FLAT EARTH

Unconventional geeks

Las Vegas is a town that has seen it all - conventions of pantyhose salesmen, toilet paper manufacturers, pimps, strippers or sado-masochist fetishists, all of them delighted to revel in the City of Sin and throw away their money on the gaming tables. Last week it was the geeks - 200,000 internet surfers and software programmers, all of them in town for the Comdex computer trade show. But even by such bizarre standards the computer people were, well, a bit different.

As Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft and arguably the biggest geek of all, explained, Las Vegas wasn't really his kind of place. He was a bridge man, not a baccarat player. He and his friends weren't into all- night entertainment; they weren't very good at dancing and, besides, they had early morning meetings to attend.

The casino croupiers and maitre d's looked on disapprovingly. As the joke went, every delegate had turned up to the Comdex meeting with one shirt and one $20 bill - and pointedly refused to change either all week long.

Hush, Hillary, hush

To win her Senate seat in New York, the joke goes, Hillary Clinton needs the support of the "three I's" - the Italians, the Irish and the Israelis, who form the key ethnic groups in New York. And how better to impress the first of those than a set-piece speech in Florence after receiving an award?

Since the occasion was the formal dinner to launch the latest Third Way get-together of allegedly centre-left leaders, Bill Clinton was there to look on proudly. But, when presented with her prize, the First Lady refused to speak. Why?

At the last minute the White House decreed that, important though Hillary might be, an audience including not only the President but the prime ministers of Britain, France, Italy and Portugal, the German chancellor, the Brazilian president and the president of the European Commission was hardly appropriate for a hustings speech. Hillary was left on the sidelines, but you can expect her back in public soon, eating pizza.

Doing bird

A few years ago Victor Verster, the prison near Cape Town where Nelson Mandela spent the last few months of his 27-year sentence, came up with a new scheme to rehabilitate prisoners. Believing "the good rather than the bad should be drawn out of inmates", they decided to let them keep budgies.

It was a big success, so much so that other pets were brought into the scheme, including goldfish and cats. But at this point rehabilitation suddenly went into decline. "The prison authorities have had one too many incidences of disagreements following cases of one prisoner's cat eating another's budgie," said a Cape Town criminologist, Wilfried Scharf.

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