News of the Weird December 26 2007

Lead Story: Software engineers told Fortune magazine in November that they are constructing a filter to eliminate stupid messages to online forums and bulletin boards. Lead researcher Gabriel Ortiz said his team had compiled a database of idiotic comments and that the new software would detect unintelligible remarks and either alert the writer to fix them or divert the message to the recipient’s “junk mail.” Easy dumb messages to filter: those with the tacky, immature repetition of a closing consonant, e.g., “That thing is amazinggggg!!!” More difficult: how to treat sarcasm and irony, in that smart writers sometimes deliberately use dumb statements to mock other writers.

Can’t Possibly Be True: An Indonesian fisherman, Dede, age 35, is in reasonably good health except that his hands and feet resemble something out of the Alien movie series, with huge rootlike growths that render his arms and legs useless, according to a November Discovery Channel TV program, “Half Man, Half Tree,” reported on by London’s Daily Telegraph. Dermatologist Anthony Gaspari of the University of Maryland flew to Indonesia and determined that Dede’s condition was caused by a genetic inability to restrain the growth of warts (“cutaneous horns”) produced by the human papillomavirus. Gaspari prescribed a regimen of vitamin A, which he said should reduce the size of the warts enough so that, with surgery, Dede could eventually use his hands.

Twin sisters Doris McAusland and Dora Bennett are 80 years old, live in Madison, Wis., apparently like and dislike the same foods, met their husbands on the same day, from the same church group, had hysterectomies at the same time, always get their hair done together, and, ever since they were toddlers, have worn identical outfits every day (except for one time that they had different shoes), according to a November CBS News report.

Inexplicable: In October, Beckley, W.Va., police detained a 61-year-old man whom they found at the King Tut Drive-In on a Saturday afternoon, apparently sober, after he had “driven” his four grandchildren, all around age 4, “on a busy street in a 15-foot motorboat pulled by a lawnmower,” according to an Associated Press report. The vehicle was unregistered and uninspected, and the children not properly seat-restrained, but the man seemed unaware that he had placed the kids in danger.

Unclear on the Concept: British Airways, via a high-profile advertising campaign, has bragged about its environmental awareness, but London’s Daily Mail revealed in November that the company had recently flown dozens of planes across the Atlantic Ocean empty, spewing thousands of tons of carbon dioxide, allegedly because it could not find enough crew members for the flights. Critics said the airline merely wanted to preserve its valuable use-them-or-lose-them landing spaces at England’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports, but the company denied that.

News That Sounds Like a Joke: 1) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made a special announcement in October that it is once again safe to eat squirrels in New Jersey. (In January, the EPA had discovered lead in tissue samples from local squirrels, but later said the lead might have come from defects in the sampling machine.) 2) Karl Marx’s writings glorifying communism (though Western capitalists regard it as grim and joyless) may well have reflected merely his alienation from society due to a lifelong series of excruciatingly painful boils, according to a recent British Journal of Dermatology article. In an 1867 letter, Marx wrote, “The bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles until their dying day.”

The District of Calamity (Continued): 1) In November, two midlevel bureaucrats in the District of Columbia tax office were charged with stealing $16 million over three years (since raised by investigators to more than $20 million) by granting tax “refunds” to phony companies run by their friends and relatives. Authorities said six-figure refund checks were routinely issued to companies no one had ever heard of, yet the scam was not discovered by supervisors or auditors until an employee of a bank branch located in a grocery store got suspicious. 2) A November Washington Post investigation found an almost complete lack of oversight of the often-bountiful “activities funds” of D.C. public schools, which were looted by some administrators and teachers for personal travel, meals and even strip-club tabs.

Least Competent Criminals: Paul Keith, 75, was arrested in Framingham, Mass., in November after he had allegedly driven aggressively into the car stopped in front of him waiting for a traffic light to change. Keith earnestly explained to police that the other driver had failed to move once the light turned green. “So I drove into the back of him. When the light turns green, you’re supposed to go.” (Keith demolished the front end of his car.)

Update: Armin Meiwes, the German gourmet-cannibal who was convicted in 2004 of killing, filleting and eating an apparently willing victim whom he had met via the Internet, gave his first extensive interview from prison in October to German TV and said that his sauteed morsels “tasted like pork, a little ... bitter, stronger.” And in November, a Green Party activist who visits Meiwes’ prison told a reporter that Meiwes had been elected by fellow inmates as a discussion leader on environmental, tax and legal issues and was demonstrating his commitment to Green Party principles by eating mostly vegetarian meals.