Thoughts Gallery December 2004
December 1
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Unprotected PCs can be hijacked in minutes
Simply connecting to the Internet - and doing nothing else - exposes your PC to non-stop, automated break-in attempts by intruders looking to take control of your machine surreptitiously. While most break-in tries fail, an unprotected PC can get hijacked within minutes of accessing the Internet. Once hijacked, it is likely to get grouped with other compromised PCs to dispense spam, conduct denial-of-service attacks or carry out identity-theft scams. Those are key findings of a test conducted by USA TODAY and Avantgarde, a San Francisco tech marketing and design firm. The experiment involved monitoring six "honeypot" computers for two weeks - set up to see what kind of malicious traffic they would attract. Once breached, the test computers were shut down before they could be used to attack other PCs.
The test did not measure Web attacks that require user participation, namely spyware, which gets spread by visiting contagious Web sites, or e-mail viruses, which proliferate via e-mail attachments. However, the results vividly illustrate how automated cyberattacks have come to saturate the Internet with malicious programs designed to take the quickest route to break into your PC: through security weaknesses in the PC operating system. "It's a hostile environment out there," says tech security consultant Kevin Mitnick, who served five years in prison for breaking into corporate computer systems in the mid-1990s. "Attackers have become extremely indiscriminate." Mitnick and Ryan Russell, an independent security researcher and author of Hack Proofing Your Network, were contracted by Avantgarde to set up and carry out the experiment.
Test results underscored the value of keeping up to date with security patches and using a firewall. Computer security experts say firewalls, which restrict online access to the guts of the PC operating system, represent a crucial first line of defense against cyberintruders. Yet, an estimated 67% of consumers do not use a firewall, according to the National Cyber Security Alliance. The machines tested were types popular with home users and small businesses. They included: four Dell desktop PCs running different configurations of the Window XP operating system, an Apple Macintosh and a Microtel Linspire, which uses the Linux operating system.
Each PC was connected to the Internet via a broadband DSL connection and monitored for two weeks in September. Break-in attempts began immediately and continued at a constant and high level: an average of 341 per hour against the Windows XP (news - web sites) machine with no firewall or recent security patches, 339 per hour against the Apple Macintosh and 61 per hour against the Windows Small Business Server. Each was sold without an activated firewall.
By contrast, there were fewer than four attacks per hour against the Windows XP updated with a basic firewall and recent patches (Service Pack 2), the Linspire with basic firewall and the Windows XP with ZoneAlarm firewall. "The firewalls did their job," says Russell. "If you can't get to them, you can't attack them." While attempted break-ins never ceased, successful compromises were limited to nine instances on the minimally protected Windows XP computer and a single break-in of the Windows Small Business Server. There were no successful compromises of the Macintosh, the Linspire or the two Windows XPs using firewalls. That pattern was not surprising, as Windows PCs make up 90% of the computers connected to the Internet, and the vast majority of automated attacks are designed to locate and exploit widely known Windows security weaknesses.
Intruders repeatedly compromised the Windows XP computer through the same two security holes used by the authors of the July 2003 MS Blaster worm and May's headline-grabbing Sasser worm, which overloaded computers in banks, hospitals and transportation systems worldwide. To hijack the Windows Small Business Server, the attacker finagled his way into a function of the Windows operating system that allows file sharing between computers. He then uploaded a program that gave him full control.On three occasions, intruders got as far as logging on to an Internet Relay Chat channel, signaling an intent to herd the compromised PC with other hijacked PCs to pursue illicit activities.
IRC channels work like a private instant-messaging service. An intruder in control of such a channel can send instructions to some PCs to spread spam, to others to serve up scamming Web sites, and to others to hijack more PCs. "Downloading and using other exploits, performing denial-of-service attacks, running spam-relay tools, running identity-theft tools are all very common activities of compromised machines," says Martin Roesch, chief technology officer at tech security firm Sourcefire.
The intruder who cracked the Windows Small Business Server even uploaded a tool to prevent rival attackers from following behind him and gaining access to the system, says researcher Jon Orbeton, of anti-virus and firewall supplier ZoneLabs. That level of sophistication shows how cyberintrusions are fast becoming an ingrained part of the Internet. Compromised PCs fueled a 150% surge in suspicious security activity per machine per day in the third quarter of this year, compared with a year ago, security vendor VeriSign said in a report in November.
The end game: illicit profits. Compromised PCs supply the computing power for cybercrooks to run increasingly diverse scams, including phishing schemes that lure victims into typing account information at counterfeit Web sites.In the past month, the first phishing scam to plant a bogus Web link on a legitimate banking Web site surfaced. The scam was probably carried out with hijacked PCs to protect the perpetrator from detection. "It's the most sophisticated, and frightening, phishing scam we've seen," says Susan Larson, vice president of global content at SurfControl, an e-mail security firm.
December 2
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Clione or 'sea angels' swim in a Tokyo aquarium. The Clione, which lives mostly in temperate waters, can be found in the Okhotsk Sea, off the northeastern part of Hokkaido in Japan.
December 3
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A hairless Sphinx kitten wears a T-shirt with a name of a cat-breeders' club, Nostalgie, on its back during a cat exhibition in Kiev. According to the cat's owner Anna Belchenko, in the background, the color of her pet's T-shirt marks the opposition leader Victor Yushchenko's campaign
December 4
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December 5
Image of the Day
A man dressed as Saint Nicholas and 20 people in traditional Bavarian attire known as 'Buttenmandl' and 'Krampusse' at a parade in the southern German town of Berchtesgaden. Buttenmandl and Krampusse consist of animal skins and masks attached to large cow-bells used to make loud and frightening noises, and are worn by young single men. They follow Saint Nicholas from house to house on December 5 and 6 each year to bring luck to the good and punish the idle.
December 6
Image of the Day
Pale Male, right, looks on as his mate Lola lands on their 12th floor nest while their offspring, center, awaits the arrival of his mother earlier this year in New York. Perched on the ledge of a Fifth Avenue New York townhouse, the celebrity birds' nest was removed by workers and carted off in a van, according to aggrieved bird-watchers. The act appeared to end an urban drama that has fascinated long-time bird-watchers and recruited many more to their ranks over the past nine years, as Pale Male and a succession of mates raised three separate families of 25 chicks- the last trio of fledglings in June-on the narrow 12th floor ledge.
December 7
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I guess I have to ask who still finds this appetising? I see that much meat sitting there and know why Hardee's has remained a smaller fast food chain.  Speaking of chains, if I had $25 million in my pocket yesterday I would have been at the auction to buy Schlotsky's
Schlotzsky's Inc., founded in Austin, Texas, in 1971, through its wholly owned subsidiaries, is a franchisor and operator of restaurants in the fast casual sector. As of August 3, 2004, there were 511 Schlotzsky's® restaurants open and operating in 36 states, the District of Columbia and six foreign countries.
Two Hardee's Monster Thickburger packing 1,420 calories and 107 grams of fat are shown with a McDonald salad with chicken in St. Louis. Hardees looks to beef up sales with it's new Monster Burger and a multimillin-dollar ad campaign. McDonald's, Wendy's and other rival fast-food giants are offering lower-calorie fare.
December 8
Image of the Day
Greek Farmer Finds 2,000-Year-Old Monument
ORCHOMENOS, Greece - A farmer tending a cotton field in central Greece has uncovered a stone monument marking the spot where the Roman army stopped a major westward offensive more than 2,000 years ago, a Greek archaeological official said Wednesday. "This is the location of one of the biggest battles in Greek history ... where a huge army from the east was assembled against Rome," the official, Vassilis Aravantinos, said.
       The site near Orchomenos, about 75 miles northwest of Athens, was recorded by the Greek historian Plutarch. But the actual location of the long-sought monument — originally believed to stand 23 feet — was a mystery until last month, when the farmer plowing his fields stumbled upon a buried column that led researchers to uncover the monument's stone base. Another Roman victory monument, at nearby Chaeronea, was found in 1990 by students from the University of California, Berkeley.
       The 86 B.C. battles at Chaeronea and Orchomenos inflicted a heavy defeat on Mithridates VI, who led the Black Sea kingdom of Pontus in an unsuccessful 20-year campaign against Rome. The monument was raised by a Roman general, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who defeated the Asian forces. "Sulla's forces of 15,000 — I think it is not an exaggeration — faced the massive armies of the King of Pontus Mithridates, whose forces exceeded 100,000," Aravantinos said.
       "It's one of these rare times when the ancient texts meet archaeology. For Rome, this battle meant salvation, and for Greece the effect was great because Sulla brutally punished the Greek towns that sided with his enemy." The column was styled to look like a tree trunk bearing the armor of fallen soldiers from the defeated army, a common style at the time, a culture ministry statement said.
       Aravantinos said the farmer who found the column delivered the remains of the column to the entrance of the archaeological institute using an earth-moving machine while the facility was closed. The farmer left no information about himself or where the column had come from. B ut "this was too big to keep a secret," said Panayiotis Kravaritis, an institute official who helped find the spot where the monument once stood. "Eventually we found the farm, and the farmer led us to the spot where the monument is."
December 9
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The bust of a statue acheologists identify as Roman Emperor Philip the Arab, who ruled from 224 to 249 AD, is seen on a beach on the Mediterranean island of Corsica.  Archeologists announced that a 2-meter statue of a feminine silhouette and statue fragments of the roman emperor were discovered October 23, 2004 in in shipwreck dating from the third century off Porticcio in southern Corsica.
December 10
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Cat Barnard sits in her driveway in Enterprise, Fla., near the tent where and she and her husband, Harlan slept. The Barnards moved out of the house and set up the tent in the driveway to go on strike because their children, Benjamin, 17, and Kit, 12, refused to do household chores. The parents won't cook, clean or drive their children until they shape up.
December 11
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What a life, I think people have to look at the overall bigger picture more, religious beliefs are just like scientific beliefs, you have to build upon the knowledge of your ancestors...
Famous Atheist Now Believes in God
NEW YORK - A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has changed his mind. He now believes in God — more or less — based on scientific evidence, and says so on a video released Thursday. At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe. A super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature, Flew said in a telephone interview from England.
      Flew said he's best labeled a deist like Thomas Jefferson, whose God was not actively involved in people's lives. "I'm thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam, because both are depicted as omnipotent Oriental despots, cosmic Saddam Husseins," he said. "It could be a person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, I suppose." Flew first made his mark with the 1950 article "Theology and Falsification," based on a paper for the Socratic Club, a weekly Oxford religious forum led by writer and Christian thinker C.S. Lewis.
       Over the years, Flew proclaimed the lack of evidence for God while teaching at Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele, and Reading universities in Britain, in visits to numerous U.S. and Canadian campuses and in books, articles, lectures and debates. There was no one moment of change but a gradual conclusion over recent months for Flew, a spry man who still does not believe in an afterlife. Yet biologists' investigation of DNA "has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved," Flew says in the new video, "Has Science Discovered God?"
The video draws from a New York discussion last May organized by author Roy Abraham Varghese's Institute for Metascientific Research in Garland, Texas. Participants were Flew; Varghese; Israeli physicist Gerald Schroeder, an Orthodox Jew; and Roman Catholic philosopher John Haldane of Scotland's University of St. Andrews. The first hint of Flew's turn was a letter to the August-September issue of Britain's Philosophy Now magazine. "It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing organism," he wrote. The letter commended arguments in Schroeder's "The Hidden Face of God" and "The Wonder of the World" by Varghese, an Eastern Rite Catholic layman.This week, Flew finished writing the first formal account of his new outlook for the introduction to a new edition of his "God and Philosophy," scheduled for release next year by Prometheus Books.
       Prometheus specializes in skeptical thought, but if his belief upsets people, well "that's too bad," Flew said. "My whole life has been guided by the principle of Plato's Socrates: Follow the evidence, wherever it leads." Last week, Richard Carrier, a writer and Columbia University graduate student, posted new material based on correspondence with Flew on the atheistic Web page. Carrier assured atheists that Flew accepts only a "minimal God" and believes in no afterlife. Flew's "name and stature are big. Whenever you hear people talk about atheists, Flew always comes up," Carrier said. Still, when it comes to Flew's reversal, "apart from curiosity, I don't think it's like a big deal." Flew told The Associated Press his current ideas have some similarity with American "intelligent design" theorists, who see evidence for a guiding force in the construction of the universe. He accepts Darwinian evolution but doubts it can explain the ultimate origins of life.
A Methodist minister's son, Flew became an atheist at 15. Early in his career, he argued that no conceivable events could constitute proof against God for believers, so skeptics were right to wonder whether the concept of God meant anything at all.  Another landmark was his 1984 "The Presumption of Atheism," playing off the presumption of innocence in criminal law. Flew said the debate over God must begin by presuming atheism, putting the burden of proof on those arguing that God exists.
December 12
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Interesting way to get a book sold, by using your background as a educator to sell books.  It doesn't look like it generated the results he was hoping for.
Mormon Church Disciplines Author for Book
SANDY, Utah - A retired Mormon educator who wrote a book questioning whether the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints misrepresented his authority as a prophet was suspended from the church Sunday.
        Grant Palmer, 64, who wrote "An Insider's View of Mormon Origins," could have been excommunicated. Instead, he said the church "disfellowshipped" him at a hearing, which means he will retain his membership but lose certain privileges, such as being able to go into temples or serve in an official church capacity. The length of a disfellowshipment varies by case, and Palmer wouldn't comment more specifically on his punishment.
       The fourth-generation Mormon said he was pleased with the decision, still loves the church and wants to remain a member because he believes in its fundamental message. Church spokesman Dale Bills declined to comment on the case. Palmer, who served as a church director and educator for 34 years and has a master's degree in history from Brigham Young University, said his research stemmed from a growing inability to reconcile discrepancies between history and his church service.
       In the book, Palmer suggests that church founder Joseph Smith revised church scripture to his advantage. The book says Smith didn't actually translate the Book of Mormon "by the gift and power of God" from an ancient set of golden plates, as the church's followers believe. Palmer suggested Smith wrote it himself, leaning heavily on the King James Bible and personal experiences.
       Mormon scholars said Palmer's work was more damaging than other similar books because of his long history as a church member and educator. Others questioned how Palmer could still be a true believer, as he professed, if he had so many doubts. Palmer's case is similar to six others in 1993 who faced disciplinary hearings for writing about Mormon history, feminism and new interpretations of theology. Five of the members were excommunicated, and one was disfellowshipped.
December 13
Image of the Day
A combination picture shows traditional wooden 'Krampuss' masks seen during a parade of about 100 people in traditional attire known as 'Krampusse' in Munich. Krampusse consist of animal skins and masks attached to large cow-bells used to make loud and frightening noises, and are worn by young single men. They follow Saint Nicholas from house to house in December each year to bring luck to the good and punish the idle.
December 14
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The Millau Viaduct, designed by the English architect Lord Norman Foster, crosses the cloud-covered valley of the river Tarn in Millau. The Millau Viaduct is composed of seven slender soaring pillars and becomes the highest bridge in the world at 343 meters, creating a direct route between Paris and the Mediterranean coast. The bridge will be inaugurated by French President Chirac at a ceremony December 14
December 15
Image of the Day
Thieves Targeting Gardens With Rare Plant
COSTA MESA, Calif. - The thieves struck at night and knew just what they were after. In minutes, they ripped two plants from the lavish landscaping at a home in this Los Angeles suburb, then fled when the homeowner woke up and turned on a porch light. Total haul: $3,500.
The thieves were after cycads, palmlike plants so prized that a rare specimen can fetch $20,000 or more on the international black market. Some species have been around since the time of the dinosaurs but are now close to extinction. The plants have been targeted in a wave of thefts in California and Florida, provoking anger and a little paranoia among collectors and staff at botanical gardens. "No one talks about what they have anymore because they are just afraid," said Tom Broome, a nursery owner in Polk City, Fla., and president of the Cycad Society. The organization, with 500 members in 20 countries, promotes efforts to save the plants.
Some nurseries and gardens have added security, but homes are vulnerable. The thieves who struck in the Orange County city of Costa Mesa only had to enter the front yard to get the pair of cycads from a collection of some 50 species on the property.
One, valued at $2,000, was an obvious target: a 4-foot-tall cycad (pronounced 'sigh-cad') from southern Mexico with a knobby, barrel-shaped trunk that resembled a giant pineapple with emerald frond-like leaves.
The owner doesn't want his name disclosed because he fears thieves will return, especially for an African specimen that he hopes will finance a year of college for one of his kids. "If someone found out I had it here they'd do anything to get it," he said. Nearly everyone involved with cycads has a story of theft. One nursery owner in the San Diego area, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said he's been hit twice in the past 18 months and has had to add $50,000 worth of security.
In September, thieves broke into the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Fla., taking advantage of the evacuation for Hurricane Frances, and stole more than 30 cycads. "In the black market, some species of cycads are like a fine piece of art — like a Picasso," garden spokeswoman Nannette Zapata said at the time. It's gotten bad enough that some have given up on the plants, which despite their palmlike appearance are more closely related to pine trees.
"You're just growing them up for someone else to steal and make a profit," laments Arthur Gibson, director of a botanical garden at the University of California, Los Angeles, which stopped acquiring cycads after someone pilfered part of its collection. "It's really depressing." There are about 300 species of cycad, and most are threatened with extinction. They are generally tropical or subtropical — with some of the most coveted found in southern Africa, Australia and South America.
Imports are restricted under an international treaty. Some species are essentially priceless and, if stolen, couldn't be displayed. "It would be like having a stolen Picasso. Everybody would know that plant," said Julian Duval, executive director of Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, which locked its most precious cycads in a greenhouse after a theft nearly two years ago. Mike Maunder, director of Florida's Fairchild garden, suspects that thieves may be stealing to fill orders for an international black market most active in supplying collectors in the United States, Mexico, the Bahamas and South Africa.
"There are people who want to collect the rarest of the rare, and they are willing to support an illegal market so they can get the stuff that they ordinarily wouldn't be able to get," he said. "Cycads are just the hot, trendy plant right now," said Jason Kubrock, a horticulturist at Quail Botanical Gardens. Quail now features security cameras, guards and regular patrols by the sheriff's department. And in Costa Mesa, the private collector has moved his most prized plants out of sidewalk view and is much more cautious about showing off his yard. "It's a shame, because I'm in it for the beauty of the plants," he said.
December 16
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Cuban officer guard the street in front of a massive billboard showing photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused by American soldiers in front of the U.S. interest section in Havana, Cuba . The U.S. Interest Section ignored a demand earlier this week to remove Christmas decorations that include a reference to dissidents jailed by Fidel Castro 's government.
       Cuba put up several huge billboards near the U.S. mission on Friday with pictures of abused Iraqi prisoners and American soldiers pointing a rifle at children, in response to a U.S. Christmas display in support of imprisoned Cuban dissident.
US Cuban Xmas Display

Cuban Xmas Display
December 17
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Deep-fried Mars bar taking Scotland by storm
The deep-fried Mars bar, a nutritionist's nightmare that surfaced in Scotland about a decade ago, is now an established part of the Scottish culinary scene, according to a letter published in The Lancet. Dipped in batter and then cooked in hot oil, the Mars bar is now on sale in more than a fifth of Scotland's 627 fish-and-chip shops, it says. The average sale is 23 bars per shop per week, but some shops say they sell up to 200 a week, it records.
       The deep-fried Mars bar first surfaced in news reports in 1995, reputedly originating in the eastern city of Aberdeen. Promoters of Scottish tourism -- aghast at this damage to their efforts to highlight Scotland's history, culture and landscape -- joined with middle-class foodies in deriding the DFMB as media hype. But this is untrue, say authors David Morrison and Mark Pettigrew of the Greater Glasgow NHS Board, who contend the snack is "deep and crisp and eaten."
       "Scotland's deep-fried Mars bar is not just an urban myth," they say. Health experts have condemned the deep-fried Mars bar as an artery-clogging catastrophe. Scotland is already ranked as the country with the highest rate of chronic heart disease in Western Europe, a position that owes itself to cigarettes and alcohol as well as a poor diet and a love of sugary foods.
        Critics should take heart, though. The Mediterranean diet is penetrating into Scotland, "albeit in the form of deep-fried pizza," say Morrison and Pettigrew. Pizza is one of several items that customers have asked shops to deep-fry, along with bananas, pineapple rings and creme eggs, a highly sweet confectionery.
December 18
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Revolution in architecture opens in Curitiba, Brazil
A view inside the living room of one of the apartments of the brand new Suite Vollard building, in the Ecoville neighborhood of the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba, on the day the apartments went on sale for $300,000 each, December 16, 2004. The 11-story apartment block is touted by its creators as the world's only building in which each 300 square meter apartment can revolve independently, spinning 360 degrees to the left or to the right and can be activated by voice commands.
An unusual apartment building was inaugurated in Brazil, each of whose 11 storeys turns independently, giving lucky residents 360-degree views of the eco-friendly city of Curitiba. The building is located in a residential neighborhood called Ecoville, in the capital of the southern state of Parana. It was billed as "the world's only completely revolving tower."
        The tower was the latest addition to Curitiba's cutting-edge urban planning, which includes a much-copied bus transit system. Canada and the United States boast revolving restaurants mounted on skyscrapers, but fall short of Curitiba's newest building.

       It is a great civil construction work of art in modern times," said Alcir Moro, director of the Moro contractor group. Each 300,000-dollar apartment occupies an entire floor of 287 square meters (3,000 square feet). Lights, air conditioning and the revolving of the apartment can be turned on and off with a remote control or an oral command. The owner may also change the direction and speed of the revolutions. At low speed, each floor takes an hour to revolve.

December 19
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N.J. Airport Security Spot, Lose Fake Bomb
NEWARK, N.J. - Baggage screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport spotted — and then lost — a fake bomb planted in luggage by a supervisor during a training exercise. Despite an hours-long search Tuesday night, the bag, containing a fake bomb complete with wires, a detonator and a clock, made it onto an Amsterdam-bound flight. It was recovered by airport security officials in Amsterdam when the flight landed several hours later. "This really underscores the importance of the TSA's ongoing training exercises," said Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, the agency responsible for screening passengers and baggage for weapons and explosives. "At no time did the bag pose a threat and at no time was anyone in danger."
       Earlier this month, French authorities lost a bag containing real explosives that were being used to train bomb-sniffing dogs. That led French authorities to prohibit using live explosives in future tests. The incident at Newark Liberty International was only the latest embarrassment for screeners at one of the airports from which some of the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers took off. In October, The Star-Ledger of Newark reported that screeners missed one in four fake explosives and weapons in secret weekly tests conducted throughout the summer by TSA agents.
       In Tuesday night's test, a TSA supervisor secretly placed the bomb, which was designed to resemble the plastic explosive Semtex, inside a bag that was put through screening machines, Davis said. A baggage screening machine sounded an alarm, but workers somehow lost track of the bag, which was then loaded onto a Continental Airlines flight. Despite the incident, no flights were delayed and the terminal remained open. Davis said the TSA is still investigating how screeners lost track of the bag. "It was an error that the bag was not intercepted before it was loaded," she said, adding it was too soon to say if anyone would be disciplined for the failure.
December 20
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Paris Christmas : Giant Christmas baubles containing Christmas trees sit in the prestigious Place Vendome in Paris.
December 21
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A U.S Marine runs past a small Christmas tree towards to 155 mm Howitzer cannon in a camp near the Iraqi city of Falluja, 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad.
December 22
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Christians protest actions that play down Christmas' religious nature By Richard Willing, USA TODAY

Julie West is tired of being wished "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." She's annoyed with department stores that use "Season's Greetings" banners, and with public schools that teach about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa but won't touch the Nativity story. So last week, she sent a baked protest to a holiday party at her first-grade son's school: a chocolate cake with vanilla frosting and red icing that spelled out "Happy Birthday Jesus." "Christmas keeps getting downgraded, to the point that you're almost made to feel weird if you even mention it," says West, a resident of Edmonds, Wash., who describes herself as a non-denominational Christian. "What's the matter with recognizing the reason behind the whole holiday?"This Christmas season, West has plenty of company. Christians and traditionalists across the nation, fed up with what they view as the de-emphasizing of Christmas as a religious holiday, are filing lawsuits, promoting boycotts and launching campaigns aimed at restoring references to Christ in seasonal celebrations.
       From New Jersey to California, Christians are moving to counter years of lawsuits that have made governments wary about putting Nativity scenes on public property, and that occasionally have led schools to drop Christmas carols from holiday programs:

• In Bay Harbor Islands, Fla., a Christian sued in federal court after town officials refused to let her erect a Nativity scene next to a menorah, or Hanukkah candelabra, on a causeway. Last week, a judge ordered the town to comply.
• In Maplewood, N.J., parents and students recently petitioned the local school board after school officials dropped even instrumental versions of Christmas music from class programs.
• In Denver, a Protestant church responded to the city's decision to drop "Merry Christmas" from public signs by trying to enter a Christmas-themed float in the holiday parade. Supporters picketed the parade and sang Christmas carols after the float was rejected.
• In California, a group called the Committee to Save Merry Christmas is boycotting Federated Department Stores. The group claims that Federated's affiliates, including Macy's, prohibit clerks from saying "Merry Christmas" and ban the word "Christmas" from ads and store displays. The retail giant says it has no such policy.
• Even Kwanzaa, the African-American harvest celebration, has taken a hit. In Los Angeles, the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a conservative black activist, has urged black Christians to spurn Kwanzaa, which he calls a "pagan holiday."
The new battles over religion's role in holiday celebrations come more than two decades after the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups began going to court to try to require municipalities to remove Nativity scenes and other religious displays from public property. The ACLU argued that such religious symbols violated the First Amendment's ban on government-endorsed religion. In two rulings in the 1980s, the U.S. Supreme Court said that Nativity scenes are acceptable when they are combined with other symbols - such as a Santa Claus house - that indicate Christmas is a secular holiday in American culture as well as a religious one. Nevertheless, the threat of lawsuits and a desire to be more sensitive to the nation's growing number of non-Christians - who made up about 18% of the U.S. population in a 2002 survey by Pew Charitable Trusts - has led many governments, schools and businesses to de-emphasize Christ in Christmastime celebrations. Phrases such as "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings" have replaced "Merry Christmas" at many public venues.
In a new CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, 44% of Americans surveyed said the trend toward "Happy Holidays" is a change for the better, and 43% said it wasn't. Only 11%, however, said they avoid saying "Merry Christmas" out of fear of offending someone. Carol Sanger, spokeswoman for Federated Department Stores, says Federated employees use phrases such as "Season's Greetings" and "Happy Holidays" interchangeably with "Merry Christmas" in order to be "more reflective of the multicultural society in which we live."  She says the chain aims to "embrace all" the religious and secular holidays that occur in November and December.
If you were Druid, I'd be wishing you a 'Scintillating Solstice,' " Sanger says. John Whitehead, director of the Rutherford Institute, a group in Charlottesville, Va., that defends against challenges to speech and religion rights, says the recent trend has been for schools and municipalities to excise "all mention of Christmas, out of some misshapen idea that this respects diversity." He is particularly critical of decisions such as that made by the school board in Maplewood, N.J., which decided to drop traditional carols and other Christmas music from public school programs during the mid-1990s after receiving several complaints.
       This year, the ban was extended even to instrumental versions of Christmas songs. Board President Brian O'Leary said in a statement that playing songs that "focus on religious holidays ... could become an opportunity not to learn about a religious holiday or tradition, but to celebrate it." Bans are 'misplaced' Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., says that such bans are "rare" and "misplaced."Court decisions, Haynes says, permit public school students to study religion and to perform religious music as part of the curriculum, provided that religious practices are not endorsed.
       Whitehead says that overly cautious approaches to mentioning Christ in Christmas celebrations has meant that "in the name of offending no one, you now have high school kids who can't play music that's part of the culture, and store clerks who are afraid to say, 'Merry Christmas.' It takes a joyous and merry day and just makes it blah." Sandra Snowden agrees. According to papers she filed in a federal lawsuit, the resident of Bay Harbor Islands, Fla., was "offended" that the town allowed a menorah, but not a Nativity scene, to be placed along a public causeway. When she protested, court papers say, town leaders countered that the menorah, which commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after a Jewish military victory in 165 B.C., was a secular symbol of freedom. Before a federal judge ruled in her favor, Snowden rejected the town's offer to install a Christmas tree rather than a Nativity scene, which the town officials had called "divisive."

       Those seeking to put more Christ into Christmas have had other successes. In Mustang, Okla. on Dec. 14, parents incensed that a Nativity sequence had been dropped from a school holiday program organized to help defeat an $11 million school bond referendum. And in Washington state, cake maker Julie West is claiming a small victory. Although her son's teacher expressed some misgivings, West served slices of her "Happy Birthday Jesus" cake to 20 first-graders and about five other parents. No one complained, she says."I had gotten a legal opinion from the Rutherford Institute saying I was within my rights before I brought the cake to school," West says. "That's Christmas this year, I guess: candy cane frosting and a legal opinion."

December 23
Image of the Day
An orangutan, named Dan-bi wears a Santa Claus outfit, waves bells in front of a donation box at the Salvation Army's money rising campaign in Seoul. Trained monkeys and Orangutans were used to entice donations during a charity campaign to help orphans and other needy people.
December 24
Image of the Day



December 25
Image of the Day
Little Nicky, the cloned cat by Genetic Savings and Clone, Inc., is pictured in early December 2004. A Dallas, Texas woman stored her cat Nicky's tissue in a California company's gene bank and on December 10, she became the first owner of a commercially cloned feline, dubbed Little Nicky.
December 26
Image of the Day
Swirling ocean swells are seen along the flooded coast of Kalutara, Sri Lanka in an image taken by DigitalGlobe's QuickBird satellite shortly after the area was hit by a Tsunami. Stricken Indian Ocean nations worked swiftly on December 28 to bury thousands of bodies as experts warned disease could kill as many people as the 60,000 already dead from the violent crush of Sunday's tsunami
December 27
Image of the Day
Santa Workshop Under Threat from N.Pole Thaw
OSLO - Santa may have to move his workshop from the North Pole because global warming is thawing the ice beneath his elves' and reindeers' feet. "Santa's workshop is in dire straits. The platform for the workshop is melting," Stefan Norris, of the WWF environmental group's Arctic Program, said.
An eight-nation report by 250 scientists last month predicted the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer by 2100 because of a build-up of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuels in cars or factories. "Santa may have to move from the North Pole within our children's lifetimes," Norris said. Young people learn that Father Christmas' workshop produces millions of gifts delivered by Santa on a flying, reindeer-drawn sleigh.
Hollywood movies like Warner Bros.' "The Polar Express" bolster belief that Father Christmas lives at the North Pole even though Nordic nations Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland all argue they are his home. Superman also has an icy retreat, the "Fortress of Solitude," near the North Pole that could be under threat in a warmer world. A Danish official suggested rescuing Santa by building a giant floating ice rink for the workshop if the Pole thaws. "Why don't we build some electrical facilities to ensure the ice stays on the North Pole for him?" said Alan Boldt, spokesman of the Danish Ministry of Science. "This should be a subject for the United Nations." He said Danish group Vestas could build windmills to provide Santa with power.
Copenhagen says Santa's real home is Greenland but reckons that a Danish territorial claim to the North Pole in October clinches its case. Sovereignty over the Pole could let Denmark search for oil and gas as the ice recedes. "Doesn't he already speak Danish?" Boldt said frostily when asked if Father Christmas would be forced to learn Danish if Denmark won international recognition of its claim to the Pole.
Last month's Arctic report said the region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, partly because dark ground or water, once uncovered, soaks up more heat than ice or snow. Finland has had most success from Santa, with about 500,000 visitors a year to its Christmas center in Rovaniemi in Lapland. "Maybe Santa's already moved to Rovaniemi," Norris said.
December 28
Image of the Day
More Dogs and Cats Than 'Bambini'
ROME - Remember the image of Italy as a country full of "bambini" playing on every street corner? Forget it. There are now more dogs and cats in Italian homes than children.
And, if statistical projections in a study published on Wednesday prove right, the pitter-patter of little Italian feet will increasingly give way to that of little Italian paws. According to the study published in Rome's La Repubblica, there are at least 14.5 million dogs and cats in Italian homes compared with 8.7 million children under the age of 15. Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe despite economic incentives for couples to have children. One psychologist told the newspaper that domestic pets had become surrogate targets of affection for many young people who could not have or did not want to have children. T he newspaper said Italians were now spending 4.7 billion euros in pet food, up some 20 percent in the past five years.

U.S. President George W. Bush seen wearing Western hat and boots strolls past Secret Service Agents on the grounds of the White House in Washington
December 29
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Father Seeking Marine's E-Mail Gets Help
WIXOM, Mich. - Offers of help have been pouring in for a Michigan man who is trying to persuade online giant Yahoo! to allow him access to the e-mail account of his son, a Marine killed in Iraq. From lawyers to computer-code crackers, people across the nation have come forward wanting to help the family of 20-year-old Justin M. Ellsworth, who was killed last month during a foot patrol in Iraq. "Oh, my God. It's been incredible," said John Ellsworth, Justin's father. "It's an overwhelming response. ... Things are really moving. I'm very encouraged by it all, but I still have my reservations."
Yahoo! is standing by its policy of protecting the privacy of its e-mail subscribers, spokeswoman Karen Mahon said. One man started an online petition Tuesday to pressure Yahoo! to allow access to the account. Lawyers have offered free legal services and other people have offered money to help the family pay costs they might incur. Two computer forensic examiners have offered to crack the mystery of the e-mail password for free.
The policy of Yahoo! is to erase the entire account after it has been idle for 90 days. It's not known when Ellsworth last used the account. He died Nov. 3, meaning the account would be erased by Feb. 1.
December 30
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Deadly Tsunamis Rival Waves of the Past
The tsunamis that claimed thousands of lives across the Indian Ocean are the deadliest great waves in more than a century and probably in modern history. More than 36,000 people were killed by tsunamis following the explosion of the volcano Krakatau in the Sunda Strait near Java on Aug. 27, 1883. Many estimates of the number killed in that disaster were even higher. The toll from Sunday's tsunamis has now topped 60,000 deaths in 11 nations.
       Following the 1883 eruption, waves estimated as high as 90 feet slammed ashore on nearby islands, wiping out coastal communities in what is now Indonesia. They had been the deadliest tsunamis of modern times until now. The earliest description of a tsunami-type wave comes from 479 B.C. in the northern part of the Aegean Sea. Similar waves have been reported worldwide, though they are more common in the Pacific, with its earthquake-prone perimeter. Many historians believe the explosive eruption of Santorini in the Aegean Sea in 1500 B.C. caused a tsunami that brought widespread devastation to the eastern Mediterranean and Crete. Thousands of coastal residents in Spain, Portugal and North Africa were killed by waves spawned by an earthquake at Lisbon, Portugal, in 1755.
Over the centuries, Japan has been the land most plagued by tsunamis, with at least 66,000 deaths recorded there since A.D. 684. Among the deadliest tsunamis was one that struck Honshu, Japan, in 1896, killing an estimated 27,000. Many coastal residents were in the streets celebrating a holiday when the wave struck. The next day, fishermen returning home found a scene of devastation, strewn with bodies and ruined homes for miles. Indonesia has seen more than 50,000 deaths in more than 30 destructive tsunamis over the centuries — not including the most recent disaster.
       On April 1, 1946, a Pacific-wide tsunami was generated by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake near Unimak Island in Alaska's Aleutian Island chain. A huge wave destroyed the U.S. Coast Guard's Scotch Cap lighthouse on Unimak, killing all five of its occupants. The lighthouse was a steel-reinforced concrete structure standing about 90 feet above sea level. That tsunami reached the Hawaiian Islands about five hours later, obliterating Hilo's waterfront and killing 159 people. Altogether, 165 people died, including children attending school at Hawaii's Laupahoehoe Point, where waves reaching up to 25 feet struck.
       As a result of this wave, two years later the United States established a Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.
Other notable tsunamis have included:
_Aug. 16, 1976: A tsunami generated by a quake on Mindanao in the Philippines killed between 5,000 and 8,000 people in the Moro Gulf region.
_March 28, 1964: A magnitude 8.4 quake in Alaska generated tsunamis that caused damage in southeastern Alaska, in Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and in the states of Washington, California and Hawaii. More than 120 died. Hardest hit was Crescent City, Calif., where waves reaching as much as 20 feet destroyed half of the waterfront business district. Eleven people lost their lives there. There was extensive damage in San Francisco Bay and at the marinas in Marin County and at the Noyo, Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors.
_May 22, 1960: The largest earthquake — magnitude 8.6 — of the 20th century occurred off the coast of south central Chile. It generated a Pacific-wide tsunami, which was destructive locally in Chile and throughout the Pacific Ocean. The tsunami killed an estimated 2,300 people in Chile. Waves damaged the waterfront in Hilo, Hawaii, and killed 61 people.
_Nov. 4, 1952: A strong earthquake off the coast of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula generated a great, destructive Pacific-wide tsunami. Its waves struck the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kuril Islands and other areas of Russia's Far East, causing considerable damage and loss of life. There was also damage in Hawaii, Peru and Chile.
_Jan. 31, 1906: A strong tsunami struck the coast of Ecuador and Colombia, submerging half of Tumaco, Colombia, and washing away half of a nearby island. The death toll has been estimated at between 500 and 1,500.
_Aug. 13, 1868: A massive wave struck Chile, carrying ships as far as three miles inland at Arica. Deaths totaled 25,000 or more.
_April 2, 1868: A locally generated tsunami swept over the tops of palm trees and claimed 81 lives in Hawaii.
December 31
Image of the Day
Leave it to Wired to talk about the ghost in the shell and Anathema.
Lobbyist Spending Expected to Break $2B
       Lobbyists spent more than $1 billion in the first half of 2004 promoting their positions in front of the president and Congress, putting the nation on track for its first $2 billion lobbying year. According to an analysis released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Political Money Line campaign finance tracking service, $1.06 billion was spent between January and June on lobbying the executive branch and Congress.
That is an increase over the same time periods in 2003 ($963 million), 2002 ($859 million), 2001 ($791 million) and 2000 ($765 million). The average spending per month was $176 million. Spending usually increases in the second half of the year, the group said. If that pace held up between July and December, lobbyists will have spent more than $2 billion on lobbying for the first time. Lobbyist spending came to $1.9 billion in 2003, $1.7 billion in 2002, $1.5 billion in 2001 and $1.5 billion in 2000. The topic lobbyists spent the most money on was health care, followed by communication and technology, the study said.
       The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was the top spender at $20 million, followed by the chamber's Institute for Legal Reform at $10 million. In third place was the American Medical Association at $9.2 million. Figures for the last six months of 2004 will be reported in February.