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Brain worms, superheroes and more 

LEAD STORY: They're either earnestly civic-minded or people with issues, but in several dozen cities across the country, men (and a few women) dress in homemade superhero costumes and patrol marginal neighborhoods, aiming to deter crime. Phoenix's Green Scorpion and New York City's Terrifica and Orlando's Master Legend and Indianapolis' Mr. Silent are just a few of the 200 gunless, knifeless vigilantes listed on the World Superhero Registry, most presumably with day jobs but who fancy cleaning up the mean streets at night. According to two recent reports (in Rolling Stone and the Times of London), unanticipated gripes by the "Reals," as they call themselves, are boredom from lack of crime and (especially in the summer) itchy spandex outfits.

Leading Economic Indicators: People With Too Much Money: 1) The owner of a local ski shop told the Vail (Colo.) Daily in November that he was confident he could sell his parking space in a town garage for his asking price of $500,000. After all, he said, it was on the top floor and next to an exit. 2) The upscale residents of Gates Mills, Ohio, near Cleveland, are so grateful to their town's 61 government employees that they volunteered $50,000 in holiday tips in December.

The Economy in Crisis: 1) The Platinum Lounge, a lap-dancing club in Chester, England, announced in November that it would begin selling advertising, in 4-by-6-inch body-paint squares, on dancers' derrieres. Said the club's agent, "I had to do a lot of research ... to come up with the optimum size for the [ads]!" 2) In the midst of widespread unemployment in Sweden, the Haxriket i Norden company announced in November it would hire 20 professional witches well-versed in tarot, crystals, herbs, exorcism, and "contact with the other side," in the expectation that desperate consumers increasingly would require counseling.

Although to many outsiders, the concept of clothing on Muslim women suggests full-body veils, many married women in Syria are decidedly more playful, feeding a market for daring and quixotic underwear (to be worn in private, of course, and only for one's husband). Musical panties (some that glow in the dark), bras with "hands" covering the cups, and underwear designed to collapse and fall to the floor at the sound of hands clapping are just three of the popular items at boutique shops, according to a December BBC News dispatch from Damascus.

Cutting-Edge Science: Ewww, Gross! Two brain surgeons in the western U.S. admitted that recent operations had shaken them up, though both said the patients have since been doing nicely. Dr. Peter Nakaji, expecting to find a dreaded tumor in the brain of a woman in Phoenix, was heard on video of the surgery chuckling when he realized the problem was merely a worm on the brain stem (probably acquired from poor sanitation). And in December, a 3-day-old infant was doing well in Colorado Springs, Colo., following the discovery and removal of a tiny, almost perfectly formed foot from his brain by Dr. Paul Grabb.

More than 1,000 new animal species were discovered in the last decade in the area surrounding the Mekong River that runs through Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, including striped rabbits and a spider bigger than a dinner plate. Also found was a pink millipede that secretes cyanide, according to a December World Wildlife Fund report.

Fine Points of the Law: In November, a jury acquitted Ms. Johnnie Miles, 42, of $7,500 worth of fraudulent credit-card transactions against a store in Vero Beach, Fla., and Miles assumed she had thus earned her freedom. However, Judge Dan Vaughn apparently considered Miles a disreputable rip-off artist (even though technically not guilty of fraud) and used her schemings to convict her of violating probation on an earlier case. Florida law permits such collateral use of a defendant's behavior, and Vaughn sentenced Miles to five years on each of 11 probation violations, to be served consecutively.

Recurring Themes: On successive days in January in two towns in Britain, loners in their 70s were reported dead from dehydration in their homes after becoming trapped in monstrous labyrinths of their own making. Gordon Stewart, 74, was found dead in a tunnel system he had arranged from several tons of refuse in his house in Broughton, and compulsive shopper Joan Cunnane, 77, was buried under so much merchandise and rubbish that it took rescuers in Heaton Mersey two days to locate her body.

Least Competent Criminals: Failed to Keep a Low Profile: If a motorist is carrying $18,000 worth of marijuana, he might try to avoid attracting attention -- and not go the wrong way on a one-way street, as Samuel Randall, 27, did in Chicago in January. Or if carrying a duffel bag full of marijuana, you might not want to drive around in a car that lacks license plates, like the four women arrested in San Antonio in November did. Or if there are 78 marijuana plants in the backseat, you want to make sure that your car has a valid state inspection sticker, unlike Tracy Pioggia, in Hampden, Mass., in October.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Torvald Alexander, 39, was able to chase away the unlucky home invader who hit his apartment on Dec. 31 in Edinburgh, Scotland, according to a BBC News report. The two men inadvertently came face to face just as Alexander was preparing to leave for a New Year's party, dressed in full regalia as Thor, the hammer-wielding Norse god of thunder. Alexander said the burglar took one look at him, turned and climbed hurriedly out a window, sliding down a sloped roof and landing on the ground, where he took off running.

Undignified Deaths: A 77-year-old man was crushed to death in October while visiting his parents' gravesite at the St. Gregoire Cemetery in Buckingham, Quebec, when a tombstone fell on him. And in November, a 67-year-old woman was killed in southern Brazil on her way to the cemetery following her husband's funeral. She was a front-seat passenger in the hearse when another vehicle collided with it, slamming her husband's coffin forward and crushing the woman's skull.

© 2009 CHUCK SHEPHERD

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