News of the Weird 

Robot rights, horny pandas, and more

LEAD STORY: Eventually, robots will have to be given legal rights (and accept certain responsibilities) if advances in artificial intelligence (AI) continue to create sensitive quasi-organisms, according to a paper solicited for Sir David King, the U.K.'s chief scientist. According to one AI researcher, "If [robots are] granted full rights, states will be obligated to provide full social benefits to them including income support, housing and possibly robo-health care to fix the machines over time." A December Financial Times report on the paper noted that robots might also have to pay taxes and be available for military service. (Some of the ideas in the paper track visions described years ago by writer Isaac Asimov.)

Government in Action!: Voters and critics in both parties chided the "do-nothing" 109th Congress (2005-2006) as a body tied up in partisanship and divisiveness. However, the Congress did manage to pass 383 pieces of legislation, except that almost 100 of the laws were merely authorizations to name post offices and other federal structures after famous Americans (such as Ray Charles, Ava Gardner and Karl Malden).

Police Blotter: From the Arizona Daily Sun (Flagstaff, Ariz., Dec. 3, 2006): "About 1,800 square feet of insulation were reported stolen from the underside of a house on the 5100 block of East Hickory Drive. The victim said the insulation disappeared sometime between September and this week. She said she was having trouble keeping her house warm as the weather got colder."

ClichÉs Come to Life: The Texas Ethics Commission ruled in November that a public official in the Lone Star state, receiving money as a gift such as from a lobbyist, need disclose only that he received "a check" or "currency" and need not reveal the actual amount of money. Said the district attorney in Austin, who was outraged by the ruling, it is now "perfectly legal to report the gift of 'a wheelbarrow' without reporting that the wheelbarrow was filled with cash."

Bright Ideas: Scamming the Horny Panda: One trick that zookeepers have used to get male pandas interested in mating with dowdier females (according to a December dispatch from Sichuan, China, in Australia's The Age) is to let an attractive female roam around a pen, leaving her scent, and then, in darkness, with the male in the pen and frisky at the scent, to introduce the less attractive female into the pen, back-end first, so that the pre-excited male will quickly begin copulating. Said zookeeper Zhang Hemin, "When the males find out [that they've just mated with unintended partners], they get very angry and start fighting the female. We have had to use firecrackers and a water hose to separate them."

Creme de la Weird: People Disrespecting Their Bodies: John Sheehan, 33, was arrested in November, nude, near the rapid-transit station in El Cerrito, Calif., and when asked if he was carrying contraband, admitted that he had a "screwdriver" in his rectum. (Police treated the item as a potential weapon, training guns on him while he removed the 6-inch-long "awl" wrapped in electrical tape.)

Recurring Themes: News of the Weird has previously mentioned how difficult some Japanese and Singaporean people find it to smile, even when their jobs depend on it, and Chinese people preparing for the 2008 Olympics are having similar problems turning Beijing into a "city of smiles," as the campaign is called. Said one man attending a class on smiling: "At first, I thought [it might be] difficult to smile after you became tired. But later I realized if you don't treat smiling as ... work ... you may find it very easy to smile all the time." (In popular literature in China, people who smile frequently or for no particular reason are often regarded as either silly or devious.)

Least Competent Parent: An unnamed, "well-known Adelaide [Australia] model" was seen screaming, "Where's my baby? Someone's stolen my baby" shortly after she paused while jogging and pushing the 5-month-old's buggy along the city's River Torrens in December. According to a report in Melbourne's The Age newspaper, the woman had stopped to answer a cell-phone call, and when she finally turned back around, the buggy was gone. Unfortunately, it had rolled into the river during the phone call, and the incident ended badly.



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