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Wednesday September 17th 2014

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News of the Weird

By Chuck Sheppard

A 200-exhibit installation on the history of dirt and filth and their importance in our lives opened in a London gallery in March, featuring the ordinary (dust), the educational (a video tribute to New York’s Fresh Kills landfill, at one time the world’s largest), the medical (vials of historic, nasty-looking secretions from cholera victims), and the artistic (bricks fashioned from feces gathered by India’s Dalits, who hand-clean latrines). Dirt may worry us as a society, said the exhibit’s curator, but we have learned that we “need bits of it and, guiltily, secretly, we are sometimes drawn to it.” Capping the exhibit, leaning against a wall, was what appeared at a distance to be an ordinary broom but whose handle was studded with diamonds and pearls.

Government in Action! The CIA recently won two court rulings allowing the agency to refuse comment about its former contractor Dennis Montgomery — rulings that issues involving him are “state secrets” (despite strong evidence that the main “secret” is merely how foolish the agency, and the U.S. Air Force, were to pay Montgomery at least $20 million for bogus software following 9-11, according to a February New York Times report). Montgomery, a small-time gambler who said he was once abducted by aliens, convinced the two agencies that his sophisticated software could detect secret al-Qaida messages embedded in video pixels on Al Jazeera’s news website. According to the Times report, Montgomery has not been charged with wrongdoing and is not likely to be, since the agencies do not want their gullibility publicized.

• For about a year, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has been facilitating Mexico’s increasingly bloody drug wars by turning a blind eye to U.S. gun sales to the cartels—even though those very guns account for some civilian deaths as well as the December fatal shooting of a U.S. Border Patrol agent. According to the senior ATF agent who supplied evidence to CBS News, neither the Mexican government nor many U.S. officials were aware of the program (called “Fast and Furious”) until mid-March. ATF allowed the sales so it could track the guns’ locations, to facilitate, at some future date, bringing indictments against drug traffickers.

• Until recently, many pregnant women at risk of delivering prematurely could be aided by an obstetrician-recommended workup of a chemical compound, at a cost of about $10 to $20 a dose. However, in February, the Food and Drug Administration approved a specific commercial version, K-V Pharmaceutical’s Makena, which K-V began pricing at $1,500 a dose (citing its need to recoup “research” costs). K-V also began threatening dispensers of the workup compound, since FDA had anointed Makena with “market exclusivity.” (Update: FDA changed its mind in March and announced that providers of the workup compound could continue to offer it.)

News That Sounds Like a Joke (1) The manager of the Channel Islands Co-operative store in the British territory of Jersey acknowledged to BBC News in November that a shopper’s complaint was justified and that refunds would be made. The customer believed she had been overcharged by about five pounds (about $8) because, while weighing fruits and vegetables, the clerk had been leaning over so that her breasts accidentally increased pressure on the scale. (2) Britain’s Border Agency announced the firing of an immigration officer in January. The man had apparently turned sour on his marriage, and while his wife was on holiday with her family in Pakistan, he quietly added her name to the terrorist list of people not allowed into the country.

Tough Guys: (1) In Houston in February, Christopher Harding, 23, was sentenced to three years in prison for beating up his mother (who is disabled and requires a caretaker) and yanking out her dentures. (2) In Long Beach, Calif., in February, police arrested two 19-year-old men, Kirk Lewis and Daniel Bard, and charged them as two of the three men they sought in the robbery of a 5-year-old girl.

Intra-Geek-Community Crime: In March, a teenager was charged with attempting to rob the Fun 4 All comic-book store in Southfield, Mich., with a homemade bomb (that looked realistic but turned out to be harmless) and presenting a list of the specific collectors’ merchandise (not money) he wanted. After the clerk balked at the demands, the robber relented, paid cash for a few of the items on the list, and left. When arrested later, he called the incident a “social experiment.”

Great Art! In February, a New York City gallery began offering classes in “anthropomorphic taxidermy,” described as a “Victorian hobby” in which mouse carcasses are not only meticulously cleaned and stuffed, but outfitted in handmade miniature 19th-century clothing, such as bloomers. British practitioners are said to have created elaborate scenes featuring scores of the costumed bodies. Class instructor Susan Jeiven said the mice have to look “classy.” “I don’t like rogue taxidermy.”

• Scottish artist Jane Forbes, 47, won the “Shoe Is Art” competition in Dundee in late 2010 with a work (“Ad Infinitum”) that a University of Dundee spokesman called “awe-inspiring.” Forbes painted (and photographed) the same pair of shoes every day for 66 consecutive days, hypothesizing that subtle differences in her “mood” would be detectable in any variations in the paint jobs.