Lead Story

Happy New Year: Authorities in the Hillbrow district of Johannesburg, South Africa, were once again unable to stop the neighborhood’s traditional midnight celebrations: high-rise residents not only shoot guns into the air and set off fireworks (ordinary enough, except that they tend to launch the fireworks horizontally into nearby buildings) but also toss old refrigerators, microwave ovens, beds, trash cans, and other objects off their balconies; police on duty in the area have to wear crash helmets. And People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals pressured the residents of Brasstown, North Carolina (population 240), to forgo their traditional New Year’s Eve “possum drop” (they lower a caged opossum from the roof of a gas station at midnight, a la the famous Times Square ball drop); the event’s organizers substituted a piece of roadkill at the last minute.

Knowledge Is Power

Scientists have recently developed cholesterol-free mice (engineered by Quark Biotech), hermaphroditic butterflies (bred at Butterfly Park in Singapore), and a formula for the perfect slice of buttered toast (devised after three months of research, sponsored by Arla Foods, at the University of Leeds in England). And a team of mathematicians, after tapping the combined power of 211,000 Internet-linked computers for eight years of calculations, found the largest Mersenne prime number to date, which is 6,320,430 digits long. Said a Michigan State grad student whose computer happened to complete the search: “It’s a neat accomplishment, but it really doesn’t have any applicability.”

Deja Vu All Over Again

In January in Broward County, Florida, Ellyn Bogdanoff won a special election for a state house seat (one of the first contests to rely exclusively on the touch-screen voting system implemented after the 2000 recount fiasco) by a margin of 12 votes. The runner-up may challenge the result, since 134 of the roughly 10,000 voters who participated apparently entered the booths but didn’t cast ballots, but his prospects are dim–the machines are not required to leave a paper trail that might indicate voter intent. (In related news, Chad Allen Tolleson was arrested in January in San Antonio, Texas, after burglarizing a strip-mall check-cashing business by climbing in through a ventilation duct; he got lost on his way out and ended up stuck, dangling from the ceiling of the women’s room in a nearby bar. The owner of the business he robbed now refers to him as “Hanging Chad.”)

Cultural Diversity

Over a two-month period this winter in several indigenous Miskito villages in northern Nicaragua, about 150 people were seized by grisi siknis (“jungle madness”), an affliction characterized by long periods of comalike unconsciousness interspersed with bursts of frenzied activity: sufferers often run about naked in public or seize weapons to fight off imaginary attackers. Nicaraguan officials regard the illness as culture-bound, and indeed traditional healers have been more effective at treating it than medical doctors. (One commentator reflected that the tendency of affluent Western societies to “medicalize” problems might explain why they fail to control culture-bound illnesses like anorexia nervosa.)

According to a January report in the New York Times, the lost-and-found center maintained by the Tokyo police received $23 million in cash in 2002, all turned in by scrupulously honest Japanese citizens (72 percent of the money eventually made it back to its rightful owners). Of the 330,000 umbrellas turned in, though, only about 1,000 were ever claimed–the lowest rate for any class of item. (The highest rate? Cell phones.)

Latest Religious Messages

According to a December profile in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, televangelist Joyce Meyer has distinguished herself from her peers with an unusually uninhibited pursuit of donations (her ministry took in an estimated $95 million in 2003). “Make your checks payable to Joyce Meyer Ministries,” she’s quoted as shouting to her congregation, “and ‘million’ is spelled m-i-l-l-i-o-n.” In September she received $1 million in stocks from a worshipper, about which she says, “I didn’t have that [gift] for five minutes [before] I said, ‘OK, God, next I’ll take $5 million.'” She also likes to remind her parishioners that fear–especially, it seems, the fear of making the sacrifices necessary to give her even more money–is “the work of the devil.”

According to a December article in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre is enjoying a surge of income thanks to stars like Madonna and Britney Spears who’ve made a display of embracing Jewish mysticism. Kabbalah bottled water (which has been stored in the synagogue to absorb “energy” from readings of the Torah, and which a staffer claims “changes you on a molecular level”) costs $3.50, and sanctified red string bracelets (which supposedly ward off “negative looks”–an appalling oversimplification of their purpose, according to Jewish scholars) cost $26 to $36.

In the Last Month

Russell Bass, 42, a police officer for the New York City Port Authority, pleaded guilty to illegally videotaping an 11-year-old girl in the shower this fall and blamed his actions on the stress he’s suffered since helping with the 9/11 rescue at the World Trade Center. And in North Little Rock, Arkansas, police arrested two alleged Internet pedophiles who’d flown into town–one from Arizona, the other all the way from South Korea–hoping to have sex with a mother and her underage daughter; the supposed mother and daughter were, of course, police officers running a sting.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Shawn Belschwender.