News of the Weird July 02 2008

Guano madness, newspaper seals and more

LEAD STORY: Leading Economic Indicator: Rising prices of synthetic fertilizers and organic foods have intensified the collection of bird droppings on 20 climatically ideal islands off the coast of Peru where 12-inch-thick seabird guano coats the land. In the 19th century, China fought with Peru on the high seas for the right to mine the guano, which at that time was 150 feet high in places. Said an official of the Peruvian company that controls guano production (to a New York Times reporter in May), “Before there was oil, there was guano, so of course we fought wars over it.” The exceptionally dry climate means that 12,000 to 15,000 tons of guano are available yearly.

Government in Action: The Los Angeles Police Department announced in April that it had investigated 320 complaints against its officers last year for alleged “racial profiling” and found that not a single one was valid. The Los Angeles Times reported that that was at least the sixth consecutive year that LAPD reported a perfect record on racial profiling.

WWL-TV reported in April that at least one east New Orleans floodwall, built immediately after Hurricane Katrina, had been temporarily stuffed with newspaper to create seals, but that in the two years since had not been upgraded. Among the stuffing that had not decayed or been eaten by bugs was an issue of Parade magazine of May 21, 2006. A contractor of the Army Corps of Engineers told a resident at the time that the newspaper seals were used only until money from Washington arrived to finish the job. Two weeks after WWL-TV’s report, the corps repaired the seals properly, but a spokesman insisted that the newspaper stuffing “had no effect from a structural or safety factor.”

The Government Accountability Office revealed in April that more than 60,000 of the federal government’s contractors owe a total of about $7.7 billion in unpaid federal taxes, and that health care providers who take Medicare payments owe an additional $1 billion in late taxes. One unnamed company owes $10 million in back taxes, yet the Pentagon did $1 million worth of business with it. (One activist on tax issues pointed out that firms might find it easy to win low-bid contracts if they don’t have the tax expense that their competitors have.)

The British government compensates soldiers the equivalent of about $115,000 if they lose a leg in battle. In March, though, the Defense Ministry paid out the equivalent of about $400,000 in disability to a civil servant who had injured his back while lifting a printer, and in May the ministry paid out the equivalent of about $500,000 to an army paratrooper to settle a claim of “humiliating and demeaning” treatment. The soldier had undergone sex-change surgery, converting from “Ian” into “Jan,” yet was ordered by the army to report for a physical exam dressed as Ian.

Great Art! Austrian director Johann Kresnik’s re-interpretation of the classic Verdi opera “A Masked Ball” opened for a limited engagement in Berlin in April, aimed at America’s “war and the excesses of American society today,” he said. In one scene, against a backdrop of the ruins of the World Trade Center, 35 naked senior citizens danced, wearing Mickey Mouse masks.

“Art is no longer just a painting on the wall,” said the curator of the Museum of Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv, Israel, in April. “Art is life; life is art.” He gave that as an explanation for why he had accepted, as a live exhibit, seven young people from Berlin whose art is merely to live in the museum for three weeks with lice on their heads. The artists denied they intended a Holocaust expression based on Nazis’ references to Jews as “parasites.”

Fetishes on Parade: Jeremy Pope, 26, was arrested in April in Madison, Wis., in an alleged second episode at a Target store (the first was in December at a ShopKo), in which he urinated on women’s underwear on the shelves. Police said Pope was quick to confess: “Yeah, I have a problem.”

Least Competent Criminals: Police in Mesa, Ariz., chased driver Christopher Psomas, 38, in May after his companion, Ashley Strahan, 20, allegedly tried to pass a forged check at a business. The pair’s car ran red lights at high speeds to get out of town, then left the road near the Salt River Reservation, and when the car became disabled, kept going on foot. However, they ran smack into a bed of chola cactus, becoming virtual pin cushions.