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OPERATORS ARE STANDING BY

Without divulging how much, the largest telecommunications company in Australia admits it has been ripped off, big-time, by an inventive scam. Sydney-based Telstra has begun an urgent modification program on almost 30,000 of its pay phones. It seems they were built to accept so-called "smart" cards. But users have figured out how to trick them into recognizing - instead - flattened plastic drinking straws. The company will say only that it has "a rough idea" how much money it has lost on thousands of overseas calls made from the phones.

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TAKE IT BACK, I BEG YOU

The package arriving at Scotland's Inverness Tourist Information Centre had a Belgian postmark. Inside were a note and a two-pound rock, which the sender had pried from a historic site In the Highlands. He asked that it be returned to its original place. Why? Since arriving home with the souvenir, his family had experienced several misfortunes - including the loss of his job.

US cities aren't rated among world's best in quality of life

Not one major US city offers a high-enough quality of life to be ranked among the world's best in that category, according to results of a new survey by the international consulting firm William M. Mercer LLC. After considering the merits of 218 cities in such areas as education, transportation, personal safety, the local economy, and the natural environment - and using a score of 100 as a base - Mercer decided on a four-way tie for first place. Mercer's top 10, listed alphabetically where there are ties:

1. Bern, Switzerland106

(tie) Vancouver, British Columbia 106

(tie) Vienna 106

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(tie) Zurich, Switzerland 106

5. Auckland, New Zealand 105.5

(tie) Copenhagen, Denmark 105.5

(tie) Geneva 105.5

(tie) Sydney, Australia 105.5

9. Amsterdam 104.5

(tie) Helsinki, Finland 104.5

- Reuters

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society