Imminent war? Massive budget deficits? New terrorist warnings? Don't fall for those petty distractions. They are part of a grand strategy by the powers that be to keep you in the dark about the real indicators of civilization in decline, both here and abroad, as proven by our compilation of some of the most disturbing, yet underreported, news of the year.

Just Folks, Down on the Homefront

FUZZY ON THE CONCEPT Carol Urness, a recently retired University of Minnesota librarian, opened a used-book store in St. Anthony, Minn., consisting of about 1,000 volumes from her own collection, but told a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter that often, after a customer selects a book to buy, she refuses to sell it because she can't stand to part with it. "The first day, a woman walked in and bought three books," she said, "and I about had a stroke." She added: "This bookstore is hard to find, and once you get here, it's almost impossible to buy anything."

-- Star Tribune, March 1

ALL THE NEWS FIT FOR LENO Iowa City High School won the Iowa State Math Championship in April, but when officials rechecked the scores hours later, they discovered they had added them up wrong and named West High School (also from Iowa City) the winner.

-- Associated Press, April 15

* Craig Deskevich, 20, on his way to an eye doctor's appointment in Ambridge, Pa., was slightly injured when he accidentally walked into the side of a bus.

-- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 29

* James F. Welles, author of the book "Understanding Stupidity" and a self-described authority on the dumb decisions people make, was arrested in Lantana, Fla., on charges of soliciting sex on the Internet from a "15-year-old girl" who was really a 40-year-old undercover police officer.

-- Palm Beach Post, Nov. 8

WRONG ANIMALS CAGED Roving packs of teenaged humans, among 15,000 visitors admitted to the Buffalo (N.Y.) Zoo for free on Memorial Day, trashed the grounds and several exhibits, abused animals and vandalized toilets. All of the zoo's non-human species reportedly were well-behaved.

-- Buffalo News, May 29

Foreign Concepts

CASTRO, THINKING MUY AFUERA DE LA BOX To alleviate a chronic milk shortage, Fidel Castro ordered his scientists to work on cloning Cuba's most productive cow, according to a dispatch from Havana. Cuba's scientists have frozen tissue samples from the late Ubre Blanca, the Guinness Book record-holder as the most milk-productive cow of all time.

-- Wall Street Journal, May 21

THE NO. 1 PROBLEM IN EXAM SECURITY To prevent cheating, the annual three-hour South Korean justice ministry test (required for those vying for judicial appointments) was administered once again without restroom breaks. To accommodate the growing number of women taking government exams, officials upgraded the emergency facilities provided at the back of the room: Instead of buckets, long, skirt-like covers and plastic pots are now available for women. Plastic bags remain the choice for men.

-- Agence France-Presse, March 8

WELL DOWN THE LINE IN MASLOW'S HIERARCHY OF NEEDS Inga Kosak won the first World Extreme Ironing Championship in Munich, beating about 80 contestants (from 10 countries), who were judged on the degree of danger or difficulty they achieved while ironing. One ironed while bouncing on a trampoline, another while balancing on a surfboard in a river and another while hanging upside down from a tree. Enthusiasts have photos of themselves standing over ironing boards in remote mountain locations, where power for the steam iron must come from a generator (or a very long extension cord).

-- Toronto Star, Nov. 22

AFTER ALL, AMERICA IS THE WORLD'S SUPERPOWER In Perth, Australia, brothel owner Mary-Anne Kenworthy closed down for a day on April 30 because U.S. Navy personnel on shore leave had left her workforce worn out. "We're the biggest and the best," she said, "[but] I'd rather take nothing than offer a poor service." (The Bremerton Sun in Washington state carried a wire-service version of this story, but later apologized to its readers since many Navy families in the Bremerton-Seattle area apparently did not appreciate learning about the sailors' prowess.)

-- Agence France-Presse, May 2;

The Mercury (Hobart, Australia), May 3

It's Just Criminal

TOO MANY FREE MINUTES Albuquerque police charged Amadeo Salguero, 21, with carjacking three people at gunpoint and making off with an Acura that, according to a detective, contained one of the best stereo systems in town. Salguero was busted after he later called one of the victims and said, "I don't want there to be hard feelings, but, hey, how do you hook up your amp?" The call was traced to the cell phone of Salguero, who happens to live across the street from the scene of the carjacking. Salguero denied making the call.

-- Albuquerque Journal, May 17

THE CLASSIC MIDDLE NAME (ALL-NEW!) Executed for murder in 2002: Stephen Wayne Anderson (inmate, San Quentin, Calif.), Randall Wayne Hafdahl (inmate, Huntsville, Tex.)

* Sentenced for murder: Darren Wayne Campbell (Coquille, Ore.), Mark Wayne Campmire (Litchfield, Conn.), Michael Wayne Cole (Goldsboro, N.C.), Gary Wayne Davis (Louisville, Ky.), Jeffrey Wayne Gorton (Flint, Mich.), Mark Wayne Silvers (Anderson, S.C.)

* Charged with murder: Timothy Wayne Adams (Houston), Joshua Wayne Andrews (Woodbridge, Va.), Seth Wayne Campbell (Houston), Douglas Wayne Clark (Austin), David Wayne Crews (Knoxville, Tenn.), Ralph Wayne Grimes (Russell Springs, Ky.), Anthony Wayne Grimm (Springfield, Ill.), Kenneth Wayne Hall Sr. (Gaffney, S.C.), Mark Wayne Lomax (Houston), Shelly Wayne Martin (Randallstown, Md.), Jeffery Wayne Paschall (Draper, Utah), Jason Wayne Petershagen (La Marque, Tex.), David Wayne Satterfield (Mesquite, Tex.)

* Murder conviction overturned after 18 years and new trial ordered: Michael Wayne Jennings (Concord, Calif.)

Sources -- Anderson: Associated Press, Jan. 28; Hafdahl: Austin American-Statesman, Jan. 31; Darren Campbell: The World (Coos Bay, Ore.) May 4; Campmire: Hartford Courant, Jan. 26; Cole: Goldsboro News-Argus, March 8; Davis: Courier-Journal (Louisville), Nov. 22; Gorton: Detroit Free Press, Sept. 20; Silvers: Anderson Independent-Mail, April 12; Adams: Houston Chronicle, May 2; Andrews: Washington Post, Jan. 13; Seth Campbell: Houston Chronicle, July 11; Clark: (Time Warner cable channel, Austin), Oct. 22; Crews: Knoxville News-Sentinel, June 8; Grimes: Associated Press, Nov. 25; Grimm: State Journal-Register (Springfield, Ill.), Aug. 21; Hall: Spartanburg Herald-Journal, March 7; Lomax: Houston Chronicle, April 12; Martin: the Sun (Baltimore), May 8; Paschall: Salt Lake Tribune, July 10; Petershagen: Houston Chronicle, Aug. 29; Satterfield: Dallas Morning News, March 8; Smith: Associated Press, Oct. 3; Jennings: San Mateo County Times, May 11

THE YEAR'S LEAST JUSTIFIABLE SHOOTINGS In Southampton, Pa., Daniel Strouss, 19, was charged in an alleged revenge-shooting months after the victim, a friend of his, purportedly gave him a "wedgie" at a concert. In Gary, Ind., Stephen D. Walker, 22, was charged with shooting a longtime friend during an argument over which of the two was the better friend. In Godley, Tex., a 20-year-old man was fatally shot as he was wrestling for a gun with a 21-year-old man. Police said the two had been aggressively debating which of the two was more likely to get to Heaven.

-- Associated Press, Aug. 23; Post-Tribune (Gary), April 18;

Associated Press, July 28

It's All About the Money

LEADING ECONOMIC INDICATORS In the 41 years since Italian artist Piero Manzoni canned bits of his own feces (in 90 tins, containing 30 grams each) as art objects, the tins' prices to collectors have fluctuated, reaching a high of $75,000 in 1993. In June 2002, the Tate Gallery in London excitedly announced it had purchased tin number 004 for about $38,000. (The price of 30 grams of gold at that time was a little over $300.)

-- Sunday Telegraph (London), June 30

* The restaurant at the brand-new Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York City announced it had hired a "water sommelier" to recommend which bottled waters from its collection go best with which dishes.

-- New York Times, Feb. 14

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH FIGHTS BACK The $190 million, 12-story, earthquake-proof Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was dedicated in Los Angeles in September, celebrated not only for its upscale gift shop ($24.99 for house chardonnay), its ATM and its $12-a-day parking garage, but also for the private crypts underneath that begin at $50,000 and go as high as $3 million. (Said a Notre Dame theology professor, "[That's] kind of like selling sky boxes.")

-- Associated Press, Sept. 5

LAST LAUGH The U.S.-based video game company Acclaim Entertainment announced that it would "raise advertising to a new level" by offering to defray funeral costs for any family willing to put a billboard on the gravestone of the deceased. After the Church of England said it wouldn't allow any of the so-called "deadverts" in its cemeteries, the company's U.S. spokesman allowed as how the idea was a well-planted hoax to bring attention to its newest game, "Shadowman: 2econd Coming."

-- The Guardian (London), March 15;

Adweek, April 1

PRODUCT OF THE YEAR Spanish inventor Andres Diaz recorded the first U.S. sale of his $20,000, side-loading, automatic washing machine for dogs and cats to a Miami company, PetClean USA. The three-cycle, 37-nozzle machine processes the pet in 30 minutes. Referring to the feline reaction, Diaz said: "The first four or five seconds, they freak out. But once they're wet, they instinctively sit and lay down."

-- Omaha World-Herald, Jan. 9

Our Litigious Society

NOT MY FAULT Fugitive Harvey Taylor, 48, threatened to sue the Maine sheriff's deputy who failed to track him down fast enough, a delay that resulted in Taylor's losing two toes to frostbite after he had to spend three nights wandering in the woods. Taylor, a convicted sex offender wanted in Florida, said he got stuck in hip-deep snow while fleeing. From his hospital bed, he told a reporter: "If [the detective] had done his job properly, I wouldn't be here right now. . . . Nobody looked for me, not even the detective that I'm going to sue as soon as I can find me an attorney that will take the case." (He's still looking.)

-- Bangor Daily News, Feb. 27

TAKING ON THE IGNORANT, BIGOTED KITTY CAT In 2001, the resident cat that hung around the public library in Escondido, Calif., attacked the assistance dog of Richard R. Espinosa (whose disability is a panic disorder), inflicting cuts that so discomforted Espinosa that he filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against the library for the "terror, humiliation, shame, embarrassment, mortification, chagrin, depression, panic, anxiety, flashbacks, [and] nightmares" the dog's injuries caused him. In April 2002, Espinosa amended his complaint, claiming that his disability puts him and his dog into a specially protected class and thus the cat's actions should be considered a "hate crime."

--, April 5

NO, NOT THE FLOWERS! Businessman Herbert Black sued socialite Denise Rich (ex-wife of the Clinton-pardoned Marc Rich) for nonpayment of fees he claimed he had earned by saving her nearly a million dollars annually as a personal financial adviser. Alleged savings included: $125,000 in flowers (by having fewer deliveries to her apartment when she was traveling); $30,000 by changing the payment plan for her yoga instruction; and $52,000 in "dog maintenance" (mostly by giving away her two oldest dogs, which were so feeble that they had to be pushed by sitters around Central Park in an $8,000 baby carriage).

-- New York Times, Aug. 17

TUMULTUOUS SILENCE After the British musical group the Planets introduced a 60-second piece of total silence on its latest album, representatives of the estate of John Cage, composer of "4'33" " (four minutes, 33 seconds of equally total silence), threatened to sue the group for ripping Cage off (even though the estate failed, said the Planets, to specify which 60 of the 273 seconds it thought had been pilfered). Said a defiant Mike Batt of the Planets: "I [was] able to say in one minute what [it took Cage] four minutes and 33 seconds." (Three months later, Batt gave up and settled with the estate for an undisclosed six-figure sum.)

-- The Independent (London), June 21;,

Sept. 23

Chuck Shepherd writes the weekly "News of the Weird," which appears in Washington City Paper and on