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Iceland on the cutting edge
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When Alcoa Inc. prepared to build an aluminum smelting plant in Iceland in 2004, the government forced it to hire an expert to assure that none of the country's legendary "hidden people" lived underneath the property. The elf-like goblins provoke genuine apprehensiveness in many of the country's 300,000 natives (who are all, reputedly, related by blood). An Alcoa spokesman told Vanity Fair writer Michael Lewis (for an April 2009 report) that the inspection (which delayed construction for six months) was costly but necessary: "(W)e couldn't be in the position of acknowledging the existence of hidden people." (Lewis offered several explanations for the country's spectacular financial implosion in 2008, including Icelanders' incomprehensible superiority complex that convinced many lifelong fishermen that they were gifted investment bankers.)

Cultural Diversity

• Among the lingering sex-based customs in Saudi Arabia is the restriction on women's working outside the home, which forces lingerie shops to be staffed only with males, who must awkwardly make recommendations on women's bra styles and sizes. The campaign for change, led by a Jeddah college lecturer, has enlisted even some clerks, who are just as embarrassed about the confrontation as the customers, according to a February BBC News dispatch.

• Only in Japan/Only in Sweden: (1) Sega Toys Co. reported in January that, in just three months, it had sold 50,000 units of the Pekoppa, a "plant" consisting of leaves and branches that flutter when "spoken to," the success of which the company attributes to the epic loneliness of many Japanese. (2) Advocates for children complained in April that Sweden's national library, acting on a standing order to archive copies of all domestic publications, has been gathering books and magazines of child pornography from the years 1971-1980, when it was legal, and, as libraries do, lending them out.

• The Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace commenced campaigns in February critical of the peculiar preference of Americans for ultra-soft or quilted toilet paper. In less-picky Europe and Latin America, 40 percent of toilet paper is produced by recycling, but Americans' demand for multi-ply tissue requires virgin wood for 98 percent of the product. The activists claim that U.S. toilet paper imposes more costs on the planet than do gas-guzzling cars.

Latest Religious Messages

• Buddhist monks continue to add to their 20-structure compound near the Cambodian border using empty beer bottles, according to a February feature in London's Daily Telegraph. Their building program, begun in 1984, already uses 1.5 million bottles, mostly green Heinekens and brown, locally brewed Chang, both of which are praised for letting in light and permitting easy cleaning.

• A group of an estimated 10,000 believers is attempting to reverse American Christianity's declining birthrate by shunning all contraception, in obedience to Psalm 127, which likens the advantage of big families to having a "quiver" full of "arrows" (and which calls itself the QuiverFull movement). "God opens and closes the womb," explained one advocate, to National Public Radio in March, noting that in her own church in Shelby, Mich., the mothers average 8.5 children. "The womb is such a powerful weapon ... against the enemy," she said. "The more children I have, the more ability I have to impact the world for God."

Questionable Judgments

• Australian Marcus Einfeld (a lawyer, former federal judge and prominent Jewish community leader) was once decorated as a national "living treasure," but he suffered a total downfall in 2006 by choosing to fight a (Aus.)$77 speeding ticket. By March 2009, he had been sentenced to two years in prison for perjury and obstructing justice because he had created four detailed schemes to "prove" that he was not driving that day. His original defense (that he had loaned the car to a friend who had since conveniently passed away) was accepted by the judge, but dogged reporting by Sydney's Daily Telegraph revealed that lie, plus subsequent elaborate lies to cover each successive explanation. Encouraged by those revelations, the press later uncovered Einfeld's bogus college degrees and awards and an incident of double-billing the government.

• A high school student in Oakton, Va., was suspended for two weeks in March when she inadvertently brought to school her birth-control pill (her prescription was approved by her mother). It was only then that the girl discovered that, in comparison, county rules required only one week's suspension for bringing heroin to school. Officials told the Washington Post that birth-control pills are particularly objectionable because they countermand the school system's "abstinence-only" sex education classes.

• Bad Decisions: (1) Chrysler Corp. may be on its last legs as a stand-alone company, but that did not stop its representatives from disrupting a funeral proceeding in Cranbury, N.J., in March to subpoena the corpse (which the company said is relevant to a pending lawsuit over mesothelioma). (2) Joseph Milano, owner of Goomba's Pizza in Palm Coast, Fla., was in the federal witness protection program for squealing on Bonanno crime family members in New York but lost his anonymity in January when he was arrested for allegedly pistol-whipping a customer who had dared to criticize his calzone.

Feral Americans

(1) Sheila Bolar, 49, was arrested after biting a transit driver because she wanted to ride only a "hybrid" bus (New York City, January). (2) Aleyda Uceta, 30, was arrested for biting her son's principal during a parent-principal conference (Providence, R.I., March). (3) Curtis Cross was arrested for allegedly biting off another motorist's ear in a road rage incident (New Castle, Ind., April). (4) Lyndel Toppin, 50, bit down on his fiancee's arm, resulting in nerve damage, because she had arranged the cheese incorrectly on his meatball sandwich (Philadelphia, April). (5) Blaine Milam, 19, and Jessica Carson, 18, were arrested for performing an exorcism on their baby daughter that resulted in 20 bite marks (Rusk County, Texas, December).

Least Competent People

During an April Texas House committee hearing (according to a Houston Chronicle report), state Rep. Betty Brown suggested a solution to the voter-registration confusion caused by Chinese-Americans' Anglicizing their names (which yields nonstandard spellings): "Do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens," she asked a Chinese-American activist, "to adopt (names) that we (lawmakers) could deal with more readily here?"