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News of the Weird

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News of the strange and odd, reportedly on weekly by Chuck Shepherd

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What Cannibals Can Teach Us

Researchers studying the human-brain-eating Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea reported in a June journal article that they have identified the specific “prion” resistance gene that appears to offer complete protection against mad cow disease and perhaps other neurodegenerative conditions such as dementias and Parkinson’s. The tribe customarily dined on relatives’ brains at funerals (although has abandoned the practice) and consequently suffered a major 1950s epidemic that wiped out 2 percent of the tribe annually. According to the lead researcher, survivors, with the specific resistance gene, demonstrated “a striking example of Darwinian evolution in humans.”

Recurring Themes (All-New Episodes!)

— Spouses often disagree politically and vote accordingly, but occasionally one runs for office against the other — as is the case in Bremerton, Washington, where incumbent Councilmember Roy Runyon is being challenged by his wife, Kim Faulkner. Both were mum as to reasons and in fact filed their registration papers together at the same time in May. Said Runyon: “We’re different people. She might have a different approach.”

— India’s media reported in April yet another birth defect in which the surviving baby is treated as a representation of Hindu holiness. A four-armed, four-legged child (medical explanation: remains of an underdeveloped conjoined twin) is worshipped as the reincarnation of the multi-limbed Lord Ganesha, and pilgrims journey from all over India to the birthplace, Dumri-Isri in Jharkhand state. (In a nod to modernity, one witness told a reporter that initially he had thought a photograph of the child was “Photoshopped,” but now has seen the baby with his own eyes.)

— The law of turkey-baster insemination took a turn in Virginia in April when mother Joyce Bruce was unable to keep sperm-provider Robert Boardwine out of her son’s life. Bruce relied on a state statute that seemed to allow her sole parenthood if the pregnancy was based on assisted-reproduction medical technology. However, the Court of Appeals of Virginia declared that a “kitchen implement” is not “medical technology” and, considering Boardwine’s genuine interest in fatherhood, ruled that he was entitled to joint custody and visitation rights.

— Another “Human Right”: In April, London’s Daily Mail spotted Anna Broom of Gillingham declaring that despite her various disorders that keep her from working, she nonetheless imagines a first-class wedding with champagne, horse-drawn carriage and Mexico honeymoon — all at government expense — because that would be her “human right.” She told a reporter that a small ceremony at a government office would not boost her confidence, but that her “dream” wedding would be just the thing to get her back on a job search.

— The most recent exposition of people who tattoo their eyeballs, at the International Tattoo Festival in Caracas, in February, featured the phenomenon’s founder, Mr. Luna Cobra, who said it all started when he tried to create “bright blue” eyes, as in the 1984 film “Dune.” (Pigment is injected, permanently, so that it rests under the eye’s thin top layer, the conjunctiva.) Asked what the process feels like, devotee Kylie Garth told BBC News, “It was mentally intense,” resembling an eye poke, pressure and “a bit of sand” — but “no pain.” Mr. Cobra urged young people to get their jobs before trying eye tats, since “you’re going to look frightening forever to the majority of people you encounter.”

— Once again, in May, lawyers went to court trying to persuade a judge that some rights under the U.S. Constitution be extended to intelligent apes (here, chimpanzees, as “autonomous and self-determining beings” at least as perceptive as, for example, severely mentally ill people, who retain rights while institutionalized). Lawyers are once again asking for a writ of habeas corpus (now available only to humans) to take Hercules and Leo out of a lab and into a sanctuary. (Adding to the discussion, in the week after the court hearing, a Harvard professor and colleagues, writing in the journal Current Anthropology, hypothesized that chimps could cook foods if given the chance. Tests revealed that they resist raw food when they are able to place it into a device that made it taste better — which in theory makes them more intelligent than children who eat cookie dough.)

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