Monday, December 22, 2008

New skin cell technique gives hope for sufferers of fatal muscle-wasting disease

By Fiona Macrae

Scientists have successfully created nerve cells from skin cells in a breakthrough
that offers hope for those with a fatal muscle-wasting disease.

The transformation opens the way for treatments for spinal muscular atrophy, an inherited disease for which there is no cure.

Researchers took cells from a boy sufferer’s skin and turned them into stem cells – which have the power to grow into any kind of tissue in the body – and then into nerve cells, which displayed the hallmarks of the disease.

Researchers turned skin cells taken from a sick boy into stem cells, and then into nerve cells

Researchers turned skin cells taken from a sick boy into stem cells, and then into nerve cells

These can now be studied to unlock the secrets of how the disease progresses and possible treatments. As the illness takes hold, the nerves that control muscles for moving, talking and swallowing gradually deteriorate.

Around 70 babies a year are born with spinal muscular atrophy and most die by the age of two, with treatment limited to physiotherapy and other types of supportive care.

British experts in muscular diseases described the U.S. breakthrough as a ‘crucial step forward’ in the search for treatments.

The procedure also avoids the ethical issue of destroying embryos to harvest stem cells, which has proved controversial.

Dr Maria Pohlschmidt, of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, said: ‘We hope this technique will speed up the research for a treatment for spinal muscular atrophy so that one day parents will not lose their very young children to this devastating disease.’

The research, carried out at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, used a new technique that can produce stem cells from skin.

The scientists used chemicals to coax the stem cells made from the skin of a boy with the disease to turn into nerve cells.

When these were grown in the lab, they quickly started to die, the journal Nature reports.

Researcher Professor Clive Svendsen said further study into such cells could give vital insights into the progression of the illness.

‘When scientists study diseases in humans, they can normally only look at the tissues affected after death and then try to work out – how did that disease happen?,’ he said.

‘Now you can replay the human disease over and over in the dish and ask what are the very early steps that began the process. It’s an incredibly powerful new tool.’

Fellow researcher Dr Allison Ebert said: ‘If we start to understand more of the mechanism of why the motor neurons specifically affected in the disease are dying, then potentially therapies can be developed to intervene at particular times early in development.’

Professor Robert Lovell-Badge, a stem cell expert at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, cautioned that the work was at an early stage.

But he added: ‘This work should provide a little cheer for all those who have to deal with spinal muscular atrophy patients in their families or their clinic.’

An estimated one million Britons are carriers of Spinal Muscular Atrophy – about 1 in 50 – and around one in 10,000 babies are affected.

The illness affects the nerves in an area of the spinal cord, breaking the link between the brain and the muscles, meaning they can’t be used and become wasted or atrophied.

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Making Hospitals Greener — and Patients Healthier

By Judith D. Schwartz

Ear thermometers use an infrared beam to detect temperature, rather than mercury.
Ear thermometers use an infrared beam to detect temperature, rather than mercury.

A doctor's principle code is, "First, do no harm." The irony is that your doctor's office or hospital may be making you sicker. Indeed, many hospitals are built with materials, like particleboard, PVC flooring and even conventional paint, that can leach poisonous substances. What's more, the chemicals used to clean hospitals — chlorine, laundry detergents and softeners, ammonia — contain toxic ingredients and can cause respiratory disease. In fact, studies suggest that nurses, who spend long hours at the hospital, have among the highest rates of environmentally induced asthma of any profession.

In the typical hospital, "while we are trying to treat or cure illness and disease...we expose our staff and patients to irritants and carcinogens, and our treatments often contribute to the development of other diseases," says Dr. Kristin Bradford, a family physician in Willits, Calif.

Enter "green medicine" — the effort to detoxify the healing environment and enhance patients' and employees' health, while reducing costs all around. The international advocacy group Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) — whose 2006 study of 1,200 nurses suggested a link between the hospital environmental and health problems among the staff — has been a pioneer in the movement, recently initiating collaborative research among major U.S. health systems to document how removing toxins from the environment impacts worker safety and lost time due to employee illness.

It was HCWH, for example, that in the mid-1990s got U.S. hospitals to stop using thermometers containing mercury, a potent neurotoxin associated with health problems, such as respiratory, kidney and gastrointestinal disorders, as well as interruption of fetal development (which occurs when pregnant women consume too much mercury, usually through fish). Today most hospitals have swapped out their mercury-based measuring devices — including sphygmanometers, which are used to measure blood pressure and contain more mercury than thermometers — for safer alternatives.

The problem with mercury is, of course, that it can escape — think how easy it is to break a thermometer. The vast majority of health-care-related mercury emissions, however, happen outside hospital walls. "When we started HCWH, in 1996, medical-waste incinerators [generated] 10% of all mercury air emissions as well as being a major source of mercury water emissions," says Gary Cohen, a co-founder and co-executive director of HCWH. In 1997, the last year for which data is available, according to the EPA, the health-care sector was the country's fourth largest source of mercury emissions, and mercury fever thermometers alone accounted for about 17 tons of mercury deposited yearly in solid waste landfills. Despite the lack of hard data, industry watchers estimate that the phase-out of mercury-based instruments has greatly reduced that burden.

Over the same time period, hospitals began eliminating their incinerators altogether, reducing one of the toxic byproducts of burning waste: dioxins. Says Gary Cohen: "In 1996 there were 4,200 medical incinerators in the country. Now there are 83."

Cohen says that the HCWH is now also urging hospitals to replace their ubiquitous PVC (vinyl) flooring with rubber floors. PVC can emit toxins such as dioxin and phthalates, particularly when wet, which studies suggest may affect reproductive health and fetal development, and may also trigger asthma. "Hospitals change to rubber flooring because of the toxic emissions," says Cohen, "As it turns out, switching to rubber actually cuts down on noise and reduces slips and falls, which are also a threat to patient and worker safety."

The investment in new flooring, says Cohen, also saves hospitals money, if one considers the costs over the entire life cycle of a produc. Although PVC flooring is cheap to buy, it ends up costing more later; its tendency to become brittle requires frequent maintenance or replacement. The environmental costs are high as well. With PVC flooring, "the manufacturing process creates dioxin. In the end, it is burned, releasing additional dioxin. In between, there's the [emission] of phthalates," says Cohen, noting that PVC is found throughout the hospital, not only in flooring, but also in shower curtains, blood bags and intravenous tubing. "If you can have a safer IV system without exposing patients to toxic substances, especially pregnant women and babies in the neonatal intensive care unit, then hospitals have a responsibility to replace PVC with safer alternatives." Fortunately, safer alternatives exist and may cost as much or less as PVC products.

Hospitals have also managed to save money by greening their cleaning supplies. The Hackensack University Medical Center's pediatric oncology center in New Jersey swapped its toxic-chemical-laden cleaners for its own custom-made natural products, dropping cleaning costs by 15% — and, more important, minimizing employees' and young patients' exposure to irritants and harsh substances, such as ammonia. The hospital has also developed a "Greening the Cleaning" program for other hospitals, schools and organizations and, more recently, even began selling a consumer product line that includes laundry detergent and glass cleaner.

The idea of greener — and cheaper — health is catching on fast among health-care CEOs. Some 150 registered health-care industry construction projects currently underway — involving about 30 million sq. ft. of new building space — have pledged to adopt the Green Guide for Health Care (GGHC), a sustainable design toolkit developed in part by HCWH, which helps the health-care sector construct healthier buildings from the start, according to Cohen. For example, the guide suggests ways to maintain indoor air quality, as indoor pollution can cause or aggravate many health conditions and threaten the well-being of patients with compromised immune systems.

But much can be done without building anew, and although support at the executive level is crucial, the impetus for change can come from any member of the staff. At the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in Calif., for instance, Joy Colangelo, an occupational therapist, helped launch the "Green Team" about six months ago. The team's first task was to do a "waste audit" in order to tally unnecessary expenditures, says Colangelo. She found that the hospital's heart department was churning out 20 pages of patient-identification labels per patient, but using only six.

Beyond cutting down waste, says Colangelo, the hospital also attempts to wield the "power of aesthetics to heal," with musical performances, a koi pond filled with 70 koi in the atrium, a "healing garden" and a nursing floor that wraps around a waterfall and patio. All patient rooms also have large windows that provide views of nature and lots of natural light — which cuts electricity costs and is associated with high staff morale and better patient outcomes. "Our green efforts are done under the premise that we have two patients, the environment and the ill patient," says Colangelo, "and the ill patient can't get well without improving our environment."

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The science of the hangover

Thumping head, dry mouth, bleary eyes, patchy memory - the hangover fug is familiar to many. But why does alcohol make us feel so dreadful? Even though human beings have suffered from hangovers for thousands of years, we're still largely in the dark as to exactly why they happen, and how to cure them. Researchers this week revealed that many hangover cures simply don't work. The only sure-fire cure, they say, is not to get drunk in the first place. If only it were that simple. Here is what scientists believe takes place in the body after a big night out on the town.


Headache Scientists believe that those throbbing, relentless hangover headaches are due to a number of factors. The first is dehydration. Alcohol prevents the release of a hormone responsible for retaining water in the body. As a result, the kidneys no longer conserve water and more fluid is excreted as urine. Moreover, alcohol widens the blood vessels in the head, adding to the pain.

Concentration Avoid any task that requires more than half a brain. Studies suggest that hangover misery interferes with both short-term memory and concentration. One study of military pilots revealed that flying ability was still impaired eight to 14 hours after drinking, especially in older pilots. Some studies suggest that dehydration might be to blame, while others believe that acetaldehyde, a product of alcohol breakdown, may have an impact, along with sleep deprivation. Despite alcohol sending us to sleep, it worsens the quality of our shuteye, leaving people incredibly tired in the morning.

Mood The world is usually not a happy place when you awake after a big night on the tiles. Hangovers increase depression, anxiety and irritability. Scientists are still unsure exactly how alcohol exerts its mind-bending affects, but believe that it is a combination of sleep deprivation, a lack of serotonin - a mood-enhancing chemical in our brain - and an alcohol-induced drop in blood sugar. And the dizziness and light-headedness? Also due to dehydration, say researchers.

Eyes A telltale sign of a heavy night, eyes become puffy, sore and bloodshot. Alcohol causes blood vessels in the eyes to dilate and dehydration leaves them feeling dry.

Mouth The mouth and throat feel dry, furry and generally disgusting. This is caused by dehydration and is worsened by smoking.

Nervous system As anyone knows who has fallen asleep in the corner of a pub, alcohol is a sedative. But to make sure that we don't slip into unconsciousness, our nervous system steps up a gear and becomes more alert. When the alcohol leaves our body, however, the nervous system remains in a hyperactive state, leading to sweating, shaking and sensitivity to light, sound and touch. Further, sleep deprivation can aggravate these symptoms.

Heart Heart rate increases, possibly as a result of alcohol interfering with the body's nervous system. Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to cardiomyopathy - damage to the heart muscle.

Liver Alcohol cannot be stored in the body and so is broken down in the liver. In this two-step process, alcohol is turned into acetaldehyde, which then becomes acetate. However, this process is slow - one unit of alcohol is metabolised every hour. It is widely believed that acetaldehyde may contribute to the misery of the hangover, as accumulation in the blood causes rapid pulse, sweating, skin flushing, nausea and vomiting. Some people lack a molecule that breaks down this compound and become ill soon after drinking. Further, alcohol metabolism leads to an accumulation of fatty compounds in the liver and lactic acid in the body fluids. These inhibit glucose production, leading to low blood sugar.

Body temperature Ever felt a bit hot under the collar when you're suffering with a hangover? Alcohol may interfere with the production of hormones that control the 24-hour body clock, leading to body temperature being abnormally high.

Stomach Alcohol irritates the stomach lining and delays it emptying, leading to nausea and vomiting.

Kidneys Alcohol affects the hormones that control water balance in the body. As a result, the kidneys fail to reabsorb water and the body becomes dehydrated.

Intestines The intestines begin to work faster after alcohol is consumed and food and liquid take less time to pass through. The ability to absorb water out of the stools is also impaired, leading to diarrhoea.

Pancreas Production of digestive juices is increased, leading to upper abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.

Muscles Everything is an effort when you have a hangover. Muscle weakness and general fatigue are a result of low blood sugar and dehydration. The latter, together with an accumulation of lactic acid from alcohol metabolism, can cause foot and leg cramp.

Relieve the pain

Studies suggest that one person in three never gets a hangover. For those of us not so fortunate, here's how to tackle them.

Eating a substantial meal before you start drinking will slow alcohol absorption. And despite feeling ropey the following morning, always try to eat breakfast. It will raise your blood sugar back to normal levels, making you feel much better.

Intersperse your drinks with a few sly glasses of water - it will help to prevent dehydration, and may lessen your hangover misery. When the hangover has kicked in, drinking water will ease its severity, but won't banish it completely. Caffeine may worsen your dehydration, so avoid drinking lots of tea and coffee.

Avoid brandy, red wine and rum. Dark-coloured drinks contain high concentrations of congeners, compounds that may worsen hangovers.

Sleep it off. A study this week found that many hangover remedies, from artichoke to vegemite, don't work. So, why not use the age-old solution of simply going back to bed.

Dr Martyn Lobley, GP and Times columnist

Hangover symptoms result from a combination of dehydration, low blood sugar and the build-up of lactic acid in your muscles. As soon as you get home take some ibuprofen with a large glass of fresh orange juice. When you wake up, go for a gentle walk to flush out the lactic acid - take a bottle of water along.

Hilly Janes, editor, Body&Soul

I'd follow Dr Lobley's orders, swapping juice for as much water as I can drink. Then as soon as you are able the morning after, have a bacon sandwich with white bread and lashings of hot strong tea. A perfect balance of carbs,fat, protein, salt,caffeine and fluid to perk you up again.

Matt Roberts,Times fitness expert

When I have a hangover, I never go mad with exercise. A brisk walk is enough to wake me up. My favourite hangover breakfast is poached eggs with wholemeal toast. Not too heavy, but enough to settle the stomach. To accompany, I have an orange juice and a cup of tea, with a teaspoon of sugar.

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Maryland Students Use Speed Cameras for Revenge

Students in Montgomery County, Maryland use fake license plates to send speed camera tickets to enemies.

Maryland plate, photo by Amy the Nurse/FlickrHigh school students in Maryland are using speed cameras as a tool to fine innocent drivers in a game, according to the Montgomery County Sentinel newspaper. Because photo enforcement devices will automatically mail out a ticket to any registered vehicle owner based solely on a photograph of a license plate, any driver could receive a ticket if someone else creates a duplicate of his license plate and drives quickly past a speed camera. The private companies that mail out the tickets often do not bother to verify whether vehicle registration information for the accused vehicle matches the photographed vehicle.

In the UK, this is known as number plate cloning, where thieves will find the license information of a vehicle similar in appearance to the one they wish to drive. They will use that information to purchase a real license plate from a private vendor using the other vehicle's numbers. This allows the "cloned" vehicle to avoid all automated punishment systems. According to the Sentinel, two Rockville, Maryland high schools call their version of cloning the "speed camera pimping game."

A speed camera is located out in front of Wootton High School, providing a convenient location for generating the false tickets. Instead of purchasing license plates, students have ready access to laser printers that can create duplicate license plates using glossy paper using readily available fonts. For example, the state name of "Maryland" appears on plates in a font similar to Garamond Number 5 Swash Italic. Once the camera flashes, the driver can quickly pull over and remove the fake paper plate. The victim will receive a $40 ticket in the mail weeks later. According to the Sentinel, students at Richard Montgomery High School have also participated, although Montgomery County officials deny having seen any evidence of faked speed camera tickets.

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Saving Detroit

By Lawrence Ulrich of MSN autos

If anyone could use a hug right now, it’s the three automakers from Detroit. Thankfully, it just came from outgoing President George W. Bush in the form of a $13.4 billion loan, drawn from the $700-billion financial rescue fund. Of the sanctioned amount, General Motors will get $9.4 billion while $4 billion will be given to Chrysler LLC, according to the U.S. government. Another $4 billion will be made available to Chrysler and GM in February as well. Now, the Big Three have until March 31 to get their acts together, or else.

Sounds a little harsh, well tough love is about all the automakers can expect — and should expect — from the American people and lawmakers in Washington, D.C. these days. When you’ve been leaking market share for decades, your business model is cracked like an old engine block, and you’re asking taxpayers to bail you out with billions they can’t spare right now, some skepticism is in order.

But the question still remains: Do they deserve this reprieve?

And then I slip behind the wheel of the 2009 Corvette ZR1 and blast down the Las Vegas Strip. This $105,000 land rocket is fast and formidable enough to make most Ferraris and Porsches quiver like schoolgirls; it has a top speed of 205 mph and is as nimble as a gazelle. And as I leave the glitzy hotels behind for the speedy straight-aways of the desert outside Las Vegas, I realize if Detroit’s tormentors spent even five minutes in this magnificent machine they’d know the truth: The Big Three can still build a world-class car — at least when they put their minds to it.

2009 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe (© General Motors) Click picture to enlarge
2009 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe

Now before you scoff and say, “What’s a 638-horsepower sports car got to do with anything?” consider this: The point is not that the Corvette is the solution to GM’s problems. The point is that if Detroit can build a sports car that’s a sales sensation and acclaimed the world over, there’s no reason it can’t do the same with economy cars, luxury cars, hybrids, you name it. That is, if they survive long enough to get their collective acts together.

The ‘Vette isn’t the only car that runs roughshod over the notion that nobody wants the Big Three’s wares. If that were true, then GM wouldn’t have outsold Toyota by 1.2 million cars in the U.S. in 2007. Yet, if one or more of these companies does fade away, America will miss out on some worthwhile machines.

We’ve assembled a list of the Detroit cars most worth saving. The list is revealing, spotlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the Big Three. Our terrific 10 includes a pickup truck, a minivan and two crossover utility vehicles. Yes, Detroit still knows how to build a great truck.

Yet no current Detroit compact car makes our list. (The German-built Saturn Astra comes closest.) And when it comes to the smallest subcompacts, GM, Ford and Chrysler don’t even offer one, so that entire category is one big “incomplete.” For GM and Ford, the cavalry is coming beginning in 2010, with pint-sized cars that are both critical and sales hits in Europe and Asia. GM is slated to start selling the plug-in Chevy Volt Hybrid in late 2009. But those cars can’t get here soon enough.

I’m convinced that most Americans want to see Detroit survive. And many buyers would be willing to give the Big Three another chance. But Detroit has to earn their trust, and not just by revamping the way it does business. Consistently creating great products remains the biggest challenge for the hometown team. Big strides have already been made in quality, technology and, yes, even fuel economy. If you don’t believe it, take a spin in one of these cars. If every Motown model were as good as these, Americans would be handing over cash instead of being asked for a handout.

Cadillac CTS

I’ve driven the standard CTS on the Nürburgring track in Germany, and the insane CTS-V (sport version) at a road course in New York’s Catskills. That’s fitting, because the CTS is not only America’s best luxury sedan but a car that can hang with any of the big names on Germany’s autobahn. The supercharged 556-horsepower CTS-V is the giant killer, but everyday buyers should check out the more modestly priced 304-horsepower V6 version.

Chevrolet Corvette

2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 (© General Motors) Click picture to enlarge
2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1

From the roughly $50,000 430-horsepower standard model to the 505-horsepower Z06 to the supercharged ZR1, the Corvette is inarguably the bang-for-the-buck sports car champ. And while driving a ‘Vette is like saddling up a cruise missile, the Chevy also delivers surprisingly practical luggage space and decent fuel economy, easily reaching 25 mpg on a highway cruise. If every American car had the ‘Vette’s can-do spirit, the industry would be slapping the competition silly.

GMC Acadia

2007 GMC Acadia Click picture to enlarge
2007 GMC Acadia

Chevrolet Malibu

2008 Chevrolet Malibu (© General Motors) Click picture to enlarge
2008 Chevrolet Malibu

The redesigned Malibu and its near-twin, the Saturn Aura, pulled off a rare feat: each winning the North American Car of the Year award back-to-back. These marvelous midsizes are straight-up competitors to the Honda Accord and are superior to the Toyota Camry in refined handling, passenger comfort and interior design. If you’re shopping for a family sedan, take the Malibu for a spin and prepare to be surprised.

Ford F-150

2009 Ford F-150 Platinum (© Ford Motor Company) Click picture to enlarge
2009 Ford F-150 Platinum

Honestly, all three domestic pickups — the new-for-’09 Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram, and the Chevy Silverado — could tow and haul their way to a spot on this list. (This is cowboy country after all.) But we’ll single out the F-150 for its best-in-class V8 fuel economy, classy interior and big-load capability.


Pontiac G8

2008 Pontiac G8 GT (© General Motors) Click picture to enlarge
2008 Pontiac G8 GT

The G8 might be America’s most criminally overlooked car. Hailing from Down Under, a remake of a Holden from GM’s Aussie division, the G8 GT is a true budget BMW, a 361-horsepower V8 sport sedan for barely 30 grand. Yet the handsome G8 is equally at home ferrying the groceries and kids. Starting at around $28,000, the V6 model puts out a healthy 256 horsepower with a reasonable 25 highway mpg.

Dodge Challenger

2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8 (© Chrysler LLC) Click picture to enlarge
2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8

The Challenger may not be the perfect car for the times. But few cars draw a crowd like this menacing blast from the muscle-car past. The V6 version offers the best mileage and the lowest price — barely $21,000 to start — but street racers may look at you sideways. The SRT8 is a bellowing monster with 425 horsepower but a major fuel appetite. The R/T trim, with its 370-horsepower V8, is the smart way to split the difference.

Chrysler Town & Country

2008 Chrysler Town & Country Click picture to enlarge
2008 Chrysler Town & Country

Is the Chrysler the best minivan on the market? No — the Honda Odyssey handles better and is more refined inside. But Chrysler, which saved its bacon once before by inventing the minivan in the ‘80s, still makes a fine family hauler with features you can’t find in the competition. Those include Sirius satellite TV and second-row seats that pivot to face a pop-up table, making the Town & Country a tailgater’s dream.

Ford Flex

Looking like the love child of a Range Rover and MINI Cooper, the boxy Flex nails the formula for the modern family crossover: three big rows, an interior as quiet as a luxury sedan and a Ford/Microsoft voice-controlled Sync infotainment system. The Ford’s V6 powertrain gets the job done efficiently, delivering a family-friendly 24 highway mpg.

Ford Escape Hybrid

2009 Ford Escape Hybrid (© Ford Motor Company) Click picture to enlarge
2009 Ford Escape Hybrid

Who says Detroit can’t do a hybrid? The Escape and its Mercury Mariner partner are by far the most fuel-efficient crossovers on the market, achieving 34/31 mpg in city/highway driving. Modestly redesigned for ’09, the Escape is stronger, quieter and more comfortable inside.

One More to Watch For

Ford Fusion Hybrid
Fuel-crunched buyers should mark their calendars for spring, when the $27,995 Ford Fusion sedan steps into the ring against the Toyota Camry Hybrid. But it shouldn’t be much of a battle: The Fusion will easily whip the Toyota’s fuel economy, with an expected Environmental Protection Agency rating of at least 39 mpg city and 37 highway. Why Ford CEO Alan Mulally didn’t drive a Fusion Hybrid straight from Detroit and onto the Senate floor is beyond us.

A Michigan native raised and forged in Detroit and a former auto critic at the Detroit Free Press, Lawrence Ulrich now lives in Brooklyn, New York. His reviews and features appear regularly in The New York Times, Robb Report, Popular Science and Travel + Leisure Golf.

For commentary on the latest auto industry trends or in-depth analysis of developments affecting consumers, turn to MSN Autos’ Industry Insider for the real story behind the facts and figures. Written by respected veterans in the field, Industry Insider delivers expertise and insight that helps make sense of the automotive world.

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Five Sci-Fi Rebirths For Santa Claus

By Graeme McMillan

Parents! Your child refusing to fall for the idea that Santa does everything he's supposed to by "magic"? We thought we'd help out and provide some scifi explanations for Ol' Saint Nick, just in case.

Let's look beyond the whole "Living in the North Pole and having an army of elves to do his bidding" thing - After all, that part will always be cool, no matter what. The problem that today's media-savvy younglings have with Father Christmas isn't his product placement deal with Coke, but his modus operandi. You can prove, thanks to NORAD and the internet that Santa Claus exists and does all his deliveries in one night, but how can you explain his speedy deliveries? We've come up with five possibilities to try out on uninformed brains.

In a world where we're told that small Japanese men can teleport across time and space just by blinking hard, why would it be so unusual to suggest that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer isn't a magical flying reindeer, but instead a superpowered teleporting one? It even sounds, uh, convincing-esque: "With one blink of his glowing nose, he can bend space on itself and take Santa to wherever he needs to be." Suddenly, Santa's reindeer become an animal version of the X-Men, allowing you to explain that Prancer and Dancer and Donner and Blitzen aren't any stupider names than Dazzler or Gambit (After all, there are already superheroes called Donner and Blitzen).

What if there was more than one Santa? That would easily explain how gifts can appear all across the world in one night, but if each man in this generous army happened to be the same man, then the mystique of Santa Claus is preserved - and, as an additional bonus, your child will be given another example of why scientific research into genetics (and specifically, cloning) is a good thing. An example that doesn't happen to be a prematurely-dead sheep.

Specifically, super-speed. This part of the Santa-myth has always been taken as read, I think; how else could he travel all around the world in one night? But in an era where popular culture is so dominated by superheroes that Will Smith is still allowed to walk the streets after Hancock, anyone who doesn't point out that Santa was the first superhero ever (Well, potentially the second, depending on how you want to play that whole "Jesus" thing) is missing a potential PR coup. Just get him to lose a little bit of that gut and maybe have a shave, and everyone will see what I'm getting at. He already has the distinctive outfit.

Time Travel
What if the elves build more than just games and toys for girls and boys up there in their workshop? Yes, it may have only been six years ago that Santa realized what a webcam was for (Please, no cheap jokes; children may be reading), but who's to say that that wasn't some kind of public relations fake-out to keep us from realizing just how technologically advanced the Santa Operation really is? If the technical wizards at SantaLabs had created a time machine, it would explain not only how he was able to visit all the good homes in one night, but also what he's doing for the rest of the year - Namely, traveling back in time to Christmas Eve to take care of deliveries. Or to check on who's naughty or nice. Don't worry, though; he always stays on the path.

How does every child get exactly what they want from Santa, anyway? Some say that the answer has something to do with very stressed parents trying to avoid a Christmas Morning Meltdown, but we'd rather point to nanotechnology that manages to reconfigure itself into each child's dream toy. Consider it Schrödinger's Present - before the stocking is discovered, what's inside is everytoy; it's only once the gift is opened that it settles into a permanent state as the ideal present. You may wonder just how the gifts manage to know what their ideal form is, and all we can say is... magic.

Well. You have to let the old guy keep some secrets, after all.

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