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Businessweek Archives

Giving The Rain Forests A (Fire)Break

Developments to Watch

Giving the Rain Forests a (Fire)break

In the drought-stricken El Nino years of 1997 and 1998, small fires associated with farming and logging triggered raging fires in the rain forests of Southeast Asia and the Amazon. Their unprecedented severity shocked residents and researchers alike. Now, Mark A. Cochrane and his colleagues at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts have identified the mechanism that caused those fires to blaze out of control.

In a tropical rain forest, says Cochrane, a low-intensity fire creates more fuel than it consumes, because it kills shrubs and trees without burning them, leaving fuel for later fires. As a result, the next fire may be more than 10 times hotter and can kill even the largest trees. The opposite happens in temperate forests, where periodic fires are an ecological necessity, consuming dry brush that could otherwise fuel larger blazes. To help prevent future conflagrations in tropical forests, Cochrane recommends establishing firebreaks before intentional burns and prohibiting logging near agricultural areas.By Evelyn L. Wright; Edited by Neil GrossReturn to top

Newfangled Ovens That Provide Haste and Taste

When it comes to cooking, convenience has a cost. Ask anyone who has feasted on the gray, flabby flesh of microwaved meat or tried to bake a cake on the quick. Now, manufacturers are coming out with superfast ovens that claim to provide conventional-oven taste with near-microwave speeds.

GE Appliances' Advantium oven, for example, uses three blistering-hot 1,500-watt halogen lights to bake cookies or roast a chicken at least four times faster than conventional ovens. Combining microwave and hot lights, the oven cooks food inside and out simultaneously. For most foods, the $1,300 oven will consume only half the electricity of a conventional oven.

For about $1,600, you can get an oven called the Flashbake 120 from Quadlux Inc. of Freemont, Calif. Like the Advantium, it bakes, broils, grills, and roasts with high-energy halogen lights.

And South Korea's Samsung is funding tests for an exotic microwave oven that was developed at Rutgers University. With cooperation from the food industry, this oven will read special labels on food and alert the user when it spots ingredients that he or she wishes to avoid. The smart ovens will also recognize voices.By Diane Brady; Edited by Neil GrossReturn to top

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Video Games May Heal, Not Harm

Psychologists can't agree on whether blasting foes in virtual 3-d worlds promotes killer behavior in adolescents. But scientists working with teenage epilepsy patients are gaining striking new insights about what goes on inside kids' brains as they navigate 3-D video-game mazes.

In the June 24 issue of Nature, researchers at Brandeis University and the Children's Hospital in Boston report that epilepsy patients produce brainwave patterns known as theta oscillations in direct proportion to the difficulty of the electronic mazes they are trying to solve. These peculiar, slow rhythms have been studied in laboratory animals, but never before linked to specific human behavior. Once scientists understand the mechanism behind such rhythms, they can explore whether modulating the patterns can influence "the speed and quality of learning and memory," says Michael Kahana, an assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at Brandeis. Kahana collaborated with fellow Brandeis professor Robert Sekuler and Dr. Joseph Madsen, a neurosurgeon.

Kahana's research on theta oscillations could vindicate strategies at neuroscience startups such as Scientific Learning Corp. in Berkeley, Calif., which develops games to treat dyslexia and other learning disorders. It is also likely to set off bells at Sony, Nintendo, and other video-game companies, which are starting to target the education market.Edited by Neil GrossReturn to top

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