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Stranger than fiction



Curses, foiled again

Police responding to a break-in at a home in Campbell, Ohio, found Todd J. Moffie, 34, stuck between two steps on the basement stairs. Detective Sgt. John Rusnak said he doesn't know why Moffie tried to crawl through the narrow opening since there was plenty of room to walk around the stairs. (Youngstown's The Vindicator)

A British court convicted Amir Ali, 28, of throwing two bricks through the window of a West Sussex pub while his unidentified accomplice followed with a Molotov cocktail. Security cameras showed the firebomb bounce back and accidentally hit Ali, engulfing him in flames. The fire went out immediately, but panic-stricken Ali fled and ran headfirst into a lamppost. (Britain's The Telegraph)

O.P.E.C. to O.L.E.C.

The U.S. strategy to end dependence on foreign oil by promoting hybrid and all-electric motor vehicles could create dependence on foreign lithium, which powers costly, bulky batteries for those vehicles. Chile and Argentina produce more than half the world's lithium, found mostly in salt beds high in the Andes Mountains. Worldwide demand has spurred a mining boom there, but geologist Horacio Dias declared, "We think there is enough here to last many years." (The Washington Post)

Deal maker

Former Treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson, who led the Bush regime's battle against the still-raging housing downturn, paid $4.3 million in August 2006 for a villa-style home in northwest Washington, D.C. He put it on the market last April for $4.6 million but later lowered the asking price to $4.15 million. The house sold in December for $3.25 million — a 24.4 percent drop in value. (Reuters)

Chronicle of Lower Ed

The Oregon Department of Education said students at middle and high schools may use their computers' spell-check feature to correct their work before submitting answers to state writing tests. "We are not letting a student's keyboarding skills get in the way of being able to judge their writing ability," Superintendent Susan Castillo said. (Portland's The Oregonian)

Scholars found dozens of factual errors in two history textbooks used by Virginia schools. "I absolutely could not believe the number of mistakes — wrong dates and wrong facts everywhere," said Ronald Heinemann, a former history professor at Hampden-Sydney College, who reviewed Our Virginia: Past and Present. He recommended it "should be withdrawn from the classroom immediately."

Among the mistakes in Our Virginia and Our America: To 1865, are that New Orleans began the 1800s as a bustling U.S. harbor (actually a Spanish colonial port), that the Confederacy included 12 states (actually 11), that thousands of black soldiers fought for the South (disputed by most mainstream historians) and that the United States entered World War I in 1916 (actually 1917). The books' author, Joy Masoff, isn't a trained historian and admitted relying on the Internet for her research.

Five Ponds Press of Weston, Conn., publishes both books, which the Virginia Department of Education approved and many local school districts favor, according to Kenneth Bassett, social studies supervisor for Prince William County schools, because Five Ponds Press books are "substantially less expensive than the ... next highest-rated competitor." (The Washington Post)

Worst responders

Marvin Chase, 32, a volunteer firefighter in LaFayette, Ga., admitted starting as many as 15 arson fires, then responding to help put them out. "He stated that he just liked fighting fires," police Detective Stacey Meeks said. "He'd start these fires, then leave himself enough time to go home and get dressed in his fire gear." Investigators indicated the suspect's motive was also financial; every fire he fought paid him $22. (Atlanta's WXIA-TV)

British firefighter Julian Lawford, 49, admitted causing the death of a farmer while driving to a fire in Somerset. Exeter Crown Court heard that Harold Lee, 75, was moving 100 or so dairy cows along a country road when the siren on Lawford's fire engine startled the herd, which trampled Lee to death. (Reuters)

Police officers arrived at a house in Hertfordshire, England, where two drug dealers had taken a hostage, only to find it empty and a pizza deliveryman standing outside. The suspects had ordered two pizzas, but before they arrived the hostage escaped, so they fled. "Because the pizza deliveryman could not deliver the pizzas, the police who were at the scene did not realize the significant potential of this evidence, so they offered to buy the pizzas at a reduced rate for themselves and ate them," prosecutor Sally Meaking-McLeod said at the trial of Anthony Costello, 42, and Darren Barker, 35. "It was only subsequently that the pizza boxes were found in the back of a police car and a phone number was found on them and it came to light that the officers had eaten the evidence." (Britain's Daily Mail)

The end of regifting

Amazon has devised a system that lets people return unwanted gifts before receiving them. The online retailer's patent, which is 12 pages long and involves diagrams and complicated algorithms to address various gift situations, includes an option that lets users flag gifts from designated senders "because the user believes that this potential sender has different tastes than the user." Once alerted, the system converts any gift from specified senders to a gift certificate and automatically sends "a thank you note for the original gift, even though the original gift is converted." (The Washington Post)

Workshop follies

Fire investigators in St. Joseph, Missouri, concluded that a blaze which destroyed a home and sent the homeowner to the hospital was sparked by the man's smoking a cigarette while repairing a lawnmower in his bedroom. (KQTV-TV)

Cash and carry

A German company installed an ATM at an upscale mall in Boca Raton, Fla., that dispenses 24-carat gold bars and coins. Shoppers insert cash or credit cards, paying a 5 percent service charge, then use a computer touch-screen to choose the weight and style they want. The gold-leaf-covered machine, which is attended by an armed guard and can hold up to $150,000 in gold and cash, delivers the order in a black box with a tamperproof seal. Thomas Geissler, CEO of Ex Oriente Lux and inventor of the Gold To Go machines, said the company already has gold ATMs in the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Spain and Italy and plans to install a few hundred more worldwide in 2011. Its Abu Dhabi machine is so popular, Geissler said, that it needs restocking every two days. (Associated Press)

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