Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year-old British school teacher who was working in the capital of Khartoum, was arrested last week after authorities learned she had allowed her 6- and 7-year-old students to name a teddy bear "Mohammed." (Although "Mohammed" in all its variations is one of the most common boys' names in the world, fundamentalist Muslims regard it as a gross insult to the Prophet to apply the name to an animal - evidently even a stuffed one.)
Following a hearing, Gibbons was sentenced to 15 days in prison - a ruling that provoked a near-riot in Khartoum by Muslims who wanted her to receive the maximum penalty of a year in prison and 40 lashes.
The case turned into a diplomatic cause celébre, with two Muslim members of Britain's House of Lords dispatched to intercede with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. On Monday, al-Bashir announced that Gibbons had been pardoned and would be allowed to return to Britain.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown welcomed the decision, saying he was glad that "common sense has prevailed." Sudan's ambassador to Britain, Khalid al-Mubarak, also was pleased with the outcome: "[Gibbons] is a teacher who went to teach our children English and she has helped a great deal and I am very grateful. What has happened was a cultural misunderstanding, a minor one, and I hope she, her family and the British people won't be affected by what has happened."
And, inevitably, some enterprising soul has come up with a way to make a buck off of the incident. You can buy "Muhammad the Tolerance Teddy" at cafepress.com for $20.
R.I.P. Superman, 1938-2007
Evel Knievel was one of those rare human beings who was, if anything, more famous for his spectacular failures than his successes.
Trying to jump his motorcycle over the fountains in front of the now-defunct Caesar's Palace casino in Las Vegas in 1967, he landed short and suffered a crushed pelvis, a broken leg, fractures to his hip, wrist and both ankles, and a concussion that put him in a coma for almost a month.
Seven years later, attempting to jump Idaho's Snake River Canyon on a rocket-propelled cycle, he fell short again when the machine's parachute deployed prematurely. Falling to the bottom of the canyon, he escaped with only minor injuries.
Less than a year after that, Knievel attempted to jump over 13 buses in London's Wembley Stadium. He crashed again, breaking his pelvis. Despite the injury he got on his feet to address the crowd and announce his retirement.
Although, of course, he didn't retire - he kept on jumping until 1981.
Born Robert Craig Knievel Jr. in Butte, MT, in 1938, Evel tried a long string of careers - hockey player, big game hunter, insurance salesman and (reportedly) burglar - before discovering his true calling in the mid-1960s. The Caesar's Palace stunt propelled him into the national spotlight and he never really left it, even after his retirement. In his star-spangled red, white and blue jumpsuit he became, and remained, a larger-than-life national icon, a sort of living cartoon superhero.
Last Friday, after absorbing an incredible amount of punishment - including 40 broken bones, the official Guinness record - Evel Knievel's body finally gave out. Longtime friend Billy Rundle said, "It's been coming for years, but you just don't expect it. Superman just doesn't die, right?"
In his last message to his fans, posted on his official website (evelknievel.com) on Thanksgiving Day, Knievel wrote: "For every adversity there is an equivalent seed of benefit. You only have to look for it. Believe in yourself and get up if you fail."
It's Bad, but Is It Abominable?
Ever since the mid-19th century, Westerners have been intrigued by reports of a huge, hairy, man-like creature that stalks the snowy wastes of the high Himalayas. Explorers have reported finding footprints and sometimes sighting the beast itself; even a few purported yeti scalps and yeti hands have turned up.
But so far the yeti remains in the realm of cryptozoology - the study of nonexistent or not-proven-to-exist animals - along with Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. And interest in the so-called "Abominable Snowman" (we've always wondered what's so abominable about it) waxes and wanes as new "discoveries" are made and then debunked.
This week a fresh tremor of excitement ran through the ranks of yeti believers as a TV production team reported finding three strange footprints on the sandy bank of a river at an elevation of more than 9,000 feet in the rugged Khumbu area of Nepal.
The crew from the "Destination Truth" show, which airs on the SciFi channel, brought back what they said was a cast of one of the footprints. The cast is about a foot long, very broad across the front, and shows five toes arranged human-style. The footprint is "very, very similar" to pictures of yeti footprints, archaeologist Josh Gates told the Reuters news agency. "I don't believe it to be a bear," Gates said. "It is something of a mystery for us."
The mystery may be cleared up by further investigation. Meanwhile, as the MSNBC website put it, "the evidence may be enough to fuel a TV show."
"Sunny Day," Indeed
You had no way of knowing it at the time, of course, but if you were allowed to watch Sesame Street as a preschooler back in 1969, you were being abused.
The first two volumes of what is arguably the most popular children's TV show of all time were recently released on DVD under the title "Sesame Street: Old School." But old-school Sesame Street just isn't suitable for the oh-so-delicate psyches of today's toddlers. The packaging carries a stern warning: "These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today's preschool child."
The problem, as Sesame Street producer Carol-Lynne Parente explained it to New York Times columnist Virginia Hefferman, is that the early episodes are loaded with politically incorrect and/or emotionally disturbing characters and scenes.
For instance there's Cookie Monster, a horribly negative role model who encourages children to scarf down sugary, trans-fat-laden treats.
There's also a parody skit titled "Monsterpiece Theater" in which Cookie Monster, impersonating the late Masterpiece Theater host Alistair Cooke, is seen smoking a pipe - and then eating it. "That modeled the wrong behavior, so we re-shot those scenes without the pipe, and then we dropped the parody altogether," Parente said.
And then there's the misanthropic, obviously clinically depressed Oscar the Grouch (no Prozac in 1969, remember), who could be terribly confusing and upsetting to the kiddies. "We might not be able to create a character like Oscar now," Parente said.
More contemporary episodes of Sesame Street were purged of those unwholesome influences, but for victims of the early episodes it's far too late. So if you're one of those unfortunates and are now suffering from obesity, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, depression and the occasional urge to eat a pipe, the only course we can suggest is to sue your parents.