News you may have missed...
February 1999

Ooops...

First, a follow up to last week's story about the subliminal images in 'The Rescuers'.

Disney's Recall a Half-Hearted Attempt at Saving Face

WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 /PRNewswire/ -- On Friday, January 8th, the Walt Disney Company recalled 3.4 million copies of the animated film, The Rescuers, due to objectionable material found in two frames of the movie. According to animators, the objectionable material is the torso of a nude woman. A Disney spokeswoman said the image "does not belong in a children's video." "The recall is nothing more than another attempt to fool parents into believing that Disney really cares about their children," said Cathy Brown, director of Why Life? (American Life League's youth division). In 1995 American Life League asked Disney to recall The Little Mermaid and The Lion King for similar offenses. Disney refused to act.

"Certainly the image in The Little Mermaid of the clergyman who obtains an erection while performing the wedding ceremony qualifies as an image that does not belong in a children's video. And having the letters S-E-X float across the screen in The Lion King is objectionable as well. Why hasn't Disney recalled these videos?" Other Disney films and animations for children that contain objectionable sexual content include Roger Rabbit, Aladdin, and The Santa Clause. Disney claims it recalled The Rescuers to "keep its promise to families that they can trust and rely on the Disney brand to provide the finest in family entertainment." "This so-called provider of fine family entertainment should put its money where its mouth is and recall these other five videos that have equally offensive content," said Brown. "And when that is done, Disney should break its ties with Miramax."

Miramax is a Disney subsidiary that has released dozens of morally offensive movies, including Chasing Amy, a movie about a man's pursuit of a lesbian; and Priest, a film which blatantly attacks the Catholic Church. Later this year, Miramax will release Dogma, which is said to attack Christianity and portray God as nothing more than a whimsical myth. "A corrupt sense of 'morality' has seeped into just about every aspect of this multi-billion dollar company," said Brown. "If Disney wants to provide fine family entertainment then that is precisely what they should do. They can't have it both ways." WhyLife? is a project of American Life League, the nation's largest pro-life educational organization with more than 300,000 supporters.

Shanghai diners 'hooked' on hot pot

SHANGHAI, Jan 29 (Reuters) - If Shanghai diners feel a nagging urge to visit their favourite "hot pot" restaurant, there may be a good reason. Health authorities found that many of the city's hot pot eateries were adding opium poppies to the broth to keep customers coming back for more, the official Wenhui Daily said on Friday. It said that 11 out of 45 restaurants inspected had added poppies to their recipes for hot pot, popular in the winter, the newspaper said. China bans planting and use of opium though it allows some cultivation supposedly for medical purposes.

Ukraine man crashes car as 50 pagers ring at once

KIEV, Jan 14 (Reuters) - A Ukraine businessman who bought a pager for each member of his staff as a New Year gift was so alarmed when all 50 of them went off at the same time that he drove his car into a lamp post, a newspaper said on Thursday. The unnamed businessman was returning from the pager shop when the accident happened, the Fakty daily reported. "With no more than 100 metres to go to the office, the 50 pagers on the back seat suddenly burst out screeching. The businessman's fright was such that he simply let go of the steering wheel and the the car ploughed into a lamp post." After he had assessed the damage to the car, the businessman turned his attention to the message on the 50 pagers. It read: "Congratulations on a successful purchase!"

Ohio man severs arm in car crash, drives home

CLEVELAND, Jan 29 (Reuters) - An Ohio man crashed his car into a guard rail, severed his left arm and hand and then drove home, local authorities said on Friday. Randall Garner, 41, was "resting comfortably and in fair condition," following the accident on Thursday night, said James Winkler, a spokesman for Medical College Hospital in Toledo. Police said Garner had been drinking but it was unclear how intoxicated he was at the time of the crash. Winkler said that at the family's request he could not provide further information about Garner's condition or the treatment he was receiving at the family's request.

Post Commander Walt Poffenbaugh of the Huron County Police said Garner crashed his 1994 Chevrolet Blazer into a guard rail in Willard, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo. He said Garner drove a short distance to his home from the scene of the accident and called 911. He reported the accident and said he cut himself but didn't know how. Poffenbaugh said when police arrived at Garner's home, he was missing his left hand and the arm from the elbow down. Both body pieces were later found in the back of Garner's car, which was parked at his home. Garner was taken to Fisher-Titus Hospital before being airlifted to Medical College Hospital.

Scots nationalists get southern English outpost

LONDON, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Scotland's nationalists gained an unlikely recruit on Friday -- a local councillor in Brighton, a southern English seaside town 473 miles (747 km) from Edinburgh. James McGinley -- from Edinburgh -- has quit Britain's ruling Labour Party in protest at its diminishing radicalism and will now represent his district as a member of the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose main policy plank is independence from London. "We are sure the people of Brighton will welcome a man of such obvious independence," an SNP spokesman said.

Ice hockey match postponed because of snow

AMIENS, France, Jan 12 (AFP) - A French league ice hockey match had to be postponed Tuesday night - because of snow. The match between Amiens and Caen had to be called off when the Caen team found their way to the stadium blocked.

S.African whites told polygamy beats divorce

JOHANNESBURG, Jan 15 (Reuters) - An Afrikaner theology professor says South Africa should legalise polygamy for whites to beat a divorce rate amongst the highest in the world, The Citizen newspaper reported on Friday. "Timesharing awaits us, ladies. And that at a time Viagra was sent for men," it quoted Christina Landman, a theology professor at the University of South Africa in Pretoria and member of the conservative Dutch Reformed Church, as saying. Only one in three South African marriages endures, and Landman argued that polygamy would allow a husband to take on additional mistresses without his wife feeling betrayed and left with no option but divorce. "There are just too few men in the world. They have exterminated each other in wars. Now is the time to go and select a married man and go and negotiate with his wife to become part of the family," she was quoted as saying. The tradition of polygamy is alive and well among black Africans -- the King of Swaziland enjoys at least six wives -- and the lack of this option for South Africa's white minority was a clear case of discrimination, Landman said.

Australia's giant "whodunnit" could be exposed

ADELAIDE, Jan 19 (Reuters) - England could hold the answer to one of Australia's biggest "whodunnits" -- a giant image of a naked Aboriginal man mysteriously carved into the outback. Australian officials on Tuesday found a dedication plaque at the remote site, tipped off by a statement faxed to journalists by an anonymous source who claimed to have created the figure. The four kilometre (2- mile) long figure was found etched last year into red soil near Marree, 700 kilometres (450 miles) north of Adelaide. Police have been unable to discover who was responsible. The site was closed off after local Aborigines declared the image a desecration of their spiritual land. The anonymous fax promised a trail of clues about the origins of the so-called Marree Man will be unearthed in coming weeks at the sites of giant chalk drawings in England. "The first answer was buried in a sealed container near the Cerne Giant, Dorset, England," the fax said. "It relates to the question 'Who (is responsible)?'."

The figure appears to depict an Aboriginal hunter holding a traditional throwing stick. It has a circumference of about 30 kilometres (19 miles) and outlines as wide as 32 metres (105 feet) which locals believe would have required heavy machinery, satellite tracking equipment and up to six weeks to complete. The inscription on the plaque buried near the figure's nose read: "In honour of the land they once knew. His attainments in these pursuits are extraordinary; a constant source of wonderment and admiration". The fax said the exact location of the clue at the Cerne Giant, a 55 metre (180 feet) figure carved into chalk, would be given on January 24 to several unnamed Cerne residents. A second answer would be provided later near the Long Man of Wilmington, another English chalk carving.

HK man sues stylist for snipping off part of ear

HONG KONG, Jan 20 (Reuters) - A Hong Kong man who accepted a free haircut got more than he bargained for when the stylist snipped off part of his right ear, the South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday. Ng Koon-man was left bleeding profusely at a Hong Kong hair salon in February 1996 after the stylist cut off a slice of his ear measuring 1.4 cm (0.55 inches), the newspaper said. Ng has sued for damages, accusing the stylist of "negligently performing a haircut at a speed which was excessive in the circumstances" and failing "to take adequate precautions when applying the scissors to ensure his ear would not be harmed", it quoted the court writ as saying.

California trio guilty of pie crime

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Some called it a case of pie crimes and misdemeanors, while others dismissed it as "just desserts." Three members of the Biotic Baking Brigade, which seeks to make political points by hurling pastries at the prominent, were found guilty of battery on Tuesday for creaming San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown with cherry, pumpkin and tofu pies during a news conference on Nov. 7. "To take a pie-throwing case to this extreme is just ridiculous," said Rahula Janowski, who along with her companions could face up to six months in jail after a jury convicted them of the misdemeanor. "It shows the entire lack of perspective and lack of justice that we have in San Francisco," she said.

The jury found "the Cherry Pie Three" not guilty of the more serious charge of assaulting a public official. The verdict ended a trial that veered from the serious to the surreal as defense attorneys, seeking to define assault as "political theater," waved an apple pie under the noses of the jury and digressed into a discussion of a pig named Hamlet who ate the evidence. Brown, who was infuriated by the attack and has taken a consistently hard line against the brigade, pronounced himself mystified by the verdict but declined to suggest how the trio should be sentenced on Feb 24. The hot-tempered mayor, who brought down one assailant himself, suffered a sprained ankle and a bump on the knee in the melee that erupted after the pies were tossed, while Janowski had her clavicle broken when she was tackled by an onlooker.

The Biotic Baking Brigade fights in the name of the environment and the homeless. During the weeklong trial, the defense portrayed the group's antics as harmless humor, while the prosecution called them dangerous, politically motivated attacks. Brown himself testified, demanding that the full force of the law be brought to bear against "the persons who assaulted me in a violent, hostile way." The brigade's lawyers scoffed at that description of an event they termed a simple case of "just desserts." To bolster their argument, they showed the jury a photograph of Hamlet the pig, who was at the scene of the attack as mascot for the city clean-up program Brown was promoting. Appropriately enough, Hamlet got busy and gobbled down the remains of the pies.

Elvis songs to be recorded in ancient language

HELSINKI, Jan 21 (Reuters) - A Finnish academic known for recording Elvis Presley songs in Latin is planning a new record of eternal hits -- this time in the ancient Sumerian language. Jukka Ammondt told Reuters on Thursday he intends to bring out a Sumerian single in the next few months and an album in the autumn. He has been practising with "Blue Suede Shoes" -- translated into the cuneiform language of Babylonia that died out around 2000 BC. "Elvis would have liked the idea because the ancient Sumerians had big parties and drums and rattles, and the roots of rock may go back to man's earliest efforts to get a grip on life," said Ammondt, who has produced two records of Elvis songs in Latin.

Tintin at 70 remains a controversial innocent

BRUSSELS, Feb 1 (Reuters) - He rarely drinks, never womanises, and his best friend is a small white terrier. But 70 years after his first appearance, the determined Belgian boy-reporter Tintin is still proving as popular -- and controversial -- as ever. The debate stirred up by the septuagenarian cartoon character -- created by Belgian Georges Remi under the pen name of Herge, suggests that there is more to Tintin than tall stories and the trademark blond quiff. France's national assembly will this month debate the politics of the country's adopted son, asking if he was from the right or the left.

The debate, which has inspired several contributions to the letters pages of the London Times, follows the Comic Strip International Festival in the French city of Angouleme in late January. The festival, based around the National Comic Strip and Video Centre, has made Angouleme the Mecca for francophone comic strip enthusiasts. Local conservative deputy Dominique Bussereau will be one of two politicians championing Tintin in the national assembly debate as a helper of the oppressed in spite of some politically wayward attitudes. "It's extraordinary," Etienne Pollet, editor of the Tintin series for publisher Casterman, told Reuters by telephone from Angouleme. "This discussion has been going on since World War Two. It just shows the importance of Tintin in the Francophone world."

At the heart of the battle for Tintin's political soul is the first, openly anti-communist Tintin story and Remi's dubious war-time affiliations. He was arrested as a Nazi collaborator after the liberation of Brussels in 1944. Herge's regular Tintin cartoons contributed to the success of the Belgian pro-Nazi, French-language daily newspaper Le Soir during the German occupation of World War Two. During the war years Herge dropped political references from his cartoons, Pollet said. But in the aftermath of the war, liberals and left-wingers examining the earlier books found traces of right-wing attitudes which they said called the stories' underlying politics into question.

The first story, "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets", serialised from January 1929 in the right-wing Catholic weekly Le Petit Vingtieme, was a thinly veiled attack on Stalinism, claiming that Russia's industrialisation drive was a sham. The story repeated much of the anti-Soviet propaganda of the time, showing Russian factories burning straw in order to appear productive and a political meeting being held at gunpoint to ensure support for Bolshevik candidates. Herge later disavowed the story, which has never been translated, and apart from a one-off collectors' edition, was only properly accepted as the first of the Tintin canon when Casterman issued a special 70th anniversary edition in December.

The French communist weekly L'Humanite Hebdo made a gesture towards rehabilitating Tintin in December by reprinting excerpts from "In the Land of the Soviets", which it had previously dismissed as "gross caricature". L'Humanite suggested some elements of the story may have a basis in fact, given that the tale was inspired by the writings of a diplomat of Herge's acquaintance, who would have had first-hand experience of the Soviet situation. But L'Humanite still maintained Tintin was "a rightist and an agent of imperialism", even if it was not his own fault.

Tintin's second outing, this time to the Congo, at the time still a Belgian colony, was so full of racial stereotypes and colonial preconceptions, that Herge later redrafted whole sections, changing the skin colour of some characters. Pollet argued that Herge was no politician, and his stories merely reflect the prevailing attitudes of the times. "Tintin is not racist. 'Tintin in the Congo' is not racist. It is paternalistic, but that is down to the government and society of the time," Pollet said. Tintin's later adventures show a different side to Herge, his supporters say, including a growing interest in Oriental philosophy which shines through the pages of "The Blue Lotus" and later "Tintin in Tibet". This book, written in the late 1950s, sees Tintin apparently embracing the ideals of a universal brotherhood as he rescues Tchang, a character based on Herge's real-life friend Tchang Tchong-jen. Critics cited similarities with the work of Proust and the Marx Brothers in "Castafiore's Emerald", published in 1963.

"Tintin and the Picaros", Herge's final work -- and according to his wishes the last-ever Tintin story -- arguably brings the colonialism of the Congo story full circle, as the dogged reporter joins the cause of an oppressed South American people. Whatever the politics behind the Tintin stories -- and the debate appears set to continue -- their enduring popularity is not in question. With around 200 million volumes sold, the stories have been translated into 58 different languages, and still sell more than two million copies annually, Pollet said. Indeed, Tintin's fame in the Francophone world is such that former French president Charles de Gaulle is said to have mused that in terms of international fame Tintin was his only rival.

Korea's giant penises appease virgin

SAMCHOK, South Korea, March 3 (Reuters) - Giant penises carved from logs were erected on the banks of a stream in this east coast town in South Korea on Wednesday in a celebration of an ancient fisherman's ritual. Using chainsaws, axes, sandpaper and carving tools, some 20 teams carved 3.6 metre (12 foot) penises out of pine-tree logs in the annual Male Root Carving Competition. There's nothing impressionistic or abstract about these works of art -- the sculpting style emphasises realism, giving new meaning to the concept of organic art.

"I've fought hard to join this contest because (the organisers) weren't going to allow women to participate," said Lee Hye-jin, a 22-year-old senior in the carving and modeling department of Dongkuk University. "It's big fun for me. I'll do my best. I'm going to participate in future contests, too," said Lee, one of only two women in the contest. Samchok Mayor Kim Il-dong says this is only the second year the contest has been opened to any artist wishing to participate and wants to thrust the event into the international spotlight. "I want to enlarge this event further next year to make it an international event," Kim told Reuters. "Next year, I'd also like to invite foreign sculptors and expand it into carving on rocks."

Legend has it that the ritual was conceived after the death of a young virgin, who drowned at sea some 400 years ago, while waiting for her lover to return from a fishing trip off Samchok, about 300 km (186 miles) east of Seoul. Several sea accidents and a succession of poor catches later, the village men carved a "male root", hung it on a tree and conducted a ceremony to appease the disappointed spirit of the dead virgin. The ritual has been conducted every year since on the first full moon of the Asian Lunar New Year. Traditionally, the carved penises are dumped into the sea afterward to soothe the spirits of all women who have drowned.

Koh Myung-kyu, 58, said he has been carving penises at the festival for the last 30 years. "I've been doing this to revive our traditional art," said Koh, whose son Sung-shik, 33, is helping him with the sculpture. The contest is divided into professional and amateur categories. The professionals carve their male roots on the 3.6 metre logs with a 40-50 cm (15-20 inch) diameter. Amateurs sculpt theirs on a piece of wood some 25 cm (9.8 inches) long and 7-9 cm (2.7-4 inches) in diameter. Top prize in the professional category is a whopping one million won ($813).

Fringe Games provide odd Olympic warm-up

WELLINGTON, Feb 15 (Reuters) - You won't find synchronised cycling, reverse running or even Balinese pole-climbing at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. But fans of such "fringe" sports needn't despair. These and other bizarre events will be on display in nearby New Zealand in an unorthodox Sydney prelude billed as the Fringe Games. Games creator and international best selling author Burton Silver says with a straight face that he wants to thrust new events such as mechanised running, the assisted high jump and slalom running onto the world stage. "People are going to be able to watch formation running, the 100 metre slalom and mechanised running for the first time, plus a host of other dynamic sports that have never been staged on an athletic track before," he said.

Sports fans might be wise to take Silver's assertions with a grain of salt. He has pulled legs before, as in his best-selling 1994 spoof "Why Cats Paint", a hit among cat lovers, which purported to reveal the artistic side of felines. "A lot of people think that I just do spoof books to fool people, whereas in fact they do have a serious message," Silver told Reuters. "You have to use the spoof to make the message come across." The message of the Fringe Games, set for September 8-11, 2000 in Christchurch -- just a week before the Sydney Olympics -- is that more people can enjoy the thrill of competition through the advent of new and unique sports. The headline events are certainly that, many looking like they were dreamed up by Monty Python. In the assisted high jump, contestants use a "boost" from a teammate, while in reverse running competitors run backwards. Slalom running is a derivation of slalom skiing but is held on a flat grass surface. "This will be one of the most exciting games imaginable," event organiser Arthur Klap, who was involved in Wellington's bid for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, said in a statement.

Other events include synchronised cycling, in which pairs cycle around to music on a flat surface in a variation on synchronised swimming, a "fringe sport" that made the big jump to an Olympic event. There is also lateral running, races run sideways, which the official Fringe Games website breathlessly promises will feature "dramatic oversteps and bold shoulder-level arm extensions" which are "often described as running ballet." One of the most futuristic events will be mechanised running, in which contestants lurch down the track on prosthetic leg extensions designed to enhance performance. "Up until now we have almost exclusively used mechanised prosthetic devices to aid those who are physically disadvantaged in some way. However, in tomorrow's world we are likely to see use of this technology applied to everyone, enabling us to run faster by increasing efficiency," the website says. Competitors in the 100-metre gymnastic dash will flip themselves down the track via a set number of handsprings, cartwheels and a straight sprint.

Silver expects athletes from many disciplines to compete. "For example, with the slalom run -- an entirely new sport -- we would expect rugby players to be taking part in that." "For a rugby player, it would suddenly mean that he could take the field as an athlete," he said. "For a cricket or baseball player, when you come to the freestyle ball throw, it means that those guys can take the field as an individual athlete rather than as a team player." Qualifying times will be posted shortly, organisers said, adding that even more bizarre contests such as boomerang throwing, lure casting, spaceball and Balinese pole-climbing will debut as exhibition events. "We are already discussing with some broadcast interests the financing of these games," Silver said. "This is the sort of thing that television, especially cable TV, seems to be very interested in. We're hoping it won't need any government support at all. He noted that coverage and global sales for a similar event, the Gravity Games, had been secured by NBC late last year. Further information can be found on the official web page.

Bunny pet-loving boom has Japan hopping

TOKYO, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Forget beer-guzzling or workaholic husbands who come home late, Japanese women these days prefer to cuddle with better companions -- rabbits. And the new love affair has meant that while so many sectors of the Japanese economy are mired in red ink and dwindling sales, the bunny business has blossomed. Sales of the fluffy creatures have steadily increased over the past few years and in this Year of the Rabbit observed in many parts of Asia, there is no sign of the boom ending in Japan. In major urban areas, lonely singles and families living in cramped quarters have been snatching up rabbits in their search for pets which do not violate the terms of their lease. Even though rabbits reproduce prolifically, some rare breeds are almost worth their weight in gold, selling for about $2,000.

According to Japan's leading advertising company Dentsu Inc, the rabbit boom was part of an overall marketing trend that started in 1998 which they dubbed "two's a crowd." Dentsu senior researcher Yuko Kitakaze explained that many young people feel having someone around all the time wears them out, but they also do not enjoy the prospects of being lonely. "Motivated by a feeling that one-and-a-half people is the perfect number, they have sought types of companionship that satisfied their emotional needs without bearing the pressure of maintaining a relationship," Kitakaze said. Rabbits have been one hit item in the "two's a crowd" boom along with jelly fish aquariums, virtual pet computer software and stuffed pillow dolls big enough to serve as bedfellows. For computer instructor Satako Nakajima of Kawasaki, her rabbit "Bubu" has been an ideal companion. Her grey and white rabbit has helped reduced the loneliness of living alone. "Even though it is a rabbit, having Bubu around gives me something to talk to," Nakajima said. Japan's rabbit boom started about five years ago when a number of foreign breeds, especially dwarf rabbits, were imported into the country.

Japanese apartments, often nicknamed "rabbit hutches" because of their small size, were still large enough for urban dwellers to keep the pets and to hold landlords at bay because rabbits made no noise and did not require walking. Although there are no official statistics on rabbit sales, a new crop of rabbit-related products are making their way onto store shelves. Supermarkets such as Odakyu Ox in the Tokyo suburb of Mitaka started stocking rabbit food last year while women's lifestyle magazines have started to run enjoying life with bunny stories. Miori Fukada, owner of the Tokyo pet store "The Flying Rabbit", said premier rabbit breeds sell for a fraction of the price of pedigree cats and dogs and present fewer problems. "In the current recession people see rabbits as being a reasonably-priced pet," Fukuda said. Fukuda's store has about 80 breeds of rabbits that range in price from about 6,000 yen to 80,000 yen ($50-$660). He does most of his business in unusual breeds, such as the floppy-eared Holland Lop, that sell for a few hundred dollars each. He has seen his business increase fivefold since he set up shop five years ago.

Japan being Japan, it has been said that a craze cannot sweep the nation unless there is a high-end outlet that sells the product for remarkably high prices. The premier rabbit shop for the bunny lover is Rabbit World. It offers rabbits that are the offspring of prize-winning parents to owners willing to pay caviar prices for a cabbage-eating pet. For a mere $1,600, Rabbit World has an amazingly cute American Fuzz Lop. For those wanting to spend a bit more, it has the long-eared black and brown mixed breed called Tan for $1,900. Pet consultant Mayumi Kitamura said the big price tag does not worry the more affluent pet shopper looking for fuzzy love. "If it is cute, then it will sell," Kitamura said.

Thai tycoon plays cockfight promoter

CHONBURI, Thailand, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Thai tycoon Dhanin Chearavanont's chicken factories slaughter 25 million birds a week. They pluck their feathers for pillows and mattresses, grind their bones for feed meal, and produce billions of eggs a year for Asia's dinner tables. Now Dhanin, president of the giant Charoen Pokphand Group, who became one of Asia's richest men by exploiting chickens, feels it's time he gave something back to them.

His chosen method: sponsoring fights between Asia's indigenous chicken species, which used to rule the roost in the region before being nudged off dinner tables by specially bred varieties produced at huge farms like those Dhanin owns. Hence the world's first "International Amateur Cockfighting Competition" in Chonburi, a town to the southeast of Bangkok that used to be better known for its feuding gangsters.

The Thai Indigenous Chicken Conservation and Development Association said Sunday's contest involved more than 100 contestants from Thailand, China, Japan, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Indonesia and Cambodia. Organisers would like it to become an annual event, possibly staged next time in another participating country, and hope it will lead to greater acceptance for a rural sport that has been popular all over Asia since ancient times. The amateur contest differs from "professional" bouts which government bans have driven underground in most of the region in that fighters wear padded gloves over their sharp spurs to minimise the horrific injuries they can inflict. The native birds, the promotional literature pointed out, "are actually rather aggressive animals". Betting on the contests, a major attraction of underground fights, is also strictly banned.

Dhanin said he saw the fights as providing poor farmers another profit source by promoting the breeding of indigenous varieties of chicken. "It means they can earn more money and it provides them with a supplementary occupation," he told reporters. "The association is also trying to establish regulations to minimise injuries to the animals. I feel as a Buddhist this is a way of making merit -- otherwise they would fight to the death." Dhanin is not a man known for keeping all his eggs in one basket and has interests ranging from agribusiness to telecommunications and petrochemicals. However, he denies he has any commercial motive for promoting native chicken varieties.

Indigenous fowl are larger and produce better quality meat and eggs than those raised by companies like Dhanin's. "If you want to make proper Thai food, native chickens are the best," Thanatsee Sawadiwadhi, Thailand's leading writer on the country's cuisine, told Reuters. But Dhanin said free-range rearing of the birds could never become an industrial-scale concern. "Some people are willing to pay more to eat native chickens, But 85 percent of the market is for broilers." Dhanin said native varieties could never take more than 15 percent of the market because they were more expensive to rear.

Dhanin is personally not keen on watching cockfights, saying they are a little too "exciting" for his liking, but he is clearly a native chicken enthusiast. "I like their elegance," he said. They are indeed splendid, strutting into the ring to contest 12 divisions ranging from straw weight -- 2.90-2.99 kg (6.4-6.6 lb) -- to heavyweight. The latter tip the scales at more than 3.99 kg (8.8 lb) and would give a few turkeys a scare. Despite the steps taken to prevent the birds carving each other up with their sharp spurs, they don't leave the ring unscathed. With sharp beaks still in play, plenty of feathers fly and blood flows.

But the life of a fighting cock is grand while it lasts. Trainers treat charges as they would privileged members of their family. "They get the best food we can give them," said farmer Pornthap Thangsuk from Thailand's Rayong province. "We feed them like our children. It's not hard to see why. Organisers of the amateur competition say exports of Thai fighting cocks to elsewhere in Asia bring in around 100 million baht ($2.7 million) a year. A top fighting bird can fetch as much as 100,000 baht ($2,750) at post-fight auctions. Many of the best birds go for breeding, or onto the lucrative, but more hazardous professional circuit.

Paint-by-number works "deranged" collector's items

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Collecting art is often seen as an elite pursuit, but kitschy paint-by-number works executed by anonymous artists have become collectibles and may even hang soon in their own temporary exhibition at the Smithsonian. The paint-by-number craze began a half century ago as the brainstorm of Palmer Paint Company illustrator Dan Robbins, now 73, who launched it, fittingly enough, in Detroit where the assembly-line process was perfected. The fad peaked in the mid-1950s when millions of the company's "Craft Master" sets and their imitators were sold, boosting the sale of oil paints in general and awakening artistic creativity in an entire generation, Robbins told Reuters in an interview from his suburban Chicago home.

He recently published a book about the craze and his experiences entitled "Whatever Happened to Paint-By-Numbers?" (Possum Hill Press), where he writes that the idea occurred to him after he learned that Leonardo da Vinci put numbers on assignments he gave to his workshop apprentices. Robbins' first paint-by-number design -- small areas of the canvas are numbered to correspond with the palette included in the kit -- was an abstract still life of a pitcher and a dish of fruit reflective of Modernism. But Max Klein, his boss at the now-defunct Palmer Paint Co., nixed the abstract and snarled at Robbins to create designs people would want to paint.

"It was a little too arty. When I showed it to the boss, he said, 'That's for people who fake their way through, and I hate the damn things,'" Robbins recalled. Thus was born the corny aspect of many paint-by-number designs: cute kittens, serene seascapes and knockoffs of masterpieces by Rembrandt, da Vinci and Norman Rockwell. "What's happened in the last four or five years is there has been an interest in paint-by-number as collectibles. They're part of our cultural heritage and it's cool to collect them," Robbins said.

Collector Larry Rubin, a psychologist in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, said he has covered his paneled office walls floor to ceiling with many of his 300 canvases purchased at flea markets, yard sales and even in auctions on the Internet. His wife will tolerate only a few of the works in their home. "They make a lot of my patients nostalgic ... and evoke certain thoughts and feelings I use in therapy," Rubin said. "People either did them themselves, or knew someone who did them, or hated them." Well-executed paint-by-number canvases are becoming hard to find, he said, noting that a framed copy of da Vinci's "Last Supper" recently sold for $175. He said his new quarterly newsletter on the fad has 17 "deranged souls" as subscribers.

Also interested is curator Larry Bird at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art in Washington, who said he has proposed setting up a paint-by-number exhibition next year. "I'm pitching it as a kind of high-low look at the paint-by-number fad," Bird said, adding that he would use dozens of canvases willed to the museum by Max Klein. "Nothing exacerbated the tension between high and low culture as much as this hugely popular fad, except for perhaps television. Critics went into orbit over this ... calling people who did them 'morons,'" Bird said. "It's a playful thing. I like the finished paintings. They have wit. They're nicely framed."

Dozens of designers worked hard to create paint-by-number designs and their premixed paint palettes, and some even created free-hand works of their own that ended up in local museums, Robbins said. He said he occasionally lectures students -- to the consternation of many teachers -- that the best paint-by-number designs can be compared to the flitting brush strokes of Impressionist works in that small areas of color mesh to evoke light, shadings and volume. "This may have been a stepping stone for people who got a sense of shadings, or composition, or just how to hold a paintbrush," Bird agreed.

For the millions of people who got pleasure, or merely passed time, by painting the preordained art works, the benefits may have been larger. "They're artists at heart, usually introspective. They use the paintings to fill a need," psychologist Rubin said of people who have sold him their paint-by-number works. "I met one woman who did a Jesus. She hung it over her bed. She was married to an alcoholic. After he died, she said she didn't need it any more."

Thrill-seeking Finnish teens dunk tampons in vodka

HELSINKI, March 2 (Reuters) - Some teenage Finnish girls are experimenting with tampons dipped in vodka as a way of getting tipsy without parents detecting boozy breaths, an anti-drink group said on Tuesday. The group's executive director said he had received reports of individual cases of girls in eastern Finland using alcohol-soaked tampons, hoping the alcohol would then enter their blood-stream. "I believe tampons are supposed to keep things in and not let them seep out," Tapio Jaakkola at the Irti Huumeista drug and alcohol centre told Reuters. "Drinking through the mouth is probably still the best way for alcohol to be absorbed," he said. High alcohol consumption in Finland is sometimes a source of embarrassment for this conservative Nordic society, with many commentators worried more liberal liquor laws introduced in recent years have increased drinking among young people.

Scandal dogs death of Canadian groundhog

TORONTO, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Canada's grief over the death of its most beloved groundhog turned to shame on Wednesday as officials admitted they had switched the corpse of the real Wiarton Willy with a stuffed impostor. Groundhog Day, observed in Canada and the United States, dictates that if a groundhog sees its shadow on February 2, there will be another six weeks of winter. Willy, who reached the ripe age of 22 before expiring, was Canada's official furry meteorological forecaster for most of his life in the small town of Wiarton, just north of Toronto.

When Groundhog Day observers arrived in Wiarton on Tuesday, they were greeted with the news that Willy was dead. On Wednesday, Canadian newspapers ran a photograph of a dead albino groundhog, purported to be Willy, clutching a carrot, and lying face-up in a small coffin. The only problem was that Willy's real body was discovered days before in an advanced stage of decomposition, indicating he had probably been dead for weeks.

"When the handler pulled him out, his remains were not presentable for public viewing," acknowledged Groundhog Day organizer Bill Walker. He said the town had meant no harm by displaying the corpse of the imposter, and had wanted to allow the public to reach "closure" over the rodent's death. The imposter in the coffin was a previous Willy, who had been stuffed years before.

Walker said Willy's remains were actually discovered on Sunday when a handler went to wake him up from hibernation so he could fulfill his role in the annual pageant. The town of Wiarton, which kept a special home for the rodent, has now launched a search for another Willy. "We've had calls from people who said they saw an albino groundhog last year," he said. "But they're hibernating right now so we'll have to wait until spring."

Willy's death inspired eulogies and even the occasional tear from elected officials in the national parliament and made headlines internationally. No one is quite sure of the origin of the tradition of groundhog watching. The U.S. counterpart of Wiarton Willy is Punxsutawney Phil, who emerged from his Pennsylvania home early on Tuesday as a crowd of 25,000 people watched. Phil failed to see his shadow, signaling that spring was right around the corner.

Our animal friends #1: did anybody say, "You're luggage"?

SAMUT PRAKARN, Thailand, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Onlookers at Thailand's biggest crocodile farm ran for their lives on Monday when a glass tank containing two of the reptiles exploded. Witnesses said the tank burst under the weight of about 50 cubic metres (66.6 cubic yards) of water shortly after a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm & Zoo on the eastern outskirts of Bangkok. The impact of the torrent swept two boys off their feet about six metres (yards) away from tank, they said. The glass tank was built to house the two freak crocodiles, one with six legs and one with five. Samut Prakarn is home to more than 60,000 crocodiles and is believed to be the world's biggest centre for breeding crocodiles in captivity, zoo officials said. The two crocodiles, 2.6 metres and 1.7 metre long, struggled to escape the tank after the glass broke but were quickly captured by zoo workers, witnesses said.

Our animal friends #2: getting the point

JAKARTA, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Hundreds of voracious porcupines have bean wreaking havoc in a palm oil plantation in the centre of the huge island of Borneo, Indonesia's Antara news agency reported on Monday. "Due to the attack, more than 500 oil palm trees were destroyed," it quoted an official with plantation owner PT Multi Persada Gatra Megah Kurmansyah as saying. The agency offered no explanation for the sudden destructiveness of the porcupines in central Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo.

Porn diva Cicciolina pens hot autobiography

ROME, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Italian porn star and former parliamentary deputy Cicciolina says she is writing a new, steamy autobiography. "I suppose I've done things that a housewife, unless she desired it, wouldn't be expected to do," she told Friday's edition of the weekly magazine Panorama. The Hungarian-born Cicciolina ("Cuddles"), whose real name is Ilona Staller, has shunned the limelight for several years to focus on a legal battle with her ex-husband, American sculptor Jeff Koons, for custody of their five-year-old son Ludwig. She said the new autobiography -- her second -- would cover "everything...from what happened to me when I first arrived in Italy, to the time the Hungarian secret services asked me to work for them, to my decision to make the longest and deepest journey possible into the world of sex". "I have no regrets. I've had a lot of fun and enjoyed myself," she said.

The peroxide-blonde who had a habit of baring her right breast in public had a thriving career as a porn star in the 1980s. She became a household name after she was elected to parliament in 1987 for a five-year stint on the ticket of Marco Pannella's maverick Radical Party. Staller, who has numbered countless Italian politicians and businessmen among her acquaintances, refused to reveal which illustrious names would be making an appearance in the book. "I can't reveal any names in advance that would damage the book," she said. "In Spain, they've already bought a number of chapters which will be published by two important weekly magazines in the near future." Koons, who lost the custody battle, had argued that Staller's liberal attitude made her incapable of fulfilling the educational role of a parent. Staller said she hoped her son would understand her past life. "When I think he is mature enough I will tell him about it myself. Choices must always be respected and he will have to respect the choice of his mother," she said. Asked what other projects she had for the future, Staller replied: "I will return to politics. I miss it."

Canada phone researcher dials "R" for revenge

WINNIPEG, Feb 16 (Reuters) - A Canadian artist has struck back at people who were rude to him when he worked as a telephone marketing researcher. Les Newman of Winnipeg, Manitoba, has opened a show at a local art gallery that consists of pages and pages of telephone numbers of people who were not nice when he called to seek their opinions on various consumer products. "The show doesn't have a title. But it's subtitled, "All the phone numbers of rude assholes who tried to make me feel like shit while I tried to make my living as a telephone market researcher in October 1998," Newman told Reuters on Tuesday.

The growing amount of market research and business solicitation by telephone in recent years has sparked some debate among Canadians, many of whom say they resent receiving the calls at home or at work. "People were put on the list if they would go out of their way to be particularly mean or rude," said Newman, 26. "It's an opportunity for petty revenge," he said. Newman is currently on holiday from his job. He said he was not sure if he still would have a job to return to once his employer heard about his art show, set to run for the next month.

San Francisco weighs law to protect fat people

SAN FRANCISCO, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Fat people may soon be legally protected in San Francisco. Prompted by an angry confrontation over "anti-fat" advertising by a local fitness club, the head of the city's Board of Supervisors has proposed adding overweight people to the list of those legally protected from discrimination. "We're programmed to think it's funny, but it's not," Supervisor Tom Ammiano said as he directed the city's Human Rights Commission to look into drafting the protective legislation.

Ammiano's move late on Wednesday came two days after about 25 overweight people picketed a local gym to protest against a billboard that warns that when space aliens finally do encounter humans, "they will eat the fat ones first." The protest, organized by self-described "fat advocate" Marilyn Wann, was aimed at demonstrating that overweight people were sick of being mocked and ridiculed. "I represent the 97 million Americans who are fat. ... It's really not safe to alienate us, because we might just sit on someone," Wann said to cheers from the demonstrators, some of whom held signs reading, "Bite My Fat Alien Butt." The 24 Hour Fitness billboard that sparked Wann's outrage features a leering alien face and the message "When they come, they will eat the fat ones first." The company has said it did not mean to offend anybody.

City officials said Ammiano's proposal was being seriously considered. San Francisco now bars discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, age, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity (a category created to protect transsexuals), disability or place of birth. Marivic Bamba, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, told the San Francisco Examiner that adding fat people to the list would be relatively easy. "We're certainly open to looking at it," she was quoted on Thursday as saying. "It would fall under the issue of human rights, and it's not a bad idea, given the recent publicity over the issue."

Soccer: Albanian team give up hunger strike

TIRANA, March 1 (Reuters) - Albanian first division team Burreli have ended a 10-day hunger strike launched in protest against penalties imposed by the soccer federation. Burreli's 17 players and two coaches halted the strike on Sunday after the Albanian soccer federation warned them either to play the next match or be relegated to the second division. "We decided to stop the strike...because of the critical condition of the footballers and the indifference of the soccer federation," Burreli club secretary Leke Sulku said on Monday. Burreli, who had three of their players rushed to hospital after the strike was called off, will play Apollonia of Fier in Tirana on Tuesday. Newly promoted Burreli, who are bottom of the table, were banned from playing at home for four matches after gunshots rang out during a match against SK Tirana in December and two of its players kicked and punched the referee.

Norway mayor wants to sponsor sex-starved bachelors

OSLO, March 2 (Reuters) - The mayor of a remote Norwegian Arctic village wants to subsidise foreign holidays for sex-starved bachelors, hoping they will bring back wives to revive the village's dwindling population. "For many bachelors, everyday life is tough both socially and emotionally, and we often get contacted by men who want company," Aage Pedersen, the mayor of Kaafjord, told Reuters on Tuesday. "We have to put more focus on the lack of women in Kaafjord," he said, suggesting subsidised trips for lonely local males to countries in Asia, Russia or Poland. Pedersen, who represents the Labour Party, said the village could benefit from state funds earmarked for measures to prevent depopulation in remote rural areas. He declined to say how much would be needed. Eight percent or 200 of Kaafjord's 2,500 inhabitants are bachelors, according to Pedersen. The population has seen an annual reduction of 30-40 persons over the last 10-15 years, mainly young women who leave to study or work in cities.

And briefly...

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - A lawyer asked a federal judge to strike down an Alabama law banning the sale of vibrators, saying the statute was a government invasion into the bedrooms of people pursuing normal activities. "We just think this demonstrates a bias toward conduct that is perfectly normal," lawyer Mark Lopez, of the American Civil Liberties Union, told U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith. Smith heard arguments in a lawsuit filed by a group of women who oppose a law enacted last year that bans the sale of vibrators and other sex toys. The suit names several women as plaintiffs, including B.J. Bailey, who sells sexual aids and novelties at parties, and Sherri Williams, who owns romance boutiques in Huntsville and Decatur, Alabama. "It's a $10,000 fine and a year of hard labour if you get caught selling vibrators," said Williams. "This is not a stereotypical sex shop," Williams said of her business, Loving Enterprises Inc. "We do candles and chocolates and lingerie, all the ingredients for a romantic evening. It just so happens that sex toys are one of those ingredients." Last year, the Alabama Legislature passed an anti-obscenity statute that outlawed strip clubs and barred the sale of items to enhance sex, including vibrators and certain kinds of condoms. "They set out to eliminate strip clubs, but along the way they snuck in sex toys," Williams said. "Not only did they take away your entertainment, but when they were done they also took away your right to entertain yourself."

ALMATY - A woman in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, saying she was unable to afford funeral costs, has been arrested after mummifying her dead mother and three other relatives, police said on Monday. A police officer doing a routine check of documents noticed an odd smell coming from the woman's apartment, senior police inspector Rafik Valiyev said. Taking a closer look, the officer found three corpses sitting against a wall and another in a cardboard box. The woman said they were relatives who had died from various illnesses. The police said the woman, a graduate from a medical institute, explained she had mummified the bodies because she did not have enough money to pay for a burial. Autopsies were ordered and murder charges had been filed against her. The police did not say how she had mummified the corpses but newspapers said she had used an alcohol-based solution.

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina - A 69-year-old North Carolina man who declared his take from a $17 million armoured car company robbery as income on last year's federal taxes has pleaded guilty to money laundering in the case. John Calvin Hodges was placed on probation and ordered to repay $14,200 he was paid to help open safe deposit boxes to stash some of the loot from the October 1997 robbery. Another co-defendant, David Eric Craig, 29, who along with Hodges pleaded guilty to money laundering, was sentenced to six months of work release, six months of house arrest and three years' parole. The men were among 21 defendants arrested in the 1997 robbery of a Loomis, Fargo & Co. cash warehouse in Charlotte. All but two of the defendants have pleaded guilty or been convicted in the case.


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