The Weird Week in Review

The Story of the Three Bears

A woman in Snowmass Village, Colorado, spotted three bear cubs in her car last Saturday. There was also a mother bear, but she fled quickly. Police were called to clear the younger bears from the vehicle. A local wildlife department spokesman says the mother bear is a repeat offender, and is suspected of breaking into 14 cars over the past week. Most were unlocked, and the bear just opened the door to enter after smelling food inside. Two cars have sustained damage. Residents were warned to remove all traces of food from their cars, and to lock them when not in use.

Sonic Booms Shatter Supreme Court Windows

The Praça dos Três Poderes (Three Powers Plaza) in Brasilia, Brazil, is the nation's governmental seat, and the home of the world's largest continuously-flown national flag. The flag is replaced every month with ceremony. Last Sunday, that ceremony included a flyover by two Mirage 2000 fighter jets. Rarely do supersonic planes fly low enough to be seen in such a way. What could possibly go wrong?

Although nobody was injured the fighter flew so low and fast that the shock wave they generated broke almost all the windows of Supreme Court glass facade.

In a statement, Brig Ar Kanitz Marcelo Damasceno, chief of the Center for Social Communication of the Força Aérea Brasileira (FAB), said that the Brazilian Air Force Command has initiated the investigation of the incident and will compensate the damage caused.

See a video of the flyover at The Aviationist.

30 Squirrels Escape from Zoo, 38 Recaptured

A typhoon wrecked the squirrel enclosure of the Inokashira Park Zoo in Tokyo last week, resulting in the escape of 30 squirrels. Attempts to recover the animals have been quite successful; at one count, 38 squirrels have been "recaptured." Zoo officials have offered three different explanations for the discrepancy: 1. they miscounted how many squirrels had escaped, 2. the squirrels reproduced while on the loose, and 3. some wild squirrels may have been picked up by mistake. The zoo implants microchips in their animals, so all recovered squirrels will eventually be scanned.

University Sues Overachieving Student for Lost Income

Marcel Pohl was a student at the School of Economics and Management in Essen, Germany. But not for long -he passed 60 examinations and graduated in three semesters, when the normal course is 11 semesters. You'd think the school would be proud, but they are suing Pohl for €3,000, which is the tuition payments he would have made if he stayed as long as other students! The school says they are entitled to the full payment, which is for the degree, not the time spent achieving it.

Taco Bell to the Rescue

Bethel, Alaska, is a town of 6,200 people 400 miles from Anchorage, with no fast food outlets. Last month, notices appeared around town announcing that Taco Bell would open in Bethel. After much excitement, the news turned out to be a juvenile prank. But Taco Bell heard about it, and launched “Operation Alaska.” The company airlifted enough supplies to make 10,000 Doritos Locos tacos for the townspeople on Sunday. They actually flew in a Taco Bell truck with a mobile kitchen by helicopter. The event was a public relations success for Taco Bell, and a welcome change of menu for Bethel.

Cat Death Ruled Insurance Fraud

Yevgeniy Samsonov of Tacoma. Washington, received an insurance settlement for injuries sustained in a 2009 traffic accident. Then in 2011, he claimed his cat had been killed in the accident and filed a $20,000 insurance claim.

Samsonov submitted photos of a cat, but an insurance representative found that the pictures had come from the Internet. On Thursday, The Associated Press found that one of the photos was the top image on Google for the search "white cat" and that the image is featured on the Wikipedia page dedicated to cats.

"We've handled some pretty unusual fraud cases, but this is one of the stranger ones," said Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler.

The insurance company, which had already issued a $50 check for the cat, canceled the check and reported Samsonov to investigators.

Follow the Trail of Chips

Police responded to a report of a break-in at a Subway sandwich shop in Washington, Pennsylvania. The glass door was broken, and there was evidence that a thief tried to open the cash register but was unsuccessful. However, quite a few bags of chips had been taken. Police could see that the thief did not wait to start eating them. There was a trail of broken chips and discarded bags, which led police to 21-year-old Benjamin Sickles. Sickles, who was found with a bloody hand and foot, was arrested and lodged in the Washington County Prison.

Fictional Place Names Are Popping Up On Road Signs in Didcot, England

Driving along the highway in Didcot, England, you may notice something strange: the road signs point the way to places like Neverland and Middle-earth.

The names of these and other fictional locales from literature were seamlessly added to road signs by an artist/prankster using Transport Medium, the official font of British road signs.

After some sleuthing, BBC News found the man responsible, who spoke to the outlet on the condition of anonymity. He told the BBC that he's been orchestrating "creative interventions" all over England for about 20 years under different pseudonyms, and that this project was a reaction to Didcot being labeled "the most normal town in England" in 2017, which rubbed him the wrong way. "To me there's nowhere that's normal, there's no such thing, but I thought I'd have a go at changing people's perceptions of Didcot," he said of the town, which he describes as a "fun" and "funky" place.

Oxfordshire County Council isn't laughing; it told the BBC that although the signs were "on the surface amusing," they were "vandalism" and potentially dangerous, since it would be hard for a driver who spotted one not to do a double take while their eyes were supposed to be on the road. Even so, thanks to routine council matters, the signs are safe—at least for now—as the Council says that it is prioritizing fixing potholes at the moment.

Jackie Billington, Didcot's mayor, recognizes that the signs have an upside. "If you speak to the majority of people in Didcot they're of the same opinion: it's put Didcot on the map again," he told BBC News. "Hopefully they'll be up for a couple of weeks."

There are five altered signs in total. If you fancy a visit to the Emerald City, you're pointed toward Sutton Courtenay. Narnia neighbors a power station. And Gotham City is on the same route as Oxford and Newbury (and not, apparently, in New Jersey, as DC Comics would have you believe). If you want to go see the signs for yourself before they disappear, you'll find them along the A4130 to Wallingford.

See the signs here and in the video below.

[h/t BBC News]

Mental Floss
How Jeremy Bentham Finally Came to America, Nearly 200 Years After His Death
Mental Floss
Mental Floss

One day toward the beginning of March, an unusual object arrived at a New York City airport. Carefully encased in a foam-padded, specially built wooden chair and strapped in with a bright-blue sash, it was the stuffed skeleton of one of Britain's most famous philosophers—transported not for burial, but for exhibition.

"We all refer to him as he, but the curator has corrected me. I need to keep referring to it," says University College London conservator Emilia Kingham, who prepared the item for its transatlantic voyage.

The stuffed skeleton belongs to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832. But for well over a century, his "auto-icon"—an assemblage including his articulated skeleton surrounded by padding and topped with a wax head—has been on display in the south cloisters of University College London. Starting March 21, it will be featured in The Met Breuer exhibition "Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)," marking its first appearance in America.

While the auto-icon has sometimes been seen as an absurd vanity project or memento mori, according to Tim Causer, it's best understood as a product of Bentham's trailblazing work. "I would tend to ask people to reckon with the auto-icon not as macabre curio or the weird final wish of a strange old man," says the senior research associate at UCL's Bentham Project, which is charged with producing a new edition of the philosopher's collected works. Instead, "[we should] accept it in the manner in which Bentham intended it, as a sort of physical manifestation of his philosophy and generosity of spirit."


Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite
Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite

Bentham is best known as the founder of utilitarianism, a philosophy that evaluates actions and institutions based on their consequences—particularly whether those consequences cause happiness. A man frequently ahead of his time, he believed in a world based on rational analysis, not custom or religion, and advocated for legal and penal reform, freedom of speech, animal rights, and the decriminalization of homosexuality.

His then-unconventional ideas extended to his own body. At the time Bentham died, death was largely the province of the Church of England, which Bentham thought was "irredeemably corrupt," according to Causer. Instead of paying burial fees to the Church and letting his body rot underground, Bentham wanted to put his corpse to public use.

In this he was influenced by his friend and protégé Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, who had published an article called "Use of the dead to the living" in 1824. Smith argued that medical knowledge suffered from the limited number of bodies then available for dissection—the Crown supplied only a handful of hanged criminals each year—and that the pool of available corpses had to be expanded to allow surgeons more practice material, lest they begin "practicing" on the living.

From his earliest will, Bentham left his body to science. (Some scholars think he may have been the first person to do so.) But he also went one step further. His last essay, written shortly before his death, was entitled "Auto-icon; or, farther uses of the dead to the living." In it, Bentham lambasts "our dead relations" as a source of both disease and debt. He had a better idea: Just as "instruction has been given to make 'every man his own broker,' or 'every man his own lawyer': so now may every man be his own statue."

Bentham envisioned a future in which weatherproofed auto-icons would be interspersed with trees on ancestral estates, employed as "actors" in historical theatre and debates, or simply kept as decoration. The point, he felt, was to treat the body in terms of its utility, rather than being bound by superstition or fear.

"It was a very courageous thing to do in the 1830s, to ask yourself to be dissected and reassembled," Causer says. "The auto-icon is his final attack on organized religion, specifically the Church of England. Because Bentham thought the church had a pernicious influence on society."

Sketch of Jeremy Bentham's corpse laid out for dissection
"The Mortal Remains" of Jeremy Bentham laid out for dissection, by H. H. Pickersgill

There was only one man Bentham trusted with carrying out his last wishes: Smith. After a public dissection attended by eminent scientific men, the devoted doctor cleaned Bentham's bones and articulated the skeleton with copper wiring, surrounding them with straw, cotton wool, fragrant herbs, and other materials. He encased the whole thing in one of Bentham's black suits, with the ruffles of a white shirt peeking out at the breast. He even propped Bentham's favorite walking stick, which the philosopher had nicknamed "Dapple," in between his legs, and sat him on one of his usual chairs—all just as Bentham had asked for.

But not everything went quite according to plan. The philosopher had asked to have his head preserved in the "style of the New Zealanders," which Smith attempted by placing the head over some sulfuric acid and under an air pump. The result was ghastly: desiccated, dark, and leathery, even as the glass eyes Bentham had picked out for it during life gleamed from the brow.

Seeing as how the results "would not do for exhibition," as Smith wrote to a friend, the doctor hired a noted French artist, Jacques Talrich, to sculpt a head out of wax based on busts and paintings made of Bentham while alive. Smith called his efforts "one of the most admirable likenesses ever seen"—a far more suitable topper for the auto-icon than the real, shriveled head, which was reportedly stuffed into the chest cavity and not rediscovered until World War II.

The preserved real head of Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham's preserved real head
Matt Brown, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Smith kept the auto-icon at his consulting rooms until 1850, when he donated it to University College London, where Bentham is often seen as a spiritual forefather. It has been there ever since, inside a special mahogany case, despite rumors that students from Kings College—UCL's bitter rival—once stole the head and used it as a football.

"His head has never been stolen by another university," Kingham confirms. Causer says there is reason to believe the wax head was stolen by King's College in the 1990s, but never the real head. The football part of the story is particularly easy to dismiss, he notes: "We all have human heads, and kicking them doesn't do them much good, particularly 180-year-old human heads. If anybody kicked that, it would disintegrate on impact, I think." (Kingham also notes that the real head is not decomposing, as is sometimes claimed: "It's actually quite stable, it just doesn't look like a real-life person anymore. The skin is all shrunken.")

Another beloved myth has it that the auto-icon regularly attends UCL council meetings, where he's entered into the record as "present but not voting." Causer says that's not true either, although fiction became reality after the auto-icon graced the council meetings marking the 100th and 150th anniversary of the college's founding as a nod to the legend; it also attended the final council meeting of the school's retiring provost, Malcolm Grant.


Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
Thomas Southwood Smith and Jacques Talrich, Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham. UCL Culture, London

Bentham always wanted to visit America; Causer says he was "a big admirer of the American political system" as the one most likely to promote the greatest happiness for its citizens. But before he could accomplish in death what he failed to do in life, UCL had to mount a careful conservation operation.

The first step: a spring cleaning. The conservation team at UCL removed each item of clothing on the auto-icon piece by piece, holding carefully to the delicate areas, like a loose left shoulder and wrist, where they knew from previous x-rays that the wiring was imperfect. After a detailed condition report and an inspection for pest damage (thankfully absent), the team surface-cleaned everything.

"The clothes were quite grubby because the box that he's sitting in, it's actually not very airtight," Kingham says. A vacuum with a brush attachment took care of surface dirt and dust, but the inner items required a more thorough clean. "We determined that his linen shirt and also his underwear could do with the wash, so we actually washed those in water. It was quite exciting saying I've been able to wash Jeremy Bentham's undies." The wax head was cleaned with water and cotton swabs, and occasionally a little spit, which Kingham says is a common cleaning technique for painted surfaces.


Kingham's team rearranged the stuffing around the skeleton, plumping the fibers as you would a pillow. The stuffing around the arms, in particular, had started to sag, so Kingham used a piece of stockinette fabric to bind the area around the biceps—making them look more like arms, she says, but also reducing some of the strain against the jacket, which threatened the stitching.

But the most labor-intensive part of the preparation, according to Kingham, was devising a customized padded chair for the auto-icon's transport. Their final creation included a wooden boarded seat covered in soft foam that had been sculpted to hold the auto-icon lying on its back, knees bent at a 90-degree angle to minimize stress on the pelvis—another weak point. The auto-icon was bound to the chair with soft bandages, and the whole thing inserted into a travel case. The wax head was also set inside a foam pad within a special handling crate (the real head will stay at UCL, where it is currently on display), while Bentham's regular chair, hat, and walking stick got their own crates.

"We had originally joked that it might be just easier to buy him a seat on the plane and just wheel him in on a wheelchair," Kingham says, laughing.

The special chair constructed for transporting Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
UCL Culture

Luke Syson, the co-curator of "Like Life," says it was touching to watch the stick and hat emerge from their travel boxes, even if the auto-icon's special chair did look a bit "like how you would transport a lunatic around 1910—or indeed 1830."

Reached by phone just after he had finished installing the auto-icon, Syson says he wanted to include the item as part of the show's emphasis on works of art made to persuade the viewer that life is present. "This piece really sums up so many of the themes that the rest of the show looks at, so the use of wax, for example, as a substitute for flesh, the employment of real clothes … And then, above all of course, the use of body parts." And the auto-icon isn't the only item in the show to include human remains—when we spoke to Syson, he was looking at the auto-icon, Marc Quinn's "Self" (a self-portrait in frozen blood), and a medieval reliquary head made for a fragment of Saint Juliana's skull, all of which are installed in the same corner of the museum.

Syson says he was initially worried the auto-icon might not "read" as a piece of art—worries that were dispelled as soon as he installed the wax head. "The modeling of the face is so fine," he says. "The observation and expression, the sense of changing personality … there's a lovely jowliness underneath his chin, the wrinkles around his eyes are really speaking, and the kind of quizzical eyebrows, and so on, all make him really amazingly present."

And unlike at UCL, where the auto-icon sits in a case, viewers at the Met are able to see him on three sides, including his back. "He sort of springs to attention on his chair, he's not sort of slumped, which you couldn't see in the box [at UCL]."

Those who have worked with Bentham's auto-icon say it encourages a kind of intimacy. Taking the auto-icon apart, Kingham says, "you really do feel a closeness to Jeremy Bentham, because you looked in such detail at his clothes, and his bones, and his skeleton." The wax head, she says, is particularly lifelike. "People who knew him have said that it's a very, very good realistic likeness of him," she notes, which made it both eerie and special to handle so closely.

"This is both the representation and the person," Syson says. "We've been calling him 'Jeremy' these last few months, and he's sort of here, and it's not just that something's here, he's here. So that's an amazing thing."

Nearly 200 years later and across an ocean, Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon has arrived to serve another public good: delighting a whole new set of fans.


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