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Strange investments, state bacteriums and more 

LEAD STORY: In December, a prominent online game player, Buzz "Erik" Lightyear, won the auction for ownership of a virtual space station in the Planet Calypso game, paying 3.3 million Project Entropia Dollars, or PEDs, which at various points entered the game's playlike economy at an out-of-pocket cost of 10 actual U.S. cents per PED. Thus, Lightyear "paid" $330,000 for nothing more than digital representations of cool-looking structures. However, Lightyear can now charge other PED-seeking players who shop and hunt for valuables on the popular space station and appears confident he will eventually earn back his investment. (On the other hand, if everyone suddenly abandons the game, Lightyear will have spent thousands of hours online, buying, selling and bartering to earn $330,000 worth of PEDs that would then be worthless.)

Government in Action!: In January, the Berkeley (Calif.) School Board began consideration of a near-unanimous recommendation of Berkeley High School's Governance Council to eliminate science labs from its curriculum, reasoning that the classes mostly serve white students, leaving less money for programs for underperforming minorities. Berkeley High's white students do far better academically than the state average; black and Latino students do worse than average. Five science teachers would be dismissed.

The Wisconsin Legislature is considering a bill to designate a "state bacterium" (the Lactococcus lactis, which is crucial to turning milk into the state's famous cheese). If approved, the bacterium would join more than two dozen other state symbols (according to the Wisconsin Blue Book): coat of arms, seal, motto, flag, song, flower, bird, tree, fish, state animal, wildlife animal, domestic animal, mineral, rock, symbol of peace, insect, soil, fossil, dog, beverage, grain, dance, ballad, waltz, fruit and tartan.

New York City, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg's leadership, has taken aggressive positions against cigarette-smoking and restaurant dishes made with trans fats, but the city's Department of Health is apparently more tolerant regarding heroin. A recently released, department-funded 16-page pamphlet instructs heroin users on "safer" ways to inject the drug (and suggests, if the first needle stab misses a vein, the more healthful course is to pull out and begin anew rather than try to maneuver the syringe). Of course, the booklet contains several warnings against any use of heroin, but those, obviously, are messages habitually ignored by addicts.

Great Art!: In December, Portuguese dancer Rita Marcalo, seeking to raise public awareness of the tragedy of epilepsy (which has afflicted her for 20 years), performed a 24-hour "show" at a West Yorkshire, England, theater in which she attempted to trigger an epileptic seizure on stage. She had stopped taking medication beforehand and continually stared into flashing strobe lights, but was unsuccessful. However, in the second part of her project (which has been funded by an Arts Council grant of the equivalent of about $20,000), she will continue the quest, but only in front of cameras, hoping to capture a seizure for a subsequent video production.

Scottish sculptor Kevin Harman was fined the equivalent of about $325 in November for vandalizing the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh by smashing a metal scaffolding pole through a gallery window. Harman insisted that the incident was actually "art," in that it was part of a video for a project at the Edinburgh College of Art and that Harman had immediately paid to replace the window. However, it was not art to the gallery's management, which pressed charges. Harman, according to London's Guardian, said he was less distressed by the fine than by the gallery's insulting his art by calling it vandalism.

Are the Terrorists Safe?: Although the U.S. military stateside can direct a drone aircraft halfway around the world to deliver bombs mostly on highly specific targets in Iraq, the Pentagon acknowledged in December that even after six years of war, its signals to the drone are still not encrypted. Thus, Iraqi insurgents can pinpoint drone locations merely by using ordinary computer programs like SkyGrabber, which is widely available from software retailers for about $25. U.S. officials admitted that the software could make it easier for insurgents to anticipate the timing and location of attacks.

Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to be dangerous for blundering insurgents. In January, 14 suspected Taliban terrorists accidentally blew themselves up in the Kunduz province of Afghanistan while riding a bus carrying bombs to an intended target. And in Karachi, Pakistan, two days later, eight suspected terrorists accidentally blew themselves up while handling bombs in their "safe house."

Cutting-Edge Research: 1) In December, University of London math professor Simon Blackburn published a complicated, square-root-deriving formula to determine whether a driver has enough room to parallel park within a given space. By inputting such measurements as a car's wheel base and the radius of its turning circle, a driver can calculate an exact, when-to-turn steering instruction. 2) A December National Public Radio report noted that fake houseflies have begun appearing in urinals around the world based apparently on research showing that men are more likely to aim at the flies, thus leaving the area surrounding the urinal cleaner. Another commentator wondered how such "research" was conducted (other than by the obvious method of paper-wiping floors around urinals and then comparing the wipes).

Police Blotter: 1) Clovis, N.M., Nov. 21: "The [grandmother], who said she relied on a walker for mobility, said the [son-in-law] had come into the bathroom while she was using it and had grabbed and twisted her nose until she could hear the bones and cartilage cracking. The man was arrested." 2) Apple Valley, Minn., Oct. 13: "Officers responded to a report that a man was sitting on the curb in front of his house talking to himself. When officers arrived they found a very intoxicated man who wanted officers to drive him to Washington, D.C., so that he could discuss the country's military involvement in the Middle East with President Obama."

People With Issues: Ewwwwww! 1) Prominent eastern Idaho prosecuting attorney Blake Hall, 56, was fired in November (and he also resigned from a major national political position) after his conviction for stalking an ex-girlfriend. Evidence at trial revealed that Hall had been tossing used condoms onto the woman's lawn, a total of 19 collected on 10 different days. 2) Truck driver Yuuki Oshima, 22, was arrested in Chiba, Japan, in December after allegedly urinating through the mail slot of a woman's apartment door on more than one occasion. Oshima told police that he was frustrated, apparently too shy to approach the woman and admit that he was "crazy" about her.

Least Competent Criminals: World's Laziest Bank Robbers: 1) In December in Cardiff (Wales) Crown Court, James Snell was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a bank robbery from which he made his getaway in his own car with an easy-to-remember personalized license plate ("J4MES"). 2) Mark McAvinew, 52, was arrested in Kansas City, Mo., in December after allegedly robbing the Metcalf Bank and fleeing in an A.M. Heating & Cooling company van (a business he co-owns). 3) In November, Christopher Walker was sentenced to two years in jail for robbing a Lloyds TSB Bank in Birmingham, England. He had been caught within minutes, as he fled the bank to his home across the street.

A News of the Weird Classic (May 1999): World's Greatest Lawyer: In May 1999, a jury in Birmingham, Ala., ruled in favor of Barbara Carlisle and her parents in their lawsuit against two companies responsible for charging them 18 more monthly payments than what the salesman originally promised when they had two satellite dishes installed. The total overcharge was $1,224. The jury awarded the plaintiffs punitive damages of $581 million.

© 2010 CHUCK SHEPHERD

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