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News of the Weird

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Lead Story

A National Geographic documentary on British TV in January shed light on a little-known arena of the cold war: the head-transplant race. Soviet transplant pioneer Vladimir Demikhov stunned the West in 1954 when he unveiled a two-headed dog he'd created by grafting the upper body of a small puppy onto the neck of a mastiff; reportedly both heads were seen to growl, pant, and drink milk during the six days the animal lived. In response the U.S. government funded the work of surgeon Robert White in Cleveland, who ten years later implanted the brain of a dog beneath another dog's skin and kept it alive for several days. Following news of a Soviet experiment in which a dog's severed head regained consciousness after being hooked up to life support, in 1970 White decapitated two rhesus monkeys and successfully attached one's head to the other's body (though the composite monkey was paralyzed from the neck down). Outcry among scientists and the public forced White to stop work before he could try to replicate his results with humans.

Leading Economic Indicators

According to reports in late December, many German women then in the last stages of pregnancy were turning to folk remedies in order to delay giving birth until January 1; a new government plan intended to improve Germany's declining birthrate awards bonuses of up to $33,000 for each child born in 2007. Meanwhile, a New York Times columnist estimated from previous years' figures that about 5,000 financially savvy pregnant women in the U.S. would induce labor before January 1 at least partly to take advantage of 2006 tax breaks.

Between January and February the annual inflation rate in Zimbabwe, believed to be the world's highest, climbed from 1,593 percent to 1,730 percent; in early February the country's central bank responded by declaring further inflation illegal. According to an Associated Press report, the amount of Zimbabwean currency that in 1990 would have bought a three-bedroom house with a tennis court and a swimming pool will today buy a brick.

Justice Is Served

Banks in the UK have long been criticized for charging what some argue are illegally high fees for overdrafts, late payments, and other customer errors. Last year Declan Purcell of London sued the Royal Bank of Scotland to recover fees he said were imposed on him unlawfully. RBS didn't respond, and Purcell won a default judgment of $6,800. Another month went by with no word from the bank, so in January, armed with a court order, he led a team of bailiffs into a local RBS branch, where they began to confiscate cash and office equipment; a bank official quickly assured them Purcell would get his money.

Oops

After January blizzards forced Denver International Airport to close for 45 hours despite its longtime claims to be an "all-weather" facility, spokesperson Chuck Cannon told reporters he'd "like to choke" whoever first put that all-weather idea out there. The Rocky Mountain News soon tracked down a 1992 AP story in which Cannon boasted that DIA, then under construction, would be "the world's first all-weather airport."

Government in Action

The AP reported in February that a recent revision of the manual governing Tennessee's execution procedure had resulted in a sloppy mix of protocol for lethal injection (the current method) and electrocution (the old method); the guidelines currently require (among other things) that an inmate's head be shaved before lethal injection and that personnel disconnect the cables running into the electric chair before the doctor determines whether the injection was a success. And at a hearing in the same month, an expert witness testified that a Florida execution team had done "exactly 100 percent the wrong thing" when administering lethal injection to Angel Diaz in December: The first needle tore through veins in Diaz's arm and lodged in his tissue; as a result, resistance in the IV line was so great that the chemicals could only be injected two to three times more slowly than usual, and sedatives likely didn't reach Diaz's brain in time to dull severe pain later in the procedure. Ultimately the lead executioner (who testified he had "no medical training and no qualifications") became unable to depress the plunger any further, but rather than stop to investigate the obviously serious problem the team just switched arms and kept going. Diaz took 34 minutes to die.

Least Competent Criminals

Surprisingly successful, considering: According to authorities 45-year-old Clenzo Thompson robbed a Brooklyn bank in January, but though the $2,340 handed over by the teller contained a dye pack that exploded while he fled, police were unable to follow his trail. Two days later, Thompson allegedly returned to the same bank and stole another $1,740; this time the dye pack went off as he got back in the cab he had waiting for him. The driver abandoned the vehicle, but again Thompson managed to escape. However, fingerprints found at the bank helped investigators track him to a friend's house in New Jersey.

Michael DeWitt, 39, was arrested for DUI and leaving the scene of an accident in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in February. According to authorities, after a late-night collision with another car DeWitt drove off in his Hummer, pulled into the parking lot of a state police post a block away, and got out to inspect the damage; when an officer approached, DeWitt explained that he and his passenger were there to get a room. (In fairness, there was a Holiday Inn next door.)

Are We Safe Yet?

The navy announced in February that it hoped to send a squad of 30 sea lions and dolphins from its Marine Mammal Program in San Diego to guard a Puget Sound naval base against terrorists. According to a spokesperson the dolphins have been trained to spot suspicious divers via sonar and mark their position by dropping a beacon; the sea lions can clamp a cuff around a swimming intruder's leg, allowing personnel to reel in the suspect using an attached line. But a PETA representative said the animals likely couldn't meet national security needs, arguing that "they don't understand the consequences of what will happen if they don't carry out the mission."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Shawn Belshwender.

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