PMT blamed for rise in the wacky tales index

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The Independent Online
THE FT Index has risen by 4 per cent in the last year, and they are blaming PMT. This, however, has nothing to do with economics or hormones, for the report comes from the Fortean Times, the journal of curious phenomena, which calculates its own FT Weirdness Index each year, based on the numbers of news stories monitored in each of 34 categories.

"1997 was by far the weirdest year since our records began," said Joe McNally, the associate editor. He expects the index to continue rising "as a result of PMT, Pre-Millennial Tension".

The basis on which the figure is calculated, however, seems far from rigorous. Each year since 1993, the number of stories in each weirdness category is counted and compared with that of the previous year. If it is higher, then the index for that category goes up by 10 points, if lower, then it decreases by ten. The overall index is a simple sum of the scores in all 34 categories from "Water Monsters" to "Spontaneous Human Combustion", from "UFOs" to "Ineptitude and Stupidity". Since the index began, the most consistent patters have been the rise in sightings of "Alien Big Cats" and "Cults and Conspiracies" (both now standing at an all-time high index figure of 140) and the decreasing interest in "Crop Circles" (down to 60).

But was 1997 really weirder than 1996? The index comes with a credibility warning: "This index represents media interest in weirdness, not weirdness itself." It is also based on a quantitative account of weird stories, with no attempt to assess how weird each story is. As these examples show, from a qualitative point of view any difference between 1996 and 1997 is too close to call.

Weird stories of 1996

1. Sex: Surgeons in Bangkok successfully re-attached the penis of a police sergeant after it had been severed by his wife as he slept following an argument over a love affair. Such cases are not uncommon in Thailand where they are known as "feeding the ducks", after one case in which the severed organ was thrown into a duck pond.

2. Death: Zhao Jun, a farm worker from Sichuan province in China, died from a burst intestine after eating eight bowls of gruel when trying to win a bet for a packet of cigarettes.

3. Swedish designer Ann-Kristin Antman produced an anorak from 20 salmon skins soaked in five litres of urine donated by members of her family. "It is a method used during the Stone Age in Sweden," she said, explaining that the treatment made the material weatherproof. "The smell disappears when you rinse the skins in water."

4. Medicine: Research at Harvard Medical School reported that sexual activity has "a low likelihood of triggering a myocardial infarction". The risk of a healthy person suffering a heart attack because of sexual activity was shown to be about one in a million, and only two in a million for someone with heart disease.

5. Crime: A thief was arrested in Bangkok after he had snatched a woman's purse then hidden in the lavatory of a police station. he had mistaken the Thai-style roof of the rest-room for that of a Buddhist temple. His prolonged occupation of the room aroused police suspicions.

Weird stories of 1997

1. Sex: A 48-year-old Californian pipe-fitter who claimed that a woman called Brenda had cut off his penis later admitted that he had done it himself. Surgeons were unable to reattach the organ.

2. Death: An employee in an Egyptian mortuary collapsed and died when a body he had been sent to collect from the refrigerator got out of its coffin and stood up. Abdel-Satar Badawi woke from a coma after 12 hours in the morgue. "I moved my hands and pushed the coffin's lid to find myself among the dead," he said.

3. Waste products: Rice farmers in Laos were reported to be winning the battle against snails by sprinkling pig manure over the plants. Apart from the success in keeping away snails, rice yield has also risen because of the manure's quality as fertiliser.

4. Medicine: The British Medical Journal reported a study showing that people with coronary heart disease wave their arms around more than people free of cardiac complaints. But they say it is unclear whether people who gesticulate are more prone to heart disease, or whether heart disease causes agitation which makes people wave their arms more.

5. Crime: A bank robber in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, handed the teller a note demanding money and threatening to set off a bomb. She asked him to wait, so he stood in line for 20 minutes until she returned with a bag containing $1,500. He was arrested as he left the bank.