by Chuck Shepherd

Horse show jumping, minus the horse

Horse show jumping is a longtime Olympics sport, but for the last 10 years, equestrians have been performing in “horseless” show jumping, in which  horse courses are run by “riders” on foot (who, by the way, do not straddle broomsticks). According to an October report in the Wall Street Journal, an international association headed by retired pro equestrian Jessica Newman produces at least 15 shows a year, with between 40 to 130 competitors galloping over jumps that vary from two to four feet high (five feet in “Grand Prix” events), with the “riders” graded as if they were on horses (timed, with points off for contacting the rails). Explained Newman about the shows’ success: “It’s just fun to be a horse.”

Cultural Diversity

• Official gaydar: Malaysia’s Education Ministry has held at least 10 seminars recently to teach parents and teachers how to head off the pesky homosexuality that their kids may be in “danger” of developing. According to officials, sure signs are when boys wear “V-neck” or sleeveless shirts or carry big handbags. For girls, the most obvious sign is “having no affection for boys.” Last year, according to a September Reuters report, the government set up camps specifically to teach “masculine behavior” to “effeminate” boys.

• Championship eaters gobble down hot dogs on New York’s Coney Island, but in August, when a Filipino restaurant in Brooklyn wanted a more ethnic contest, it offered plates of “baluts,” the Philippine delicacy of duck fetuses. Wayne Algenio won, stuffing 18 down his throat in five minutes. Typically, the baluts have barely begun to develop, sometimes allowing a “lucky” diner to sense in his mouth the crackle of a beak or the tickle of a feather. Since baluts are exotic, they are considered to be aphrodisiacs.

• Surviving a cobra bite in Nepal is simple, some natives believe. If the victim bites the snake right back, to its death, the venom is rendered harmless. One confident farmer bitten in August in Biratnagar told BBC News that he went about his business after fatally biting his attacker and survived only after his family convinced him that perhaps the custom was ridiculous and hauled him to a hospital.

• A September religious festival in Nanchang, China is a favorite of beggars, as visitors are in a generous mood, but officials expressed concern this year about the increasing hordes of panhandlers harassing the pilgrims. Thus, town officials ordered all festival beggars to be locked up in small cages (too tiny to allow standing) to minimize the hustling. Beggars are free to leave, but then must stay away permanently. Most beggars chose to stay since they still earned more in festival cages than they would have on the street.

Whale Discharges in the News

• In August, schoolboy Charlie Naysmith of Christchurch, England, taking a nature walk near Hengistbury Head beach, came upon a rocklike substance that turned out to be petrified whale vomit which, to his surprise, proved worth the equivalent of from $16,000 to $64,000. “Ambergris,” a waxy buildup from the intestines of a sperm whale, produces a foul odor but is valuable commercially for prolonging the scent of a perfume. (Actually, after floating in the sun, on salt water, for decades, the ambergris on the beach was smooth and sweet-smelling.)

• Tucker, an 8-year-old black Labrador mix, is the only dog in the world trained to detect the faint whiff of the tiniest specks of whale feces in the open ocean water (and from as far as a mile away!). A September New York Times dispatch from coastal Washington state noted that the 85 or so orcas that populate the area have been identified and tracked for decades, but locating them at any given time was always a problem until Tucker came along. One of his trainers explained that the dog’s directional signals are accurate but often subtle (such as by a twitch of the ear).

Latest Religious Messages

• The CIA and the National Security Agency may play roles, but Kentucky’s homeland security law explicitly acknowledges “God” as the key to the war on terrorism. In August, the Kentucky Supreme Court declined to hear atheists’ challenges to the state’s 2002 “legislative finding” that the state’s “safety and security” cannot be achieved without God’s help. A lower court wrote that since the law did not “advance” religion but merely paid “lip service” to a belief in God, it did not violate the separation of church and state doctrine.

• Seventy people, including 20 children, were discovered in August in an eight-story-high, all-underground bunker in Kazan in the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, and authorities said the quasi-religious sect had probably been there for nearly 10 years without heat or forced ventilation or sunlight. The group is nominally Islamist, but according to a dispatch by London’s the Guardian, the sect is more likely under the individual control of 83-year-old, self-described prophet Fayzrahman Satarov.

• The tax on worship: When the Roman Catholic Church in Germany warned in September that too many Catholics were opting out of paying the country’s “religious tax,” many Americans got their firstever notice that some European democracies actually tax worship. The Catholic Church made it official that anyone backing out of the income tax surcharge would be ineligible to receive Holy Communion or religious burial (although the tax avoider could still receive Last Rites). (Under the German constitution, a church can directly recoup its expenses from members or choose to allow the government to collect the levy on the church’s behalf, minus a collection fee. Two German states add 8 percent to whatever the church member’s tax bill is, and the other states add 9 percent.)

© 2012 Chuck Shepherd. Universal Press Syndicate.