Mount Diablo High School (Concord, Calif.) students met in racial groups in February to prepare for upcoming statewide tests, to motivate them to improve their race's "team" score from the year before. Principal Bev Hansen defended the strategy of dividing whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians, pointing out both its previous successes (increases of from 46 points for whites to 80 points for Hispanics) and its ability to motivate by positive ethnicity (rather than allowing intergroup taunting over scores to fester).
-- The Money Drop: Germany saw a birth boom during the first days of the new year, attributed mainly to the government's child-bearing incentives (bonuses of up to the equivalent of $33,000, leading mothers to attempt to delay December delivery until the law kicked in on Jan. 1). Meanwhile, in the United States, according to a December New York Times feature, an estimated 6 percent of the annual 70,000 babies scheduled to be born the first week of January were once again induced early, for late December delivery, to take advantage of tax breaks worth at least $4,000 per child.
-- On Feb. 10, at the luxurious Lebua hotel in Bangkok, organizers brought in six master chefs from around the world to prepare the most exquisite dinner they could imagine for the 40 specially invited international gourmets, who dropped in to dine for $25,000 a person. Among the fare: Perigord truffles, "tartare of Kobe beef with imperial Beluga caviar and Belon oysters," creme brulee of foie gras and 10 of the best wines of the 20th century, including 1961 Chateau Palmer.
-- Zimbabwe's almost comically sad hyperinflation rate reached 1,593 percent in January (the dollars that bought a brick house with pool and tennis court in 1990 would today buy a single brick), but that did not stop President Robert Mugabe from ostentatiously celebrating his 83rd birthday on Feb. 24 at a party estimated to cost the equivalent of about $1.2 million. In early February, the government attempted to halt inflation by passing a law declaring it illegal.
-- An international team of biblical scholars learned recently that the sect thought to have been responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls (the Essenes) became extinct because they were too modest about their toilet habits. According to a November report in London's Independent, the researchers found evidence of heavy fecal bacteria in a secluded area (which was also a graveyard) and deduced from the scrolls that the Essenes rejected defecating in the open (which would have allowed sunlight to kill the bacteria).
-- A January National Geographic TV special revisited an underreported Cold War struggle between Soviet and U.S. scientists rushing to perform head transplants. Russian Vladimir Demikhov, working in secret in the 1950s, grafted the head and upper body of a puppy onto the neck of a large mastiff (and both reportedly bemusedly tolerated the other for the four days that the "puppy" lived). American Robert White of Cleveland, Ohio, reportedly transplanted a dog's brain into another dog's neck and noted which characteristics transferred with the brain (until the dog died days afterward). (When even limited word got out about White's 1970 rhesus monkey head transplant, the public outcry forced his lab to close.)
-- The Royal Bank of Scotland, like other banks in the U.K., is widely criticized for charging onerous fees to customers who make mistakes on their account, such as overdrafts or late payments (levying charges of many times the actual costs of handling the mistakes). Customer Declan Purcell of East London sued the bank over the excessive fees and won a default judgment when the bank failed to respond. Armed with a court order entitling him to the equivalent of $6,600, Purcell led bailiffs into a Royal Bank branch lobby in January to seize four computers, two fax machines and cash.
-- Denver International Airport was reputed to be an "all-weather" facility that would operate seamlessly in a blizzard, but when it failed during the January snowstorms (closed for 45 hours), an embarrassed airport spokesman, Chuck Cannon, admitted he'd like "to choke the person who came up with (the 'all-weather') term." The Associated Press then discovered a 1992 interview with Chuck Cannon, bragging to reporters about his new "all-weather" airport.
Tennessee's death-row-execution procedures came under attack in February when critics realized they were a hodgepodge of lethal-injection rules intermingled with old electric-chair protocol. (Lethal injection thus now requires shaving an inmate's head and having a fire extinguisher ready.) Also in February, at a hearing investigating Florida's botched December execution of Angel Diaz, a special commission concluded that the executioner should have re-checked whether the IV line was in the vein, instead of (as he did) merely continuing to push the resisting chemicals into the arm. (The only formal qualification to be appointed a Florida executioner is to be at least 18 years old.)
Dr. Hugh Tilson, 67, an award-winning public-health researcher at the University of North Carolina, was arrested in January in a men's room at the Atlanta airport and charged with public indecency. Also in January, Lord Justice Richards, 56 (and one of Britain's most senior judges), was arrested for allegedly exposing himself to a woman on a train. And in February, William French Anderson, a world-renowned geneticist, 70 (and runner-up as Time magazine Man of the Year in 1995), was sentenced in Los Angeles to 14 years in prison for molesting an employee's daughter for four years beginning at age 10. Said Anderson, according to court records, "(S)omething in me was just evil."
(1) Clenzo Thompson, 45, was arrested in New York City in January after allegedly robbing the same Commerce Bank branch twice in three days. The first robbery ended when the chemical dye in the money bag exploded and spooked him, and he apparently failed to learn from that, in that the second robbery's money bag also exploded. (And three years earlier, Thompson had been caught after another bank robbery after having accidentally dropped his ID on the bank floor.) (2) Michael J. DeWitt, 39, was arrested for DUI in Fort Wayne, Ind., in February after he drove erratically into the parking lot of an Indiana State Police station early in the morning and told officers that he was there "to get a room." (A Holiday Inn was next door.) (Police later said they matched DeWitt's Hummer to the vehicle that minutes earlier had collided with a car nearby and left the scene.)
The U.S. Navy announced in February that it is planning to use 30 trained dolphins and sea lions for port security in Puget Sound near Seattle. Dolphins' sonar ability makes them excellent at detecting swimmers, and they are being trained to signal via a beacon when encountering one. According to an Associated Press dispatch, sea lions can carry special cuffs in their mouths and are being trained to clamp the cuff around a swimmer's leg.
(1) A 47-year-old registered sex offender died of a heart attack in Palm Beach County, Fla., in January; his body was found, nude, in front of his home computer on which he had been viewing pornography. (2) Another 47-year-old man was killed late at night, in February in Belle River, Ontario, when his snowmobile collided with a tree stump embedded in Lake St. Clair; the man had been waging a notorious, three-year campaign to have the stump removed from the lake because of the danger it posed to nighttime snowmobilers.
(Visit Chuck Shepherd daily at http://NewsoftheWeird.blogspot.com or www.NewsoftheWeird.com. Send your Weird News to WeirdNewsTips@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 18737, Tampa, FL 33679.)