News of the Weird November 19 2008

LEAD STORY: Donna and Joel Brinkle of Deltona, Fla., raised a family and held respectable jobs until, in the 1990s, they declared themselves a sovereign nation and stopped paying taxes. Subsequently, the county took their home, and they now appear to be living on the handouts of their son and their church, but they have become irritations by filing property liens against government officials (including, once, President Clinton) who fail to recognize their independent authority. Once, they tried to buy a $700,000 house with a "money order" drawn on their homemade currency. Even though the Brinkles' game plan has failed on every single point (and Joel even did some jail time), the couple remains chipper, according to an October Orlando Sentinel report, certain that some higher official will soon vindicate them.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit! Street-begging has become so sophisticated that some websites and blogs offer "market research" for panhandlers, with tips from wizened "pros," according to the summer 2008 issue of City Journal. Current begging techniques (which apparently spread nationally, at least for those non-homeless, non-mentally-ill beggars) suggest humor (e.g., "I won't lie to you, I need a drink.") and specificity of amount (e.g., "I need 43 more cents for a cup of coffee."), which often produces a larger donation.

Science on the Cutting Edge: Studs of the Animal World: 1) An August conference presentation by a University of Central Florida researcher touted the frolicking, profligate mating of male South African squirrels, enhanced, the researcher hypothesized, by the fact that "they're hung." The typical proportional equivalency for human male genitals, she said, would be 13 inches. 2) Indiana University researchers reported in September that male Australian dung beetles differ from U.S. dung beetles in that evolutionary diversion of nutrients has given the Australians small horns but large penises and the Americans the opposite. Thus, noted the researchers, big-horned American males tend to fight each other for females, while Australians rely more on sneakiness.

British engineer Ken Walters became disabled from an auto accident and was living on government assistance to persevere through pain and longtime depression when, in 2003, he suffered a stroke. After a lengthy recovery, Walters discovered, while doodling, that he seemed to have a newfound gift for art. After drawing up some demonstration software, he was hired by the giant Electronic Arts company and is flourishing, according to an August Daily Mail story. His doctors said the brain typically rewires itself for protection after injury and that previously untapped consciousness can emerge.

In September, scientists at Emory University's primate research center reported that chimps seem to remember other chimps through "whole body" integration. That is, seeing part of another chimp causes them to envision the entire body. The researchers came to this conclusion because chimps shown photos of an acquaintance-chimp's butt could, more often than random chance would predict, identify the face that went with it.

Leading Economic Indicators: Unlike their American counterparts, debt collectors in Spain are legally allowed to humiliate deadbeats in front of relatives and neighbors, and are thus quite successful, according to an October Wall Street Journal dispatch from Madrid. One collector's employees make flamboyant house calls in "top hat and tails" and another's are dressed as Franciscan friars, and yet another collector sends bagpipe players to announce the debt to the entire neighborhood. One debtor hurriedly paid off his daughter's wedding tab when the collector found the ceremony's guest list and began billing each attendee for his or her "share" of the debt.

Though laid-off workers in the U.S. do much grumbling about their high-flying CEOs, some dispatched employees in India are apparently more hardcore. Two CEOs of international firms' Indian subsidiaries in the city of Noida were beaten up (one fatally) in separate incidents shortly after announcing mass layoffs in September. Sixty-three people were charged with the murder, but no suspects have been arrested in the other incident.

At Ada Barak's spa in northern Israel, patrons (for a fee of around $80) can relax for a session in which snakes, large and small, crawl over their bodies, massaging and even nibbling. It's "something deep and peaceful," wrote a Time magazine reporter in October.

Oops! In August, as Duke University's football team was preparing for the kickoff against James Madison University in Durham, N.C., two men parachuted into the stadium with the game ball. That was impressive, but they were actually supposed to have delivered the game ball to the stadium in Chapel Hill, 10 miles away, where North Carolina was hosting McNeese State.

Least Competent Criminals: Not Ready for Prime Time: 1) What started as a "strong-arm" street robbery in Warren, Mich., in October, ended when the victim turned out to be stronger than the perp. When it was over, the victim had gotten his money back, plus $30 of the mugger's as the man fled, according to a police report in the Macomb Daily. 2) In Bristow, Va., as a woman stood nearby with her car running early one October morning, a stranger jumped in and started to drive off, though the woman's 6-year-old daughter was still in the car. The incident ended quickly, though, as the child kicked the man, pinched him, and screamed until he bailed out and fled, according to a report on WRC-TV (Washington, D.C.).

News That Sounds Like a Joke: A plumbing error in October at the annual Grape Festival in Marino, Italy, stymied the traditional hook-up in which white wine cascades through the famous fountains in the center of town. Instead, water continued to run in the fountains, but "10 to 12" nearby homeowners must have thought it glorious divine intervention, briefly, when they opened their taps and found white wine flowing freely.