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NEWS OF THE WEIRD

by Chuck Shepherd

• The first line of “defense” at the 400 Iraqi police checkpoints in Baghdad are small wands with antennas that supposedly detect explosives, but which US officials say are about as useful as Ouija boards. The Iraqi official in charge, Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri, is so enamored of the devices, according to a November New York Times dispatch, that when American experts repeatedly showed the rods’ failures in test after test, he blamed the results on testers’ lack of “training.” The Iraqi government has purchased 1,500 of the ADE 651s from its manufacturer, ATSC Ltd. of the UK, at prices ranging from $16,000 to $60,000 each. The suicide bombers who killed 155 in downtown Baghdad on Oct. 25 passed two tons of explosives through at least one ADE-651-equipped checkpoint.

Cultural diversity

• Many mixed-race (“coloured”) teenage boys in Cape Town, South Africa secure their ethnic identity by having several upper front teeth removed, according to an October dispatch in London’s Daily Telegraph. A University of Cape Town professor said fashion and peer pressure were primary motives for creating the tooth-gap, and not the popular myth among outsiders that coloureds do it to facilitate oral sex. (The ritual includes fitting dentures for the gap just in case, to give the boys flexibility.)

• What a difference a day makes: (1) Charles Wesley Mumbere, 56, was a longtime nurse’s aide at a nursing home in Harrisburg, Pa. until July, when the Ugandan government recognized the separatist Rwenzururu territory founded in 1962 by Mumbere’s late father. In October, Mumbere returned to his native country as king of the region’s 300,000 subjects. (2) Jigme Wangchuk, 11, was a student at St. Peter’s School in Boston when he was enthroned in November by a Buddhist sect in India’s Darjeeling district as its high priest, covering territory extending to neighboring Nepal and Bhutan. He will live in seclusion in his monastery, except for contact with Facebook friends he made while in Boston.

• An unprecedented toilet-building spree has taken hold in India over the last two years, spurred by a government campaign embraced by young women: “No Toilet, No Bride” (i.e., no marriage unless the male’s dowry includes indoor plumbing). About 665 million people in India lack access to toilets, according to an October Washington Post dispatch.

• Tradition: (1) The town of Waiau, New Zealand, had once again planned an annual rabbit-carcasstossing contest, to a chorus of complaints from animal rights activists concerned that children not associate dead animals with fun. (In New Zealand, rabbits are crop-destroying pests, doing an estimated NZ$22 million (US$16 million) damage annually, but nonetheless, the town canceled the contest.) (2) As the Irish Parliament debated whether to lower the blood-alcohol reading that would earn drivers a DUI charge, legislator Mattie McGrath begged colleagues to keep the current, more generous standards: “[Modest drinking] can make people who are jumpy on the road, or nervous, be more relaxed.”

Latest religious messages

• “Bonnet books” are a “booming new subcategory of the romance genre,” reported The Wall Street Journal in September, describing “G-rated” Amish love stories that sell well among outside readers but have found an even more avid audience among Amish women themselves. The typical best-seller is by a non- Amish writer, perhaps involving a woman inside the community who falls in love with an outsider. In one book described by the Journal, the lovers “actually kiss a couple of times in 326 pages.”

• More Sharia weirdness: (1) The radical Islamist group al Shabaab in Somalia recently began accosting and beating robed women whose bras made their breasts (even though covered) look too provocative. One mother told Reuters in October that police told her that any “firm[ness]” must be natural and not braenhanced. (2) In September, prominent Egyptian scholar Abdul Mouti Bayoumi of al-Azhar University urged the death penalty for people selling virginity-faking devices that make women appear to bleed on their wedding nights. One such gadget, made in China, was openly for sale in Syria for the equivalent of about $15, according to a September BBC News report.

Questionable judgments

• “Ultrarunning” (whose signature event is the 100-mile marathon) takes such a degree of commitment that 5 to 10 percent of participants are said even to have permanently removed their toenails in order to eliminate one of the potential sources of runners’ discomfort. A sports podiatrist told the New York Times in October that many “ultras” consider their toenails “useless appendages, remnants of claws from evolutionary times,” but on the other hand, said one ultrarunner, “You know any sport has gone off the rails when you have to remove body parts to do it.”

• After her two kids, ages 5 and 3, died in a house fire in Rialto, Calif. in May, Viviana Delgado, 27, worked her way through the stages of grief until deciding in October on one final tribute. She turned the vacant, charred dwelling into a showcase haunted house for Halloween. To the average visitor, it’s just a spookily decorated house, but neighbors know that kids died inside, and they know what the two tombstones in the front yard represent.

Least competent people

• (1) Walking: Daredevil Scottish stunt bicyclist Danny MacAskill, whose electrifying feats are featured on popular YouTube videos, suffered a broken collarbone in October when he tripped on a curb while out for a walk in downtown Edinburgh. (2) Truck-driving: Phillip Mathews, 73, whose logging truck is equipped with a tall boom arm to facilitate loading, forgot to lower the arm after finishing a job in Bellevue, Iowa in October, and when he returned to the highway, the boom proceeded to snap lines on utility poles he passed for the next 12 miles until motorists finally got his attention. Recurring themes • The British health care bureaucracy:

(1) When social workers praised the progress 10-year-old Devon Taverner was making with her prosthetic leg (necessary because of a birth defect), bureaucrats terminated her disability payments, which instantly made her life harder. For exam ple,

the lack of a car allowance means she cannot travel without, each trip, removing and re-attaching the prosthesis. (2) On the other hand, Britain’s High Court ruled in September that inmate Denis Roberts, 59, a murderer, was entitled to free surgery to remove a birthmark, and the National Health Service in August granted a free prescription for Viagra to recidivist sex offender Roger Martin, 71, whose latest conviction, last year, involved an 11-yearold boy.

Good news!

• (1) The epic drought that hit central Texas this year, causing a 30-foot drop in the water level of Lake Travis near Austin, also helped police solve three stolen-vehicle cases. Of the three exposed at the bottom of the lake in July was one, with key still in the ignition, missing since 1988. (2) Emergency-room doctors writing in the Archives of Surgery in September reported that light alcohol-drinkers survived brain injuries better than either non-drinkers or heavy drinkers. A News of the Weird classic (March 2001)

• “The final taboo” and “a second coming out” are what John Outcalt, a 42-yearold New York City filmmaker, calls the Gainers and Encouragers gay subculture of men who (the gainers) try to transform their bodies by eating all the food they can or who (the encouragers) get a sexual thrill out of enabling the gainers. The of-average-weight Outcalt said (in a December 2000 issue of the weekly Time Out New York) he’s a “chub chaser” who helps organize conventions (Encouragecons) and likes watching bodies “going from point A to point B, and whether it’s gaining hair, getting larger, or getting fat, I find it sexy and exciting.”

Copyright 2009 Chuck Shepherd Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate

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