News of the Weird: Annals of Science

America’s foremost advocate for frontal lobotomies as “treatment” for mental disorder, the late Dr. Walter Freeman, performed an estimated 3,500 lobotomies during the 1940s and 1950s before opposition finally solidified against him, according to a December 2013 investigation by The Wall Street Journal. At the peak of his influence, he was so confident that he demonstrated the procedure to skeptics by hammering an icepick (“from his own kitchen,” the Journal reported) into both eye sockets of an electrical-shocked patient and “toggling” the picks around the brain tissue, certain that he was severing “correctly.” For years, Freeman (a neurologist untrained in surgery) marshaled positive feedback from enough patients and families for the procedure to survive criticism, and he spent his final years (until his death in 1972) securing patient testimonials to “prove” the validity of lobotomies.

Cultural Diversity
Each Nov. 1 is a day (or two) of craziness in the isolated mountain village of Todos Santos Cuchumatanes, Guatemala, where Mayan tradition commands continuous horse races through town, jockeyed by increasingly drunk riders, until only a sober-enough winner remains. Collisions occur in the Race of the Souls, and occasionally someone dies, but the misfortune is met with a collective shrug and regarded as a spiritual offering for fertile crops during the coming year, according to an eyewitness this year reporting for Vice.com. Ironically, for the rest of the year, the village is largely alcohol-free except for that on hand to sell to tourists.
Since the 13th century, sheepherders in Spain have had the right (still honored) to use 78,000 miles of paths in the country for seasonal flock migrations -- even some streets of Madrid, including a crossing of Puerta del Sol, described as Madrid’s Times Square. The shepherds pay a customary, token duty, which, according to an October Associated Press dispatch, the government proudly accepts, given the prominence of Spain’s native Merino sheep breed in the world’s wool market.
Postal worker Umakant Mishra, of Kanpur city in Uttar Pradesh, India, was freed by a criminal court in December -- 29 years after he was charged when a money-order account turned up 92 cents short. Mishra was called to judicial hearings 348 times over the years, but it was not until recently that the government admitted it had no witnesses for the court to hear against him. A December BBC News dispatch reported, citing “official” figures, that more than 30 million cases are pending in Indian courts.

Latest Religious Messages
The evangelical educational organization Answers in Genesis, which has established a series of children’s books and a creationist museum, announced recently that it would enter the bond market to fund its most ambitious project -- a creationist amusement park centered around a “life-size” reconstruction of Noah’s Ark, for which it estimates it will need at least $73 million from investors. Issuing bonds might be seen as desperate since AiG has raised only $13.6 million privately since proposing the Ark-park, but a Georgetown University finance professor, contacted by Slate.com, suggested that the bonds’ terms place them in the high-risk “junk bond” category (perhaps better described as “faith-based,” having virtually no resale value and without an independent bond rating).

Questionable Judgments
Took It Too Far: Coughlan elementary school in Langley, British Columbia, announced to parents in November that henceforth it would not just prohibit abusive or unwanted physical contact among its kindergarteners, but all contact. Officials said they were responding to parents who objected to “rough play,” but, said another parent, incredulous, “No tag, no hugging, no touching at all. ... I am not going to tell my daughter she can’t touch her friends at school. I am going to teach her boundaries.”
Tone Deaf: In South Africa, with one of the highest incidences of rape in the world, one question on its recent nationwide high school standardized drama test asked students to direct (as if staging a play) the rape of a baby, given only certain props. South Africa’s Education Department defended the question as assessing pupils’ concept of “using metaphor” as a theatrical technique. The question was based on an award-winning play by anti-rape activist Lara Foot Newton (who, of course, wrote primarily for adults).

Cliches Come to Life
In criminal cases, DNA is usually a smoking gun for the prosecution -- except, of course, if there is an “evil twin.” In November a judge in Colorado Springs ruled that a suspect, Army Lt. Aaron Lucas, should have the opportunity to blame his brother Brian for a string of sexual assaults because the DNA might be Brian’s. Brian has not been charged and denies any involvement, but Aaron said Brian was in two crime-scene states that Aaron was never in. Said a Denver defense lawyer, “The only time I have seen (the evil-twin defense) was on ‘Law and Order: SVU.’”
Of course: Four villagers in northeast Kenya, angry that cheetahs were killing their goats, lay in wait one night in November and then chased down and captured the cheetahs. Cheetahs are regarded as the fastest mammals on Earth, but they lack endurance; Kenyans are marathon prodigies. Indeed, the cheetahs were captured only when they ran out of gas after about four miles of pursuit by the Kenyans, and were handed over alive, and exhausted, to the Kenyan Wildlife Service.

Perspective
Many were shocked to learn in November that some accused “satanic cult” child molesters were still in prison -- even though proven by time, journalism and medical knowledge to have been innocent victims of widespread 1980s and 1990s hysteria. Arrangements have finally been made to release Austin, Texas, day care operators Fran and Dan Keller (after 21 years) and four San Antonio women (imprisoned for 14 years for “assaulting” two adolescent girls). In both cases, juries and judges had been persuaded by testimony about scarring on girls’ hymens, and, frightened by the era’s high-profile McMartin School and other cases, issued long prison terms. (The Austin case’s doctor later admitted he had misdiagnosed the scarring, and the San Antonio doctor’s conclusions were vanquished by the Texas Innocence Project and a relentless Canadian researcher.) All six said they intended to pursue full legal exoneration.

Least Competent Criminals
Not Ready for Prime Time: Johnny Deleon, 20, was arrested in Houston in October, caught in the act of removing wheel caps from a Cadillac Escalade in a deli’s parking lot. Even in the daylight, Deleon apparently failed to notice the many police cars in the lot (as a ceremonial planning meeting was underway in the deli). Officers, from among 30 inside, dashed out and arrested Deleon.

Recurring Themes
(1) Once again a fortuitous, unrelated medical exam was credited with possibly saving a life. Los Angeles television personality Julie Chang suffered a concussion in a surfing accident recently, but the routine X-ray also showed a previously unrevealed brain tumor. She was immediately scheduled for surgery and reported to colleagues that she “will be OK.” (2) New York animal rights activist Steven Wise pushed the envelope in December by filing a writ of habeas corpus (requiring jailers to prove any legal basis for an individual’s detention) for a chimpanzee living at a Gloversville, N.Y., farm (although, in fairness, “Tommy” is being held by an animal “rescuer” who said he is seeking a proper home). (U.S. habeas corpus law has heretofore applied only to humans.)

People With Issues
(1) Shannon Johanson of Northampton, England, is awaiting sentencing after a conviction for possessing animal pornography, which is one of the categories of “extreme” porn criminalized by a 2008 U.K. statute. The photo is of a woman “performing a sex act” with a dead fish (and, under the statute, whether “dead or alive” is irrelevant). (2) Former 30-year-veteran schoolteacher Mark Berndt, 61, pleaded guilty in November to charges involving at least 20 elementary-school-age children that he had assigned to play the “tasting game” in 2011, in which blindfolded children were fed cookies topped with semen. Berndt has not yet explained how he could possibly have conceived such a game.

posted at 06:13 pm
on Friday, December 27th, 2013

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