Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New Year's Eve - Dreams Don't Turn To Dust

In order to celebrate Christmas holidays, one of the groups I follow (Blogghidee) has decided to organize a special event called "Dreams and  Christmas exchanges" (the actual name is Sogni e Scambi di Natale). Shortly, each one has to share a personal dream, promoting those of others on blogs and G + profiles . And so I decided to join this event, including this to my list of New Year's resolutions. But this time is not so simple, because I must necessarily share with you what I am about to write.

For me 2014 was not so great. At the beginning of the year I lost my grandma, one of the few people in the world I have ever loved, and my life changed completely overnight. Anyway, I always hope for a better tomorrow, something a lot of people don' t keep doing. I could write down all my desires, like being good at university and maybe publish the book I'm currently writing. Believe me, my "Bottle of Dreams" is huge. But this is not what I have in my heart now. I wish each one of you, who came here by accident or one of my followers, could spend a spectacular year, full of joy, love and unforgettable experiences. What I'm saying may seem strange, but I swear to you all of this comes from the bottom of my heart. Don't stop believing in you and keep looking forward. Maybe you'll find obstacles in front of you, but the good side of obstacles is that you can overcame them.

But the passed year was not only bad stuff. One of my craziest ideas was without a doubt one of the best I have ever had in my entire life:

It all started with a wish. The desire of an Italian guy like me to know as much as possible of the world: customs, technologies , nature , incredible news, interesting anecdotes , legends , strange videos, spectacular photos and much more. So I decided to start a blog to share with the Internet my passion , getting out of the shell and "snooping around", just for the heck of it .

This is what I thought to write when I started my blog Snooping Around. When I published my first article, I was concerned not to do the right choice. There was never a best choice to make, and now I can say it. This because I entered the great family of the internet, and all of you are a part of it.
Thanks to your support I was reborn, and I'm not joking at all. All the things I have done here are literally filling my life. And a simple thank you is not enough for this wonderful gift you have given me...you have no idea how much this helps.

So this is my dream: just keep going with "Snooping Around", sharing facts and thoughts with all of you. Well, hoping that everything goes well.

Most of you don't know me in person. Everybody on the Internet knows me as a G+ profile picture, or maybe for the things I write here. But I feel like you're all my friends. Some further than others, but friends. And thanks to the Internet, we have the chance to found one another, making fantastic groups. And I love mine, however small it may seem.

Therefore, from everywhere in the world you came,

Thank you so much
Have a wonderful life
Never Stop Snooping Around
And most importantly, Happy New Year

- Gigi :)

PS: I dedicate this in memory of my beloved grandma, I hope she'll be proud of me.
PPS: Just a Random Fact About Me... I'm very emotional, so while I was writing down this I started crying. Just for the record.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Random Facts About.....Christmas

Christmas is finally coming. This is my very first Christmas as a blogger, and I'm really happy and excited to be able to talk about this holiday season with you, sharing some interesting facts. Among all others, Christmas holidays are without a doubt my favorites.  A shallow mind might think that I’m saying this only for the huge amount of spare time I have in this period or for out of town trips. Not that I don’t like these things, but what I love the most about it is the atmosphere. And I really believe everybody have ever felt that wonderful sensation you get out in the streets, seeing colorful lights, packages tied up with strings, decorated trees and people intent in last minute shopping ..... and maybe snow falling on your head. I think Christmas can also change the most skeptical mind .... and some of the random facts I propose you today will surely make you believe the same. So, here for you some Random facts about Christmas.


1. We frequently abbreviate Christmas as X-mas because of ancient tradition. X is the Greek letter “chi”, which is an abbreviation for the word “Christ” in Greek.
2.  Coca-Cola was the first company to use Santa Claus in a winter promotion.
3. Christmas didn’t gain widespread recognition among Christians until quite recently. In some protestant-dominated areas, such as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the celebration of Christmas was even legally banned.
4. Believe it or not, a real tree is better than the fake counterpart. In fact, an artificial tree would have to be reused for more than 20 years to be greener than buying a fresh-cut tree annually. The calculations included greenhouse gas emissions, use of resources and human health impacts.
5. Oklahoma was the last US State to declare Christmas as a legal holiday in 1907. Alabama was the first in 1836.
6. The people of Oslo, Norway donate the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree every year in gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during World War II.
7. During the Christmas of 2010, the Colombian government covered jungle trees with lights. When FARC guerrillas walked by, the trees lit up and banners asking them to lay down their arms became visible. 331 guerrillas re-entered society and the campaign won an award for strategic marketing excellence.
8. Mistletoe literally means “dung twig". The name derives the fact that mistletoe tends to spring from bird droppings that have fallen on trees, with the seeds having passed through the digestive tract of the birds.
9.  Norseman had many traditions and legends concerning the mistletoe. One tradition was that mistletoe was a plant of peace and so that when enemies met under the mistletoe they were obliged to stop fighting for at least a day. Eventually, this spawned a tradition to hang mistletoe over the doorway of one’s home for peace and good luck, including the "kissing under the mistletoe tradition".
10. Ebenezer Scrooge’s original catchphrase was “Bah Christmas,” not “Bah Humbug”.
11. Christmas carols began as an old English custom called “wassailing,” in which one would toast their neighbors to a long life. So when you sing Christmas carols, you’re bringing joy AND wishing good health to everyone you come across.
12. During the Christmas of 1914 (World War 1), a truce was held between Germany and the UK. They decorated their shelters, exchanged gifts across no man’s land and played a game of football between themselves.
13.  About half of Sweden’s population watches Donald Duck cartoons every Christmas Eve since 1960.
14.  In 1867, a Boston industrialist heard Charles Dickens reading "A Christmas Carol" and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and gave every one of his employees a turkey.
15.  Some zoos take donated Christmas trees and use them to feed their animals.
16. Charles Dickens grew up during a ‘Little Ice Age’ and hence it snowed for each of his first 8 Christmases influencing his writing and hence today’s tradition of a ‘White Christmas’.
17. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” released in 1942 is the best-selling Christmas song of all-time.
18. “Jingle Bells” was originally written for a Thanksgiving Celebration. was also the first song to be sung in space, on December 16, 1965 by astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra.
19. After “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens wrote other Christmas stories annually–although none would be as successful as the first.
20.  Telling “scary ghost stories” is an old Christmas Eve tradition that has died out in the past century.
21. Due to international time zones, our modern day Santa Claus actually has 31 hours to deliver presents to all the children of the world. But to do so, he’ll need to travel at a rate of 4,796,250 MPH. Well, he can do it.
22. Although they have masculine names like Blitzen, Donner,Comet, Cupid and Rudolph, male reindeer shed their antlers around the holidays. So it’s most likely Santa’s sleigh is pulled by female reindeer.
23. Norwegian scientists have hypothesized that Rudolph’s red nose is probably the result of a parasitic infection of his respiratory system. This is the way science can ruin a wonderful story.
24. The Germans made the first artificial Christmas trees out of dyed goose feathers.
25. According to the Guinness world records, the tallest Christmas tree ever cut was a 221-foot Douglas fir that was displayed in 1950 at the Northgate Shopping Center in Seattle, Washington.
26. The traditional three colors of Christmas are green, red, and gold. Green has long been a symbol of life and rebirth; red symbolizes the blood of Christ, and gold represents light as well as wealth and royalty.
27. Saint Nicholas Day (December 6) was the traditional day for giving gifts to children. It is still the day on which children receive gifts from St. Nicholas in the Netherlands. Nothing is known of Saint Nicholas’ life except for the legends that have built up around him, but he was associated with kindness to children. Santa Claus is the American pronunciation of Sinter Klaas, which was colloquial Dutch for Saint Nicholas.
28. According to data analyzed from Facebook posts, two weeks before Christmas is one of the two most popular times for couples to break up. However, Christmas Day is the least favorite day for breakups.
29. Contrary to popular belief, suicide rates during the Christmas holiday are low. The highest rates are during spring.
30. A spider web found on Christmas morning is believed to bring good luck in The Ukraine. Also in Poland, spiders or spider webs are common Christmas trees decorations because, according to legend, a spider wove a blanket for Baby Jesus. In fact, Polish people consider spiders to be symbols of goodness and prosperity at Christmas.
31. The poinsettia is the most common Christmas flower in the United States, Mexico, and Central America. In Europe this amazing flower is slowly spreading during the winter holidays. This flower is native to Mexico and was cultivated by the Aztecs, who called the plant Cuetlaxochitl (“flower which wilts”). For the Aztecs, the plant’s brilliant red color symbolized purity, and they often used it medicinally to reduce fever. Contrary to popular belief, the poinsettia is not poisonous, but holly berries are.
32. The traditional Japanese Christmas food is Christmas cake (usually a sponge cake with strawberries and whipped cream).
33. The world’s largest Christmas stocking measured 106 feet and 9 inches (32.56 m) long and 49 feet and 1 inch (14.97 m) wide. It weighed as much as five reindeer and held almost 1,000 presents. It was made by the Children’s Society in London on December 14, 2007.
34. The British wear paper crowns while they eat Christmas dinner. The crowns are stored in a tube called a “Christmas cracker. It is also believed in Britain that eating a mince pie on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas will bring 12 months of happiness.
35. Ancient peoples, such as the Druids, considered mistletoe sacred because it remains green and bears fruit during the winter when all other plants appear to die. Druids would cut the plant with golden sickles and never let it touch the ground. They thought it had the power to cure infertility and nervous diseases and to ward off evil.
36. Evergreens (from the Old English word aefie meaning “always” and gowan meaning “to grow”) have been symbols of eternal life and rebirth since ancient times. The pagan use and worship of evergreen boughs and trees has evolved into the Christianized Christmas tree. Actually, The Christmas tree is a Christianized pagan custom that originated in Germany. German settlers introduced it in America. It became popular during the nineteenth century, and then later spread to Britain and Japan from the US.
37. Another common traditional object is the Yule log, an enormous log that is typically burned during the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25-January 6). Some scholars suggest that the word yule means “revolution” or “wheel,” which symbolizes the cyclical return of the sun. A burning log or its charred remains is said to offer health, fertility, and luck as well as the ability to ward off evil spirits. Nowadays the log has also become a delicious cake.
38. Christmas is not widely celebrated in Scotland. This is believed to be because the country is mostly Presbyterian, and Christmas is considered to be a Catholic event.
39. Christmas stockings allegedly evolved from three sisters who were too poor to afford a marriage dowry and were, therefore, doomed to a life of prostitution. They were saved, however, when the wealthy Bishop Saint Nicholas of Smyrna (the precursor to Santa Claus) crept down their chimney and generously filled their stockings with gold coins.
40. The first person to decorate a Christmas tree was reportedly the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546). According to legend, he was so moved by the beauty of the stars shining between the branches of a fir tree, he brought home an evergreen tree and decorated it with candles to share the image with his children.
41. In Germany, Heiligabend, or Christmas Eve, is said to be a magical time when the pure in heart can hear animals talking.
42. The Viking god Odin is one precursor to the modern Santa Claus. According to myth, Odin rode his flying horse, Sleipnir (a precursor to Santa’s reindeer), who had eight legs. In the winter, Odin gave out both gifts and punishments, and children would fill their boots or stockings with treats for Sleipnir.
43. In Norway on Christmas Eve, after holiday dinner and the opening of presents, families hide all the brooms in the house. Norwegians believed in ancient times that witches and mischievous spirits came out on Christmas Eve, and would steal their brooms for riding.
44. The earliest known Christmas tree decorations were apples. At Christmastime, medieval actors would use apples to decorate paradise trees (usually fir trees) during “Paradise Plays,” which were plays depicting Adam and Eve’s creation and fall.
45. In Argentina, a Christmas Eve night tradition includes ‘globos’, paper decorations with a light inside that float into the sky. The sky is filled with them on Christmas Eve after midnight.
46. Commissioned by Sir Henry Cole (1808-1883), British illustrator John Callcott Horsley (1817-1903) invented the first Christmas card in 1843.
47. For every Christmas tree harvested, two to three are planted in its place. That's very heartening.
48. In 1979, the National Christmas Tree wasn’t lighted–save for the top ornament. This was done to honor the American hostages in Iran.
49. If you received every gift in “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” you’d have 364 gifts.
50. The world’s biggest Christmas gift is the Statue of Liberty! Given to the US by the French in 1886, it weighs over 225 tons. It’s always stood as a symbol of freedom, but who’d have thought of it as an actual gift?
51. Black Friday actually isn’t the busiest shopping day of the year. The Friday and Saturday before Christmas are the busiest shopping days. The Monday after Black Friday is referred to as Cyber Monday because it is the busiest online shopping day of the year.
52. One man, Yves Piaget, spent a whopping £10.4 million on decorating his Christmas tree. The tree was lavishly decorated with 83 pieces of jewellery in Tokyo.

Believe me...while I was writing all these facts I couldn't believe to some, but all are actually true. Hope this Christmas special gave you magical moments, snooping around times and places on Christmas Eve. MERRY CHRISTMAS SNOOPERS....and never stop Snooping Around.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Bad Luck Files - Crows and Ravens

It is the darkest color, the result of the absence of or complete absorption of light. It is the opposite of white and often represents darkness in contrast with light.

This, my dear Snoopers, is the meaning of the word "Black", according to Wikipedia. Briefly, black isn't a color. Is simply "no color". And this sad characteristic gives black the popularity of being the sign of bad luck and death omens. In my opinion I think black has a very deeper meaning, and especially animals are fantastic in this color. This little intro for telling you not to shake with fear in front of a Black Animals just because you think it'll bring you diseases and disasters. They don't deserve it! But today I'm here to talk about another of the most common animals ever known in history with this problematic issues (and one of my personal favorites). Let's talk about The Raven.

How to describe this wonderful creature without being classy. It's impossible. Mysterious and Rapacious. Shiny black plumage, Pointed beak and haughty look. I think these says it all. Recent research has found some crow species capable of tool use and construction. Crows are now considered to be among the world's most intelligent animals with an encephalization quotient approaching that of some apes. So, first of all, we're not talking about a dumb bird.

Over the centuries, it has been the subject of mythology, folklore, art, and literature. Just to mention the most famous, everybody knows of Edgar Allan Poe's crow, with his "Nevermore". In many cultures, including the indigenous cultures of Scandinavia, ancient Ireland and Wales, Bhutan, the northwest coast of North America, and Siberia and northeast Asia, the common raven has been revered as a spiritual figure, even a god. Believe it or not, it's also the official bird of the Yukon and of the city of Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories.

Unfortunately, as I was saying before, because of its black plumage, croaking call, and diet of carrion, ravens and the crows have long been considered a bird of ill omen and of interest to creators, but also of interesting myths and legends. The most known (this one is mentioned in Alex Proyas' "The Crow" with the talented Brandon Lee) was proposed by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. He thought about a structuralist theory that suggests the raven (like the coyote) obtained mythic status because it was a mediator animal between life and death. And if you talk about crows in Sweden, they'll say something quite similar. Swedish, in fact, thinks ravens are the ghosts of murdered people.

Let’s start with Greek mythology. The classic world associated ravens with Apollo, the god of arts, music, prophecy. They were a symbol of good luck, and god's messengers in the mortal world. According to the mythological narration, Apollo sent a white raven (a crow in some versions) to spy on his lover, Corinus. When the raven brought back the news that Corinus has been unfaithful to him, Apollo scorched the raven in his fury, turning the animal's feathers black. That's why all ravens are black today.

According to Livy,  even the Roman general Marcus Valerius  Corvus had a raven settle on his helmet during a combat with a gigantic Gaul, which distracted the enemy's attention by flying in his face. Well, this can be seen as some kind of cheating, but who cares now…

In the Bible, the Jewish and Christian holy book, ravens are mentioned on numerous occasions throughout the Old Testament. In the Book of Judges, for example, one of Kings of the Midianites defeated by Gideon is called "Orev" (עורב) which means "Raven". In the Talmud, the raven is described as having been only one of three beings on Noah's Ark that copulated during the flood and so was punished. The Rabbis believed that the male raven was forced to ejaculate his seed into the female raven's mouth for reproduction (mouth…really??).  According to the Icelandic Landnámabók - a story similar to Noah and the Ark - Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson (the Iceland version of Noah) used ravens to guide his ship from the Faroe Islands to Iceland, action that Noah also did in the Genesis (he sent both a raven and a dove). In the Book of Kings God commands the ravens to feed the prophet Elijah, and in the New Testament as well, ravens are used by Jesus as an illustration of God's provision.

In Christian middle ages lots of raven-related happenings make it through history. According to the legend of the fourth-century Iberian Christian martyr Saint Vincent of Saragossa, after his execution ravens protected his body from being devoured by wild animals, until his followers could recover it. His body was taken to what is now known as Cape St. Vincent in southern Portugal. A shrine was erected over his grave, which continued to be guarded by flocks of ravens. The Arab geographer Al-Idrisi noted ravens were constantly guarding the site, for which the place was named by him Church of the Raven. King Afonso Henriques (1139–1185) had the body of the saint exhumed in 1173 and brought it by ship to Lisbon, still accompanied by the ravens. This transfer of the relics is depicted on the coat of arms of Lisbon.

A raven is also said to have protected Saint Benedict of Nursia by taking away a loaf of bread poisoned by jealous monks after he blessed it. In the legends about the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, depicting him as sleeping along with his knights in a cave in the Kyffhäuser mountain in Thuringia or Mount Untersberg in Bavaria, it is told that when the ravens stopped to fly around the mountain he will awake and restore Germany to its ancient greatness. According to the story, the Emperor's eyes are half closed in sleep, but now and then he raises his hand and sends a boy out to see if the ravens have stopped flying. So in the ancient times the meaning of this bird was completely different from the modern thoughts. But let's move on...

According to Germanic population, Odin was often associated with ravens. Examples include depictions of figures often identified as Odin appear flanked with two birds on a 6th-century bracteate and on a 7th-century helmet plate from Vendel, Sweden. In later Norse mythology, Odin is depicted as having two ravens Huginn and Muninn (on the right you can see them with the respective ancient runes) serving as his eyes and ears – Huginn being referred to as thought and Muninn as memory. Each day the ravens fly out from Hliðskjálf and bring Odin news from Midgard. The Old English word for a raven was hræfn; in Old Norse it was hrafn; the word was frequently used in combinations as a kenning for bloodshed and battle.
As you can see in this representation of Huginn and Muninn, the raven was commonly used by the Vikings. Ragnar Lodbrok, another ruler of the Viking age, had a raven banner called Reafan, embroidered with the device of a raven. It was said that if this banner fluttered, Lodbrok would carry the day, but if it hung lifeless the battle would be lost. King Harald Hardrada also had a raven banner, called Landeythan (land-waster). The bird also appears in the folklore of the Isle of Man, a former Viking colony, and it is used as a symbol on their coat of arms.

Now it's time for the Celtic Traditions. In Irish mythology ravens are associated with warfare and the battleground in the figures of Badb and Morrígan. The goddess An Morrígan alighted on the hero Cú Chulainn's shoulder in the form of a raven after his death.

Ravens were also associated with the Welsh god Bran the Blessed, whose name translates to "raven". According to the Mabinogion, Bran's head was buried in the White Hill of London as a talisman against invasion. Also the name of another god, Lugh, is also derived from a Celtic word for "raven". He is the god of the sun, and the creator of the arts and sciences. He is depicted as giant and the King of the Britons in tale known as the Second Branch of the Mabinogi. Several other characters in Welsh mythology share his name, and ravens figure prominently in the 12th or 13th century text “The Dream of Rhonabwy”, as the army of King Arthur's knight Owain.

According to legends, the Kingdom of England will fall if the ravens of the Tower of London are removed. It had been thought that there have been at least six ravens in residence at the tower for centuries. It was said that Charles II ordered their removal following complaints from John Flamsteed, the Royal Astronomer. However, they were not removed because Charles was then told of the legend. Charles, following the time of the English Civil War, superstition or not, was not prepared to take the chance, and instead had the observatory moved to Greenwich. In fact the earliest known reference to a Tower raven is a picture in the newspaper The Pictorial World in 1883. This and scattered subsequent references, both literary and visual, which appear in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, place them near the monument commemorating those decapitated at the tower, popularly known as the “scaffold.” 

This strongly suggests that the ravens, which are notorious for gathering at gallows, were originally used to dramatize tales of imprisonment and execution at the tower told to tourists by the Yeomen Warders. There is evidence that the original ravens were donated to the tower by the Earls of Dunraven, perhaps because of their association with the Celtic raven-god Bran. However wild ravens, which were once abundant in London and often seen around meat markets feasting for scraps, could have roosted at the Tower in earlier times.

During the Second World War, most of the Tower's ravens perished through shock during bombing raids, leaving only a mated pair named "Mabel" and "Grip". Shortly before the Tower reopened to the public, Mabel flew away, leaving Grip alone. A couple of weeks later, Grip also flew away, probably in search of his mate. The incident was reported in several newspapers, and some of the stories contained the first references in print to the legend that the British Empire would fall if the ravens left the tower. Since the Empire was dismantled shortly afterward, those who are superstitious might interpret events as a confirmation of the legend. Before the tower reopened to the public on 1 January 1946, care was taken to ensure that a new set of ravens was in place. Well, let's put it this way: England will fall without ravens over the London Tower. See how important they were... So far we've listed deviating opinions. But it's not over yet...

Most of the people who considered crows a bad omen probably have never been to South Asia, where things are a little bit different. There the crowing of crows is considered an omen. It means that a letter ( or news ) will come from relatives not heard for long, or that some unexpected guests/ visitors will arrive. Experienced oldsters can distinguish the exact type of message by the way the crow hops,or walks, on the roof, wall, etc. or from the exact tone and style of the crowing. Also low flying crows across one's path is considered an omen, this one interpreted as favourable or not, depending on the direction it crosses. Anyway, It is a sign of change. All that you have been working for and toward is now coming to fruition. Alternatively is giving you clear messages and guidance as to what your next steps are. Pay attention to your thoughts, and to the omens around you. The messages are clearer now than they have ever been. Crow as a messenger could also be letting you know that it’s time to step back – re assess where you are at and take stock of your own dreams and aspirations. Being clear about our own desires is key in manifesting our intentions.

But we can fly even higher with the help of the Natives of North America. In fact, the raven in these indigenous peoples' mythology is the Creator of the world, but it is also considered a trickster god. In Tlingit culture, there are two different raven characters which can be identified, although they are not always clearly differentiated. One is the creator Raven, responsible for bringing light to the darkness. The other is the childish raven, always selfish and hungry. When the Great Spirit created all things he kept them separate and stored in separated boxes. The Great Spirit gifted these boxes to the animals who existed before humans. When the animals opened the boxes all the things that comprise the world came into being. The boxes held such things as mountains, fire, water, wind and seeds for all the plants. One such box, which was given to Seagull, contained all the light of the world. Seagull coveted his box and refused to open it, clutching it under his wing. All the people asked Raven to persuade Seagull to open it and release the light. Despite begging, demanding, flattering and trying to trick him into opening the box, Seagull still refused. Finally Raven became angry and frustrated, and stuck a thorn in Seagull's foot (a version of the battle between them was portrayed by Bill Reid in the sculpture in the first pic on the right). Raven pushed the thorn in deeper until the pain caused Seagull to drop the box. Then out of the box came the sun, moon and stars that brought light to the world and allowed the first day to begin.

RAVENS AND CROWS HAVE HAD A VERY LONG HISTORY, BETWEEN UPS AND DOWNS, AND I BELIEVE THERE IS MUCH MORE TO SAY, INSTEAD OF KEEP THINKING OF THEM TO BE JUST BAD LUCK SYMBOLS. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Urban Legends - The Town That’s Been Burning for Over Half a Century

Surfing on the Internet in search of new mysteries to talk about I found out something very strange. I’ve already talked about the Ringing Rocks County Park. And again today’s weirdness is located in Pennsylvania. What if I tell you there exists a city which has been burning for almost 50 years. And is still burning now. 

I was surprised when I first heard about Centralia, a borough (a self-governing municipal entity that is usually smaller than a city) and a near-ghost town in Columbia County. Its population has radically dwindled from over 1,000 residents in 1981 to 8 in 2014, and so is the least-populated municipality in Pennsylvania. But If you look at it, seems a very pleasurable city. So why everybody ran away ?

Founded in 1862, Centralia came out because of the booming coal mining industry. Under the town lays a particular type of coal, called Anthracite coal (also known as Black Diamond, a much cooler name), once in high demand for heating homes. This underground mine  surrounds the area, providing massive quantities of this mineral source. In fact, approximately 95% of all anthracite coal in the U.S. is in Pennsylvania.  Some estimates the total amount of coal under Centralia before mining began at 25 million tons. So it’s no surprise that Centralia prospered for a while with over 2.000 residents during its success peak.

But the problems began in the 1960s. Lots of people were moving away from using coal for heating purposes, reducing the mineral demand.  As a result, the population of the town had decreased to between 1,100 to 1,200 people. In addition, mining companies had removed approximately 50 to 70 percent of the usable coal beneath the town and the surrounding area by 1962. No large scale mining took place in town anymore, though other veins of coal continued to be mined elsewhere in the area.

The “Centralia Mine Fire” began in the days before Memorial Day in May of 1962. The exact nature of what locals refer to as “The Incident” causes arguments even today. Nobody can be completely sure of what actually happened. The most accepted theory states that Centralia’s volunteer fire department intentionally set fire to the town trash dump, in order to decrease the amount of waste before Memorial Day, since it was located near the town cemetery. The volunteer firefighters didn’t notice that, hidden beneath the trash bin, there was an opening to the mine shaft. Consequently the fire spread into the coal mine underground. There were strict regulations requiring that the entrances to unused mines must be sealed off to prevent such fires, but this opening was simply overlooked. Another popular theory about the start of the fire that began in 1962 claimed that a fire from a mine explosion during the 1930s was never extinguished and caused the most recent fire.

The fire was discovered on May 27th 1962, and the Department of Environment Resources and the Centralia authorities tried to put out the fire during the summer. It’s no surprise they miserably failed. A lack of funds severely restricted the firefighting efforts then, when it was most beatable. They tried to extinguish the fire several more times over the next twenty years, trying such things as digging deep trenches, as well as flushing the fire by dumping wet sand in tunnels, in both cases to cut it off from spreading, among several others extinguishing methods.  The government spent around $7 million trying to put the fire out, but the fire has always won since then.

Anyway, the fire didn’t seem to be posing any danger to Centralia or the surrounding towns, so everybody gave up, also because planning a solution to stop fire (digging a massive trench around where it had spread) would have cost over a half a billion dollars. At this point, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania closed a handful of mines near the Centralia mine due to dangerous gases traveling through the connected areas into those other mines, but otherwise ignored the situation. The residents of Centralia were frightened  at first, taking the fire in stride. But, after few years, they benefited from the ground being heated. For example, their sidewalks and driveways no longer needed shoveling during the cold, snowy months. Others benefited from having warm soil in their gardens and could harvest tomatoes in winter.

But the bad news came from a gas station owner, who discovered in 1979 that the fire had heated his underground fuel tanks to a 172 degrees Fahrenheit. While not anywhere near the 500°F ignition critical level , it was nonetheless a sign of just how hot the ground was getting in certain areas. Gasses and heat from the fire also began to kill vegetation above ground, leaving clear marks around the city limits (and the photo up here is a clear example).

Then in 1981, the Centralia Mine Fire brought national attention to the small Pennsylvania coal town. Twelve-year-old boy Todd Domboski (on the right) was cutting through his grandmother’s backyard when the ground opened up beneath his feet. Heat from the mine fire warmed the ground and opened a sinkhole. Domboski managed to stop his slide into the sinkhole and a fiery, smoke-filled death below by grabbing a tree root and shouting for help. If his cousin wasn’t  quickly help pull him out, Todd Domboski most likely would have died from inhaling the carbon-monoxide filled smoke.

This near-death tragedy made headlines across the U.S. and spurred the government into action.  The U.S. Congress earmarked $ 42 million for the purpose of buying out and relocating all of Centralia’s citizens.  In the end, Pennsylvania spent about $52,000 per house on average to relocate the residents of Centralia.

While most of the citizens eventually chose to take the money and leave town for a safer place to live, a handful of residents refused to leave their homes. Everybody has problems to leave the places where their families grew up and lived, is a natural law. They claimed that their houses were safe despite the fumes and other dangers because they weren’t in the path of the fire. Nevertheless, Pennsylvania’s government declared eminent domain in 1992, meaning that the government could seize private property so long as they compensated the property owners. Those who remained in Centralia became actual squatters.

The residents who remained in town underwent a lengthy court battle with the state in order to keep their homes. They argued that the government buyout originated from an underhanded plan to gain valuable mineral rights. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania denied everything,  arguing this has never been their intention and that the buyout does not impact mineral rights. As of June 2014, the 8 remaining residents of Centralia have been given the right to live out the rest of their lives in the town with the government taking possession of their land after their deaths. It’s a pretty sad price for loving their own homes…

Nowadays, Centralia is virtually a ghost town. The properties that the state either purchased or seized have been leveled, and the vegetation has been allowed to grow without artificial limitations.

The Centralia Mine Fire has burned for over fifty years without slowing down. Some estimates claim that there is enough coal under Centralia to fuel the fire for another 250 years or so.  Needless to say, the town will not be rebuilt anytime soon, though the handful of remaining locals do note it has become something of a tourist attraction, with a few thousand people a year paying a visit.

There was also a time capsule buried in Centralia in 1966. The few citizens left in town plan to dig it up in 2016. I swear that if I hear such another amazing story located in Pennsylvania, I will have a new country to visit in the near future. I wanna be there to see what's inside that capsule....

Monday, November 17, 2014

Discovery Central - Caffeine

Awww! That cup of coffee. When you grab it, pouring that dark liquid into your mouth in early morning, you are sure it will help you against sleep. It's commonly known this is caused by caffeine, a chemical widely used for its awakening properties. Caffeine has been used as a drug for thousands of years, both in medicine and in daily life. There are several plants, cultivated or harvested, that contain this substance, but today caffeine is added to many foods, more than you think. Despite the increase in caffeine use in recent times, many people have little knowledge of the overall effects it has on their bodies. So, let's start with this new "Discovery Central".

The word Caffeine derives of course from the world coffee because coffee plants were one the first discovered ones which had a huge amount of it. Caffeine’s chemical name is 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, based on its formula, C8H10N4O2, and in its pure form caffeine is a very bitter white powder. But it can have other names when found in particular plants. For example, sometimes is called guaranine when found in guarana, mateine when found in mate, and theine when found in tea. 
Overall, caffeine is found in the beans, leaves, and fruit of over 60 plants, where it acts as a natural pesticide that paralyzes and kills certain insects feeding upon them. Plants that contained caffeine have been used as a stimulant and source of energy since as they were discovered. Different cultures all around the world used caffeine long before they knew what caused the effects used the plants that produce this drug for medical uses and to increase energy. It was not until 1819 that the drug caffeine itself was isolated as the source of the effects. Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge made the discovery in Europe as a result of the growing interest in plant chemistry that began there in the nineteenth century. A poet called Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe gave Runge some coffee beans as a gift, and told him to analyze them. In few months Runge was able to extract and purify caffeine from the beans. From this point on caffeine was identified in many plants all around the world. Only a year later, in 1820, it was found that the theine in tea was also caffeine, but it was not until 1865 that it was discovered in kola nuts.

Nowadays much of the modern population uses caffeine as a stimulant, exciting the brain and nervous system while fighting fatigue. Making caffeine one of the most widely consumed psychoactive agents in the world! Caffeine is a drug like substance that shares traits with other addictive substances such as amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin (find out the first Discovery Central). Caffeine uses the same biochemical mechanisms as these other drugs to stimulate brain functions. As a result of excess caffeine consumption you may feel like your mind is racing and your thoughts are coming much faster, and this feeling can at times be very overwhelming. Decaffeinated products are now more widely consumed against the sense of “turbo-speed”.Through extraction processes, individuals can enjoy the taste of beverages, like coffee, without feeling overstimulated.

But how it all started ? Caffeine effects have been noted since the year 850.  Each country has its own story and source of caffeine, but the most eccentric finding was in Ethiopia. The folk stories passed between generations says that a farmer, who had recently moved his goats to a new pasture found them to be restless and excited. For the next few days he watched them, and noted they were grazing on small berries. These berries were later dried and called “coffee beans”.

But we can go in older times. One of the first plants discovered and used for the effects of its caffeine was the tea plant (click to find out my Random Facts About Tea). Most people associate tea with China, as that is where European nations first learned about this beverage. Ancient writings detail how tea could improve alertness and concentration, although it was obviously not known at the time this was caused by the caffeine. The Chinese likely learned about tea from either natives of northern India, or tribesmen from Southeast Asia.

The cocoa bean (click here for the Random Facts About Chocolate) is another common plant that has long been used for the effects of caffeine. Archaeological discoveries in Mexico have found the first use of the cocoa bean to be by the Olmecs who lived in Mexico between 1500 and 400 B.C.E. The Olmecs harvested wild cacao pods to make a chocolate drink. Following the Olmecs, the Maya became very wealthy trading cocoa. Within Mexico, chocolate was then passed on to the Toltecs and finally the Aztecs in twelfth century. In the early sixteenth century, the Spanish conquistadors first learned of chocolate from the Aztecs, and it was spread through Europe from there. Although the Maya were the first civilization of the New World to keep historical records, most information about the early use of cocoa was lost when conquistadors and missionaries destroyed much of their culture.

Despite being the current primary source of caffeine, coffee (here you can find Some Random Facts) did not make its appearance until the ninth century in Ethiopia and possibly not until the fifteenth century in southern Arabia. This late discovery of coffee is unusual since coffee grew along trade routes between Ethiopia, Abyssinia, and the Middle East. Unlike chocolate and tea, coffee beans were eaten instead of made into a drink. The Galla tribe of Ethiopia mashed the beans and mixed them with animal fat to make a filling and energizing food for war trips. We can think of those as today's energy drinks.

In 1640, coffee finally made its way to Europe, first entering through Venice.  Initially it was used as medicine, but later became a social drink.  The first published paper that wrote about the effects of caffeine was by a French pharmacist, Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, in 1671.  He wrote about the three main caffeine drinks that were circulating through Europe at the time, coffee, tea, and cocoa.  These drinks were used as alternatives to alcoholic drinks in Europe at the time.This was the start of the first capitalist world economy. Caffeine spread all over the world. From then on, caffeine drinks have been modified and consumed not only in the form of coffee and tea, but in numerous forms in modern society.
The latest craze being energy drinks. The 1830s saw the first flavored soft drinks which were actually considered health drinks. The original flavors came from bark and flowers added to the drinks which gave birth to sodas such as root beer, ginger ale, and lemon. Root beer was in wide distribution by 1876, and by 1881 so was the cola flavor which is made from kola nuts. While the kola nuts do add caffeine to sodas, today 95% of the caffeine in most sodas is added for extra effect. Due to current knowledge of the effects of caffeine, US regulations have limited the caffeine content of sodas to no more than 6 mg/ounce. This level of caffeine is much lower than the amount naturally found in coffee and tea. In fact energy drinks contain caffeine along with various other chemicals to give people energy.  These drinks have taken over and are now and have caused the consumption of caffeine to skyrocket, which has lead to the controversy of its side effects.

If this helps us stay awake, why being frightened of its amount in blood ? Surely a doctor is not needed to know caffeine has bad influences on our body.
People report feeling energetic, imaginative, efficient, self-confident, alert, able to concentrate, and motivated to work. But all of these have consequences.

Caffeine is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream after oral ingestion. Its completely absorbed in just forty-five minutes. Caffeine affects the central nervous system travelling through the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, caffeine attaches to plasma and rides to the brain. When it arrives, caffeine acts as an antagonist and inhibits adenosine receptors. The blocked adenosine receptors lead to an increase of dopamine in the brain. Many of the known effects of caffeine are caused by this increasing. Dopamine helps with cognition, motor coordination, sleep, and mood, while adenosine helps promote sleep and suppress arousal. So the main effect we all known can be logically presumed. Despite what you probably think, in a chemistry lab caffeine powder is very dangerous. In fact pure caffeine is extremely toxic to humans. The chemical cannot be touched with bare hands and the fumes cannot be inhaled without serious effects.

Low doses of caffeine appear to increase motor coordination, while higher amounts decrease it to below normal levels. The effect caffeine has on sleep is also partially caused by its blocking of adenosine receptors. As previously mentioned, adenosine promotes sleep, and since caffeine blocks it from the receptors, this wards off the feeling of sleep. Unfortunately, this can lead to insomnia and cause headaches. Caffeine also increases the rate that noradrenergic neurons fire, which helps to mediate sleep. It does not, however, eliminate the need for sleep.

There are several types of symptoms that come with this condition. Some symptoms may not immediately alert you to the fact that you have had too much caffeine, since they may not seem serious. For example, you may experience:
  • dizziness
  • diarrhea
  • increased thirst
  • insomnia
  • headache
  • fever
  • irritability
Other symptoms seem more severe, and call for immediate medical treatment. These more serious symptoms of caffeine overdose include the following:
  • breathing troubles
  • vomiting
  • hallucinations
  • confusion
  • chest pain
  • irregular or fast heartbeat
  • uncontrollable muscle movements
  • convulsions
BUT I'M AFRAID IT'S NOT ALL.
After a long and persistent use of caffeine, the body can build up a tolerance to it. The number of adenosine receptors in the brain increases due to the amount of caffeine molecules blocking the others. This has two main effects on the brain. First, it requires more caffeine to block the receptors and receive the same effects. So, no particular issues. Second, with more receptors, the effect of adenosine when there is no caffeine in the body is increased. This is what causes the withdrawal symptoms that approximately a quarter of sensitive users get when they stop taking caffeine. When individuals slowly decrease their caffeine intake, withdrawal symptoms are not seen. This shows that the craving for caffeine is much weaker than that for commonly abused drugs such as amphetamines or nicotine. Withdrawal effects are similar to those of other drugs and include craving, tiredness (and insomnia), confusion, and mild to severe headaches. These symptoms can last up to two weeks. Due to the strength of caffeine, relatively small doses can be lethal. Orally ingesting as little as three grams has been known to cause fatalities. It is estimated that the lethal dose for humans is between 150 mg/kg and 200 mg/kg but it depends upon individual and sensitivity. Scientists have been examining whether excessive caffeine intake can also cause heart problems.

"COFFEE IS GOOD, TOO MUCH COFFEE...DEFINITELY NOT GOOD". I think I get the advice. What about you...?
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