NewsQuirks 617

Optimist of the Year (So Far)

When polite warnings failed to end corruption in Bangkok, Samak Sundaravej, mayor of the Thai capital, took a tougher tack. He sent handwritten letters to all 50 municipal offices announcing he was placing a curse on any local officials who demanded bribes from local street vendors. "May those city officers who commit extortion from vendors run into disasters until their retirement, have illness and die in their early years," the letters declared.

Curses, Foiled Again

When Maxim Shebelnichenko, 27, pulled his BMW to the side of an Ohio interstate, Beachwood police officer Roger D. Martin stopped to offer assistance. Martin wondered why Shebelnichenko was sweating heavily in January, so he asked him and his passenger to step out of the car. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported the men refused, but Martin spotted a knife in Shebelnichenko's pocket and a 9mm pistol on the floor, so he called for backup. Officers searched the car and found machine guns, silencers, handcuffs, ammunition, masks and bulletproof vests. In fact, Shebelnichenko was wearing one of the vests, which was what had caused him to sweat so much that he stopped to remove it when Martin noticed him. Shebelnichenko's passenger, Sergey Tomilko, 26, told investigators the two men had the weapons because they planned to rob Tomilko's former employer.

Do the Dew

A 28-year-old man wielding a knife tried to rob a convenience store in Milwaukee, but clerk Jaspal Singh, who was protected by shatterproof glass, laughed at him. Frustrated, the man grabbed a woman customer and threatened her with the knife unless Singh handed over cash. Singh promised the suspect $20 and something to eat. The suspect released the girl, who fled the store, then he took a chicken sandwich and a Mountain Dew. Singh pushed a lever behind the counter, locking the door to the store, and called the police.

No Fun Anymore

The organization Clowns International advised circus clowns to take out insurance against the risk of being sued by spectators who fail to see the joke of being hit in the face with a custard pie. Martin "Zippo" Burton, the group's honorary vice president, said pie-wielders should target only fellow clowns and celebrities, never hit a white-faced clown and use careful judgment to ensure that those targeted are not averse. "With an increasingly litigation-crazy public," the group said in a statement at its annual convention, "the ethics and legal implications of 'splatting' and 'sloshing' are expected to be hotly debated under the Big Top."

O. Henry on the Web

When Jenny Thompson of Gloucestershire, England, finally won a spirited Internet auction for a Caribbean vacation she intended as a romantic surprise for her companion, Joey Clarke, her winning bid of $2,500 was $630 more than the full price for the trip. Then she found out she had been bidding against Clarke, who wanted the vacation to surprise Thompson. "When it dawned on us what had happened, I was gutted," Clarke said. Website auctioneer Latees capes.com agreed to let the couple have the vacation for the original price of $1.50

Uber-Slackers

The German CD-ROM "Krankheits-Simulator" ("Illness Simulator"), a guide promising to help workers feign "all illnesses that can't be detected," became a top seller until health insurance company BKK Berlin charged the guide with encouraging malingering, and its publisher began pulling the CD from store shelves to avoid prosecution. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Germany's six weeks sick leave is already among Europe's most generous, and many workers consider the benefits an entitlement, not a safety net. "They were doing fine even without the fake symptoms," said Lorie Karnath, senior vice president of the Industrial Investment Council, which promotes American investment in Germany.

Lost & Found

When Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin Corr, 27, failed to report to his duty station during a drill aboard the guided missile cruiser USS Cape St. George, he was presumed to have fallen overboard. After a two-day search by more than 2,000 Navy and Coast Guard personnel aboard eight ships, two c utters and three helicopters failed to turn up his body, the Navy notified Corr's family in Troy, Mich., that he had drowned. While his family was arranging a memorial service, Corr emerged from a 12-by-8-foot storage room aboard the ship, where Navy officials said he had been hiding throughout the search.

Yo, Canada

A front-page story in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper by foreign editor Drew Fagan condemned a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio interview in which host Michael Enright insulted former U.S. President Jimmy Carter for supporting U.S. lumber interests in a trade war with Canada and called him a "washed-up peanut farmer." After Fagan's article appeared, he learned the interview was an April Fool's stunt, with an actor portraying Carter. "Yes, I feel like an idiot," Fagan admitted.

When Matthew Johnston, an assistant to Canadian member of parliament Rahim Jaffer, could not find his boss in time for a scheduled interview with a Vancouver radio station, he went on the air and pretended to be Jaffer for 45 minutes. After several callers pointed out that the guest was an imposter, the station later contacted Jaffer. At first he insisted he had given the interview, then admitted that Johnston had impersonated him.

Everything You Know Is Wrong

Slash-and-burn farming may actually improve the soil for agriculture in rain forests, according to German soil scientist Bruno Glaser of the University of Bayreuth. New Scientist magazine reported Glaser has shown that burnt clearings in the Amazon dating back more than a thousand years helped create patches of rich, fertile soil that farmers still prize today. Glaser called slash-and-burn farming "better than manure."

Catalytic converters designed to clean up car exhausts are actually polluting the environment, according to Italian and French researchers, who found heavy metals from the devices in remote regions of Greenland. A recent European Commission study learned that exhausts from fast-moving cars erode catalytic converters, sending microscopic particles containing the metals into the atmosphere. The metals, especially palladium, can accumulate in plants and animals and enter the food chain.

Americans are suffering from nutrition backlash, according to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, which reported a survey by Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center showing people "have just plain had it" with conflicting and ever-changing dietary advice. "The more negative and confused people feel about dietary recommendations," the study found, "the more likely they are to eat a fat-laden diet that skimps on fruits and vegetables."

Tax Dollars at Work

San Francisco will become the first U.S. city to fund sex-change operations for city workers. A change to the city's health care benefits program, which takes effect July 1, lets city workers claim up to $50,000 of the cost of sex-reassignment surgery, city Supervisor Mark Leno said. The city already has about a dozen "transgender" employees on its municipal payroll, and officials estimated that as many as 35 city workers might take advantage of the new benefit in the first year, costing about $1.75 million.

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