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News and Trends
December 13, 2010


But Can She Dunk?
From Paris to Amman
Did Lucy Eat Steak?
Chocolate, Unwrapped
Google Takes the Wheel
Required Reading: Stalin's Horrors
Tweeting From Everest

But Can She Dunk?
Basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith for his students at the Y.M.C.A. in Springfield, Massachusetts. Naismith typed a list of 13 rules, and his two-page document—still legible 119 years later—is expected to sell for at least $2 million at an auction this month in New York. Naismith wanted to create a gentlemanly game without "shouldering, holding, pushing, or striking," where the ball "may be batted in any direction," and a "player cannot run with the ball" but "must throw it from the spot on which he catches it." His students developed dribbling on their own. To see Naismith's rules, click here.

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From Paris to Amman
Gondola rides along the canals of Venice or a look at the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris has long been part of the experience for thousands of American college students studying abroad for a semester. But these days, many are heading to Arabic-speaking countries—like Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan—where the number of American students increased sixfold to 3,400 in 2007 from 560 in 2002. Brian Reeves, 21, a senior at Brandeis University outside Boston, is Jewish, speaks Hebrew, and has spent time in Israel. He was interested in learning about the other side of the Arab-Israeli conflict, so he went to the University of Jordan in Amman, where he learned the Arabic dialect spoken in the Palestinian territories. "I wanted to find out what Jews and Arabs have in common," Reeves says. Anna Oltman, 21, a senior at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, spent a semester in Egypt. "For better or worse . . . 9/11 linked our generation of Americans with its parallel generation of Middle Easterners," says Oltman. "We need to get to know them."

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Did Lucy Eat Steak?
As early as 3.4 million years ago, some individuals with a taste for meat apparently used sharp and heavy stones to butcher two large animals on the shore of a shallow lake in what is now Ethiopia. Scientists say cut marks on a rib and thighbone of two fossilized animals indicate that human ancestors—presumably members of the species best known for the skeleton called Lucy—might have been using stone tools and eating meat 800,000 years earlier than had been thought. Australopithecus afarensis was long thought to have lived on vegetation alone; the discovery sheds light on early dietary habits and tool use. But questions remain—like whether the cut marks were made by a more evolved species unknown to scientists and whether the stone tools were made or found.

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Chocolate, Unwrapped
Hershey's and Mars have been battling it out at the candy store for almost 100 years, but recently, they've taken their rivalry to a very different setting: the research lab. Two teams of scientists, one working for Mars, the other funded in part by Hershey's, say they've mapped the cocoa tree's 420 million DNA units. (Humans have 3 billion units.) Mars was first to announce its findings. Knowing the DNA sequence may help ensure a more stable supply of chocolate and make it better tasting and healthier. Despite the rivalry, both teams agree that the data should be made widely available and that cocoa farmers, candy companies, and chocolate lovers will all benefit. About 70 percent of the world's cocoa is grown in West Africa, and the livelihoods of several million small farmers depend on it. Scientists say that the DNA information will make it possible to as much as quintuple the output of beans per acre in Africa and help in breeding trees that are more resistant to disease.

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Google Takes the Wheel
A car that drives itself? That's what Google, the California-based technology giant, says it's working on as part of its effort to "help solve really big problems using technology." Each of the company's seven retooled cars is equipped with radar, light sensors, GPS, and video cameras to help them mimic the decisions made by human drivers. And each has already driven more than 1,000 miles without human intervention, including down San Francisco's Lombard Street, known as the most crooked street in the world. On the plus side, robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception, and do not get distracted, sleepy, or drunk. But the technology raises legal issues. Under current law, a human must be in control of a car at all times, but what if the human is not paying attention, figuring the robot is driving more safely than he would? And who would be liable in an accident—the person in the car or the software maker? Of course, before the cars can be sold, they'd have to be far more reliable than today's personal computers—which, as we all know, have their own problems with crashing.

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Required Reading: Stalin's Horrors
The Gulag Archipelago—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's three-volume account of the horrors he and millions of prisoners endured under Joseph Stalin's regime—was published in the West in 1973 but banned in the Soviet Union until 1984. Solzhenitsyn was exiled for writing the book and spent 10 years in the U.S. Now, 19 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an abridged version of his book will be required reading in Russian high schools, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's blessing. Human-rights advocates are applauding his support. A former colonel in the KGB—the ruthless secret police and intelligence agency of the Soviet Union—Putin has been criticized for his increasingly undemocratic rule, like eliminating some local elections. But Putin recently told The Wall Street Journal, "This book is necessary."

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Tweeting From Everest
Slipping off the grid for a while is part of the attraction of heading into the wilderness. But there's good news for nature lovers who can't seem to unplug: USA Today reports that a telecom company in Nepal has installed 3G antennas near the base of Mount Everest, enabling climbers to make calls and access the Internet from the world's tallest peak. The new service will also benefit Nepalis living in the remote Khumbu Valley, who previously didn't have cellphone service. But Kelly McParland, a columnist with Canada's National Post, isn't so thrilled about wiring the Himalayas. "Great, people yakking on their cellphone on the roof of the world," he writes. "'Hi Mom, I'm at Mount Everest. Yeah, the peak. Did you remember to tape Glee for me?'" Here at home, America's national parks have been grappling with how to deal with cellphones. Yellowstone restricts their use to just a few areas. And Olympic National Park in Washington State reminds visitors to use cellphones only in emergencies—which doesn't include updating your Facebook status.

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