Calculate your life expectancy, watch a facelift - live -and learn about the after-life. And all for virtually nothing. Michael Cross suggests some seasonal diversions

Ah, there's nothing like a traditional Christmas eve.

As midnight approaches on 24 December, I'll be sitting beside a warm iMac, enjoying brandy, mince-pies and a spine-chilling ghost story. I might even get to see the ghost, known as the Lady in Grey, live on screen.

Her regular haunt, Willard Library in Indiana, is one of a growing number of places to be permanently under the gaze of a webcam, a still-picture surveillance camera hooked up to the Internet's world wide web. You can join the ghost-hunt yourself by pointing your computer's web browser at: As midnight approaches, you might want to switch webcams to check weather conditions for Santa's take-off.

Alaska has the closest airfield webcams to the North Pole that I could find, but it might be worth checking the airport camera website ( to see if something even more Arctic has joined the webcam craze.

On second thoughts, watching an empty library for a grey lady to show up, or a bleak Alaskan airfield for a break in the weather in mid-December is about as exciting as watching paint dry (which you can do on or reading the minutes of NHS Information Authority board meetings (they're on

The trouble with browsing the Internet (only politicians talk about 'surfing' nowadays) is knowing where to start.

Any vague combination of words will throw out a huge number of 'finds'. There are 439,880 pages dealing with 'births in Bethlehem', for example, mostly relating to modern families in the US town of that name.

If you're really lazy, or essentially a voyeur, you can hitch-hike on someone else's tour by Metaspy ( This site monitors the Internet's directory pages (its 'search engines') and anonymously displays what someone, somewhere is looking for.

The results usually say something more about the psychology of web users, but if you're lucky you'll be led into a world you never knew existed.

All human life is here, along with a glimpse into the afterlife. The Internet even has a (provisional) patron saint, Isidore of Seville (560-636AD). Although St Isidore probably never used the Internet, he was a great scholar, devoting his life to creating an encyclopaedia of knowledge ancient and modern. This great work of what we patronisingly call the Dark Ages preserved many fragments of classical learning that would otherwise have been lost. Find out more about Isidore and other saints on

Health and medicine bring out the best and worst on the web. One hot craze is to have your operation on the net: 14 February 2000 will see the first Internet facelift.

The patient is Arabella Churchill, grand-daughter of Sir Winston, who volunteered when a site called advertised for 'celebrities'. At the moment the site is full of 'before' photographs of the patient - if you're reading this, Arabella, there's still time to say no - together with biographical information.

Coincidentally, there's also some promotional material for the surgeon, Steven Bloch, and his colleagues. Can't imagine how that got there.

If you're more interested in surgery than celebrity, it is possible to download plenty of short video clips of operations from the Internet. The American Health Network ( has videos of brain surgery, hernia operations and many others.

The same site was also responsible for the Internet's first online birth. An audience of tens of thousands this year watched a woman called Elizabeth (already a mother of three) give birth to a 7.5lb bouncing baby, Sean.

The site still has highlights on view, together with a cringe-inducing interview with mother and the boss of AHN, Tod Fetherling. The 'webcast' was billed as an experiment in using the web for telemedicine consultations.

'It was a way for the medical community to establish a network between doctors in rural areas so they can connect with doctors in other larger areas, ' Elizabeth said.

'The fact that it turned worldwide caught all of us off guard. I don't think any of us expected that.'

It's also nice for relatives who can't be there in person: hospitals across the US are now setting up Internet nurseries to allow relatives to see the newborn. Try

Britain's biggest telemedicine fan is, of course, prime minister Tony Blair, which raises the possibility of an interesting party political webcast next May. Cherie, no doubt, is praying that he has found another hobby horse by then.

Some members of the medical profession question whether Internet voyeurism is truly educational. They're usually the sort of medics who have a horror of the 'webenabled' patient, walking into the surgery with a sheaf of research papers, drug company promotional material and outright quackery under their arm.

Of course what really scares doctors is the idea that the patient might know more about their condition than they do. But if the volume of healthcare material on the web is anything to go by, there is no turning back the clock.

For compulsive self-diagnosers, the place to start is a health 'portal'. One of the best is WebMD ( Like most Internet material, it is aimed at a US audience: a headline story about the dangers of eating turkey assumes that we will be celebrating Thanksgiving. Although not particularly recommended for reading on Christmas morning, the news seems to be getting better: an analysis of 50 turkeys bought in Chicago, Miami, Washington, New York and Los Angeles found that 28 per cent of fresh and 4 per cent of frozen turkeys were contaminated with Campylobacter bacteria. Not one, however, was contaminated with Salmonella. ) If you have already eaten the turkey, WebMD has well written factsheets describing almost every possible ailment.

If you really want to impress the medics, or perhaps write your own hospital soap-drama, you'll have to go deeper into medical technicalities. Luckily, many medical educational sites are open to all-comers. Make a start at, a pulmonary medicine site. It will play you respiratory sound recordings, together with colourful graphs indicating what it all means.

Would-be scriptwriters will turn to a virtual emergency room site ( to convey a sense of authority for those defibrillation scenes. If you really want to save lives, it might be better to memorise a six-step instant guide to emergency resuscitation available at Print out a copy now and stick it on the wall - but don't forget to change step one from 'call 911' to 'call 999'. There are a lot of dim people out there.

Internet healthcare isn't all high-tech intervention, by any means. The web is the obvious place to discover information on the fundamental inter-connectedness of everything. Try for a holistic guide to holistics, with a strong emphasis on alternative health and well-being. Check out Feng Shui, Rolfing (can you guess what it is yet? ) and Pyramid Power. Perhaps mindful of lawsuits, the compilers retain a certain caution: the entry on Pyramid Power, for example, claims that while sleeping under a pyramid has relieved 'toothache, headaches, cramps and rheumatic pain', research is still in its infancy. Before you buy your pyramid, however, take a look at some sceptics' sites. contains a dictionary of flim-flam.

Another site,, gives you a sceptical lowdown on everything from acupuncture to wild yams as well as the more extravagant claims of 'scientific' medicine. It also has a directory of 'non-recommended websites', which is surely asking for trouble.

Watching death on the web is not so easy as watching birth, although it's surely only a matter of time. The National Library of Medicine's visible human project ( lets you view frozen slices of an executed felon, which some will see as a welcome return to the good old days when you could have a grand night out at the gallows and dissection theatre and still have change from a farthing.

Others will find it stomach-turning. The British Medical Association has strong views about the ethics of obtaining patients' consent in death cells.

Another treat for a time of year when we're really feeling our age is a personal forecast of how much time we have left on this earth. One site ( will make a personal prediction based on crude actuarial data - ie your age and sex. It ignores one essential indicator: family history.

If the deathclock's tick is too final, there are more encouraging experiences at, from people who have returned to tell the tale. Don't look if you are likely to be offended by syrupy music and a fluttering US flag.

Here's one doctor's experience (following a suicide attempt): 'I remember floating above the ambulance watching the paramedics cut off my clothes. My next memory is that of going down a dark brown/green cloudy/smoky tunnel.

'Then I was at a place that I can only describe as being outside. I could look in and see the entire universe: galaxies, stars, planets, and the Earth. I had an overwhelming sense of aloneness accompanied by a feeling of wrong.'

That's something to look forward to, then.

All these sites are free to view (apart from your phone bill). In fact the best safety check for an Internet site is that anywhere which first asks your credit card details is worth avoiding.

Which is why in my wanderings I never discovered the treasure on offer at Other adolescent minds will quickly find their own equivalents - but don't have nightmares.

You have to look fairly hard on the net before you come up with any images that are much stronger than the cards stuck up in city centre phone boxes nowadays.

In fact, the Internet reverses the rule of thumb that anything free will be rubbish.

Sites with names like Teenslut Wunderland demand your credit card details upfront, while the Encyclopaedia Britannica is free (so is HSJ, if you can negotiate the registration procedure). Somewhere up there, Saint Isidore is nodding approvingly.

Yule be sorry you asked: seasonal teasers on the web

How intelligent am I?

Try, a free 30-minute test of numerical and linguistic dexterity. Or for a less demanding test, for fans of Casualty, has a quiz requiring an encyclopaedic knowledge of who's sleeping with whom.

How long have I got, doc? tells you how many seconds to your probable date of death (mine's 3 July 2029). You can order a personalised desktop clock to count down for $21.90.

How do I crack a joke in the consultants' dining room?

No problem. The web bulges with adolescent humour.

From a Brazilian medical school site: Four surgeons were taking a coffee break and discussing their work. The first surgeon said: 'I think accountants are the easiest to operate on. You open them up and everything inside is numbered.' The second surgeon said: 'I think librarians are the easiest to operate on. You open them up and everything is in alphabetical order.' The third surgeon said: 'I think electricians are the easiest to operate on. You open them up and everything is colour-coded.' The fourth surgeon said: 'I think lawyers are the easiest to operate on. They're heartless, spineless, gutless, and their heads and their ass are interchangeable.'

There are more like this, mainly featuring sex (hey, what do you expect medical students to joke about? ) on

In how many countries can you be beheaded for murder?

Too many. Find out more on:

How do I answer people who say: 'I'm going private to take the strain off the NHS'?

A lengthy and topical critical paper on the current state of regulation of UK private hospitals is at:

Will lots of vitamin C stop me catching colds this winter?

Probably not, says

Am I drinking too much?

Almost certainly.

Other frequently asked questions on alcoholism are at