Saturday, December 20, 2008

The 6 Worst "Vacations" People Actually Pay For

By Jason Moore

Want to get away from it all? Need a break from your shitty job? Want to relax for a bit and not be stressed out?

Then don't go on any of these vacations.

Tour the Sewers of Paris

Cost: $3 Per Day

Paris isn't all poodles and Eiffel Towers, and it goes without saying that there's more to see than the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe. In fact, after taking a dump in one of the city's fine restrooms, you may find yourself saying, "Man, I wish I could see the part of Paris where my shit goes." You're in luck, you sick bastard, because you can actually pay to take a tour of the Paris Sewer System.

The tour will take you through 500 yards (which, by the way, is 500 yards way too many) of actual Paris sewer lines. You'll get the chance to see tools and equipment workers use as well as a brief history lesson on the past, present and future of the Paris Poop Management System.

You'll also see that the tunnels are a work of art, especially if you consider the effort that must have gone into building a system 1300 miles long, that's able to hold the waste of over 2 million French people. Your amazement will likely not be powerful enough to distract you from the river of human excrement flowing nearby.

It's like the Chocolate River in Willy Wonka!

If they notice you're not quite upset enough by this, tour guides will actually show you numbered pipes which correspond with the houses and buildings above you. Then you can walk the streets for the rest of the day, staring into the faces of French strangers and thinking, "Look down on me all you want, sir, but I believe I saw your shit today."

Illegal Border Crossing Experience

Cost: $18 Per Day

For a tourist looking to have a good time, Mexico has it all: margaritas, enchiladas, senoritas and an assortment of other things that end in "-as." And for the tourist that's interested in having a shitty time, there's the Illegal Border Crossing Experience Tour.

It's kind of like camping, but with less s'mores and more illegal border crossing.

Actually crossing a border, being that it is illegal and very dangerous, isn't exactly everyone's cup of tea. But, apparently it is interesting and exciting enough to want to try out without any legal consequences. That's when the folks at Parque EcoAlberto decided to fill a void no one knew existed and began offering guided "crossings" over an imaginary border. The company is run by local natives, the Hnahnu Indians, on about 3000 acres of land they own. These are folks that should know about the whole illegal crossing business since approximately 1500 members of the 2200 person tribe live in America.

The typical adventure will put you out in the desert with a group of other people just like you; complete with a guide, the stars above and angry border patrollers threatening to send you back to Mexico.

"Get back or I'll kill you! Also, visit the gift shop!"

You'll spend the evening hiding in bushes, hiding under bridges, running through the dark and wading through creeks. It will almost be like an awesome game of hide and go seek, except that you have gun shots (blanks) fired and curse words (real) being shouted at you. That's all while you are hiding next to donkeys in cornfields with mud up to your ankles.

Some cynical types will say the whole enterprise exists only as practice for aspiring border crossers. But all the drama sounds like it would dissuade people more than anything (we're pretty sure that on the real border there are long stretches where you can just walk across if you want).

Ghetto Tours

Cost: $50 Per Day

When you travel to a strange city, do you fear taking a wrong turn and winding up in the "bad" part of town? The problem, of course, is that you don't have a friendly tour guide to show you the sights. Fortunately when you travel to Rio de Janeiro, you can take a Ghetto Tour.

That's right, you too can take a walk on the wild side and experience a world not your own. According to tour guide Marcelo Armstrong, founder of Favela Tours, it is an "illuminating experience if you look for an insider point of view." The tours have been taking place since the early 90s and Armstrong considers it an honor to share a part of his hometown that few get the pleasure of seeing.

Thrill seekers will be disappointed to find that most of these ghettos aren't all that dangerous. During these Favela Tours there are armed men stationed as guards (they don't work for the police, mind you, but for the drug traffickers that run the neighborhoods).

You'll have a chance to shop at local markets and street vendors and sample the local food and wares. A portion of the proceeds of these tours always goes back into the community. But, not too much mind you. Because if you give poor people too much money, they won't be poor anymore. And that'd kill business.

Crossword Puzzle Cruise

Cost: $240 Per Day

There are few things more relaxing than sailing aboard a cruise ship. It's just a little dull, that's all. So how can they liven it up?

By combining cruises with the thrill-a-minute excitement of crossword puzzles. At least that's what Stan Newman, Editor of the nationally syndicated Newsday Crossword Puzzle, thought. So he formed up the Crossword University Cruise to bring together all of the word puzzle enthusiasts of the world. All of em! It's genius really, the perfect combination of seasickness from being on a boat combined with the frustration of working a crossword puzzle, and throw in a dash of depression because you spent $1600 to do it all.

"No, you guys go ahead and surf, I'm working a puzzle!"

But don't think your Crossword Puzzle Cruise is all crossword puzzles... oh no. Stan Newman has all kinds of fun planned for you. You'll get to take part in puzzle solving exercises that you can do at home to help grow your brain. Why? Because right after that, it's back to the crossword puzzles, the center of all life and enjoyment! The curriculum at the Crossword University Cruise will include "Puzzles: 101" to help you learn from each puzzle you do, also "Tackling The Toughies," your personalized guide down the road to being really good at word puzzles.

Is she on vacation? It's impossible to tell.

As you sail through the Caribbean on the beautiful MS Statendam, you'll be excited to find out that not only can crossword puzzles be great for passing time while you're taking a dump, but the skills you've honed filling in all of those little white boxes can also be applied to "real-life puzzles." Sounds crazy right? Well, it probably is... but don't tell Stan that, he's watching.

Stay in an Ice Hotel

Cost: $400 Per Day

The majesty of winter has a certain effect on people. It reminds us of Christmas and other fond memories. The Ice Hotel is the embodiment of this idea in building form. Just look at it, it's so beautiful. And ball numbingly cold.

The Ice Hotel is located just north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden. The latest incarnation (they've been building these since 1980) has 31 rooms, a main hall, a church and a bar. It's the pride of Sweden and the artists who lovingly sculpt it out of ice.

Having trouble picturing a structure made completely from snow and ice? Well, imagine that snowman you built last year, now imagine that it is living in a giant hotel made of ice. Got it now?

The average temperature in the Ice Hotel is 17 degrees and temperatures can drop down to negative 5 degrees at night outside its walls. Of course, that's all necessary because the whole thing is made out of fucking ice. And it all needs to stay frozen.

Wait a second! We think we've found the flaw in the whole "ice hotel" concept! The entire time you're in the hotel, whether it's high noon or the middle of the night, it's still going to be below fucking freezing. There is no heat, there are no fires and the toilet is a hundred feet away in a trailer. Is there any hope of getting laid in such a place?

"So, do you come here often, or just when you're ready for death?"

It's cold enough to make a solid block of ice out of any liquid you want to drink and cold enough to give you frostbite if you aren't properly dressed. Meaning a stay at the Ice Hotel could potentially kill you. But it's all good right? At least there's a bar!

Shoot Farm Animals with Rocket Launchers

Cost: $400 Per Day

Hold on, now. How did this wind up on a list of bad vacation ideas?

For the Rambo in all of us, Cambodia offers up a taste of awesomeness by allowing tourists to fire off heavy weaponry at barnyard animals. There are testimonials from tourists who found out that it's all about knowing who to ask.

A brief example of who not to ask.

Not unlike sitting down at a 24-hour diner, they were handed a price list. On the menu: machine guns like the AK-47, a variety of sub machine guns, hand guns and even hand grenades. All the weapons were refurbished and most likely used during the Vietnam War. Meaning that most of the weapons have probably killed before. Wanna do the same? Well, if you've got the money, you can do just about anything. And like all good patrons, our tourist asked about the "Special of the Day," which just happened to be a rocket launcher and a cow for $400 USD. "You get $200 back if you miss the cow" he was told.

Apparently Cambodia has had little to no tourist traffic in some time (we wonder: Why?) with one particular exception being the Killing Fields and their huge masses of human remains.

Enterprising locals figured tourists who've come to see fields filled with dead people would probably want to shoot things right? You know, since they're in the mood and all. Who doesn't get revved up about killing after hearing a bunch of genocide stories?

They're actually kinda beautiful, up close like this.

Not up for killing beef? Maybe you prefer white meat. No problem. Just grab a chicken. They're faster than cows, and less expensive at just $15 USD a piece.

Original here

5 Modern Abandoned Cities

by Josh Clark

Beichuan, China following the May 2008 earthquake.
Chien-min Chung/Getty Images
A view of Beichuan, China, in May 2008, following an earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people. The city may be rebuilt elsewhere, leaving the original version abandoned. See more earthquake pictures.

In Ma­y 2008, officials in the Ch­inese provi­nce of Sichuan annou­nced that the city of Beichuan may be moved to a neighboring county, leaving the old city abandoned [source: NPR]. Beichuan was one of the areas hardest hit by an earthquake earlier that same month, which killed more than 50,000 people. The quake destroyed most of the buildings in the city, and those left standing were deemed unsafe for human habitation.

If abandoned, Beichuan will become a ghost town. This term evokes images of tumbleweeds blowing through dust-choked streets in the western United States, rickety wooden buildings the only remnants of a boomtown built around gold or silver that eventually ran out. But Beichuan is a modern place -- and it could soon be a modern abandoned city. It’s hardly alone.

There are modern abandoned cities around the world, and each seems to have an equally interesting story behind it. Some, like Beichuan, were abandoned following a disaster. Others, like San Zhi in Taiwan, were left derelict for more esoteric reasons. And in some cities, such as Detroit, certain districts have been forsaken.

The stillness that surrounds these towns seems almost palpable -- and it's strange to think that neighboring cities are still full of bustl­ing people. Perhaps it’s our ability to relate to the people who lived here that make modern ghost towns so haunting.

Whatever our attraction to abandoned cities may be, it’s difficult not to be engrossed by them. In that spirit, here are five modern abandoned cities you might find interesting.

Original here

Docs for Dope

By Margo Pierce

. . . . . . .

Marijuana is a medicine. Not many doctors are willing to make that kind of statement publicly, especially when U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raids result in the jailing of physicians, terminally ill patients and statelicensed marijuana growers in states where the medicinal use of marijuana is permitted by law.

But Richard J. Wyderski, a physician at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, believes the benefits of the herbal therapy far outweigh the risks of pushing for legalization. In this case he’s publicly backing Senate Bill 343, most commonly referred to as the Ohio Medical Compassion Act sponsored by Sen. Tom Roberts (D-Dayton).

“I provided testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Wyderski says. “I talked about the historical aspects of marijuana — it was a medicine back in the 1800s and early 1900s — and the regulatory stuff that happened that led to it no longer being used medicinally even though it was on the U.S. pharmacopoeia until the early 1940s.

“Patients who have chronic, debilitating conditions do benefit and should have access to medical marijuana to be able to use it in a safe manner under medical supervision unadulterated by other substances that might be supplied if they obtain it illegally.”

SB 343 is similar to the medical marijuana legislation proposed by State Sen. Robert F. Hagan (D- Youngstown) in 2005 (see “Toking the Cure,” Issue of March 2, 2005). That law never received a hearing, but the new bill was the subject of expert testimony in November.

The bill would create a “registry identification” card for individuals who use medical marijuana for specific medical conditions. Those with a diagnosis that fits the definition of “debilitating medical condition” outlined in the legislation would be able to apply for the card and use marijuana under the supervision of a licensed medical doctor.

Those conditions include cancer, positive status for HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, Krohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries and other chronic pain syndromes.

“The Institute of Medicine report reviewed all the scientific evidence of the effectiveness of marijuana used as a medication for a variety of conditions,” Wyderski says. “Muscle spastisity for multiple sclerosis is one of the most commonly used examples, but there’s evidence it works for nausea — cancer patients who have nausea with chemotherapy.”

Under SB 343, the doctor would not actually prescribe marijuana or even supply the patient with the medicine. She would be able to advise the individual of the benefits and risks, recommend dosage, monitor reactions and provide the required diagnosis for patient registry. The patient, doctor, primary caregiver and individuals who work at sites that cultivate medical marijuana would all be protected from arrest and prosecution under state law.

That’s important, Wyderski says, because it begins to differentiate between drug use and drug abuse. In his case, he received a verbal reprimand from his own hospital for treating patients who were self-medicating with marijuana.

“I was the medical director for our outpatient clinic here in Miami Valley, and we had a lot of patients who used marijuana for pain control, to alleviate anxiety symptoms and so forth, and they were seen as bad drug abusers by our nursing staff and the administration of our clinic,” he explains. “Even though I didn’t have a lot of heartburn about it, literally they would dismiss people from the clinic. I was called out because I was allowing them to use marijuana and also prescribing other medications they needed despite the fact that they were ‘drug abusers.’

“In our policy if anybody is using an ‘illicit drug,’ marijuana being one of them, we cannot prescribe another controlled substance for that same individual. So I’m practicing bad medicine because I prescribe controlled substances for people that are using illegal drugs.”

Wyderski says that mixing the use of different drugs can cause dangerous side effects. Prescribing a “controlled substance” like codeine — a powerful painkiller — to someone taking heroin would be a bad idea, which is why his clinic requires drug screening before prescriptions are written. Disregarding the relative safety of marijuana as a medicine and putting it on par with drugs like heroine or cocaine keep a legitimate drug out of reach.

“The FDA came out with a statement in 2006 that, despite the scientific evidence of its effectiveness, marijuana’s ineffective,” Wyderski says. “So I don’t have any hope that the FDA would ever approve marijuana for prescriptive use by physicians.

“There’s a lot of marijuana research that’s missing in part because it’s so hard to do research on the medical marijuana. There are very, very few comparative studies with other drugs that are available that are FDA-approved. In some cases there have been head-to-head trials where other drugs are more effective than marijuana, which is also important information to know. It’s not just that marijuana is ineffective, just that other medications sometimes are more effective.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear a case let stand a lower court ruling that a doctor is allowed to discuss the benefits and risks of marijuana, so Ohio doctors are allowed to discuss this medical option. But when it comes to pain management and quality of life for terminally ill people, doctors need more freedom and protection.

Using unregulated herbal therapies as his example, Wyderski makes his case for passage of SD 343.

“We already have people using all kind of herbal therapies for all kinds of other things, and herbal therapies are not regulated by the FDA,” he says. “We have black cohosh for menopausal symptoms. People use ginco biloba thinking it might help their memory.

“(Marijuana) is a special plant because of abuse potential, and it probably should be controlled in some way. I think SB 343 reasonably puts into place those kinds of controls while at the same time allowing individuals to have access to a plant that does have medicinal value. It sets parameters where that substance use is supervised by a clinician.”

Original here

Dietribes: The Stories Behind 5 Holiday Treats

Allison Keene
by Allison Keene

Here are some conversation starters about your favorite holiday treats, including eggnog, gingerbread and candy canes.

1. Eggnog


Once a favored drink among the nobility and upper classes, eggnog is now enjoyed by anyone who walks into a grocery store. The word “noggin” means “small cup,” which is a good thing since making eggnog is supremely labor intensive, and possibly salmonella-inducing (so nog-in-a-box is probably still your best option). Consuming raw eggs (also an ingredient of Wassail, see below) can be risky business, but for the adventurous sorts you can find fancy recipes for the stuff here.

2. Gingerbread


From The Straight Dope, “Ginger was used in England in Anglo-Saxon days. By the late medieval period, ginger was almost as popular as pepper, and was still considered to have therapeutic or medicinal value. Geoffrey Chaucer writes in 1386, ‘they sette him roial spicery and gyngebreed.’” Recipes for gingerbread go back as far as the 14th century.

Gingerbread is also an oddly popular and hardy building material. Each year, for instance, the White House displays a gingerbread “White House” in the State Room, and a plethora of gingerbread house competitions take places all over. In fact, life has taken to imitating art with the Gingerbread houses of Martha’s Vineyard – a neighborhood of tiny, brightly painted and ornamented houses. Gingerbread houses found in the woods are best left alone.

3.Candy Canes


Legend has it that the candy cane started in Cologne, Germany around 1670, when an enterprising priest gave candy sticks to children in order to keep them quiet during services. The modern candy cane (if it can be called such) can be traced back to the 1920s, where Bob McCormack began making candy canes as special Christmas treats for his children, friends and local shopkeepers in Albany, Georgia. Making the candy was no Christmas joy - the pulling, twisting, cutting and bending could only be done on a local scale. But, in the 1950s, Bob’s brother-in-law Gregory Keller, a Catholic priest (full circle!), invented a machine to automate candy cane production. (And for the record, just because a candy cane also forms a “J’ and is eaten around Christmas doesn’t mean it has anything to do with what you think it does).

4. Fruitcake


“The worst gift is fruitcake,” Johnny Carson once suggested. “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” If that is the case, it is altogether possible this fruitcake has been passed around since cheap sugar first arrived in Europe from the colonies in the 16th century, which makes perfect sense. According to this highly entertaining article, “some goon discovered that fruit could be preserved by soaking it in successively greater concentrations of sugar, intensifying color and flavor. Not only could native plums and cherries be conserved, but heretofore unavailable fruits were soon being imported in candied form from other parts of the world. Having so much sugar-laced fruit engendered the need to dispose of it in some way—thus the fruitcake.”

If your distaste of fruitcake runs deep, you might find some enjoyment in the Annual Fruit Cake Toss in Manitou Springs, CO. It’s not all waste - comestibles must be donated to local food banks in order to participate.

5. Wassail


“Oh here we come a-wassailing / Among the leaves so green, / Oh here we come a-wandering / So fair to be seen.”

The word wassail derives from Old Norse ves heill, meaning “be well.” During the reign of Henry VIII, a caroling tradition began in England where merrymakers would carry a large wooden bowl of wassail from house to house dancing, singing and drinking (the original fraternity row keg party). The wassail was served warm and usually contained ale or cider, roasted apples, beaten eggs, sugar and spices. Soft toast was floated on the surface, and so thus potentially began the custom of drinking a toast.

Original here

French Government Censors Report on Electric Cars

The French government commissioned a report earlier this year analyzing the best options for building more efficient mass-market cars in the coming decades, but is preventing the public from reading the results. The 129-page report produced by Jean Syrota, a former French energy industry regulator, warns that the cost of all-electric cars—roughly double that of conventional cars—is not economically viable. The report also identifies limited driving range and performance, and unsatisfactory battery technology, as major obstacles.

The report was completed to coincide with the 2008 Paris Motor Show in October, but “the government has continued to sit on it and seems reluctant to ever publish it,” according to a column in the Financial Times.

The authors point specifically to Mr. Sarkozy, and his relationship with companies developing electric cars, as the probable reason why France “spiked the report.” The Financial Times characterized Vincent Bolloré and Serge Dassault as Mr. Sarkozy’s “business chums.”

Pininfarina B0

The Pininfarina B0 (B Zero) has a 153-mile range and a top speed of 80 miles per hour.

The Business Chums: Bolloré and Dassault

Vincent Bolloré, the French industrialist and corporate raider, is a major investor in Pininfarina, the maker of the B0 (B Zero) all-electric car. The company unveiled the B0 at the 2008 Paris Motor Show, where the government failed to release the Syrota report. Bolloré's industrial conglomerate also owns a battery business.

Aerospace tycoon Serge Dassault and his family have an estimated net worth of more than US $6 billion. The French government recently awarded Dassault Aviation the sole contract to develop a military fighter drone. In 2003, Groupe Dassault, along with Hydro-Québec and Groupe Heuliez, announced plans to mass-market electric vehicles. Mr. Dassault said, “We are very confident we will succeed in implementing an electric vehicle in Europe.” In 2006, Dassault bought Heuliez, and formed a subsidiary SVE (Societe de Vehicules Electriques) to develop electric-drive systems and vehicles.


Dassault-Heuliez turned a Fiat Doblo (closely resembling the Renault Kangoo shown here) into an all-electric vehicle to promote its “Cleanova” electric car technology at the 2007 Geneva Motor Show.

The Syrota report looked beyond electric cars to a multi-pronged approach to making cleaner and more efficient cars, including:

  • Improving the efficiency of traditional engines, and limiting vehicle top speeds to about 105 miles per hour to cut carbon emissions by 30 – 40 percent
  • Using stop-start systems, which avoid burning gasoline when a car has stopped, for carbon reductions from 10 – 30 percent
  • Avoiding the need to install costly battery recharging infrastructures by deploying hybrid gas-electric cars that can “run on clean electricity for short urban trips while switching over to fuel on motorways.”
  • Developing more energy efficient tires

According to LePoint, a French publication, the French government has not yet officially published the Syrota report because of political reasons. LePoint has obtained a copy of the report which it posted on its website.

By withholding the commissioned report, the French government has denied the ability of electric car advocates—who would certainly disagree with the report’s conclusions—to present countervailing arguments about the benefits and drawbacks of electric vehicles.

Under a recent tax reform in France, up to 50 percent of the expenses of developing an electric vehicle became deductible. Few, if any, of Europe's electric cars are expected to be brought to US markets.

Original here

3 Christmas Causes for the Web 2.0 in You

Is it truly better to give than to receive? Come on, fling off the Scrooge top hat like you just got your degree and exorcise the ghost of Christmas past forever. Opportunities, to let the Xmas Spirit rebuke the Gordon Gecko out of you, rain cyberspace confetti on Web 2.0 platforms for the holidays.

3. Techipedia is holding a contest, sponsored by Sears, that allows entrants to pick one out of 3 packages they wish they could give to somebody for Christmas. I messed my entry up writing, "i'd take the camping packing package; but the closest i get to camping is grilling steak on my fire escape; one family package please; hold the family; mine is enough trouble."

Well even if I would have followed the rules to the letter, nobody for whom I would wish the camping package would want to camp out on a subway platform anyway; well almost nobody. The only woods around here have horse trails full of galloping stallions; so unless one of my friends wants to wake up with a horse shoe print branded on their foreheads and missing more ribs than Adam, I doubt any would want the camping package. The Family Fun, tech oriented, package is most appropriate for couch mashing, Corona guzzling New Yorkers with whom I consort. Leave a comment on Techipedia to participate.

2. My man, Brent, put me on to Reddit's project, which is making volunteers who donate at least 2 hours on a Feed A Need charity project before February 14, 2008 eligible to win more prizes than the gift bags distributed to stars at award shows. Participants will be eligible to win Xbox 360's, $200 ticket vouchers from TicketStumbler, a new Dell Computer, so much schwag you'll be able to hold a one-man expo. Reddit is even allowing you to partner up with them by donating "something awesome;" no left over pork chops or chicken rice please.

1. My joy to the world comes no less from St. Nick in the flesh: yours truly never falsely ;) The lies communicated to children of my nonexistence should have ended yesterday. Blasphemous infidels who continue to spread these lies should bunker down with Osama in a cold cave using 5 stones as pillows; you want a blanket go stab a bear.

Merry Christmas media socialites. Remember, Santa Lives!!!

Is it truly better to give than to receive? Come on, fling off the Scrooge top hat like you just got your degree and exorcise the ghost of Christmas past forever. Opportunities, to let the Xmas Spirit...
Is it truly better to give than to receive? Come on, fling off the Scrooge top hat like you just got your degree and exorcise the ghost of Christmas past forever. Opportunities, to let the Xmas Spirit...

Original here

5 Questions on the Origins of Christmas

Streeter Seidell
by Streeter Seidell


The traditions we associate with Christmas have evolved over the centuries. Here are answers to five questions about these traditions, from the date we choose to celebrate to the origin of Santa.

1. Why do we celebrate on December 25th?

The Bible makes no mention of Jesus being born on December 25th and, as more than one historian has pointed out, why would shepherds be tending to their flock in the middle of winter? So why is that the day we celebrate? Well, either Christian holidays miraculously fall on the same days as pagan ones or the Christians have been crafty in converting pagan populations to religion by placing important Christian holidays on the same days as pagan ones. And people had been celebrating on December 25th (and the surrounding weeks) for centuries by the time Jesus showed up.

The Winter Solstice, falling on or around December 21st, was and is celebrated around the world as the beginning of the end of winter. It is the shortest day and longest night and its passing signifies that spring is on the way. In Scandinavian countries, they celebrated the solstice with a holiday called Yule last from the 21st until January and burned a Yule log the whole time.

In Rome, Saturnalia—a celebration of Saturn, the God of agriculture—lasted the entire end of the year and was marked by mass intoxication (a tradition your uncle still upholds to this day). In the middle of this, the Romans celebrated the birth of another God, Mithra (a child God), whose holiday celebrated the children of Rome.

When the Christianity became the official religion of Rome, there was no Christmas. It was not until the 4th century that Pope Julius I declared the birth of Jesus to be a holiday and picked December 25th as the celebration day. By the middle ages, most people celebrated the holiday we know as Christmas.

2. How did Americans come to love the holiday?

The American Christmas is, like most American holidays, a mishmash of Old World customs mixed with American inventions. While Christmas was celebrated in America from the time of the Jamestown settlement, our modern idea of the holiday didn’t take root until the 19th century. The History Channel credits Washington Irving with getting the ball rolling. In 1819 he published The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., an account of a Christmas celebration in which a rich family invites poor folk into their house to celebrate the holiday.

The problem (if you’re so inclined to call it such) was that many of the activities described in Irving’s work, such as crowning a Lord of Misrule, were entirely fictional. Nonetheless, Irving began to steer Christmas celebrations away from drunken debauchery and towards wholesome, charitable fun. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, Christmas gained popularity and Americans adopted old customs or invented new ones, such as Christmas tress, greeting cards, giving gifts and eating a whole roasted pig (or is that just my family?).

3. Who popularized Christmas trees?

ChristmasTree.jpgSince time immortal, humans have been fascinated with the color green and plants that stay green through winter. Many ancient societies—from Romans to Vikings—would decorate their homes and temples with evergreens in the winter as a symbol of the returning growing season.

But the Christmas tree didn’t get going until some intrepid German dragged home and decorated a tree in the 16th century. Legend has it that Martin Luther himself added lighted candles to his family’s tree, starting the trend (and leading to countless fires through the years). In America, the Christmas tree didn’t catch on until 1846 when the British royals, Queen Victoria and the German Prince Albert, were shown with a Christmas tree in a newspaper. Fashionable people in America mimicked the Royals and the tree thing spread outside of German enclaves in America. Ornaments, courtesy of Germany, and electric lights, courtesy of Thomas Edison’s assistants, were added over the years and we haven’t changed much since.

4. What’s the deal with Santa Claus?

The jolly, red-suited man who sneaks into your home every year to leave you gifts hasn’t always been so jolly. The real Saint Nick was a Turkish monk who lived in the 3rd century. He was known for being charitable and selfless, eventually becoming the patron saint of sailors and children. According to legend, he was a rich man thanks to an inheritance from his parents, but he gave it all away in the form of gifts to the less-fortunate. He eventually became the most popular saint in Europe and, through his alter ego, Santa Claus, remains so to this day. But how did a long-dead Turkish monk become a big, fat, reindeer-riding pole dweller?

The Dutch got the ball rolling be celebrating the saint—called Sinter Klaas—in New York in the late-18th century. Our old friend, Washington Irving, included the legend of Saint Nick in his seminal History of New-York as well, but at the turn of the 18th century, Saint Nick was still a rather obscure figure in America.

On December 23, 1823, though, a man named Clement Clarke Moore published a poem he had written for his daughters called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known now as “T’was the Night Before Christmas.” Nobody knows how much of the poem Moore invented, but we do know that it was the spark that eventually lit the Santa fire (just hopefully not in the same fireplace he slips down on Christmas Eve). Many of the things we associate with Santa—a sleigh, reindeer, Christmas Eve visits—came from Moore’s poem.

coke-santa.jpgFrom 1863-1886, Thomas Nast’s illustrations of Santa Claus appeared in Harper’s Weekly—including a scene with Santa giving gifts to Union soldiers. Not much has changed since the second half of the 19th century: Santa still gets pulled in a sleigh by flying reindeer, he still wears the big red suit and he still sneaks down chimneys to drop off presents. Contrary to popular belief, the Coca-Cola company did not invent the modern Santa. They did, however, learn how to use his image to get parents to buy soda during winter.

5. Who invented Rudolph?

Santa did get one more friend in 1939. Robert May, a copywriter for the Montgomery Ward department store chain, wrote a little story about a 9th reindeer with a disturbing red nose for a booklet to give customers during the holiday season. Ten years later, May’s brother would put the story to music, writing the lyrics and melody.

Original here

Florida Woman Says Former Church Plans to Make Her Sins Public

Rebecca Hancock told that Grace Community Church, a non-denominational church in Jacksonville, Fla., was against her relationship with boyfriend Frank Young because the two were sexually active but not married.

When she wasn’t willing to obey the church's orders to leave him, she decided to leave the church instead, allowing her two children to remain active members.

Now, she says, church elders have given her the worst ultimatum yet: In a Dec. 8 letter, they told her she either has to meet with them and end her "immoral" relationship or she will face public humiliation.

“Bottom line, on January they 4th they are going to the church publicly with my sins, and my children will be sitting in church at the time,” Hancock told

A church leader wouldn't commit to an interview when contacted Thursday by The Rev. T. Scott Christmas, pastor of the church, told the Florida Times-Union that the "process of loving accountability" is made very clear to members, and the church is doing "nothing more than following the practices of what biblical churches have done through history."

Hancock, who is divorced, said the problems began in March, when she started telling her church mentor about her relationship — in what she thought were confidential conversations.

“As it progressed I told her about it and she said, 'You’ve got to get out, you’re biblically wrong,'” Hancock said.

Despite knowing her relationship was against church rules, Hancock said she never realized that disclosing it would trigger the first in a three-step process used by the church to deal with sinners: private admonishment, admonishment in the presence of witnesses and finally public admonishment.

Still, she said she tried to follow her mentor’s advice and break up with Young, who wasn't a member of the church.

“I must have gone through 10 breakups trying to end it, but after not having the power to do it I would go back,” she said. “It was hard to give up somebody I love.”

Hancock learned that her private sessions with her mentor hadn’t been so private after all, when in October her mentor pulled her aside in church and asked her come into another room.

“In the room, there were several women that I never told my business to. And they proceeded to tell me about my business and what I was doing and what a sinner I was — just persecuting me.” Hancock said. “One of the ladies was even saying ‘I was at your house when you didn’t come home all night.’"

It was then that Hancock said she decided to leave Grace Community Church.

“I told them, ‘I cannot believe you people are doing this. I’m not going any further — I’m never coming here again,’” she recalled.

Her boyfriend said the church wouldn’t let it end there.

“The pastor kept calling her, and I informed him that she [Hancock] would appreciate it if neither he nor any member of his church contacted her ever again,” Young told

Almost two months later, Hancock received the letter from the elders of Grace Community Church, explaining that she had left them no choice but to continue the disciplinary process.

“Your refusal to repent and be restored in your relationship with God and His Church leaves us with no alternative than to carry out the third step of the discipline process,” the letter explained. “In accordance with Matthew 18:17, we intend to ‘tell it to the church.’”

Darrell L. Bock, a research professor for the Dallas Theological Seminary, said that public admonishment is not uncommon in churches that focus on discipline but added, "Most churches would handle this much more privately than this particular community is choosing to do."

This kind of process normally would happen after "much more private interaction" with the person, Block said, and is normally reserved for church leaders as opposed to "a normal member of the church."

More importantly, he said, the actions are unusual given that Hancock had severed her relationship with the church.

Hancock sent a formal letter of resignation after receiving the elders' ultimatum in hopes of solving the dispute. She said she fears for her 20-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter if the church carries out its threat.

“I don’t really care what they do to me. But I am concerned about my children sitting in church with their mother being crucified by the church that they trust,” she said. “I am very concerned about how it would affect them.”

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Possible da Vinci sketches found on back of oil

Can you see anything? Infrared image shows drawings on the back of Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin And Child With St Anne.

Can you see anything? Infrared image shows drawings on the back of Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin And Child With St Anne. (Reuters: E Lambert/C2RMF)

Three sketches possibly drawn by Leonardo da Vinci have been found on the back of one of the master's major works.

Describing the find as "an exceptional discovery", the Louvre museum said in a statement that the drawings were found when da Vinci 1500s oil Virgin And Child With St Anne was undergoing routine examination in the laboratory.

"When taking down the work - an oil on wood - a curator from the paintings department noticed two barely visible sketches on the back, representing a horse's head and half a skull," the Louvre said.

Further examination revealed a third sketch, a Baby Jesus and Lamb.

"This is an exceptional discovery as sketches on backs of works are very rare and there is no known example of one from Leonardo to this day," it added.

The sketches, which are practically invisible to the naked eye, had never been noticed in the past when handling the extremely heavy work.

The work is made of four vertical planks of poplar backed by two horizontal wooden crosspieces.

After noting the presence of the two sketches, the back of the work was sent for further examination and the third sketch seen.

"While the style of the sketches evokes Leonardo da Vinci, research is continuing," the Louvre said.

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