Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Christmas: Fact and Fiction

The celebration of Christmas is as nearly a universal holiday as you can get. Many non-Christian or minority Christian nations like Japan strip Christmas of most of its religious significance and celebrate it. In the U.S., it is the only national holiday which has its roots in religion. To understand why this has happened, first we have to separate truth from fiction concerning the truth about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and then understand the celebration of that birth today.


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The date of December 25 as the birthday of Jesus gained popularity only by the mid-fourth century in order that Christians could have an alternative to a popular pagan festival at this time of year. According to the old Julian calendar, December 25 was the winter solstice and it was on that day that Mithraism, a rival religion to Christianity, celebrated the birth of its god, Mithra. We have no idea exactly when Jesus was born or the real circumstances surrounding his birth.


The doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus, so central to the traditional Christmas story, was not part of the teaching of the first Christians who also remained within the Jewish faith (Luke 24:52-53). The apostle Paul makes no reference to the virginal conception by the mother of Jesus when speaking of Jesus' origins and divinity. His epistles were written during the 50's A.D. and predate all of the four gospels. Although Paul never met Jesus (who died about 30 A.D.), he personally did know James, the brother of Jesus. Yet despite this eye-witness link to Jesus, Paul apparently knows nothing of the virgin birth, for he states only that Jesus was "born of a woman" (Galatians 4:4) and was "descended from David, according to the flesh" (Romans 1:3), implying Jesus' birth was a normal one.


In addition, Matthew mistranslations an Old Testament prophecy to reinforce his belief in the virgin birth. He quotes from Isaiah, "therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14). The original Hebrew text of Isaiah uses the word almah (which means a young woman of marriageable age) and not the word bethulah (virgin). The actual text of Isaiah makes no reference to a virgin becoming pregnant other than by normal means.


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There are no first-hand accounts of the birth of Jesus. And, the story of Jesus' birth is only told in 2 of the 4 canonical gospels of The New Testament of The Bible, those of St. Matthew and St. Luke. Unfortunately, the 2 accounts do not always agree. (Note: The birth of Jesus story according to both Matthew and Luke are printed at the end of this essay.)



Points of disagreement:


· In Matthew, Jacob was Joseph's father, while in Luke, Heli was Joseph's father.


· In Matthew, The Annunciation occurred after Mary had conceived Jesus. In Luke, it occurred before conception.


· There are further discrepancies concerning the Annunciation of Mary's virginal conception. Matthew describes the annunciation of Mary's pregnancy only to Joseph, by means of an angel in a dream, but only after she has conceived (Matt. 1:18-21); whereas in Luke, the angel Gabriel explains it all to Mary, but not Joseph, before she has conceived Jesus (Luke 1:26-34). Yet, both Mary and Joseph are strangely astonished by the shepherds' tale about the heavenly host (Luke 2:18), and inexplicably puzzled by Simeon's affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah (Luke 2:33).


· In Matthew, an angel spoke to Joseph. In Luke, an angel spoke to Mary. In Matthew, he will be called Emmanuel (translation: God is with us). Instead, in Luke he was called Jesus (the Latin version of the name, Joshua).


· In Matthew, Jesus is born in a cave; in Luke, Jesus is born in a stable.


· John's gospel, contrary to Matthew and Luke, says Jesus was not born in Bethlehem and that he was not a descendant of David (John 7:41-42).


· In Matthew, following the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt where they stay until after King Herod's death in order to avoid the murder of their firstborn by Herod. Herod slaughters all male infants two years old and under. Note: John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin, though under two at the same time as Jesus is somehow spared without fleeing to Egypt. But in Luke, following the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary remain in the area of Jerusalem for the Presentation (about forty days after birth) and then return to Nazareth without ever going to Egypt.


· There is no mention of the Roman census taking place in Roman history at that time or of the King Herod's killing of the babies (a horrific act of cruelty by the hated Herod against his own people) in either Jewish history or folklore of the well-documented life of King Herod.


· Only Luke contains has the story of angels proclaiming Jesus a savior for all people and of shepherds adoring him.


· Only in Matthew, do wise men from the east follow a star to Bethlehem and bring gifts to Jesus. Note: It does not say that the wise men were kings nor does it say that there were 3 wise men. It only says that there were 3 gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.


· The concept of the star of Bethlehem is consistent with legends of the ancient world that had heavenly events portend the births of great men. In reality, no star high in the heavens can shine only on a particular town, let alone on a specific house as Matthew claims (Matt. 2:9-11). The Christmas star, rising in the east, then moving west to Jerusalem, and then going south to Bethlehem and finally remaining stationary would have defied the laws of celestial motion.


· If Herod, many people in Jerusalem knew of the messiah's birth (Matt. 2:3), and many people in Bethlehem witnessed the birth and angels in the heavens, why is it that later in Jesus' career, the same Gospel author claims that people had not heard of his miraculous origin and still questioned his miracles and his teachings (Matt. 13:54-56)?


· In ancient times it was often claimed that important people had miraculous births. Plato was said to have been born by the union of the god Apollo with his mother. Alexander the Great was said to have been conceived when a thunderbolt fell from heaven and made his mother Olympias pregnant before her marriage to Philip of Macedon. In the book of Genesis we read that sons of gods had intercourse with women to produce heroes (Gen. 6:4) Finally, the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls tell of the miraculous birth of Noah and how his father Lamech was suspicious that his wife had been made pregnant by an angel.



In fact, no one knows when Jesus was born. The best historical guess based the fact that King Herod died in 4BC places Jesus' birth at between 7 and 2BC. There is also the phenomenon of the so-called wandering star that guided the wise men from the east who, if they existed, were probably Zoroastrian Persian astrologers. At that time, there was no distinction made between stars and planets. At about the same time as Herod's death, astrologers as far away as China observed the retrograde motion of Mars (a phenomenon that looks like a "star" acting in an unusual way and was likely the wandering star of the "wise men") and would place Jesus' birth at between 5 and 3BC. In addition, the Roman census for taxation purposes in which everyone was expected to return to his ancestral home is not credible. The Roman Emperor Augustus, known for being practical and rational, would not have uprooted everyone in the Empire forcing them to return to their ancestral cities. Furthermore, most people in the empire could not trace their lineages back forty-two generations as Joseph is said to be able to do. Finally, because travel was more likely in the summer and because shepherds were "abiding in the fields" outdoors which they did not do in cold winter months, Jesus was likely to have been born in the summer and not in winter. All the other events surrounding Jesus' birth are shrouded in mystery.



The nativity stories of Matthew and Luke are generally not looked at as primarily historical accounts. Historical and critical scholars generally conclude that both the gospels ("gospel" means "good news" ) of Matthew and Luke were written by anonymous Christians writing after the fall of the Jewish temple in AD 70. Both used the earlier written Gospel of Mark, but the added birth narratives come from either tradition, hearsay, independent sources, or popular legends or myths.



Although we shall never be sure about the exact circumstances of Jesus' birth, we do know that approximately two thousand years ago, there was the birth of an extraordinary Jew in what is now called Palestine who was to profoundly change the course of human history.



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The Meaning of the Word Christmas


The word Christmas is rooted in the compound word "Christ's-Mass" . It is derived from the Middle English word, Christemass, and from the earlier Old English phrase, Cristes mæsse, first written down in 1038. "Cristes" is from Greek, Christos, and "mæsse" is from Latin missa.


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Christmas Music


As with Jews of the 1st Century, early Christians rejected the use of musical instruments in religious ceremonies and instead relied on a cappella chants and plainsongs. One of the earliest Latin Nativity hymns Veni Redemptor Getium, was composed by Saint Ambrose in the 4th century. In the 13th century, the Franciscans encouraged Christmas songs in the native languages. The hymn Adeste Fidelis (O Come All Ye Faithful) appears in its current form in the mid-18th century, although the words may have originated in the 13th century. English Christmas carols (at that time, a "carol" was defined as danceable music) first appear in a 1426, although some carols like Good King Wenceslas and The Holly and the Ivy can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages. It was only later that carols began to be sung in church. The largest body of musical works about Christ which do not quote his words, of liturgical, of carols, and of folk music deal with the Nativity of Jesus. And, most musical Biblical Nativity narratives (actual texts from The Bible) did not come about until church music assimilated opera in the 17th Century. But after that, there was a torrent of Nativity Biblically text-based music. Among them are Bach's Christmas Oratorio. And although Handle's Messiah and the Halleluiah Chorus it contains were written for the celebration of Easter, it is often performed and associated with Christmas.


The 18th century English reformer and founder of The Methodist Church, Charles Wesley (1707-1788),understood the importance of music to worship. In addition to setting many psalms to melodies, he wrote texts for at least three Christmas carols. The best known was originally entitled Hark! How All the Welkin Rings, which was later renamed Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Famous classical music composer, Felix Mendelssohn, wrote a melody adapted to fit Wesley's words.


But perhaps the most famous Christmas hymn is Silent Night . In Austria in 1818, Father Josef Mohr (1792- 1843) and Franz Gruber (1787-1863) composed the simple words and melody for Silent Night on Christmas Eve when they were faced with a broken organ at St. Nicholas Church, Oberndorf. It was first sung by the congregation of the church with a guitar accompaniment.


Completely secular Christmas seasonal songs started in the late 18th century. Deck the Halls dates from 1784, and Jingle Bells was created in 1857.


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Gift-Giving


Christmas is big business. Christmas season the most profitable time of year for businesses around the world. Gift giving was common in the Ancient Roman celebration of festival Saturnalia which took place in late December and probably influenced Christmas customs. In addition, the Nativity story contains an account of the three wise men who gave gifts to the baby Jesus. Christmas gift giving was banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages because of it pagan origins. It was later rationalized by the Church on the basis that it was done and associated with Christmas gifts given to children by St. Nicholas.


A number of figures of both Christian and mythical origin have been associated with Christmas and the seasonal giving of gifts. Among these are Father Christmas, Santa Clause, Pere Noel, Kris Kringle, Babbo Natale, and Sinterklaas


The most famous and pervasive of these figures in modern celebration worldwide is Santa Claus, a mythical gift bringer, dressed in red, whose origins have diverse sources. The name Santa Claus can be traced back to the Dutch Sinterklaas, which means simply Saint Nicholas in Dutch. St. Nicholas was the 4th Century Bishop of Myra (now in modern day Turkey). His feast on the 6th of December came to be celebrated in many countries with the giving of gifts- particularly in The Netherlands.


The modern popular image of Santa Claus, however, was created in the United States, and in particular in New York. The transformation from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus was accomplished with the help of writer Washington Irving (1783-1859) and cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840–1902). New York had originally been established as a Dutch colony and after the American Revolution the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition was reinvented as Saint Nicholas. At his first American appearance in 1810, Santa Claus was drawn in bishops' robes. However as new artists took over, Santa Claus developed more secular attire and by the 1880s, Thomas Nast's Santa had evolved into the robed, fur clad form we now recognize. The modern image of Santa Claus was created by advertisers, particularly the image of Santa Claus created by Coca Cola in the 1931.


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The Christmas Tree


The tradition of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas started in Livonia (present day Latvia and Estonia) and Germany in the 16th century. The Christmas tree is traditionally brought into the home and was for one night, Christmas Eve, decorated originally with candles. Today, it is decorated with strings of small electric lights. ornaments, garland, tinsel and almost anything else during the days around Christmas.


Legend associates the first Christmas tree was created by St. Boniface (c. 672-754) in the German town of Geismar. The legend maintains that sometime in Boniface's life, he cut down the sacred tree of the pagan Norse god, Thor, and replaced it with a fir tree said to have been the first Christmas tree. The German word Tannenbaum literally means "fir tree".


According to the first documented uses of a Christmas tree in Estonia in 1441, the Brotherhood of Blackheads erected a tree for the holidays in their brotherhood house in Reval (now called Tallin). At the last night of the celebrations leading up to the holidays, the tree was taken to the Town Hall Square where the members of the brotherhood danced around it. In 1584, the pastor Balthasar Russow wrote of an established tradition of setting up a decorated spruce at the market square where the young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame”. The early decorations were apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers.


In Britain, the Christmas tree was introduced by King George III's German Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in early 19th century, but the custom hadn't yet spread much beyond the royal family. After Queen Victoria's marriage to her German cousin, the popular Prince Albert, the Christmas tree became more widespread throughout Britain.


Several cities in the United States with German connections lay claim to that country's first Christmas tree. Windsor Locks, Connecticut, claims that a Hessian soldier who fought with the British during the Revolution put up a Christmas tree in 1777 while imprisoned at the Noden-Reed House. And, the first Christmas tree in America is also claimed by Easton, Pennsylvania, when German settlers may have erected a Christmas tree in the early 1800s. And, August Imgard, a German immigrant living in Wooster, Ohio, was the first to popularize the practice of decorating a Christmas tree with candy canes.


But, the practice of decorating a Christmas tree has it critics on religious grounds. In The Bible (King James Version), it says the following in Jeremiah 10:1-5: Hear what the Lord says to you , O house of Israel. This is what the Lord says: "Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them. For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good." This is interpreted by some Christians as referring to a Christmas tree, and therefore The Bible explicitly forbids the practice of tree decorating . However, most Christians believe that this passage refers only to idol worship and of the practice of making an object out of wood, silver, and gold that can be venerated.


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The following lines from William Shakespeare's 1599-1601 play, Hamlet, indicate that myths and legends surrounding Christmas and the birth of Jesus are not a recent phenomenon. Even in religious Elizabethan England there were skeptics.


(Note: "the bird of dawning" is the rooster. Also note: the skeptical "in part" in Horatio's reply.)


Hamlet


Act 1, lines 156-164



MARCELLUS
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.



HORATIO


So have I heard and do in part believe it.



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The Birth of Jesus according to The Gospel of Matthew


Matthew 1:18-2:12


18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; 19 and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; 21 she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife 25 And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: He named him Jesus. (Note: The World English Bible says "and didn't know her sexually " in place of "knew her not". The Catholic Bible omits this statement totally and replaces it with "he had not had intercourse with her when she gave birth to a son". This is done to perpetuate the idea that Mary remained a virgin until she dies and that James was not the brother of Jesus even though most versions of The New Testament assert that he was.)



1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 2 "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him." 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: 6 `And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; 8 and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." 9 When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; 11 and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.




The Birth of Jesus according to The Gospel of Luke


Luke 2:1-20


1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. 4 This was the first enrollment, when Quirin'i-us was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city.4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. 7 And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.


8 And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!"


15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." 16 And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; 18 and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.





Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Great Thinkers, Great Thoughts, No. 2


1. But friendship is precious, not only in the shade, but in the sunshine of life, and thanks to a benevolent arrangement the greater part of life is sunshine.


Thomas Jefferson (1743 -1826) was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom (1777). He was also Governor of Virginia (1779 - 1781) the third President of the United States (1801–1809), doubled the size of The United States by the Louisiana Purchase from the French (1803) and the founder of the University of Virginia (1819). He was an influential intellectual and Age of Enlightenment leader who spoke five languages and was deeply interested in science and political philosophy. His views on slavery changed over the course of his life and became a leading American opponent of the international slave trade.


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2. Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful, that's what matters to me.


Steve Jobs was an American visionary and businessman who was a charismatic pioneer of the personal computer. He was the co-founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Apple, Inc. Jobs was co-founder and previously served as chief executive of Pixar Animation Studios and became a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.


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3. Hate the sin, love the sinner.


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 -1948) was the pre-eminent political and ideological leader of India during the Indian independence movement from the British. He was pioneer of satyagraha, peaceful resistance to tyranny through mass civil disobedience. Gandhi not only led India to independence but also inspired movements for civil rights and freedom around the world. Gandhi is often referred to as Mahatma (Great Soul, an honorific first applied to him by the writer, Rabindranath Tagore). In India, he is also called Bapu (Father) and officially called The Father of the Nation. Ironically, Gandhi, an advocate of non-violence, was assassinated by a Hindu extremist on January 30, 1948.


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4. Anyone who doesn't take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either.


Albert Einstein was a German-born physicist who developed the theory of general relativity. Einstein is often regarded as the father of modern physics and one of the great intellects of modern history. He received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921"for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect which later was pivotal in establishing the quantum theory. Einstein published more than 300 scientific papers and over 150 non-scientific works. He once pointed out that Buddhism was the tradition that he felt fulfilled the criteria he thought necessary for a spiritual path adapted to the twentieth century. His great intelligence and originality have made the word "Einstein" synonymous with "genius".


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5. Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.


Benjamin Franklin (1706 -1790) was one of the Founding Fathers of The United States. and a signer of The Declaration of Independence. In his day, Franklin was a leading author, printer, politician and political theorist, scientist, inventor, musician, satirist, and diplomat. As a scientist, he is a major figure recognized for his discoveries and theories concerning electricity. He invented the lighting rod, bifocals, and the Franklin Stove. He was the first Postmaster General of the United States, and he created both the first public lending library in America and the first fire department in State of Pennsylvania.



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6. Eighty percent of success is showing up.


Woody Allen (Allan Stewart Konigsberg; born, 1935) was born in Brooklyn, New York City, and is an American actor, screenwriter, director, comedian, jazz musician, author, and playwright. Allen's films draw heavily on literature, sexuality, philosophy, psychology, and Jewish identity. As a jazz clarinetist, he performs regularly at small venues in Manhattan, New York City. Among his most famous films are Annie Hall (1977), Bananas (1971), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and Manhattan (1979).


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7. Society exists only as a mental concept; in the real world there are only individuals.


Oscar Wilde (Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde; 1854 -1900) was an Irish writer, playwright and poet. Today he is remembered for his book, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890); his plays, Salome (1891) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895); and the sex scandal which led to his imprisonment and his early death.


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8. This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man
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William Shakespeare (1564 -1616) was an English poet and playwright . He is often regarded to be the greatest writer in the English language and the world's greatest dramatist. His surviving works, including some collaborations, consist of about 38 plays, 152 sonnets, two long narrative poems and several other poems. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright. Among his greatest plays are Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet.


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9. Indeed, history is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes.


Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet; 1694 -1778), was a French Age of Enlightenment writer, historian, satirist and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of religious freedom, separation of church and state and free trade. Voltaire was a prolific writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poetry, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. He is most well-known for his satire, Candide.


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10. In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed; they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.


Orson Wells (1915 -1985) was an American actor, film and theater director, screenwriter and producer. He was known for his innovative productions as well as his distinctive voice and personality. Welles is widely acknowledged as one of the most accomplished dramatic artists of the twentieth century. He has been praised as a major creative force in radio, theater and film. Welles won both national and international fame as the director and narrator of a 1938 radio adaptation of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds which caused panic in the U.S. because many in the audience believe that Martians had really invaded Earth. And in 1941, he created his film masterpiece, Citizen Kane, a film which he directed and in which he starred. It is often considered the greatest film ever made.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

News You May Have Missed, No. 27

1. A typographical error has led to the election of the wrong man to a finance board in the city of Derby, Connecticut. James J. Butler was the highest vote-getter, winning 1,526 votes for the 10-member Board of Apportionment and Taxation, which monitors the town's finances. However, it was his father, 72-year-old James R. Butler, who was the candidate nominated by Democrats. The News Times of Danbury and the New Haven Register newspapers reported that James R. Butler said that he wants the job and that his son is not interested in public office. James J. Butler, age 46, would not comment on whether he wants the job. But, he calls Derby officials incompetent for confusing him with his father. A spokesman for the Connecticut's Secretary of the State's said that the son, James J. Butler, should be sworn in because he was one who was elected. Derby is the smallest city in Connecticut.






2. According to a new Danish study, people who live alone are at increased risk of dying from alcohol-related diseases and accidents. Of 18,200 alcohol-related deaths that researchers identified over a six-year period, two-thirds of them were among individuals who lived alone. The findings suggest living alone may be a risk marker for alcohol abuse said researcher Kimmo Herttua from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, in Helsinki. "Consequently, individuals living alone should be aware of risks of drinking too much and thus be careful with drinking," Herttua told My Health News Daily. Herttua also said that doctors should advise their patients who live alone about the risks of drinking. The researchers analyzed information on about 80 percent of the people who died in Finland between 2000 and 2007. Causes of alcohol-related death as listed on death certificates included liver disease, alcohol poisoning and accidents, as well as violence that involved alcohol. Depending on the year studied, the researchers found that men who lived alone were between 3.7 and 5 times more likely to die of liver disease as compared to married or cohabiting men. Women living alone were also at increased risk for alcohol-related death, but the risk was smaller.

3. Having a good night's sleep helps wipe out bad memories and combat stress. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found that our brains process emotional experiences during the rapid eye movement phase of sleep and this makes painful memories easier with which to deal. The study asked 35 volunteers to look at 150 emotional images twice, 12 hours apart, while an MRI scan measured their brain activity. Half of the volunteers looked at the images during the morning and again in the evening, while the other half looked at the images in the evening and again in the next morning after a full night's sleep. The results were published in the journal, Current Biology, found that those who slept between the image viewings reported a significant decrease in their emotional reactions to the images. Researchers found that sleep reduced reactivity in the amygdala part of the brain that processes emotion. Sleep also enabled the brain's 'rational' prefrontal cortex to regain control of emotional reactions. As well as erasing bad memories, dreaming could also give you some insight into your inner thoughts and fears.






4. An adult film company is capitalizing on the heat of the U.S. anti-establishment protests by using a tent in the middle of the "Occupy Oakland" encampment as the setting for a new gay porn flick. Billed by The New York Observer newspaper as a "homoerotic caper through the tents of Oakland's Occupation," Dirty Boy Video's "Occupy My Throat" is likely to have been inspired by Brandon Watts, an original member of the Occupy Wall Street movement who lost his virginity in New York City's Zuccotti Park before being arrested after a standoff with the police. Dirty Boy Video president Andy Fair reportedly contacted the 20-year-old Watts, whose experience was reported in The New York Times magazine supplement. Dirty Boy Video offered the protester cash for the chance to tape his next experience. "I offer you the opportunity to perform on our website, an opportunity to express yourself and your politics freely and without censor. Working together we can create a sexy, fun platform that inspires you, be that with other actors, actresses or both. Whether you choose to work with us or not, I salute your dedication and your courage," Fair wrote in his letter to Watts according to the CBS television affiliate in San Francisco. But, Watts does not appear in "Occupy My Throat," which was reportedly filmed in the middle of the Occupy Oakland encampment at Frank Ogawa Plaza. The film's tagline reportedly reads: "Police can ban the erection of tents at Occupy Wall Street, but they can't keep us from pitching a tent in our pants!"






5. A Peruvian mayor is blaming the high levels of minerals in the area's drinking water for a perceived increase in the number of gay men residing in his town. Pink News reported Huarmey Mayor Jose Benitez made the bizarre comments at the launch of a local water access project, where he noted high levels of strontium in the tap water. The drinking water comes from Tabalosos, a town which a Lima-based television station once claimed was inhabited by 14,000 gay men. “Unfortunately strontium reduces male hormones and suddenly we’ll be as Tabalosos, as other towns, where the percentages are increasing of homosexuality,” Benitez was quoted by LGBT Asylum News as saying. Dr. Robert Castro Rodriguez, dean of the College of Pharmaceutical Chemistry of Lima, quickly dismissed Benitez's claims, telling Peruvian radio that large amounts of strontium in the body eventually lead to bone cancer, anemia and cardiovascular complications but not homosexuality. Also, The Los Angeles Times reported that Bolivian President Evo Morales said that chicken producers injected female hormones into their chickens "and because of that, men who consume them have problems being men."






6. A jail in the eastern city of Pohang plans to run a month-long trial with three of the automatons in March. The machines will monitor inmates for abnormal behavior. Researchers say they will help reduce the workload for other guards. The three 5ft-high (1.5m) robots involved in the prison trial have been developed by the Asian Forum for Corrections, a South Korean group of researchers who specialize in criminality and prison policies. It said the robots move on four wheels and are equipped with cameras and other sensors that allow them to detect risky behavior such as violence and suicide. Professor Lee Baik-Chu, of Kyonggi University, who led the design process, said the robots would alert human guards if they discovered a problem. South Korea aims to be a world leaders in robotics. Business leaders believe the field has the potential to become a major export industry.






7. According to study published in the British Medical Journal, at home birth carries a slightly higher risk for the babies of first-time mothers. However, the chance of harm to the baby is still under 1%, the study of almost 65,000 births in England found. For a second birth there was no difference in the risk to babies between home, a midwife-led unit or a doctor-led hospital unit. The birthplace study is the largest carried out into the safety of different maternity settings . It compared births at home, in midwife-led units attached to hospitals, and those in doctor-led hospital units. All the women followed had healthy pregnancies and began labor with no known risk factors. It found that, overall, birth is very safe wherever it happens. The rates of complications, including stillbirth or other problems affecting the baby, was 5.3 per 1,000 births in hospital compared with 9.3 per 1,000 home births. It found that, overall, birth is very safe wherever it happens. However, midwife-led care was in general much more likely to lead to a natural birth. All the women followed had healthy pregnancies and began labor with no known risk factors.






8. Phil Newton says he did a double take while he watched a dog driving a 20 ton double-decker motor home in Darwin, Australia’s industrial zone. “I thought, ‘What the … ‘!” he said. “This was weird, even for the Territory.” Newton said it would not have been such a comical sight had the dog not been sitting in the driver’s seat with its paws on the steering wheel. Once the shock wore off, Newton pursued on foot, chasing down the runaway vehicle, jumping through an open window to grab a handbrake, the same one that Woodley, the dog, released in order to steal the massive vehicle. “It ran for a couple of hundred meters, swerved across the road, went up on the footpath and was just about to run into a parked car when I stopped it,” Newton told NT news. Woodley, a two-year-old German koolie, was said to be happy and unrepentant when found sitting at the helm of the motor home when it finally ground to a halt. The dog's owner, Richard McCormack, 62, said that Woodley had obviously been paying attention on previous road trips. “He sits next to me when I’m driving and in the driver’s seat when I’m not. The handbrake is on the dashboard and he’s seen me release it many times. He was just copying me. He’s still my best mate,” McCormack said.






9. In a nation that has Constitutional guarantees concerning the separation of church a state, new study shows just how big and expansive the "religious lobby" has become in the U.S. According to the Pew Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, religious lobbying and religion-related advocacy organizations have grown fivefold, from less than 40 in 1970 to more than 200 today. The organizations, which range from the influential United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to smaller Hindu and Sikh organizations, together spend $390 million per year advocating on about 300 domestic and international issues, from bioethics and moral issues to economic and poverty concerns. Lobbying for the Faithful: Religious Advocacy Groups in Washington, D.C. looked at 212 religion-related organizations that work in the nation's capital and collectively employ 1,000 people in the Washington, D.C. area. The study used tax and nonprofit filings by the organizations, some of which are registered as lobbying groups and others which do broader advocacy efforts, to come to its findings.






The biggest spender among the groups was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which spent just under $88 million through its D.C.-based Office of Government and International Affairs in 2008, the most recent year for which data was available. The organization, which calls itself "America's pro-Israel lobby," also goes by AIPAC.






The second biggest spender was the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which spent under $27 million in 2009 on “policy activity expenses." The national body of Catholic leaders has been active in coming out against same-sex marriage and for laws that restrict abortion rights. The number also includes spending on national media and communications efforts. The bishops' conference, which in total spent $143 million in 2009.






The Family Research Council came in third, with just over $14 million spent in 2009. The Christian group focuses on three main issues: promoting traditional marriage and heterosexuality, advocating against abortion and embryonic stem-cell research; and the promotion of religion in public life, such as school prayer and religious displays on public land.






The National Organization for Marriage, founded in 2007 to promote traditional marriage, opposes the legalization of same-sex marriage and civil unions. Its budget in 2009 was $8.6 million, up about $3.3 million from the previous year.






All of these organization are right-wing conservative groups which often align themselves with Republican Party policies and politics.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Knowledge Quiz, No. 25

I dislike the term trivia. No knowledge is trivial. All information contributes to the whole of an intelligent human being. And, it is an essential part of critical thinking. That is why I did not call this a Trivia Quiz. Instead, I am calling it a Knowledge Quiz.


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Knowledge Quiz, No. 25


The answers are at the bottom.



1. Who wrote the original story of Pinocchio?


2. What is the sacroiliac joint?


3. What is the current name of the nation formerly known as Burma?


4. What former professional basketball player became a U.S. Senator?


5. Why was the opera, Aida, written?


6. What is a mesa?


7. What is the capital of Uzbekistan?


8. What modern nations comprised ancient Gaul?


9.Who was Erik, the Red?


10. Who said, What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?


11. What is the scientific definition of cold?


12. How many of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still exist?


13. Where is Diego Garcia?


14. What are nightshades plants?


15. What is a conundrum?


16. What transforms a church into a cathedral?


17. What speech defect did Moses have?


18. Who was the first person to reach both the North and South Poles?


19. Who were the Boers?


20. What is the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world?


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Answers


1. Pinocchio is the fictional main character of the 1883 children's novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio (Le Avventure di Pinocchio) by the Italian author, Carlo Collodi (1826-1890) But, Collodi was his pen name. His real name was Carlo Lorenzini. In addition to writing children's books, Collodi wrote political satire and stories. He died in Florence in 1890 unaware of the fame and popularity that awaited his story.


The word pinocchio means pinecone which is an illogical name for the puppet because the book states that the puppet was made out of cherry wood. The name was a nickname Geppetto, the wood carver who created the marionette, gave the puppet as an sign or hope of good fortune.



2. The sacroiliac joint (also known as the SI joint) lies next to the bottom of the spine below the lumbar spine and above the tailbone (coccyx). It connects the sacrum (the triangular bone at the bottom of the spine) with the pelvis. The joint typically has the following characteristics: It is small and very strong, reinforced by strong ligaments that surround it; it does not have much motion; it transmits all the forces of the upper body to the pelvis (hips) and legs, and it acts as a shock-absorbing structure. Dysfunction in the sacroiliac joint causes low back and/or leg pain.



3. Burma is now officially known as Myanmar. From 1962 to 2011, the country was under military rule. The military changed the name of the country to Myanmar in 1989. The name of the capital, Rangoon, was also changed to Yangon. The name change had international political ramifications. Burma's democracy movement preferred the name Burma, while those who supported the military take-over used the name Myanmar. Internationally, both names are acceptable. The military junta was dissolved in 2011 and an elected civilian government installed. But, the official name remains as The Republic of the Union of Myanmar.


4. William Warren "Bill" Bradley (born: July 28, 1943) is an American Hall of Fame basketball player and former three-term Democratic U.S. Senator from New Jersey. He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Party nomination for President in the 2000 election. Bradley was a Rhodes Scholar, studied at both Princeton and Oxford, wrote 6 books and played profession basketball for 10 years with the New York Knicks. He currently hosts a weekly radio show, American Voices, on Sirius Satellite Radio, is a corporate director of Starbucks, and a partner the investment bank, Allen & Company in New York City.


5. Aida is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi. Isma'il Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt, commissioned Verdi to write the opera for the opening of the Suez Canal. He paid Verdi 150,000 francs to create the opera. It was first performed at the Khedival Opera House in Cairo, Egypt, on 24 December 1871. The initial production was a spectacle and met with great acclaim. Verdi did not attend the premiere in Cairo and was very dissatisfied with the fact that the audience only consisted of invited dignitaries, politicians and critics, and no members of the general public.


6. A mesa is a naturally occurring flat-top mountain or an elevated area of land with a flat top. The sides of a mesa are usually composed of steep cliffs. The word "mesa" takes its name from the characteristic table-top shape of the mountain. In both Spanish and Portuguese, the word "mesa" means "table".


7. The capital and largest city of Uzbekistan is Tashkent. The word Tashkent in Russian is Toshkent and means "stone city".


8. Gaul was a region of Western Europe during the Roman Empire. It encompassed present day France; Luxembourg; Belgium; most of Switzerland; parts of The Netherlands, Germany and northern Italy.


9. Erik Thorvaldsson (950- c.1003), more commonly known as Erik, the Red,was the founder the first Nordic settlement in Greenland. The Icelandic tradition says that he was born in Norway. The appellation "the Red" most likely refers to his hair color. The explorer, Leif Ericsson, was Erik's Thorvaldsson's son.


10. What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet is a line from the balcony scene in the1600 play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The words have become a common English expression and mean that it does matter what something is, and not what it is called. The words are spoken by Juliet:
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.


11. The scientific definition of cold is the absence of heat. Temperature is created by heat; the less the heat, the greater the cold. Temperature is the physical property of a system that underlies the common notions of hot and cold, so something that is hotter has the greater temperature.


12. Only one of Seven of the Wonders of the Ancient World still exist. It is The Great Pyramid of Giza. The others, The Colossus of Rhodes, The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Lighthouse of Alexandria, The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, and The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, have been destroyed or disappeared.


13. Diego Garcia is a tropical, footprint-shaped coral atoll located south of the equator in the central Indian Ocean. It is part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The United States Navy operates a large naval ship and submarine support base, a military air base, and a space-tracking facility there. Tradition maintains that the island is named after Spanish navigator, Diego García de Moguer, who discovered the island in the 16th century.


14. Nightshades are a diverse group of foods, herbs, shrubs, and trees. There are about 2,800 species of plants that are considered nightshades. Tobacco, morning glory, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, eggplant, pimentos, paprika, and cayenne are all classified as nightshades.


Concerning foods, a group of substances in these foods called alkaloids can impact nerve-muscle function and digestive function and can compromise joint function in animals and humans. Health problems from nightshade foods may only occur in individuals who are especially sensitive to these alkaloid substances.


15. A conundrum is a logical question that seemingly cannot be answered because it is a too complex or too difficult problem. It is also a riddle whose answer involves a pun or unexpected twist.


16. A cathedral is a Christian church with a cathedra, a bishop's chair. The word cathedral is a French word rooted in the Latin word cathedra meaning seat. Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal, Orthodox, Lutheran and Methodist churches which serve as the bishop's seat and are the central church of a diocese are called cathedrals. The largest structures in the world bearing the name "cathedral" are: The Cathedral of Seville (Seville, Spain; Roman Catholic), The Cathedral of St. John the Divine (New York, USA; Anglican), Milan Cathedral (Milan, Italy; Roman Catholic), Liverpool Cathedral (Liverpool, UK; Anglican) and The Cathedral of St. Sava (Belgrade, Serbia; Orthodox).


17. According to the Biblical book of Exodus (4:10), And Moses said unto the LORD, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue. This has traditionally been interpreted to mean that Moses was a stutterer.


18. Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen (1872 -1928) was the first person to reach both the North and the South Poles. He was a Norwegian explorer who reached the North Pole in 1926 and was the discoverer of the South pole in 1912. He is also the first to traverse the Canadian Northwest Passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans. He disappeared in June 1928 in a plane crash while taking part in a rescue mission. It is believed that the plane crashed in the fog and fell into the Barents Sea between the Greenland Sea and Russia.


19. The Boers are the descendants of the Dutch-speaking people who settled in southern South Africa during the 18th Century. The name also applies to those who set up the Orange Free state in the Transvaal, now part of South Africa. The Boers fought three wars in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries to defend themselves against British rule. But by 1915, the British controlled South Africa resulting in an exodus of many Boers from the country. The word Boer is the Dutch and Afrikaans (a Dutch-based language spoken in South Africa and Namibia) word for farmer.


20. The oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world is The Imperial House of Japan. The Emperor is called the Tennō in Japanese, literally meaning heavenly sovereign. In English, he is also sometime called the Mikado. Emperor Akihito (born1933) is currently emperor, and is the 125th Emperor of Japan. He ascended to the throne in 1989.


In Japanese, the nation of Japan is called Nippon or Nihon.