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News of the odd and strange with Chuck Shepherd

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Government in Action

— WOOD-TV of Grand Rapids, Michigan, seemingly uncovered an antiquity — if not a potential vulnerability — in the Grand Rapids public school system in June when it reported that the heating and cooling systems at 19 schools are controlled using a Commodore Amiga computer (released in the 1980s, about the same time as Windows 2.0), operating on an early Internet modem. It had been installed by a computer-savvy student and, according to the maintenance supervisor, still works fine. Fortunately, the supervisor said, the student still lives in the area and is available if problems arise.

— Recurring Theme: Government officials who insist on such “bells and whistles” as redesigning their department’s logo are often ridiculed for wasting taxpayer money (yet design consultants continue to sell the illusion that a new logo can give a bureaucracy a refreshing rebirth). In May, Tennessee officials unveiled a new state logo (which cost only $46,000 — not counting the expense of changing signs, cards, stationery, etc.), which consists of the letters “TN” in white inside a red box with a blue trim underneath. (A Watchdog.org critic suggested a contest to design a superior one, but open only to kids age 12 and under, with the prize a $50 Amazon.com gift certificate.)

New World Order

In 1993, the owner of the iconic 5Pointz building in New York City began allowing graffiti artists to use the walls for their masterpieces, but by 2013 had grown weary of the building’s look and had the walls whitewashed. In June 2015, nine of the artists filed a federal lawsuit demanding that the owner compensate them, substantially, for destroying their creations — and they stand a good chance of collecting (under the Visual Artists Rights Act) if they prove their particular works are of “recognized stature” and not merely art of an “ephemeral nature.” At its height, 5Pointz attracted more than 350 artists’ works from around the world.

Animal World

— A June entry in Wired.com’s “Absurd Creature of the Week” series warned of the Beaded Lacewing that preys on termites by first immobilizing them with a “vapor-phase toxicant” released from its anus. The silent-but-deadly gas is reportedly powerful enough to disable six ordinary termites for up to three hours (plenty of time for a sumptuous meal of termite) and weaken several more that might get caught in the backdraft. Wired.com also learned of the related species Chrysoperla comanche, whose anal weaponry is in solid form, wielded by “master contortionists” who lift their abdomens in order to directly contact their victims’ head.

— Suspicion Confirmed: In June 2015 research, scientists from Britain’s University of Exeter and Queen Mary University of London warned that owners of “domestic” cats seem not, on average, to appreciate what vicious killers their pets are and urge, for instance, that they be kept indoors more often lest they decimate the neighborhood’s bird and small-mammal populations. Estimates of the yearly death toll generated by housecats are “in the magnitude of millions” in the United Kingdom and “billions” in the United States.

— The “parasitic ways” of the cuckoo bird were remarked upon “as far back as Aristotle,” wrote a Wall Street Journal book reviewer in May, but some biologists may not have believed the behavior because it was so cold-blooded. The bird, according to Nick Davies’ book “Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature,” lays its eggs in other species’ nests to trick those birds into incubating the cuckoos, who then hatch and kick the eggs of their host out of the nest. The mother cuckoo, it is said, times her mating schedule so that her eggs mature just before the victims’ eggs would. Hence, according to Davies, she is “nature’s most notorious cheat.”

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