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Artificial memories, the worst jobs in science and more

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LEAD STORY: Recent Precision-Tuning of the Fruit Fly Brain: 1) Scientists at England's University of Oxford know how to make fruit flies scared of things they weren't scared of previously — by implanting artificial memories in their brains after somehow locating and managing the precise 12 neurons that enable the flies to learn things. The implanted "danger" (the smell of sweat-soaked athletic shoes) causes the flies to scatter at the first whiff. 2) Scientists at the University of Toronto know how to make fruit flies sexually attractive to flies of both sexes and to different fly species — by removing the specific hydrocarbon brain cells that produce the pheromones thought to attract sex-specific mates. (Only the choice of partners was modified and not horniness level.)

GOVERNMENT IN ACTION: Small-Town Mayors: 1) For three weeks in September, budget-conscious Mayor Sallie Peake of Wellford, S.C., barred the police from chasing perpetrators of crimes in progress, even if officers drove at the speed limit. Officers were instructed, instead, to arrest suspects later in their homes. (The mayor, under siege, rescinded the policy Sept. 24.) 2) Mayor Stu Rasmussen, 61, of Silverton, Ore., elected last year even though he dresses openly as a woman, drew criticism from officials of a community group in July when he addressed students while wearing a miniskirt and a swimsuit top. Critics suggested he should dress at least in "professional" women's clothes when speaking to youth groups.
    New York City, which is sued more than 1,000 times a year, has a policy of settling some lawsuits quickly to avoid the risk of expensive judgments. The New York Daily News reported in October that more than 20 lawsuits, going back several years, were filed by members of the East 21st Street Crew (a well-known Brooklyn gang notorious for selling crack cocaine), and that the city has settled every time, paying out more than $500,000. The "civil rights" lawsuits were over possibly illegal searches and for criminal charges that the city later dismissed.

GREAT ART!: Worth Every Dollar: 1) New Zealand's Waikato National Contemporary Art Award in September (worth the equivalent of $11,000) went to Dane Mitchell, whose entry consisted merely of discarded packaging materials from all the other exhibits vying for the prize. Mitchell called his pile "Collateral." (Announcement of the winner was poorly received by the other contestants.) 2) At a Christie's auction in September in New York City, London artist Gavin Turk's empty, nondescript cardboard box (the size of an ordinary moving-company box) sold for $16,000. (Actually, it was a sculpture designed to look exactly like an empty, nondescript cardboard box.)
    Britain's Clumsiest Art Patron: On the opening day of a Tate Modern gallery exhibit in London on Oct. 14, 12,500 visitors examined Polish artist Miroslaw Balka's installation of a 100-by-42-by-32-foot box that is pitch black inside, lined with light-absorbing material. However, only one of the patrons managed to bump hard enough into a wall of the container to draw blood.

POLICE REPORT: Sensitive! 1) St. Paul, Minn., police were called in July by a 43-year-old man, who demanded that a report be filed because he had found a slice of half-eaten pizza near his fence and thought it represented someone's intent to "harass" him. 2) A 56-year-old man was cited by police in Carlisle, Pa., in September after a complaint from neighbor Brian Taylor, 43, who swore that the man had flicked a toothpick onto the sidewalk in front of Taylor's home just to "annoy" him.
    A nine-hour, 16-officer search of the home of alleged drug kingpin Michael Difalco, near Lakeland, Fla., in March, apparently was not exciting enough. Surveillance video (from Difalco's security system) released by police in September showed that the easily distracted officers also took time out to play spirited frames of bowling on Difalco's Wii game, uninhibitedly pumping their fists and shouting gleefully with every strike. Police supervisors acknowledged the unprofessional behavior but said the search nonetheless was productive.

THINGS YOU THOUGHT DIDN'T HAPPEN ANYMORE
: Bombastic financier R. Allen Stanford was able to maintain secrecy in the multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme he allegedly operated for years out of a bank in Antigua because he and Antigua's chief bank regulator had met in secret in 2003 and taken an actual "blood oath" of loyalty. The hematic bonding was revealed by Stanford's No. 2 executive, James Davis, who pleaded guilty in August in federal court in Houston.

FETISHES ON PARADE: In September in Truro, England, David Truscott, 40, was sentenced to four months in jail for repeatedly trespassing on the farm of Clive Roth by playing in the farm's manure-spreader while wearing only his underwear (and, curiously, rubber gloves). Truscott told the court that he had a sexual fetish for manure. Three weeks earlier, Gary Moody, 49, was charged in federal court in Portland, Maine, with lingering inside a pit toilet in the White Mountain National Forest. He admitted to having "an outhouse problem." Moody was not caught in the act, but because he had pleaded no contest to a similar incident in 2005, he was a prime suspect and eventually confessed.

LEAT COMPETENT CRIMINALS: Daniel Taylor Jr., 33, was arrested in Elizabethton, Tenn., in September following a domestic disturbance complaint against a neighbor. A sheriff's deputy had gone to Taylor's house by mistake, wrongly thinking it was the source of the complaint, but Taylor immediately surrendered to the deputy anyway, and turned around to be handcuffed. When the deputy inquired why Taylor thought he should be arrested, Taylor said he assumed the deputy had come to arrest him for violating probation on earlier charges. The deputy took Taylor to the station before resuming the domestic disturbance call.

RECURRING THEMES: Another Driver Poor at Multitasking: A German truck driver in his 30s crashed his 18-wheeler near Borås, Sweden, in September, and though not seriously hurt, was pinned, immobile, in the wreckage. When rescuers and police first saw him, they noted that the trapped driver's genitals were exposed and that his hand was clasped in his genital area.
    Embarrassing: 1) Zach Schultz of Denver became the most recent victim of wind, costing him his car. While driving down Colorado Boulevard in July, he tossed a lit cigarette out the window, but it landed in the back seat and set the car on fire, and he was not able to save it. 2) Sylvester Jiles, 24, became the most recent casualty among former inmates who try to break back into prisons (in Jiles' case, to seek "protection" from threats to his life on the outside). In August in Brevard County, Fla., Jiles was hospitalized for a heavy loss of blood that resulted when he fell into the razor wire inside the wall.

A NEWS OF THE WEIRD CLASSIC (NOVEMBER 2004): "Anal-wart researcher" (visual inspection being the only way to detect anal cancer from the human papillomavirus) heads Popular Science magazine's second annual November list, in 2004, of the worst jobs in science. However, "worm parasitologist" can be just as challenging, especially for anyone studying the Dracunculus medinensis (which can settle in humans to a length of 3 feet and then must be removed carefully after its thousands of offspring burst through the skin). Other contenders: "tampon squeezer" for the study of vaginal infections; a Lyme-disease "tick attractor" (who must sing, to keep bears away, while trolling in the woods); and "monitors" at warm-climate landfills (where garbage has been reduced to steamy, liquid condensates).

© 2009 CHUCK SHEPHERD

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