages of war and the callousness of politicians, serves as a critique of the U.S. and of the Iraqi government. Advertising revenue helps fund the reconstructions, which cost at least $30,000. "There's a kind of drama in the completion of these houses," says al-Samarraie. "I've cried, I've wept."

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