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Archive for Thursday, June 28, 2001

The Mag: Weird News

June 28, 2001

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l High school senior Trevor Loflin scored a perfect 1600 on his SATs this year despite the potential handicap of having lived the previous three years with his mother and sisters in the back of their Chevrolet Suburban, the result of the mother's having lost her job as a physician in Fresno, Calif. Mother Cynthia Hamilton decided to home-school her kids and, in view of housing prices in California, found the family got along just fine without a house (though they recently moved into a one-bedroom apartment). Since the family turned to religion to get them through their ordeal, Trevor told the Los Angeles Times he would probably enroll in Bob Jones University in the fall.

l Lawyers Living the American Dream: A consumer who was oppressively required to buy a full season of NFL Sunday Ticket on DirecTV satellite service (instead of being offered a cheaper weekly rate) gets back $9 to $21, according to a class-action settlement announced in May, but the lawyers would receive $3.7 million. And a consumer who was oppressively charged daily late fees by Blockbuster Video (without realizing how much they could amount to) gets back a few discount coupons, according to a class-action settlement announced in June, but the lawyers would get $9.25 million.

No longer weird

Adding to the list of stories that were formerly weird but which now occur with such frequency that they must be retired from circulation: (45) The surgically removed humongous abdominal cyst that might total half the body weight of the patient, such as the 100-pounder excised from a 17-year-old girl in Cairo, Egypt, in May (far off the world record of 303 pounds at Stanford Medical Center in 1991). And (46) the unlabeled or makeshift urn containing a loved one's cremated ashes that gets mistakenly sold at a yard sale or thrift shop, and which unsettles the surprised buyer when he gets home and inspects his purchases, as happened to a woman in May in Dallas.

Weird science

A research team from UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh (writing in an April issue of the journal Tissue Engineering) and another from Duke University recently reported success at collecting valuable human stem cells from ordinary liposuctioned fat, potentially ending the need to collect such cells through controversial fetal-tissue procedures and painful bone-marrow extraction. Stem cells can make replacement muscle, bone and cartilage, and if they come from one's own fat, will not be rejected by the body. Also, as the researchers pointed out, Americans' fat cells are an abundant resource.

l Centers for Disease Control specialist Charles Beard told the Los Angeles Times in April that he has created a genetically modified dung that might eradicate Chagas disease, which kills 50,000 people a year in Central and South America. Beard's meticulously manufactured bug poop looks and smells like the real thing (made from ammonia, ink and guar gum) but contains special bacteria that prevent the so-called "kissing bugs" from spreading the disease, which they would do if left to their normal "diet" of eating their parents' dung.

l The Bethesda Center for Reproductive Health and Fertility in Cincinnati announced in March that the previously glum conception prospects of a couple were suddenly improved because the father's limited sperm cells had been safely stored in a hamster egg until they could be implanted to his wife's egg. Normally, sperm cells lose potency when not used immediately, and in the case of a man who produced fewer than 200 (instead of the millions most men produce), the attrition rate would have almost guaranteed failure. In May, the child was born.

l Swedish scientists from the National Board of Fisheries reported in March that, after observing 117 pairs of trout engaged in sex (quivering violently with their mouths open, followed by the supposed simultaneous release of egg and sperm), they found that males always released their sperm at the end but that, half the time, the females cheated, withholding their eggs. The researchers speculated that the female was "faking an orgasm" as a mating strategy to preserve the eggs in case she ran into a more-desirable male.

Cliches come to life

According to documents released upon the settlement of a lawsuit in Kapolei, Hawaii, in February (involving sexual harassment claims against managers at a Safeway store), in one incident in the mid-1990s, a male employee who was spying on a female customer through a restroom peephole was injured when the woman realized she was being watched and shoved a toilet plunger handle through the hole, into his eye socket. (In the lawsuit, Safeway agreed to pay $250,000 to a former employee who had made numerous allegations about some managers' behavior.)

l Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported in November that part-time magician Lau Yin-wai, 27, might have saved the life of a neighbor woman from her husband's rage. Alerted by yelling, the magician ran next door to the couple's apartment and saw the husband poised to stab his wife with a knife. The magician quickly threw his coat over the knife, shouted some words of distraction, and deftly removed the knife from the man's hand. Then, as he pulled the coat and knife away, he told the man that he had made the knife disappear, which he said seemed to bewilder the man enough to cause him to give up and await the police.

People with issues

Even though she had stolen nearly $250,000 over a three-year period from her employer, Elizabeth Randolph Roach, 47, received a sentence in May of only probation (with some home confinement and work release) because a federal judge in Chicago sympathized with her shopping addiction, which he characterized as "self-medicat(ion)" for severe depression. At the depth of her illness, Roach needed the stolen money to pay for 70 pairs of shoes, a $7,000 belt buckle, and other clothes and accessories she purchased on shopping trips to London, most of which she never wore.

Least competent people

In March in Huntsville, Ala., John and Ruby Barnes were hospitalized with severe burns after trying to heat cans of aerosol paint on their stove to make the paint come out easier. Also in March, Greene County (Ill.) inmate David W. Vineyard, in jail for failure to pay traffic fines, was fooling around with a ceiling light while standing on his cell's lavatory when he slipped, leaving a portion of his little finger in the fixture as he fell to the floor. (The local prosecutor said he would file a claim against Vineyard for damage to the fixture.)

Also, in the last month ...

The Pentagon's fraud-detection office (the inspector general) was revealed by other government investigators to have placed fake documents in its own files to cover up inadequate fraud investigations. A historic preservation group's headquarters was accidentally destroyed when a wrecking company confused it with the to-be-demolished building next door that the group was trying to save (Miami). The BBC TV program "Crimewatch" declined to stage re-enactments of a recent wave of street robberies, saying it could not find an actor odd-looking enough (huge nose, no teeth) to accurately portray the suspect. For the first time since 1997, U.S. Navy basic trainees were scheduled to fire live rounds in boot camp (but only five bullets each).

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