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Lab & Field Notes

September 10, 2009

Some eBay users are falsely boosting their reputations online by paying for positive feedback on the site, says business professor John Morgan. In online communities, ratings and reputation lead to more, and larger, transactions. Morgan found the transaction was often initiated by sellers offering a “Buy-It-Now” item—sometimes listed as a “Positive Feedback Ebook”—for 1 cent.

While studying the slime that coats the floor of California mines, research scientist Brett Baker discovered three new microbes, some of the smallest organisms known. Baker and earth and planetary science professor Jill Banfield have been using shotgun sequencing, the same technique used to map the human genome, to study microbes in the mine slime that convert iron to acid, a common source of stream pollution.

Is altruism really selfless? Not necessarily, says a study co-authored by assistant sociology professor Robb Willer. The study on charitable donations found people donated more money when observed by others than when they gave privately. Participants in the study would also compete to be more generous than one another to improve their reputation and increase their chances of being picked as a partner.

Speakers of Balinese and West African N’ko can search the web and read online documents in their native languages thanks to the Script Encoding Initiative in Berkeley’s linguistics department. With more than $300,000 in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Google, SEI will translate more than 80 languages not yet in Unicode, the international standard used on the Internet. Scripts slated for encoding include Javanese and Native American Naskapi, Blackfoot, and Cree. Several extinct scripts will also be encoded for research purposes, including Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Berkeley chemists figured out the trick used by anthrax bacteria to make an end run around the body’s defenses. Anthrax uses two molecules to spread throughout the body. The scientists, led by Ken Raymond, found one acts as a decoy, and is attacked by the human immune system, while the other, called petrobactin, sneaks by. The discovery could lead to new anti-anthrax drugs.

A new kind of steel wall invented by Berkeley engineers, including associate professor Boza Stojadinovic, is three times stronger than woodframed walls. An alternative to plywood retrofitting, the new wall has the potential to dramatically lower the cost of earthquakeresistant, multi-unit housing.

From the March April 2007 Centennial Edition issue of California.

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