News of the Weird

Week of December 26, 2004

LEAD STORY

-- University of Florida professor Thomas DeMarse revealed in December that he has constructed a primitive "brain" ("live computation device") out of 25,000 rat neurons and has taught it to maneuver an F-22 fighter jet simulation in a straight trajectory. The brain had to be "taught," he said, because at first, the plane kept crashing. DeMarse said an organic brain is potentially much more flexible than even the highest-tech computer. The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health are funding his work, as models for controlling otherwise-risky unmanned aircraft and for developing epilepsy-fighting drugs.

Scenes of the Surreal

(1) Following an October worker compensation fine levied against a ranch in Australia's outback, after a cowboy fell off a horse and hit his head, the losing ranch owner said he would require all his wranglers to wear helmets instead of the classic cowboy hats (and other ranch owners may follow along). (2) In November, the school district in Spurger, Texas, ended its decades-old, Homecoming Week reverse-roles day (in which girls dress as boys and vice versa) after one parent complained that the tradition promoted a homosexual lifestyle; in its place, the school urged kids to dress in military camouflage.

Chutzpah!

(1) In July, Winnetka, Ill., investment promoter Charles Harris made a last-ditch effort to get his clients' support, hoping they would not cooperate with authorities who were about to arrest him for fraud. Harris sent each a DVD in which he begged them to give his investments more time, but federal agents, after arresting Harris in September, said Harris probably shot that DVD from the Caribbean Sea, on the 62-foot yacht he had bought with clients' money. (2) In Cleveland, Tenn., Rob Smitty gained media attention in November after donating a kidney to a stranger, hoping the selfless act would make his daughter "proud"; however, Smitty was at the time 24 months behind on child support, and his daughter, Amber, sighed to reporters that Smitty had a poor record of visiting or calling, even on her birthday.

Injudicious Judges

-- According to a female bailiff in Tampa, Fla., county judge Gasper Ficarrota (during a hotel-room tryst with the bailiff) laid out his robe on their bed for her to wear so that she could "feel the power that his black robe possessed." "Why do you think successful attorneys strive to become judges?" he asked. (The bailiff's remarks were written in her private diary, introduced by her husband at their divorce trial in November.) [St. Petersburg Times, 11-18-04]

-- In September, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Judith Retchin ordered Jonathan Magbie, 27, to jail for 10 days for first-offense marijuana possession (a virtually unheard-of sentence in D.C.), despite the fact that Magbie was a quadriplegic with permanent tracheal, urinary and stomach tubes and was often ventilator-dependent, in addition to having various other infirmities. (Magbie died four days later, after what the D.C. Health Department concluded in December was severely inadequate care in jail and in an emergency room.)

The Entrepreneurial Spirit

-- America's Creative Class: Farmer Randy Valicoff (of Yakima Valley in Washington) sold designer apples (at $6) this autumn, created by laying tiny, artistic stickers of "cougars" or "huskies" on ripening apples, leaving on the otherwise-red skin yellow images of either the Washington State University cougar or the University of Washington husky. And in November, Rice University MBA student Beau Carpenter introduced his battery-operated, glowing thong for strippers, with a two-hour charge, in neon colors, at about $50.

-- New Scientist magazine reported in September that Chris Melhuish (University of the West of England, at Bristol) was readying his EcoBot II, a self-powered robot that runs on energy produced by catching and digesting houseflies (and breaking down their sugars to release electrons). The major downside: The most efficient way to attract flies is with sewage, which makes EcoBot II unfriendly to humans.

Awesome Animals

-- In Ruthin, Wales, the owners of the bull Picston Shottle said in November that they believe that piped-in Mozart music helped develop his amazing productivity as a stud; his semen is sold out until April, with enough output to create about 500 "doses" a day (at a price of about US$65 a dose). And sheep farmer Barry Walker touted his flock's production of superfine Australian merino wool at his operation in New South Wales, helped along, he said, by a secret diet of grains and the piped-in music of Italian singer Andrea Bocelli.

-- In November, BBC News previewed an upcoming story for its wildlife TV magazine show "Spy in the Woods," derived from film footage from a stationary hidden camera in the Quingling mountains in northwest China. Featured on the show was a panda doing a handstand against a tree, apparently for the purpose of extending the vertical reach of his urine, to more dominantly mark his territory.

Creme de la Weird

The super-reclusive, 280-person German cult Villa Baviera, holed up in Chile since 1961 and worshipping of former army nurse Paul Schaefer (now age 81, with whereabouts unknown), broke into the public eye in a November Reuters dispatch describing how most members have finally, after four decades, come to realize that they were mistaken in their belief that Schaefer is God's messenger on Earth. The cult lived frozen in time, with few modern conveniences, wearing clothing from the 1930s, and in total obedience to Schaefer, who had imposed many idiosyncratic policies, including an ironclad no-intimacy rule.

Readers' Choice

In November, a 46-year-old man climbed into an enclosed area at the Taipei (Taiwan) Zoo, apparently to attempt to convert a pride of lions to Christianity by informing them that Jesus is their savior. According to witnesses, the lion king sauntered over and briefly sank his teeth into the man's leg, but then, according to one account, "got bored" and returned to his previous state of lounging, as zoo personnel hustled the intruder away.

Least Competent Criminals

Although ride-on lawn mowers have been used as transportation to and from crime scenes before (and even as "vehicles" that drunk drivers get charged with DUI while operating), it is rare that a suspect tries to actually outrun police while on one, as Steven W. Coleman, 37, did in Dover, N.H., in December; he was wanted for questioning in an arson at a former girlfriend's house, and when he saw the lights of a police cruiser, he opened the throttle and took off, for a couple of blocks, before a second cruiser cut him off.

Recurring Themes

The Sacramento (Calif.) Fire Department reported in November that a resident had dropped by the fire station on Granada Way in order to turn in a grenade he had found in his garage. It was later safely detonated. (As in many previous such episodes nationwide, Sacramento authorities requested that anyone who comes across a bomb or grenade should simply report its whereabouts, and not pick it up and, especially, not bring it to them.)

More Things to Worry About

(1) Wildlife experts cited in a BBC News dispatch from Dar es Salaam said the probable cause of a lion's anti-human rampage in southern Tanzania in 2003 and 2004 (killing and eating 35 people) was an abscessed-caused toothache, which led him to seek an alternative to his favorite food, buffalo, which is difficult to chew. (2) A November Associated Press dispatch from Elyria, Ohio, profiled Jennifer Mitchell, who runs a "rescue mission" of sorts, acting as a home of last resort where people can leave rats that they initially kept as pets but grew tired of. At any given time, about three dozen are in residence.

(Send your Weird News to Chuck Shepherd, P.O. Box 18737, Tampa FL 33679 or WeirdNews@earthlink.net or go to www.NewsoftheWeird.com.)

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