The glass is always half earthy

State and federal authorities recently refused to disburse emergency water-quality funds to the town of Browning, Mont. (population 1,100), finding after extensive testing that the water is safe to drink even though it was described in a February Associated Press report as "mucky brown and silty," "gritty black," "filthy" and "revolting." The water's excessive iron and manganese violate no law, officials say, and as long as the bacteria count is low, only longer-range improvements (such as digging more wells) can be considered.

The exodus is here

Twenty wives petitioned for divorce in Cairo, Egypt, on March 1, the inaugural day in which wives were eligible to file without elaborate proof of abuse. (They must still wait three to six months for a ruling, whereas a husband who files gets his divorce instantly, with no reason required.) And in February, South Korea's national police force announced that it would begin placing unarmed female troops on the front lines during potentially violent street demonstrations, in hopes of calming protesters. As one rowdy labor-union leader admitted, "How can we attack females?"

Prophets and losses

By government estimates, 6,500 religious cults operate in Japan, according to a December Boston Globe story. Included are the $600 million organization Honohana, whose leader was accused by the government in January of defrauding disciples of up to $100,000 to alter the negative fates he had perceived by examining their feet; and Life Space, whose founder died in August but whose body was discovered by police in a Tokyo airport hotel room four months later, being cared for by followers as if he were still alive. (The faithful insisted to the media that the dried mummy was responding nicely and had recently enjoyed some tea.)

Holding the line

According to a January Boston Globe report, 3 million residential customers still lease AT&T telephones (from Lucent Technologies) at rates of $53 to $252 a year; virtually all of them have been doing so continuously since the breakup of AT&T in 1984. Most of the customers are elderly; when a Globe reporter asked whether they were being exploited, a Lucent spokesperson responded, "As long as there is demand for the service, we will continue to provide it."

Almost blue

Craig J. Ziegler, 35, was sentenced to five years' probation in Pittsburgh in November for impersonating a law-enforcement officer and then forcing a woman (a self-described former prostitute) to perform a sexual act. The victim was outraged that Ziegler received no jail time for the assault, pointing out to reporters that the last time she was tried for prostitution, she went to jail for seven months.

Gratuitous charges

According to a December Agence France-Presse report from Budapest, Hungarian physicians are increasingly relying on tips from patients to supplement the falling wages they have suffered under the country's free health-care system. The practice is so common that the phrase "one final checkup" is widely used to indicate a brief visit to the examination room for the discreet money exchange.

Yearbooks were too hard to fake

China's Zhang Guoqiang, 27, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in February for swindling 50 dupes out of about $100,000; he had promised U.S. visas to people in the northern port city of Tianjin by showing them a photo of him with his "buddy" Bill Clinton. According to an Associated Press reporter in Beijing, the photo is a pasted-together composite of Clinton (in a green casual shirt) and Zhang (in a business suit), one in which the two men's images are "clearly out of proportion" to each other.

Running out of gas

Terry Johnson, 36, received a fine and had his driver's license suspended in a Nova Scotia court in December over his refusal to take a Breathalyzer test during a DUI stop in 1999. His excuse was that he was belching too much -- as often as several times a minute for nearly two hours after being stopped -- and that such shows of dyspepsia throw off the machine's readings. The police officer recorded the time of each burp but finally gave up and wrote the ticket. (In 1986, Johnson beat a similar charge by belching repeatedly.)

High stakes

Nathan King, 12, is recuperating in Helena, Mont., after undergoing open-heart surgery in early March to remove a pencil on which he had fallen while lunging for a football. Before surgery began, King spent more than two hours with the pencil embedded in his heart; if anyone had removed it, he would have died almost instantly. King's welcome-home present from his neighbors: a sweatshirt reading "Tougher Than Dracula."

Money for nothing

In February, Bloomberg News reported that the $23 million Internet company, which went public in November, had seen its share price double in recent weeks (to nearly $4), though the firm plainly disclosed in Securities and Exchange Commission documents that it not only had no profits but no revenues, and that it in fact did no business of any kind. Representatives told the SEC that the company might begin doing business soon, but maybe not. And if it did, they said, they had no specific idea about what kind of work it would do.

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