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'Rah, rah' until it's raw, raw 

James O. Riccardi III, 42, was charged with five misdemeanor counts by Higginsville, Mo., police last month in connection with bizarre phone calls to high-school athletes in which the caller at first pretended to be a University of Missouri coach offering scholarships. But, after exciting the athletes, the caller then changed the conversation, requesting that the students spank their bare buttocks to show their dedication to college sports. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the university said it has received 86 complaints about similar calls to student athletes throughout Kansas and Missouri.

Height of absurdity

"Hundreds" of young Chinese women and men have been suffering through the painful-for-months "Ilizarov procedure" to gain a few inches in height to supposedly improve their social and professional status. According to a May New York Times article, the $6,000 procedure involves breaking bones in the shins or thighs, then (four times a day) manually adjusting special leg braces that pull the bones slightly apart, then waiting until the bones grow back and fuse together (which usually takes about six months, plus a three-month recovery). Said one 33-year-old, 5-foot-tall woman (aiming for 5-4): "I'll have a better job, a better boyfriend and eventually a better husband. It's a long-term investment."

Priced to cell

In May, Great Britain's Home Office, deciding on the proper compensation for a man who served 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, ruled that he was entitled to about $1.1 million, but said he would have to reimburse the prison about $63,000 for more than a decade's worth of room and board. Said the outraged Michael O'Brien, 34, who had been freed by a Court of Appeal in 1999: "They don't charge guilty people for bed and board. They only charge innocent people."

Fur crying out loud

Germany's lower house of parliament voted in May to add "and animals" to its constitution's guarantee of protection for the dignity of humans. Meanwhile, the director of Washington, D.C.'s National Zoo denied The Washington Post a look at its animals' medical records in part to protect the animals' right of "privacy," a claim which stunned at least one animal-rights advocate. And a British ad agency came under fire in May for a cutesy commercial featuring a dog engaging (via trick photography) in X-rated undulations supposedly imitating what he observed at a certain randy singles' resort; critics said the dog in the ad was being held up to "ridicule and indignity."

Consider the pastabilities

An obscure panel of European Union bureaucrats (the Nomenclature subgroup of the Customs Code Committee) has been meeting in Brussels off and on for months for the purpose of deciding the thorny question of how many lumps (20 percent to 30 percent) are permissible in a can of mushroom or pasta sauce before those foods are classified as "vegetables," which would be subject to much higher import taxes than "sauces." As of late May, there has been no announcement from the subgroup.

A stake in our youth

Among the most notable "pork barrel" projects in the FY 2002 federal budget, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, were: $273,000 awarded to the town of Blue Springs, Mo., to fight the incursion of "goth" culture among its young; $50,000 for San Luis Obispo, Calif., to remove the tattoos of gang members; $450,000 to restore chimneys on Cumberland Island, Ga.; and $600,000 to research the sex life of the South African ground squirrel.

Dowsing for dollars

According to a January report of the Department of Energy's inspector general, federal facilities in Tennessee and Ohio actually tested (in all seriousness) an expensive procedure called "passive magnetic resonance anomaly mapping." The procedure involved nothing more than the use of a fancy dowsing device, worn on the wrist of an operator who senses underground water, faults, buried objects and chemicals via supposed changes in "magnetic fields." Nobody at the facilities seemed skeptical even though the contractor claimed that only one person in the world was truly "qualified" to operate the PMRAM, and he lives in the Ukraine.

Knockout punch

Justin Aragon, 19, was arrested in March in Albuquerque, N.M., and charged with roughing up his girlfriend and threatening to kill members of her family. According to police, his reign of terror came to an end when he collapsed and hit his head on a coffee table after informing the victim that he had laced her drink with a toxic substance. Instead, he had accidentally drunk it himself.

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