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A Few Facts about 4 More Classic Holiday TV Specials

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How many of these shows do you remember, or maybe still watch every year?

1. The Year without a Santa Claus

This 1974 Rankin-Bass favorite was based on a short story by the same name written by Phyllis McGinley that was published in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1956. The piece received such a positive reaction that it was released in book form the following year. In 1968, Capitol Records hired Boris Karloff (who’d had success with his voice work in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas two years earlier) to narrate the story on an album. The LP featured McGinley’s story on the A-side, and a collection of Christmas songs from Capitol’s library on the B-side.

Academy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner Shirley Booth provided the voice of Mrs. Claus in the special and served as the show’s narrator. Press releases at the time stated that Booth had agreed to the project because of her longtime admiration for McGinley’s work, but in truth Booth was smarting from the recent and abrupt cancellation of her new ABC sitcom, A Touch of Grace. Her return to network TV had been ballyhooed in the press, and its getting axed after just 13 episodes was a major blow. Booth was amused by the fact that even though she sings a duet with Mickey Rooney (Santa Claus) in the special, she had never met the actor in person. She’d recorded her portion of the song in New York, he did his in Chicago, and the producers melded the two parts together.

The stand-out “stars” of The Year Without a Santa Claus were, without question, the Heat Miser and Snow Miser, voiced by George S. Irving and Dick Shawn respectively. Despite a long career as a film actor and stand-up comedian, Shawn might well have been remembered most for his voice work as the frosty Snow Miser had it not been for his most unusual death. Shawn was performing a one-man show at U.C. San Diego in April 1987 and had just launched into a routine about politicians and their clichés and campaign promises. Shortly after uttering the line “If elected, I will not lie down on the job” he fell face down on the stage. It was almost a full five minutes before members of the stage crew realized that this was not part of his act; Shawn had suffered a fatal heart attack onstage.

2. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey

If you cried when Bambi was orphaned or when Old Yeller contracted rabies, then avoid Nestor at all costs. There is a scene where Nestor’s mama protects him during a blizzard that puts a complete damper on any feel-goodness that shows up later when the floppy-eared little guy helps a couple find their way to Bethlehem.

Anyway, Nestor started out as a holiday record by Gene Autry, who was hoping to duplicate the success he’d had with “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The record flopped, but Rankin-Bass turned it into one of their Animagic specials. Nestor is a bit of a departure for R-B not only because it features the Nativity scene, but also because the villain isn’t an obvious make-believe monster (like the Abominable Snowman) but scary Roman soldiers.

3. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

This charming special from Jim Henson and his Muppet crew first aired on HBO in 1977, shortly before the Muppets hit the real-big time in their first feature film. The story is somewhat based on O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, with the very poor Otter family (minus Pa, who has gone on to that big river in the sky) wanting to enter a local Christmas talent show. But Ma has to hock Pa’s tool chest in order to buy a dress for the competition, and Emmet has to cut a hole in Ma’s washtub to make an upright bass … Luckily, the up-tempo songs and delightful production design keep the story from drowning in pathos.

Emmet was one of the most ambitious productions Jim Henson’s company had undertaken to date. This was long before CGI was at every animator’s fingertips, so the crew actually constructed a 55-foot-long river that was 10 feet wide across the stage they’d built in a Toronto studio. Emmet’s rowboat was radio-controlled, and some of the Muppets were operated via a brand new contraption Henson’s engineers had devised called a “Waldo.” The Waldo is an electronic telemetric device that the Muppeteer wears like a mitten. Shaped like the character’s head, it allows the wearer to control the puppet’s mouth remotely via radio signals.

4. The Little Drummer Boy

Based on the Katherine Kennicott Davis song by the same name, Rankin-Bass obviously had to flesh out the story to fill up 30 minutes of airtime. So they gave Aaron (the Drummer Boy) a back story: orphaned when his parents were killed by thieves, he was forced to join a circus because his drumming made his animal friends dance. He eventually escapes with his friends—a camel, a sheep and a donkey—and joins up with the Three Wise Men’s caravan to Bethlehem. The sheep is injured along the way, and Aaron asks the newborn baby Jesus to heal him. When the Infant Savior grants his request, appreciative Aaron gives the only gift he has to offer, that of music.

Actress Greer Garson, who’d won an Academy Award for Mrs. Miniver in 1942, narrated this special. The Little Drummer Boy was sponsored by the American Gas Association when it debuted in 1968, so all the bumpers featured “Holiday Wishes from Your Local Gas Company!”

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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