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August, 2000

Pickled baby? Book reveals science's hidden relics

BERLIN, Aug 15 (Reuters) - The man's nose presses against the glass and his open mouth, surrounded by a rough day-old beard, reveals a gold tooth. The image suggests a photograph of a sleeping figure. But the face is sliced in two, down through the nose and mouth, stored in formaldehyde for eternity. The other half is missing. The arresting image of the dead is one of a series of photographs of people, animals and fish pickled in jars for scientific study documented in a new book, "Conserving". "For us, they have a kind of beauty; they are not intended to shock," said Geo Fuchs, who, with her husband Daniel, has spent five years combing through Europe's anatomical and natural history collections for the project.

Yet the photographs are jarring and they command attention. One, like so many in the book impressive in its sharp detail, shows a close up of a child biting down on his lower lip. A crack opening the forehead shows this is no resting boy. "This face of a child is from 1690," she said. "It is fascinating to us to think that it really looks alive, it looks like marble, like stone and it's 300 years old." The German couple started photographing preserved fish samples five years ago, searching through thousands of jars in different collections for interesting objects. They moved on to animals and then humans. "We were looking for a kind of beauty. With the fish, the animals and also with the humans we were fascinated by the specimens and by how they look and how good they look."

The couple were far from the first to be intrigued by the preserved parts of the dead. In 1697, Russian Tsar Peter the Great was so taken by a collection of anatomical oddities he saw in Holland -- most consisting of human foetuses in formaldehyde -- that he eventually bought the lot for an exorbitant price and took it to his new capital, St Petersburg. "Having stopped in front of a child's body which was so perfectly preserved that the child seemed alive and smiling, Peter could not refrain from kissing the baby," one scribe of the era wrote. The technique of storing animal and human samples in jars dates back hundreds of years and has grown as scientists and students have sought to understand the living world. "Many of these samples serve for teaching purposes," said Gerhard Plodowski, deputy director of Frankfurt's Senckenberg Museum, one of Europe's leading natural history museums. "Any student studying medicine will have to learn anatomy, which means not only the skeleton and the bones but the soft parts."

Because of the ease of storing samples in formaldehyde or alcohol, scientists can use the technique even on exotic expeditions. And after the research is done, the object stays in the jar, usually in storage somewhere. "If you have, for instance, described the material and published it, then the material has to be preserved in a museum collection in order that later on people may be able to check these definitions are correct," said Plodowski. The urge to preserve means many millions of such jars crowd museums, laboratories and storerooms the world over. Keeping the living tissue intact also gives scientists today the chance to apply DNA genetic tests and other modern experimental methods on older samples. New techniques in the future may also provide insights barely imaginable today. Most of the human samples are anonymous but a few belong to named and sometimes even famous people. For example, an elderly man in New Jersey keeps physicist Albert Einstein's brain, cut into small pieces, floating in a series of jars. The body of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin is regularly plunged into a tub of chemical solution to keep it looking fresh, but is displayed as an embalmed specimen inside a glass case. An entire research institute was set up in Moscow to study the revolutionary's dissected brain, searching for signs of genius.

Officials differ on how much of these by-products of science the public should actually see. "Scientific work has to be presented to the public. It's not a hidden hobby of the scientists," said Ambros Haenggi, director of the Natural History Museum in Basle, Switzerland. "The real question is how it should be presented," he went on. "We only show animals, no fish and certainly no humans." The Museum of Anthropology in St Petersburg is far less squeamish about showing off its collection -- including a so-called Janus foetus with faces on the front and back of the baby's head -- obtained by Peter the Great. The images presented in "Conserving" -- a large coffee-table picture book -- are unusual in that they bring such powerful images into the home. The book is also a stretch of the norm for its Munich-based publisher Edition Reuss, which usually focuses on raunchy erotic picture books. The years of work with formaldehyde-preserved specimens have not convinced the Fuchses to give their own bodies to medical science so that they too can one day be preserved. But their work has given them a bond of sorts with the jars. "For us it was never a strange or a grotesque situation," said Geo Fuchs. "When you work in the collections for such a long time, you know, you are used to it and you look at it with -- how can I say -- you like them."

Forget Dolly the sheep, Tasmanian tiger is next

BRIGHTON, Tasmania, Aug 18 (Reuters) - The small wooded enclosure near the entrance of the Bonorong Park Wildlife Center is labelled "Tasmanian tiger" but the fabled Australian carnivore is nowhere to be seen. The last known Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, died in captivity in 1936, but a team of Australian biologists believes the animal's extinction may simply be a 70-year hiccup. Tasmanian tiger DNA has been found, and a cloning project is underway. Hope for the rebirth of the tiger -- not a cat at all but a striped marsupial wolf -- lies in the murky depths of a museum specimen jar, where a six-month old thylacine pup has sat preserved in alcohol since 1866. Australian Museum director Professor Mike Archer said he knew 15 years ago the specimen held the key to the return of the tiger. But it was not until Dolly the sheep was cloned in Scotland in 1997 that technology caught up with his dream. "It became a matter of not if, but when," Archer said.

In April, small samples of heart, liver, muscle and bone marrow tissue were extracted from the preserved pup, and a small team of evolutionary biologists in Sydney began working to unravel the tiger's genetic code. Once DNA damage is assessed and repaired, the tiger's genetic blueprint would be inserted into the egg of a close relative, probably the Tasmanian devil or the numbat, another marsupial, for incubation. While there have been similar extinct-animal cloning projects elsewhere in the world, the Australia Museum's project is the first to find good quality DNA from an extinct specimen. But there's much work to be done and Archer said it could take another 10 to 15 years to clone the tiger. Experts disagree on the project's chance of success -- with odds ranging from close to zero to 50-50.

Most of what is known about thylacines is from mythology and museum exhibits, which sprung up around the world in the 1930s as the tiger slipped towards extinction and zoologists clamoured for specimens. There is a skeleton in Heidelberg, Germany, and a mounted and stuffed tiger in Zurich. Black and white photographs abound. They show a large dog-like marsupial with tan fur and black stripes across its lower back and rump. Like the Tasmanian devil and its more distant relative the kangaroo, the female tiger carried its young in a pouch. The animal had a heavy, rigid tail like that of a kangaroo. The tigers were only ever seen by white settlers on Tasmania, the island state that appears like a teardrop beneath Australia's southeast coast, but the predators once roamed the mainland and the island of New Guinea, where they were killed off by wild dogs introduced by man some 6,000 years ago. On Tasmania, the tiger quickly became the bitter enemy of British settlers. It was blamed for killing sheep and other farm animals and after a bounty was put on its head in 1888 tiger trapping became a paying occupation.

In popular imagination the tiger is intermittently plucked from extinction with sightings reported, blurred photographs produced and debate refired about its ability to survive undetected for nearly 70 years, even in the virtually untouched wilderness of Tasmania. Sightings have even been reported from remote parts of the southern mainland. A far more emotional debate rages over the plan to reincarnate the tiger through cloning. Professor Archer has crossed angry picket lines at his museum and his work has been denounced by religious groups who accuse the scientists of playing God. "My response is that people played God when we exterminated the animal in the first place," Archer said.

Cubans flock to Santeria, leaving fowl in wake

MIAMI (Reuters) - In a flurry of feathers, beaks and blood, a brown hen, a golden rooster and a snowy white dove are killed in quick succession, their heads neatly twisted off. "This is a cleansing ceremony," Maria Rodriguez said as her husband doused ceremonial statues with the fowls' blood. "You've got to give the god what it wants. And Ochun likes feathers." Animal sacrifice is alive and well in Little Havana, where scores of Miami's 800,000 Cuban exiles practice Santeria. An estimated 100,000 people practice the earthy, spiritual Afro-Cuban religion in the United States. "People have this idea we're killing chickens and drinking blood," said Rodriguez, a newly minted Santera or Santeria priest. "They come to think it's a magic show and it's not. Sacrificing is at a minimum." At a recent Santeria ceremony in Rodriguez' modest Little Havana bungalow, her husband Eduardo, a Santeria high priest or babalao, readied his godson to receive Ochun's protective powers, spraying Aguardiente liquor and rapid-fire Spanish mantras from his mouth under the fluorescent glare of the living room lights.

Santeria, a pantheistic infusion of deity worship and pagan rituals, was brought to Cuba centuries ago by West African slaves from the region of modern-day Nigeria. On plantations run by Catholic colonialists, the slaves devised a stealthy plan to keep alive their multi-deity religion, then known as Yoruba. To avoid punishment, they ostensibly worshipped Catholic saints but secretly gave each of these deities a Santeria counterpart. Slaves praying before statues of Catholic saints likely were offering homage to their own gods. Chango, god of fire, anger and lust, was matched with Catholic St. Barbara. Babalz Ayi, patron of the sick, was St. Lazarus. At midnight, the Catholic saints were believed to metamorphose into Santeria gods. Santeria took deep root in Cuba's black communities, where it often was practiced in tandem with Catholicism. It made its way to South Florida with Cuban exiles, but the first exodus in the early 1960s was mostly affluent whites who distanced themselves from Cuba's African legacy and shunned Santeria. "It was seen as a religion of poor black people and therefore unenlightened," said Isabel Castellanos, a professor of modern languages at Florida International University who has studied Santeria for 20 years. "It was extremely stigmatized in Cuba. The stigmatization also happened here." The early exiles also had appearances to maintain. "We didn't want Americans to think we were a crazy bunch of barbaric people," said Ernesto Pichardo, a prominent Santero. "And what's refined and proper, adequate and normal, was being Catholic."

Behind the Catholic veil, and away from priests' watchful eyes, Santeria gradually surfaced in Little Havana. Small groups began to gather in spiritualists' living rooms, divining the gods' will by casting and reading coconut chips and seashells. "It was to be done pretty quietly, but the whole neighborhood knew," Pichardo said. Santeria offered spiritual guidance without moralizing and gave practitioners gods custom-fit to their foibles, he said. "It's not the Christian sermon, Tylenol-syndrome for everyone's headache approach. It's very individualized and personalized." Santeria gods are given gifts, usually candy, fruit and alcohol, and ceremonies may throb with frenetic drumming and chanting in tongues. For initiation and cleansing ceremonies, Santeria gods often demand the life of a chicken, a rabbit, or sometimes a goat, practitioners say. This has garnered Santeria a torrent of unwanted attention from animal rights groups, evangelists and police. But a hurdle was cleared in 1993 when Pichardo, weary of being served police summonses charging animal cruelty, won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that affirmed followers' First Amendment rights to kill small animals as part of their practice. As the U.S. Cuban presence grew, qualms about the religion steadily ebbed, helped along by the wider public's growing embrace of alternative spiritual practices. "Santeria has become more accepted and acceptable, even fashionable," Castellanos said. "It's no longer a religion practiced exclusively by people from lower socioeconomic strata. It's enjoying quite a prestige."

Practitioners of all stripes flock to 30-odd botanicas -- religious shops specializing in Santeria accoutrements -- that dot the Miami area. Maylene Abad, 31, a well-heeled Cuban American attorney, regularly visits Botanica Mistica in the bustling heart of Little Havana. Sitting beneath riotous strings of glass prayer beads, surrounded by a coterie of potions and herbs, Abad, cell phone in hand, awaited a Santeria priest on a recent summer day. "I was brought up Catholic," she said. "But like a lot of Cuban Americans, I was brought up to understand Santeria as well." When Abad's parents and grandparents fled Cuba right after the revolution in 1959, her grandmother was allowed to bring one item with her, Abad said. She chose a statue of the Santeria deity Chango. "It was a miracle she got it over," Abad said. "The Cuban officials tore off the hands and her crown. But my grandmother restored it. It's been in my house all of my life." Santeria was more than a bridge to her family's past. "It's my therapy," she said, grinning, as the Santera emerged through glass beads to embrace her.

Stolen stitches online rock needlepoint world

LOS ANGELES, Aug 2 (Reuters) - A stitch in time used to save nine. But bands of underground grannies have started stealing stitches online, rocking the genteel world of needlepoint and threatening to tie the industry in knots. Their numbers are probably in the hundreds rather than the millions that make up the Napster song-sharing community on the Web. Yet the pattern publishing and needlepoint industry is so alarmed at the mostly elderly cross-stitch pirates who swap copyright patterns for free via the Internet that they are threatening to take legal action. "This strikes at the heart of the needlepoint industry. The people who are doing this seem to have a hacker's mentality," said Jo Weiss, executive secretary of the International Needleart Retailers Guild. "When we found out about it in July, we couldn't help but compare it to the music industry and what is happening there ... If necessary, we will show them that we mean business," Weiss said.

Using just a PC, a digital scanner and an Internet chat room, a group of ladies discovered they could reproduce the charts filled with hundreds of tiny squares that serve as patterns for cross-stitch designs and pass on the grid to the computer of a friend. The technology was not only quick but inexpensive, saving hobbyists anything from $3 to $12 a time for patterns ranging from intricate floral designs to dogs and angels. The women call it sharing, comparing it to swapping recipes taken from cookbooks or passing around novels. But when they advertised their skills on various Web sites, needlework shops started to see sales fall. "I found there are about 11 groups, some of them with several hundred members. I signed up to one such group and within a few days I got sent so many charts that I couldn't download my e-mail," said Jim Hedgepath, president of South Carolina pattern designers Pegasus Originals who is spearheading the crackdown. "It is hurting the designers and it is hurting the store owners. It has gotten to be a big enough problem that we are having to take action because the industry has gotten smaller every year and we are at a point where we could be knocked off by something like this," he said.

The industry, which has seen some 75 percent of its mom and pop stores go out of business since the 1980s, launched a legal fighting fund after its annual trade show last month. Hedgepath has also written to several of the Web servers that host the offending e-mail groups pointing out the copyright infringement and succeeding in getting some of them closed down. Other have simply changed names and gone underground, admitting new members only through personal recommendation. "Some of the groups are shutting down for fear of getting caught and I think lots of the ladies didn't realize they were doing anything wrong. But there are a few bad eggs out there," said Hedgepath. He dismisses as "baloney" justification by the pirates that they have to travel long distances to buy the patterns at needlework shops. "There are plenty of places you can go to on the Internet and legitimately download free stuff," he said, citing the proliferation of sites run by craft magazines and official needlepoint organizations.

Hedgepath and Weiss say they will take legal action only as a last resort. But some lawyers question the wisdom of taking expensive legal action against a group of mostly elderly, not very rich women. "Just filing an initial complaint and getting an injunction can cost tens of thousands of dollars," said Los Angeles business and copyright lawyer Robert Enders. "Every time there is a new technology, it opens up fears of people losing out, and then it settles in and people find they can usually make more money doing something else," he said.

Pregnant virgin assured of a happy ending

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ali Celeste went to work at a sperm bank so she could get pregnant without losing the precious virginity she was saving for when Mr. Right came along. Celeste got pregnant, but she did not bargain for falling in love with the handsome and dashing Dr. Brad Darling, who turned out to be not only hunky and everything she had ever dreamed of but also the very sperm donor who got her pregnant. If that all sounds too good to be true, it is. And, in a nutshell, it is the plot of "The Pregnant Virgin," a book that proves that, when it comes to romance novels, anything goes and the further from reality the better. The book by Anne Eames, who infuses her romance novels with a twist of humor, was just one of those on display at this years' Romance Writers of America conference in July. Indeed, the conference was littered with books.

As you might expect, many were paperbacks showing a couple in a clinch on the cover: the hero with shoulder-length hair, his shirt billowing open to reveal a sculpted chest, holding a seductive but shy heroine in his strong arms, the gaze of passion like electricity between them. The conference attracted writers, aspiring writers, booksellers, literary agents and publishers from across the country for five days of seminars, schmoozing and deal-making. As with any literary conference, dozens of workshops were held to help writers hone their craft, along with seminars on contracts, dealing with publishers, electronic publishing, calculating royalties and the business of publishing. There were also countless sessions aimed at helping hopefuls write a book that could sell. Among the sessions on offer were "Anatomy of an Escalating Relationship" and "Scenes on Fire! Building Incendiary." Or how about tips on how men experience romance, or romance as a feminist issue, or a lesson in "The art of layering your love scenes and building the sexual and emotional tension that culminates in a satisfying love story."

In a hotel in a leafy Washington suburb, the convention was almost a man-free zone. A scattering of men were in evidence but all claimed to be attending just to keep a girlfriend or wife company. None admitted to having actually read a romance novel. On the first night, 450 authors, all women except for one, signed copies of their romance books for adoring fans. Romance books are the most popular type of fiction in America, raking in $1 billion in annual sales. They account for nearly 40 percent of all popular fiction books sold, outpacing mystery, suspense and detective novels, which account for about one quarter of popular fiction books sales. Two things distinguish romance books from other books: a central love story and, most importantly, a happy ending: The heroine always gets her man. Some critics say that makes romance books formulaic, boring and predictable. Nora Roberts, the queen of romance writing, thinks otherwise. "What do I say to the critics? 'Get a life,'" the best-selling writer told Reuters in an interview. "Any book picked up for pleasure, with the illiteracy rate in this country, is a triumph, a gift, a celebration."

And Roberts' books have certainly been selling -- nearly 100 million copies and still counting. The former housewife has written some 150 books with titles like "Tears of the Moon" and "Irish Hearts" in the past 20 years. That translates into an astonishing average of about one book every seven weeks, a statistic Roberts shrugs off by noting that some of her novels are short. And if the heroine always gets her man, there is a reason. "Why, in a mystery novel, do you have to know who did it? You have to have resolution," she said. "Resolution in a romance novel is the optimistic ending, resolution in a mystery is good overcoming evil. What's the difference?" Roberts started writing in her Maryland home during a 1979 blizzard because caring for her 2- and 5-year-old children was starting to drive her nuts. She sees the popularity of romance books as proof of people's optimism. "The divorce rate is the United States is what, like 45 percent? But what's the remarriage rate after that? You have to keep trying because ... somewhere out there is someone who is going to make you happy and that's what everyone wants," she said in her fast-talking patter.

While some critics decry the way romance books portray women, many romance authors view their books as feminist works because the woman always wins, gets her man, improves her life and overcomes obstacles, often with the help of other women. Susan Elizabeth Phillips, best-selling author of 13 books including "It Had to be You" and "Kiss an Angel," has also been writing for two decades and sees romance books as a positive influence on society. "The romance novel reinforces all the core values in our society, the things that make our society work -- love, marriage, commitment, having children," she said. "Romance books are the only books you can read where the woman always wins and that's very powerful to women. Women are not victimized in them." Jenny Low of Florida hopes her agent can sell the two books she has written so she can stop working as a roofer. But even if she succeeds in getting a publishing deal, she can expect a long, hard slog before she makes serious money like Roberts and other bestsellers. A typical first-time deal offers an advance of just $5,000 per book, plus royalties, Low said. But she is not deterred. "It's a competitive business like any other business," she said. "Everyone here wants their name out there. You have to work hard for it."

There are many more trying to break into the business than making a living from it. Only 2,000 of the more than 8,000 members of the Romance Writers of America have published books, while the other 6,000 are still waiting for their lucky break. But looking at the hundreds of adoring fans lining up at the book signing could inspire many more to try romance writing. Perhaps you too could put some romance on paper -- something like: "She felt butterflies flutter in her stomach as she recalled the night of the dance when she met Charles and wondered why he had to leave in such a hurry and if she would ever meet the dark stranger again ...." Then again, maybe it's not quite as easy as it seems at first blush.

Drug 'mules' stitch and swallow to stash cache

MIAMI (Reuters) - They enter the United States as hapless drug "mules" with their illicit cargo surgically stitched into their muscles, bonded to their backs with fake skin or ingested in tight-packed condoms, their lives hanging by a latex thread. Some of the couriers, like a burly Jamaican who came through Miami International Airport last month, can neither hide their guilt under rigorous interrogation nor hold their costly load. "He kept sitting very far forward, shifting his weight to his right buttock," said Chris Maston, a customs supervisor whose task is culling drug smugglers from the 8 million other travelers who stream through the airport each year. The airport body scanner, which works through clothes but not skin, solved the mystery: Onscreen, beneath the man's eerily glowing buttocks, a small cluster of egglike objects appeared. "He had been passing (drug-filled capsules) while I was questioning him," Maston said.

Sometimes mules are nabbed before bodily functions take over and whisked to a nearby hospital, where they are placed on a British-made "drug loo," a $40,000 porcelain throne that catches and cleans sullied caches in a tumbler with special bacteria. The special toilet has made "monitored bowel movement" seizures much easier for carriers and customs agents. Until a few years ago, mules had to put on latex gloves and sift through their own bedpans for pellets while customs agents kept vigil. Before that, customs officers used to break open plumbing systems, frantically trying to catch the evidence before it was flushed away. "We've had to knock out too many walls and break open too many pipes," Maston said. There are just three ways for passengers to get drugs through airports, he said: "In bags, on the body or in the body." Although most mules cache them in their stomachs -- 82 of 109 carriers stopped by Maston's crew last year were "internals" =- agents have found drugs stashed in the girdle of an 82-year-old granny, in prosthetic limbs and even in dogs. A stooped man was found to have waxlike clumps of skin bulging from his back, which turned out to be molded silicon stuffed with heroin. Another man was intercepted after he limped down the plane's gangplank, moaning in agony. He had packets of cocaine surgically stitched beneath his thigh muscles. Customs agents in New York were alerted to a mangy mutt that appeared to be near death shipped from Puerto Rico in a fancy carrier. A veterinarian found five pounds (2.3 kg) of cocaine sewn into the dog's stomach. The dog survived, was named Cokie, and became a mascot for agents at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Catching "internal" carriers is no easy task and agents say untold amounts of heroin and cocaine pass airport customs each day in the stomachs of carriers. But the agents are well practiced at ferreting out deception. "They've developed a sixth sense," said Zachary Mann, spokesman for South Florida's U.S. Customs office in Miami. Agents home in on telltale signs of nervousness: hurried gestures, quavering voices and bloodshot, darting eyes. Using repeated, probing questions, they try to get to the bottom of suspicious-sounding stories. "(Mules) have been sitting the whole plane ride fretting about this moment, after being up the whole night before, swallowing drugs," Maston said. "There's a lot of emotion canned up that they're trying to conceal. Our job is to get to it." Suspected internal carriers are asked to take a mild laxative. If they refuse, "we sit and wait," Maston said. While no bodily orifice is immune, he said, most internal carriers are "'swallowers," who gulp giant doses of heroin or cocaine encased in latex condoms or surgical glove tips. "They usually don't down more than a kilo (2.2 pounds)," Mann said. "That's all they can stomach, literally." The ill-fated Jamaican mule hit the average, ultimately passing two pounds of hash-filled pellets.

Most internal drug carriers are driven by financial desperation, earning more in one trip, usually about $5,000, than they can make in a year back home, Mann said. They run the risk of imprisonment, usually a five-year sentence, but can also end up dead. In early July, a Colombian man died when one of the 80 heroin-filled condoms in his stomach split open and released toxic levels into his blood. He had checked himself into a Miami hospital complaining of chest pains and telling staff: "I have a drug problem." Carrier deaths have not always stopped waiting drug dealers from retrieving their prized booty. Last year, police found the corpse of an internal carrier dumped in the Florida Everglades, his stomach split open and emptied of its illicit cargo. Police in New York and New Jersey have made similar grisly finds. Maston, whose biggest coup was intercepting 11 mules on one flight from Jamaica, said his toughest moments are nabbing parents who forced their children to swallow drugs as well. "We have to dedicate ourselves to understanding the (drug) organizations that we're dealing with," he said. "Smugglers have that element of surprise."

Swiss spit world record with cherry stones

ZURICH, Aug 7 (Reuters) - Two Swiss set world records in cherry pit spitting this weekend, taking the title back from their American holders, the chairman of the Swiss cherry pit spitters' association said on Monday. Lucien Mosiman told Reuters that Conchita Kohler fired a cherry stone 19.01 metres (62 ft 4 in), while Thomas Steinhauer took the men's mark with a blast of 25.22 metres (82 ft 9 in). The previous women's record was 16.49 metres and the men's 24.42 metres. Mosimann said there were five or six competitions a year in Switzerland with 500 to 1,500 participants. Before spitting the pit, competitors have to eat the cherry and some eat up to 50 in a match. The association has 600 members.

Green light for Formula One red light zone

BUDAPEST, Aug 7 (AFP) - The term 'red light' will take on a whole new meaning at this weekend's Hungarian Formula One Grand Prix meeting. For the authorities having endorsed a plan to temporarily legalise prostitution by setting up a 'red light district' close to the circuit. But the permission is valid only for the three days of the competition at the Hungaroring race track near the village of Mogyorod, some 15km (nine miles) east of Budapest, said local notary Agnes Hangodi. "During the race every year, we get extreme numbers of tourists, and they have a demand for this basic service," she told state Hungarian radio. But the local government of the small village, which has a population of fewer than than 5,000 inhabitants, consented to allow the zone only after some police pressure, said Hangodi. "There has been pressure from police. They said they can only handle the situation if it (prostitution) is restricted to a given area. So the local government chose the smaller evil," she said. But she added that after the race, the zone would be wound up. "Our village is deeply religious. I do not know how people here could fit this in with their conscience," she said. Based on experiences over the past Formula One races here, local authorities are expecting hundreds of prostitutes to hunt for clients among the hundreds of thousands of spectators. Local authorities have leased out an area for the purpose close to the racetrack where an enterpreneur has pledged to run basic facilities including washrooms, Hangodi said. Prostitution is illegal but still thrives in Hungary, and the authorities have tried in vain to set up permanent red light districts in the capital Budapest and major tourist hotspots in order to at least restrict the phenomenon to designated areas.

Polish woman wins Europe's only screaming contest

WARSAW, Aug 13 (Reuters) - For the second year in a row, a middle-aged Polish woman has outscreamed 300 rivals from four countries at Europe's only vocal noise competition, Polish public television reported on Sunday. The television showed Dagmara Stanek from the Baltic resort of Sopot emitting a sustained scream rated at 126.1 decibels, a volume comparable to the sound produced by a pneumatic hammer. The best male screamer, Pawel Dabrowski, also defended his previous year's title by producing a 125.3-decibel wail. Some 300 contestants from Poland, the United States, Austria and the Czech Republic travelled to the northern town of Goldap to compete in what the organisers call "the only such contest outside of Japan".

Shoe rule cuts Chicago traders down to size

CHICAGO, July 27 (Reuters) - Standing out in the crowd on the trading floors at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange may soon be a little tougher. No shoes with soles thicker than two inches (5 cms) will be allowed starting on Monday, the CME said on Thursday. But it is not only the flappy, strappy high-heeled women's sandals the CME wants to put a stop to. Platform shoes worn by men in and around the trading pits have been declared a "fashion don't." "I've seen them that big," one broker said of a trader's platform shoes, holding his thumb and index finger about 6 inches (15 cms) apart. "I think it's more for the male traders than the females." Why the need to stand so tall? To see and be seen from the depths of the trading pits. To stand out in a sea of bright jackets, high-pitched voices and wild gestures. Making a fashion statement also may be important. "It's the escalation of elevator shoes," the broker said with a chuckle. But twisted ankles and foot injuries on the steps around the pits have been a problem, participants said. "They had a ruler out there the other day," another trader said. "I saw them measuring." One female clerk wearing 4-inch (10-cm) black platform sandals said she did not think she would get away with wearing them on the floor next week. "I think they'll be strict about it," she said. "It's going to be the girls who are hurt by it."

L.A. man sues Duran Duran for posting number on Web

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 1 (Reuters) - Cornell Zachary says British pop group Duran Duran done him wrong and he wants more than a free CD and an apology. The 56-year-old unemployed Los Angeles machinist -- who says he is a fan -- has sued the group for mistakenly posting his phone number on the Internet last July as the one to call for T-shirts, souvenirs and tickets. It was the wrong number. In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court last Friday, Zachary claims he suffered "life-threatening high blood pressure episodes," nerve damage, sleep disturbance, and permanent health problems from the cascade of calls which the lawsuit estimated as being in the millions. This was on top of existing pain Zachary said he was experiencing from a broken ankle. A spokesman for the rock group was not immediately available for comment. "The phone calls were coming in on a 24-hour basis from all over the world," Zachary told Reuters. "They had me to the point where my doctor told me I could have a stroke."

For several months in the summer of 1999, "Millions of fans of the rock band Duran Duran dialed and connected with the telephone number owned by (Zachary), resulting in continuous ringing of (his) telephone day and night," according to the lawsuit. Duran Duran and others named in the suit "created a nuisance ... as the result of unnecessary, unreasonable and injurious methods of operating their business enterprise." Named in the suit are band members Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes and Warren Cuccurullo. Also named are Microsoft Inc. Duran Duran Productions, QBQ Entertainment, SFX Entertainment and MAD Productions, among others. Within a few weeks the wrong phone number was removed from the site but the calls have continued to come in to this day, said Zachary, who doesn't want to have to change his number, which he personally chose through a free customizing service that the phone company offers. "I don't think that I have to change my number," he said. "I didn't make the mistake. I had had the number already over a year." The suit seeks unspecified exemplary and punitive damages, as well as attorney's fees. "They have never even given me a sorry card, ya know?" Zachary said. "Duran Duran is not an unpopular group with me. This is nothing personal."

Gnomes meet ignominious fate at Aussie bank

SYDNEY, Aug 1 (Reuters) - Pranksters deposited about 150 garden gnomes on the steps of Australia's central bank on Tuesday before the bank's board was to gather for its monthly policy-making meeting. The board's meetings are closely watched for any hint of a move in official interest rates. But on Tuesday, Sydney residents were more interested in who was behind the gnome planting than any rate rise. "We think the gnomes may have been the victims of a student prank," Sydney police spokesman Paul Jackson told Reuters. Local media has reported several recent cases of gnome-napping. Sydney City Council spokesman Craig Middleton said street cleaners discovered the gnomes before dawn but the little plaster statues, fixed to the steps with a building adhesive, refused to budge until confronted with the professional cleaning equipment. The gnomes were hauled into custody at the Sydney City Council's depot. "They are now in gnome-man land and we've had loads of calls claiming them," Middleton told Reuters. "But with them all wearing red hats, white beards and green trousers it is hard to tell who belongs to who." Most economists do not expect a further move in monetary policy and the earliest announcement on the fate of interest rates was not expected till Wednesday.

Princess Diana's brother slams lookalike video

LONDON, Aug 7 (Reuters) - The brother of Princess Diana, Earl Spencer, has slammed a video in which a lookalike of the late princess is shown acting out raunchy scenes from movies. Spencer was quoted in Monday's edition of Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper as saying that the video, on show at the Edinburgh Fringe as part of the Scottish city's annual arts extravaganza, was a cheap attempt to grab publicity. The film shows an actress with an uncanny likeness to Diana crossing and uncrossing her legs in a re-enactment of a scene played by Sharon Stone in the move "Basic Instinct". She is also shown suggestively eating chocolate in a copy of the meal sequence from the film "Tom Jones". Spencer told the Telegraph that the video was a "tacky stunt". But a spokesman for the regulators of the Edinburgh festival defended the piece as "video artwork". "We are talking about a video artwork being put in the context of the world's most famous arts festival," he told the Telegraph. "There's a difference between something being though-provoking and controversial, and something being genuinely offensive or illegal." Diana, the former wife of the heir the British throne, Prince Charles, was killed in car crash in Paris in August 1997.

Police guard cactus as Mexican agave turns to gold

GUADALAJARA, Mexico, Aug 9 (Reuters) - As if they were fine jewels, some prime agave-growing areas in western Mexico have been under guard by police for the past three months to halt the theft of the suddenly pricey commodity. Agave, a cactus-like plant that provides the main ingredient of Mexico's tequila, has soared in value in recent months as tequila demand has begun to far outstrip agave supply, sending tequila prices sky-rocketing. With the global appetite for tequila expanding rapidly, and domestic prices tripling over the past year, Mexican law enforcement has found it necessary to start protecting the plants from thieves, officials said. "We have 12 rural police specialized in fighting agave theft," said Salvador Leal, head of public security in the town that gave the alcoholic drink its name, Tequila.

Tequila, some 320 miles (510 km) northwest of Mexico City, is home to some of Mexico's finest agave plants, which take up to nine years to mature. Leal told Reuters his special agave protection squad had arrested six people since they began patrolling the cactus fields in May. Operations mainly take place at night. A team of four people could cut enough in 2-1/2 hours to earn 45,000 pesos (around $4,600), Leal said. The agave shortage has reached crisis levels in Mexico. One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of agave now sells for 14 pesos (about $1.50), compared to 79 centavos ($0.08) in January 1999. That has sent the price for a bottle of good-quality tequila from around 100 pesos ($11) to 300 pesos ($33), way beyond the reach of the ordinary Mexican and making it more expensive than most mid-ranged Scotch whiskeys. Last week producers and manufacturers in the western state of Jalisco, the heartland of agave production, agreed to set a reference price of 9 pesos per kilogram ($0.97). Leal said agave theft was happening in towns all around Tequila but many of them did not have police patrols. Some tequila companies had hired private security firms to watch over their fields and town authorities were talking to the firms to improve coordination and protection. "If we coordinate (with the private security firms) we will have better results," Leal said. "And if need be, we will assign more police to the task."

Bad glue foils Russian crook's fake ear escape

KIEV, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Cheap glue proved the undoing of a hard-core Russian criminal, whose fake ears came unstuck just as he was crossing passport control at the Ukrainian-Slovak border, a Ukrainian daily reported on Wednesday. The popular paper Den quoted local customs officers as saying a "dangerous" Russian fugitive had tried to cross illegally into Slovakia from western Ukraine with a passport belonging to another person. To complete his disguise he had asked a surgeon to glue on artificial ears, but they popped off at the decisive moment. The surgeon had economised on medical glue, using a cheap Russian-made product instead of high-quality Western one, the paper said.

Man killed self in woodchipper, tried to pull in girlfriend

PHOENIX, Aug 9 (Arizona Republic) - He proposed in the wee hours of the morning. She accepted. What Rafael Rodriguez allegedly did next shocked the senses. Police said he took his fiance to the landscaping business where he worked, asked her to close her eyes and lie on a conveyor belt, and then threw himself into a wood chipper, trying to take her with him. Rodriguez, who suffered head and arm injuries, died at the scene. Somehow, the wood chipper stopped before Lucia Lopez, 28, was seriously hurt. The incident occurred about 1 p.m. in west Phoenix. It was the second apparent suicide in the Valley involving a wood chipper this year.

"She is a little bit startled, and he says, 'Don't worry about it; just lay down and close your eyes,' " said police Lt. Mark Zingg. "He lays down next to her and she says the next thing she knows is he is through the machine, apparently grabbing her wrists to bring her into the machine too." The incident remains under investigation. In April, Steve Eugene Mitchell, 44, was killed when he dove into a wood chipper as landscapers were shredding tree limbs outside an apartment complex in Glendale. Authorities said Mitchell took his wallet out of his pant pocket before killing himself. Detectives later found a suicide note that specified funeral arrangements and a last will and testament in his Glendale home.

Spoof virginity tester is banned in Greece

ATHENS, Aug 21 (Reuters) - A toy virginity-tester was removed from the shelves of Greek shops on Monday after the government banned it out of concern for its psychological effect on children. The so-called Virginity Meter purported to rank people's virginity based on a card's colour reaction to having a finger pressed on it. Some advice was given -- such as warning some testees not to tell anyone of the result. The government said the card contained "unacceptable characterisations" and could be dangerous to children's psyche.

Conman talks women out of their underwear

OSAKA (BBC News) - Health officials in Japan are on the hunt for a conman who has been persuading women to surrender their underwear saying there has been an outbreak of a potentially deadly bacteria. According to the Mainichi Daily News the man, posing as an official from an Osaka public health centre, has been calling women since May ordering them to hand over their knickers for inspection. On each occasion the impostor claims that there has been an outbreak of the deadly 0-157 E. coli bacillus in the city. In one early case, the paper reports, he called a housewife in the suburb of Toyonaka informing her of the potential danger. "We're worried you might pick up something," he reportedly told the woman. "For an inspection please take off the panties you're wearing now and put them in a plastic bag and present them to us."

According to the paper the man then told her to leave the bag containing her underwear in a park nearby for collection. The scam was uncovered when the woman phoned the local health centre to ask for more information. However, the paper says, the man successfully duped a local high school student last month who did as she was told and left a small parcel underneath a park bench. The girl's mother also contacted the health centre, from whom they learnt of the con. But by then it was too late as the parcel had already been collected. Toyonaka health officials say they have received a steady stream of reports detailing similar incidents and plan to report the matter to the police. "Posing as a public health official because he wants to get his hands on women's panties is nasty," one official was quoted as saying.

Taxing times for belly dancers as their assets slip down the years

Lap dancers and topless models could be given tax relief for 'wear and tear' to their bodies if a Manchester accountant gets his way. A judge in Cairo recently ruled that an Egyptian belly-dancer should be allowed to claim tax relief on her tummy, which was described as a 'depreciating' asset. She argued that her belly should be classed as 'plant and equipment' and now Mike Wasinski, a tax partner in Manchester accountants Hacker Young, is planning to go to court to set a precedent in Britain. He admitted that 'a pretty close examination' would need to be carried out before any case went ahead, but a spokesman for the Inland Revenue said belly dancers 'would be on shaky ground'. However, the spokesman conceded that any tax relief requests from self-employed individuals would have to be considered.

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