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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Biological Weapons To Control Cane Toad Invasion In Australia


New research on cane toads in Northern Australia has discovered a way to control the cane toad invasion using parasites and toad communication signals. (Credit: iStockphoto/Eric Delmar)

New research on cane toads in Northern Australia has discovered a way to control the cane toad invasion using parasites and toad communication signals.

Professor Rick Shine from the University of Sydney has been studying the biology of cane toads, and will reveal his new research May 7 at the Academy of Science's peak annual event Science at the Shine Dome.

He says that controlling toads has been difficult as things that kill them will often kill frogs. Professor Shine and his team studied cane toads in Queensland that lagged behind the invasion front and found they were infected with a lungworm parasite which slows down adults and, in laboratory tests, kills around 30% of baby toads.

It was originally thought cane toads left their parasites behind when they came to Australia and that the lungworm parasite came from Australian frogs. This ruled out using the parasite for toad control due to potential frog impacts. However, DNA sequencing by Professor Shine's team has shown the parasite species came from the Amazon and is genetically different to those found in Australian frogs.

'The toads have brought with them a parasite that kills them and that doesn't attack Australian frogs, so this is a phenomenal opportunity for biological control' he said.

Professor Shine's team have also discovered pheromones used to communicate danger between toad tadpoles that have significant impacts on their size and survival. The 'alarm pheromones' are released into a pond when a tadpole is frightened or injured and warns other toad tadpoles to flee the area.

The signal stresses the toad tadpoles so much that in field trials around half of them died before they became adult toads, and those that become adults were half the size they should've been. The pheromones were also found to be different to those of Australian frogs and didn't affect them.

Using the lungworm parasite and the alarm pheromone together would be particularly powerful as the pheromone either kills or produces smaller 'toadlets', and the parasite is more effective at killing these smaller sized toads.

'...the combination of those two things start to suggest, I think, a pretty straightforward, pretty low risk, but probably pretty effective way to start controlling toads.'

Attractant pheromones have also been found by his team which can be used to lure toad tadpoles for catching and removal.

Professor Shine hopes to involve community groups in the use of these new control methods. He says that although there has been a huge effort to slow the toad front by communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the toad front is progressing as fast as ever.

'We've got the toads moving across Australia faster and faster. They're widely seen as a major problem. In community surveys they're identified by many people as the worst invasive species we have.'

Previous methods for controlling cane toad numbers have included traps and fences but have mainly involved physically removing them from the environment, often by putting them in a plastic bag in the freezer.

'People have spent certainly well over $15 million on cane toads in Australia on research and control. Very little of that has actually been devoted to try to understand what toads are doing. Now that we've done that, it does seem that there are really encouraging avenues.

'By doing the detailed ecology and actually finding out about communication systems and where the parasite came from and things like this, we've got new ways to attack toads that haven't been thought of before'.

He says the main impact of the toad invasion has been on large predators such as goannas, quolls, king brown snakes and death adders. 'We've had, for example, probably 90% mortality of the big goannas and the big lizards in our study site. Its dramatic, and that has all sorts of flow on effects. You take out 90% of the big predators and that really changes the system.'

Professor Shine will present his work as winner of the Academy's Macfarlane Burnet Medal and Lecture at 9:30am Wednesday 9 May. Of the win he says: 'Its fantastic. Its one of these accolades from your peers that come along very rarely in any career and I'm just as excited as hell to be have been the fortunate recipient.'

Science at the Shine Dome is the Academy's annual celebration of science and runs from 7–9 May 2008 at the Shine Dome in Canberra.

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Pictured: Jenny, the world's oldest gorilla, celebrates her 55th birthday

The world's oldest gorilla celebrated her 55th birthday today with a four-layer frozen fruit cake and banana leaf-wrapped treats.

Jenny's caretakers at the Dallas Zoo say she's having a few joint issues and her eyesight isn't what it used to be but she still looks good for an old ape.

"It's a special milestone for us," said Todd Bowsher, curator of the zoo's Wilds of Africa exhibit. "It signifies that we've made great strides in veterinary care, nutrition and animal husbandry."

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Tea-time: Jenny has a reputation for being bossy with her keepers at Dallas zoo

The International Species Information System, which maintains records on animals at 700 institutions around the world, said Jenny is the oldest gorilla in its database.

"I think it's amazing," said Kristen Lukas, curator of conservation and science at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Ohio and the gorilla species survival plan coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "I think it's a testament to the good care that she's received at the Dallas Zoo and also the resilience of gorillas in general."

Lukas said gorillas in the wild normally would live to age 30 or 35. Health care and protection from predators has extended the lifespan in zoos.

Jenny gave birth in 1965 to a female named Vicki, who was sent to Alberta, Canada, at age 5. Zoo officials aren't sure why Jenny hasn't conceived again.

Jenny's keepers describe her as very sweet though a little bossy.

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Tasty treat: Jenny the gorilla carts off her birthday cake this morning as she turned 55

"If she doesn't want to go out on a certain day, she doesn't," Bowsher said. "But she really likes people."

There were plenty of them at the Jake L. Hamon Gorilla Conservation Research Center Thursday, chowing down on giant sheets of chocolate and vanilla birthday cake as they peered at Jenny through the glass.

Born in the wild of western central Africa in 1953, the exact date of her birth is unknown but the zoo marks it on May 8. Jenny lived with a family on the Cape Verde islands before the Dallas Zoo acquired her in 1957.

"I remember the day she arrived," said Nancy Hamon, 89, of Dallas, whose family bought the gorilla for the zoo and continues to be among its strongest supporters.

Jenny, a 213-pound (97-kilogram) Western lowland gorilla, is one of four gorillas at the zoo.

"It's a good time for the zoo," said Sean Greene, director of Community Relations for the Dallas Zoological Society.

He said the upbeat birthday party was a welcome contrast to the tragedy that occurred in 2004 when another gorilla, 13-year-old Jabari, broke out of his enclosure. He went on a 40-minute rampage in which he snatched up a toddler with his teeth and attacked three other people before officers shot him.

So to what does Jenny attribute her longevity? She's not saying. But her vegetarian diet couldn't hurt: seeds, cereal and one of her favorites, banana peels.

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Driver kills dog, then sues owners for damage

DULUTH, Minn. - The driver of a 1997 Honda Civic that struck and killed a dog near Cloquet is suing the dog's owners for damage done to his vehicle.

Jeffery Ely was driving on the night of Jan. 4 when Fester, a miniature pinscher, squeezed past owner Nikki Munthe as she was letting in her other dog and ran out onto the road. Ely's car struck Fester, killing the 13-pound dog instantly.

Now Ely is suing the Munthes for about $1,100 for damage to his car, time he had to take off from his two jobs to get the car repaired, and court fees.

Pieces of the bumper were propelled into the radiator when it hit the dog, Ely said, necessitating a replacement. Ely maintains he didn't have problems driving until after the accident and that the radiator issues were not pre-existing.

Ely said he feels sorry for the Munthes' loss but, as a dog owner himself, feels that they must be responsible for their pets' actions.

"I have complete compassion for them," Ely said. "I know how it feels. I love dogs. But once you get them, they are your responsibility."

Munthe said she has always been worried about the busy road the family lives on.

"We would have never let him off-leash because we're so terrified of this road," she said.

The case will be heard in St. Louis County Court on Friday.

The Munthes have filed a $2,400 countersuit against Ely for the cost to buy Fester, the time they had to take off work for court appearances, and the cost of buying a dog to replace Fester.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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The woman who can remember everything

A woman who has baffled doctors with her ability to remember every detail of every day has broken her anonymity to speak of her condition.

ill Price, 42, can remember every part of her life since she was 14 but considers her ability a curse as she cannot switch off.

She described her life as like a split-screen television, with one side showing what she is doing in the present, and the other showing the memories which she cannot hold back.

Every detail about every day since 1980 - what time she got up, who she met, what she did, even what she ate - is locked in her brain and can be released to come flooding back by common triggers like songs, smells or place names.

Mrs Price, a widow who is a school administrator, sometimes struggles to sleep because the vivid memories crowd her mind and stop her relaxing.

Her condition is so rare that scientists had to coin a term for her condition - hyperthymestic syndrome from the Greek thymesis, for remembering, and hyper, meaning well above normal.

For years she remained anonymous, referred to only by initials in scientific journals while experts at the University of California-Irvine tested her ability.

Mrs Price said her memory started working overtime after her family moved to Los Angeles when she was eight and from the time she was 14, in 1980, she can remember absolutely everything.

Neuroscientists say a trauma such as moving the family home can trigger major, lingering changes in the brain, especially in children who cling to memories of how their life had been. Mrs Price said: "Some memories are good and give me a warm, safe feeling.

"But I also recall every bad decision, insult and excruciating embarrassment. Over the years it has eaten me up. It has kind of paralysed me."

Mrs Price was so worried by her condition that in 2000 she asked neuroscientist Professor James McGaugh, a world expert on memory, what was wrong. She wrote to him: "My memory is too strong. It's like a running movie that never stops.

"Most have called it a gift. But I call it a burden. I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!"

Professor McGaugh spoke to her and was astonished.

He said: "You could give her a date picked at random from years ago and within seconds she'd tell you what day of the week it was, and not only what she did but other key events of the day."

From the age of 10 until she was 34, Mrs Price kept a daily diary, which allowed scientists to check events as she remembered them now against what she wrote down at the time.

Mrs Price, who has written a book called The Woman Who Can't Forget, blames her vivid memories for many years of depression.

Professor McGaugh has since discovered five other adults with similar powers and 50 more "possibles".

He said MRI scans indicated their brains were a slightly different shape to normal.

Two other patterns have emerged. Mrs Price and three of the other five are left-handed and they all compulsively collect things like TV guides, old films and theatre programmes.

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Coble Family Triplets Born Wednesday Night

LADERA RANCH, Calif. (CBS) ― Lori and Chris Coble of Ladera Ranch, who lost three children in a freeway accident almost one year ago, announced the birth of triplets Wednesday night.

The babies -- two girls and a boy -- are listed in good condition at Children's Hospital at Mission. They were born each one minute apart.

The Cobles have named their new children Ashley, Ellie and Jake. Michele Gile, reporting for CBS2 and KCAL 9, says mom and babies are all doing well.

Lori Coble is listed in good condition after undergoing a C-section according to Denise Almazon, spokeswoman for Children's Hospital of Orange County.

Lori Coble gave birth to the new triplets during her 32nd week of pregnancy. Gile reports the kids are "a good size" and "in good health." The kids are about 4 lbs each.

On May 4, 2007 Kyle, 5, Emma, 4, and Katie, 2, Coble died after their family's car was struck by a big-rig on the I-5 in Mission Viejo.

Lori Coble, 30, and her mother, Cynthia Maestri, 60, were injured.

Following the tragedy the community of Ladera Ranch came out to support the Cobles, holding fundraisers and wrapping more than 100,000 pink and blue ribbons around trees and light poles throughout south Orange County.

(© MMVIII, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

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Teacher Jobless After Stern Appearance

A Southington teacher who appeared on the Howard Stern Show no longer has a job at Thalberg Elementary School.Second-grade teacher Marie Jarry took part in an Ugliest Guy and Hottest Wife contest on Stern's show. She and her husband won $5,000."I can't believe she would go on TV and do that when she is a second-grade teacher," said parent Dean LaPoint. "It just doesn't make sense."The school replaced Jarry after pictures of her in a bikini appeared on HowardStern.com.
The Jarrys competed against two other couples and during the contest, Marie made sexual comments about her husband."They work hard during the school day and what they do on their own time is their business, but because of the nature of the Howard Stern show, the board was concerned," said Liz Francis, parent of a Thalberg Elementary School student.Eyewitness News reporter Erika Arias talked to one parent who said that Jarry was told to resign.The Southington School wouldn't say whether Jarry was forced out.Jarry did not return calls seeking comment. E-mail news tips to Eyewitness News, or dial: 866-289-0333.

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The wedding planner who doesn't believe in marriage (and with two divorces behind her, is it any wonder?)

Melanie Yexley is the woman everyone wants at their wedding. Even when the professional wedding planner is attending off-duty as a guest, she usually ends up saving the day — dashing in with a pin as the bride's button pops off or salvaging a cake dropped by caterers.

At one friend's celebration, she decorated the dining room when waiters overlooked it. And to all those who employ her to organise their celebrations, Mel is invaluable: enthusiastic, inspiring and committed to perfecting their plans — six brides were so besotted with her they even asked her to be their bridesmaid.

But behind Melanie's lifelong love of weddings, she harbours a surprising view kept quiet from her hopeful clients. After being betrayed by both her husbands, Melanie is a wedding planner who doesn't believe in marriage.

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Wedding planner: Michelle Yexley loves her job but will never marry again

"I always cry when I watch the ceremony," says Melanie, 30. "It makes me sad seeing the couple so full of hope and joy as I remember being that happy at my own weddings — and know what pain ensued.

"Hearing the vows is heartbreaking because I've made them myself, twice, and each time I was the only partner who stuck to them."

Yet, Melanie still chooses to dedicate her life to helping couples get married. Organising weddings is far more than a job — it's her passion.

She frequently stays up till 3am creating invites and designing dresses, and works tirelessly to satisfy every aspiration of the bride-to-be — from a three-tier marquee with Vegas showgirls to having 100 yellow butterflies released.

For as long as she can remember, Melanie has been obsessed with being a bride. From the age of seven, she regularly wore her mother's net curtains over her head and walked up and down stairs so her white dress trailed in a train.

At 15, she organised a pretend wedding, with her boyfriend as groom and friends playing bridesmaid and vicar.

"As a child, my favourite stories were Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty — I would swoon at the thought of being rescued by Prince Charming," Mel says. "I was constantly thinking and talking about weddings, completely in love with the fairytale."

So it's not surprising that Melanie married, aged just 18. She met her first husband at 16, soon after moving back to Britain from San Fernando Valley, California, with her parents, who had emigrated when she was a toddler.

Settling into Thornbury, Bristol, she was introduced to Richard — at 21, five years her senior — through a school friend.

"As ridiculous as it sounds, having been brought up in America, I found his Liverpudlian accent really sexy," laughs Mel.

Richard swiftly became her first serious boyfriend — and she immediately started thinking about marriage. Twelve months later, she proposed. "I have no patience and wanted my fairytale," admits Melanie. "It wasn't romantic, I just said: 'Should we get married?'

"He agreed and we bought a gold emerald ring. I paid the £300 myself but Richard promised to repay me."

In fact, Richard, a telemarketing executive, was using her cashcard, which naively she'd told him the pin number of.

"When I confronted him, he swore he'd simply borrowed some money. I had doubts about him but ignored them, convinced he would change once we were married."

And in any case, Melanie was preoccupied planning her big day — the traditional white church wedding she'd spent her life imagining.

Though because Richard had siphoned her savings, Melanie had to buy a second-hand dress and couldn't afford a honeymoon.

"Despite the dress, I loved being a bride," says Mel. "It was a beautiful sunny day in our quaint village and I truly meant it when I vowed to be with him forever."

Looking back now, Melanie is horrified she married so early.

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Two weddings: Michelle, left, with her second husband John and first time round, right, marrying Richard

"Friends told me I was too young but I kept thinking: 'Nobody understands how grown-up I am'. My dad disapproved but mum believes you should learn from your own mistakes so said very little."

Mel likens her family to that in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding — her claim to own every wedding film ever produced is proven by her habit of referencing her life through them.

Watching the recent romantic comedy about a bridesmaid, 27 Dresses, was "like watching herself" (she's been bridesmaid 13 times).

Friends call her "the J-Lo of Bristol" — after Jennifer Lopez's character in The Wedding Planner — a film which highlights how in the U.S. hiring a wedding planner is as natural as buying an engagement ring. Yet, in Britain, they were until recently almost unheard of — a situation which inspired Melanie's career.

"When I couldn't find a planner, I spotted a gap in the market," explains Mel. "Soon after my own marriage several friends got engaged and asked me for advice. Helping them developed my confidence, and when friends-of-friends wanted assistance I started turning it into a business."

Meanwhile, Melanie was discovering the reality of being Richard's wife, her first experience of cohabiting coming only after their wedding.

"My family is very traditional and brought me up believing you stay at home till you're married," says Mel.

"But moving in with Richard was a nightmare — he was untidy, lazy and boring. I'd known him only to go out and have fun with, so I never appreciated how dull he was. Plus, he was borrowing thousands of pounds. But I'd made my bed so I had to lie in it."

The pair plodded on unhappily until one evening two years after their wedding, when a girl telephoned the house asking for Richard, explaining he was meant to meet her and hadn't showed up. The girl had no idea Melanie existed.

"I twigged he was having an affair but I wasn't annoyed — I was actually thrilled because it provided grounds for separation," says Mel. "When he returned home, I said I wanted a divorce. It wasn't dramatic — neither of us seemed bothered or upset."

They gave notice on their rented house and moved into separate rooms in a two-bedroom flat. Melanie was 21 when her divorce came through.

"I was overwhelmed with relief, although admitting and accepting failure was tough. Asking for a divorce was the hardest thing I've ever done — but the best."

She now recognises she had indulged a widespread misconception — that men will change once they're married.

It's a mistake Melanie witnesses many brides make. "Women think their fiance will stop going out once they're married, or become more affectionate. But, if anything, husbands are less sweet than boyfriends.

"The first year of marriage is difficult because people expect a transformation and nothing alters."

She sees lots of couples split up soon after marrying — but says those who last a year tend to stay together.

"Sometimes it's possible to predict a marriage's success. Alarm bells ring when I'm planning weddings and rarely see the groom because he's with his mates or playing football and doesn't want any input — I can't help feeling nervous for the bride.

"But I always bite my tongue and hope it will work out for every couple."

Her own marriage may have failed but Melanie's wedding business was booming, still as a sideline to her IT day job. Keenly creative, Mel began making dresses, tiaras and invitations — handicraft which started as a moneysaver when one client needed a cheap, convenient marriage after falling pregnant unexpectedly.

"With just £2,000 to spend, everyone pitched in — I made the dress, their neighbour baked the cake and the bride's mum arranged the flowers. The ceremony was held late afternoon so guests needed feeding only once, and they were served hog roast instead of a sit-down dinner. Yet it was a lovely occasion and the couple were delighted.

"Often, I'm employed to make it look like people splashed out or to spend cash wisely."

Divorce hadn't quelled Mel's desire for her own fairytale either. Months after separating from Richard, she started seeing her long-standing friend John, then 25, and moved into his house.

"Our relationship was perfect — passionate, fun and loving," says Mel — so she proposed six months later. "This time, I turned tradition on its head by phoning his mum beforehand and asking for her son's hand in marriage. Then, sitting in the Roman Baths in Bath one weekend, I turned to him with a silver ring and asked: 'Will you marry me?' He said yes immediately."

So Mel started enthusiastically arranging her second wedding, determined that this one would be perfect. "We had a big budget and I knew what to do and what not to do — how to achieve the wow factor without overkill," says Mel.

"Often, couples try too many grand ideas and guests get frustrated."

The couple married on their second anniversary in front of 200 guests at a beautiful manor house in Bristol, at a cost of £17,000.

"The day was amazing — I joked that my first wedding was a rehearsal for the real thing," she says. "It was completely magical and what I'd always dreamed of. People still say they've never been to such a good wedding."

The couple returned home elated from honeymoon in Andorra. "Married life was bliss," raves Mel. "John was an amazing man, very romantic and sweet. I used to tell everyone they should have a husband like mine."

It was John's support and encouragement that in 2003 persuaded Melanie to become a full-time wedding planner. Using severance pay from her voluntary redundancy she set up an office and company, charging 10 per cent of the overall wedding cost and advertised her services in bridal magazines.

As impressed guests recommended her, the business grew and was even featured in Vogue.

In total, Mel has helped organise is far more than 150 weddings. "Themed events are my favourite," says Mel.

"They're very popular — especially medieval, because the bride gets to wear a pretty velvet dress. I've also done biker weddings, Scottish weddings, rock weddings, 1920s wedding, gangster and moll weddings. I once went to a fairy wedding where guests all wore fairy wings."

She is also hired by couples just to oversee the day, ensuring no task is overlooked. Without a coordinator, couples hand envelopes of cash to their best man, who inevitably gets drunk and loses them.

"The best man is a major hazard," says Melanie. "I always guard the rings until the service starts and vet the speeches, checking slide shows don't contain pictures of past girlfriends, and eliminating inappropriate jokes."

But while Melanie was travelling round the country guaranteeing her clients' marriages got off to a great start, her own was about to implode.

After six years of stability, John dropped a bombshell — he'd been having an affair for eight months. When Melanie returned home from a weekend away with friends two years ago, she found him crying and clutching a letter he'd written to her admitting his infidelity.

He begged for forgiveness, sobbing that he was sorry and had made a terrible mistake, but Melanie refused to listen: the trust had gone. She packed a bag and moved into a friend's house.

"I was gobsmacked; everybody was," recalls Melanie. "I never suspected. For months I was devastated. My fairytale was crushed."

Friends and family rallied round supportively, but Melanie retracted, unable to trust anyone.

In summer 2006, she left Bristol and moved to Dorset. "I wanted to start a new life and the south coast is gorgeous. It was a huge thing to cope with as I knew nobody and was lonely for a while.

"But I've met people now and can see the positives in being single — I actually like living alone. I have a dog and no desire for children."

But as upsetting as weddings now were, Melanie couldn't escape them — she needed to finish organising those already embarked upon. "It was distressing but I didn't let clients know what had happened," says Mel. And ironically grieving for her marriage made her only more adamant that women deserved wonderful weddings — for she clung to her own idyllic ceremony for comfort.

"While the fairytale didn't work out afterwards, I still have that perfect day — my perfect wedding. If it hadn't been brilliant, I'd feel I was missing out, but because I experienced my dream day I'm satisfied. So now I want everyone to feel how I felt at my wedding — whatever follows, that happiness will help them deal with tricky times — together or apart."

She blames the increasing breakdown of marriage on modern life. "A secure, monogamous relationship is a beautiful, valuable thing — but society no longer caters for marriage," she says.

"The traditional sense of staying together forever has been lost and as both men and women are career-minded now both partners are busy and have opportunity to play away."

She believes cheating has become easier — practically and morally: "Nowadays it's easy to start a secret life — mobile phones, e-mail and online networking let you chat with people worldwide and your other half will never know.

"It's also more acceptable to have an affair — people flippantly reveal they've cheated and nobody cares. In my parents' day infidelity was considered scandalous."

So what advice does she have for the thousands of couples about to embark on lifelong commitment? "For marriage to work, you need to be a team before you get married and not expect it to turn you into a team. If there are any issues, discuss them and don't just assume things will change — they won't," says Melanie.

"And splash out on the wedding — that day is the basis for your marriage. Plans you make do matter; some women spend their lives regretting theirs. One friend still cries that hers coincided with Diana's funeral, so felt gloomy."

Melanie's major tip is not to budget on the photographer: "Brides often can't recall the day, as it passes so quickly and excitedly, so it's important to have good photographs — they are all you have to remember it by."

Though Melanie has concrete memories of her own weddings — both dresses and veils still hang in her wardrobe. "I'll always keep them and weddings will always be my passion — my true love. But I'll never marry again — nothing and nobody could convince me to go through that again.

"Watching couples enjoy the day I've organised for them, I try to suppress my cynicism and believe their marriage will flourish. I pray other people achieve that happy ever after — I just know it won't happen to me."

• Some names in this feature have been changed.

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This bud's for you, and you, and you too

Sometimes I can't believe how Californian California is. Women walk around half-naked, waiters call patrons "dude," and medical marijuana is legal. But I wondered just how legal. Could anyone buy it? Even me, who doesn't have cancer, AIDS, arthritis, glaucoma or even any previous pot-smoking experience?

Medical marijuana isn't really legal -- in 2005, the Supreme Court said federal anti-drug laws trump state laws -- but California and 11 other hippie states have been flipping off Washington for years.
Finding a medical marijuana distributor is shockingly easy, as Times columnist Sandy Banks noted in her recent columns on getting pot to treat arthritis. Sprinkled innocuously around L.A. County are more than 200 dispensaries that look like health food stores or pharmacies -- including three just at the intersection of Fairfax and Santa Monica. To shop at these places, though, you need a doctor's recommendation on an official form. Once you have that, no California cop can arrest you for holding up to eight ounces. That amount, I'm guessing, was based on conservative medical estimates of how much Snoop Dogg would need if he came down with glaucoma at the same time Animal Planet aired a "Meerkat Manor" marathon.

I made an appointment at a medical office recommended by Shirley Halperin, the coauthor of the new book, "Pot Culture: The A-Z to Stoner Language & Life." Halperin chose our particular clinic less for its medical expertise than the fact that it shared a parking lot with a pot dispensary. Stoners are very clearheaded when it comes to avoiding extra effort.

As I sat in the tiny waiting room, filling out my medical history and getting nervous, Halperin assured me that no one she knows had been rejected, which seemed convincing because the only people sitting near me were two healthy looking guys in their 20s. When I got called in, I entered a doctor's office different from any I'd ever been in. It contained only a tiny desk, two chairs, a small TV and two cans of Glade. Also, the doctor wore a Hawaiian shirt.

He took my blood pressure and asked what I was suffering from. "Anxiety," I said. And then "occasional insomnia." And even though he seemed to be moving on, I blurted something about headaches. The only malady that would have made me more similar to every human being throughout history would have been "these painful little pieces of skin that peel up next to my fingernails."

The doctor followed up on my insomnia, however, and asked if I was having work problems or relationship issues as he handed me a photocopy of a handwritten list of psychiatrists. He'd give me a recommendation for medical marijuana for six months, he said, and would extend it to one year if I saw a therapist. The whole thing took about four minutes.

I paid the receptionist $80 -- cash only -- and she gave me a filled-out form that states I am under medical care and supervision for the treatment of a "medical problem." I felt touched that the doctor hadn't just written I was suffering from "stuff."

At the dispensary, a Harley-riding bouncer checked my newly minted medical forms and driver's license and let us inside. The dispensary was like a really nice coffee shop, with paintings on the wall for sale, couches and a drum kit upstairs for live jazz.

A pretty woman behind the counter -- kind of a pot sommelier -- brought out a huge menu, divided into sativa (uppers) and indica (the downers all dealers sell) varieties, with names such as Bluedot Popcorn, Hindu Skunk and Purple Urkel. Like a high-end tea shop, she used chopsticks to procure the buds from glass jars -- all organic and grown in California -- which she had me smell and look at under a microscope. I settled on a gram of Sugar Kush, which sounded appealing until I wondered what kind of breakfast cereal would cure Sugar Kush munchies. Honey Bunches of Fudge? Frosted Mini Frosted Minis? Count Plaqula?

Next, I took the advice of a fellow patient and went to buy some "edibles" at the Farmacy. This is the most famous of the L.A. dispensaries, with three locations, only two of which are right next to a Whole Foods. The Westwood branch is a sleek health food store that also sells vitamins and lots of Goji berries, and, unlike at the doctor's office, all the salespeople wear white lab coats. As a first-timer, I got to spin a wheel to determine my free gift medicine, which was a pot-infused lollipop. I also bought a vegan chocolate-chip cookie medicine and a chocolate bar medicine, and deeply considered the gelato medicine.

Wondering if I had an unusually easy time, I called High Times magazine's 2006 Stoner of the Year, Doug Benson, a comedian who just released "Super High Me," a documentary in which he stops smoking pot for 30 days and then, for his next month, is high every waking minute. As part of the documentary, he got his medical marijuana certificate. "I told my doctor I had a weak back. And when he said, 'How long?' I said, 'About a week back.' " He did not get rejected. As a patient or a comedian.

In fact, Benson buys all his pot from a dispensary now. Even with the sales tax, he pays the same price and, he said, gets more consistent quality than he did from a dealer. "I had a dealer who came by my house, but this is more convenient," he said. When I asked him how that could be, he explained: "I used to have to sit there and listen to his stories. Because dealers like to hang out."

I always wondered what would happen if marijuana were legalized for anyone over 18. It seems it already has been, and nothing happened.

jstein@latimescolumnists.com
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A 13 year old boy from Texas is convicted of fraud after using his Father's credit cards to hire escorts.

Pink boots

Asked why he ordered two escorts, Ralph said he thought it was the thing to do when you win a "World of Warcraft" tournament. They told the suspicious working girls they were people of restricted growth working with a traveling circus, and as State law does not allow those with disabilities to be discriminated against they had no right to refuse them.

The $1,000 a night girls sensing something up played "Halo" on the Xbox with the kids, instead of selling their sexual services.

Ralph's ambition is to one day become a politician.

A 13 year old from Texas who stole his Dad's credit card and ordered two hookers from an escort agency, has today been convicted of fraud and given a three year community order.

Ralph Hardy, a 13 year old from Newark, Texas confessed to ordering an extra credit card from his father's existing credit card company, and took his friends on a $30,000 spending spree, culminating in playing "Halo" on an Xbox with a couple of hookers in a Texas motel.

The credit card company involved said it was regular practice to send extra credit cards out as long as all security questions are answered.

The escort girls who were released without charge, told the arresting officers something was up when the kids said they would rather play Xbox than get down to business.

Police said they were alerted to the motel by a concerned delivery clerk, whom after delivering supplies of Dr Pepper, Fritos and Oreos had been asked by the kids where they could score some chicks and were willing to pay. They explained they had just made a big score at a "World of Warcraft" tournament and wanted to get some relaxation. On noting the boys age the delivery clerk informed the authorities.

When police arrived at the motel they found $3,000 in cash, numerous electronic gadgets, an Xbox video console with numerous games, and the two local escort girls.

Ralph had reportedly told police that his father wouldn't mind, as it was his birthday last week and he had forgot to get him a present. The father, a lawyer said he had been too busy, but would take him on a surprise trip to Disneyland instead.

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Pictured: The moment award-winning garden is destroyed after hundreds respond to Facebook water fight

More than 300 people ran riot and destroyed an award-winning garden after they responded to a campaign for a mass water fight on social networking website Facebook.

With the country basking in its recent spell of fine weather, hundreds descended on the Millenium Square garden in Leeds following a listing on the popular website.

Leeds City Council claim around 350 people armed with water pistols and buckets trashed the garden, which scooped a bronze medal at the 2004 Chelsea Flower Show and is a symbol of the city's enduring partnership with Nelson Mandela and his hometown of Durban.

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Chaos: More than 350 people descended on mass to the Millenium Square garden in Leeds

Rampage: Armed with water pistols and buckets, the crowds trashed the garden

Council chiefs claim years of hard work on the square's stunning centrepiece, establishing the garden's exotic greenery, were ruined in the Bank Holiday water fight.

Videos and pictures of people destroying the garden have been posted on the Facebook site and footage has also featured on YouTube. Organisers even boast of the "success" of their "event", the council said.

Plants were trampled, turf ripped up, water features emptied and filled with foam and the mechanism for the fountains is thought to have been damaged during the rampage.

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Ruined: Staff were said to be 'distraught' when they saw the wreckage

Council CCTV footage will now be handed over to the police.

Councillor John Procter, executive member for Leisure, said: "Our parks staff were distraught when they discovered the wreckage.

"Frankly I'm appalled at the total disregard for people's ongoing enjoyment of this beautiful city centre oasis.

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Aftermath: Plants were trampled, turf ripped up and water features emptied

Peaceful: The Millenium Square garden before it was overrun

"To destroy years of careful cultivation for a couple of hours of so-called "fun" is unforgivable.

"We will be pulling out all the stops to make sure everything is put right.

"It will stretch parks staff to the limit when they are already working hard on this year's Chelsea garden and the bedding and container planting for the city's summer displays."

ob done: 350 people armed with water pistols and buckets trashed the garden

Staff have been busy assessing the damage and spent much of yesterday morning jet-washing masses of mud away from the area.

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Guy Scares Aunt