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News and Trends
November 28, 2005


Stamp Blunder Pays Off
Just Wait Till You Hear...
Dial-Up Drama
A Cup-O-Noodles From the Past
Exporting an Electronic Wasteland
This Bird 'Plays' Its Wings

Stamp Blunder Pays Off
The next time you buy postage stamps, you might want to examine them closely. A block of four U.S. airmail stamps from 1918 with a biplane mistakenly printed upside down was auctioned in October for $2,970,000—a world record for a stamp item. When the stamp was first issued, a sharp-eyed stamp enthusiast purchased a sheet of 100 and noticed that the plane was inverted. The collector immediately sold the entire sheet to a dealer for $15,000. The stamps were separated and sold off for a few hundred dollars each. Some four-stamp blocks were preserved, and these became the stuff of stamp-collecting legend. "I collected as a child, and this was the stamp of my dreams," says Charles Hack, the real-estate entrepreneur who won the auction. He says the stamps are "an icon of America."

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Just Wait Till You Hear...
Gossip has long been dismissed as little more than idle background chatter with no useful social function. But some researchers now say that it should be central to any study of group interaction. "Gossip appears to be a very sophisticated, multifunctional interaction which is important in policing behaviors and defining group membership," says David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. While lying and cheating among friends make for the juiciest material (most people pass on their best tidbits to at least two other people), gossip may offer a foothold for newcomers and a safety net for group members who feel in danger of falling out. In fact, gossiping too little can be at least as risky as gossiping too much, according to Sarah Wert, a psychologist at Yale University. Wert believes that people with poor social skills could actually benefit from participating in gossip sessions. "[They] would learn a whole lot of stuff they need to know and can't learn anywhere else—like how reliable people are, how trustworthy," she says. "Not participating in gossip at some level can be unhealthy and abnormal."

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Dial-Up Drama
One-minute "mobisodes" (mobile episodes) based on your favorite TV shows may soon be coming to the minuscule screen on your cell phone. Mobile video is already popular in South Korea, Japan, and Europe. And in the U.S., companies like Verizon, Cingular, and Sprint are already offering some video services. In January, a cell-phone series called 24: Conspiracy—based on the hit Fox series 24—premiered in England, where it cost about $19. Episodes were specially shot and edited for a tiny screen. Most images are close-ups of actors because panoramic scenes tend to blur. "We are all experimenting to see what works," says Eric Young, director of 24: Conspiracy. "Every new medium finds its own way and rules." MTV Networks is developing Samurai Love God, an animated series to be introduced in February. Walt Disney Company and Warner Brothers are also planning animated series for the mobile-phone market.

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A Cup-O-Noodles From the Past
Thousands of years before there was fettucine Alfredo, spaghetti, or Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, someone living near the Yellow River in northwestern China was eating a bowl of noodles. The meal was interrupted, most likely by a catastrophic flood. The up-ended bowl remained sealed with sediment until October, when a Chinese research team unearthed it. According to Houyuan Lu of the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing, the clump of noodles found inside the bowl is 4,000 years old. The thin, yellow strands are the earliest physical evidence of noodles ever found. They resemble traditional Chinese La-Mian noodles, which are made by pulling and stretching the dough by hand. And the ancient pasta may help settle an old argument. "Chinese people say Marco Polo brought noodles from China back to Italy, and Italians say they had noodles before that," Lu told the Associated Press. "All this has been based on documentary material, on personal accounts, and menus. But we've been unable to find any actual material—until now."

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Exporting an Electronic Wasteland
Much of the used computer equipment sent from the U.S. to developing countries is unusable and creates an environmental hazard, according to a report by the Basel Action Network (BAN), a Seattle-based environmental group. BAN says that U.S. recycling companies donate or sell old equipment to poor countries to avoid paying for proper disposal. Nigeria alone gets about 400,000 computers a month; up to 75 percent are unusable. The computers, which contain lead, mercury, and other toxic materials, wind up in landfills where they may pollute the groundwater. If the equipment is burned instead, it releases poisons into the air.

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This Bird 'Plays' Its Wings
Richard Prum, an ornithologist from Yale University, was hiking through an Ecuadorean forest 18 years ago when he had a strange experience: He watched a bird sing with its wings. The bird—a male club-winged manakin—was hopping from branch to branch to attract females. He waved his wings over his back, producing a loud tone that sounded like a violin. "There's literally no bird in the world that does anything that prepares you for it," says Prum. "It's totally unique." The manakin family includes about 40 species of birds, many of which have feathers that enable them to make unusual sounds. Some pop like a firecracker; others make whooshing noises in flight. But the way in which the club-winged manakin produced its music was a mystery that Prum and his colleague, Kimberly Bostwick of Cornell University, were determined to solve. Bostwick made films of the bird and studied specimens of its wing feathers. She found that each time a manakin shakes its wings, the rigid tip of one wing rakes across several ridges on the other. Manakins shake their wings 100 times per second, producing 14 sounds per shake. This is similar to the technique that allows some insects to sing, but it is unknown in any other vertebrate.

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