The Return of Count Spirochete

Friday, December 31st, 2010

In 1973, the National Naval Medical Center produced The Return of Count Spirochete — “a delightful animated cartoon” — to warn sailors about certain communicable diseases:

I’m sure all the sailors learned a valuable lesson.

Anarchy is back

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Anarchy is back, Richard Fernandez (Wretchard) says:

Anarchists, who are the cannon fodder of the extreme left, are sending the message that the Old Leftist politics has failed and the time has come to double down. They do this by manifesting an “anger” and “outrage” which the parliamentarians cannot. The British Pakistani Leftist Tariq Ali recently wrote a book entitled The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad in which he claims that people like Obama are “incapable of dealing with the right”. His point is that Obama, like Nick Clegg in Britain, is regarded as the symbol of the leftist politics that has sold out. They aren’t radical enough, and what the Left needs more than ever is men of principle, the purest and most uncompromising of which are the anarchists.
Rectification is not an electrical term. On the Left it means “power struggle” or purge. In the beginning will take exactly the form we are witnessing now: a signaling exercise on the Left ostensibly directed at the mythical right but essentially aimed at sending a message to leftist politicians and semi-respectable activists that they haven’t been militant enough. It is an open political letter from one faction to the other. In the case of Greece the message is simple. Keep spending, the hell with austerity. The warnings to get clear of bombs suggests the “anarchists” still regard their targets as broadly fraternal, but the subsequent real explosions say their forbearance will not last forever unless the moderate left gets serious. The USA Today article continued, “”Anarchists-insurrectionists work to try to raise the level of clashes when there are problems’ said Marco Boschi, a criminologist who teaches a course on terrorism at the University of Florence”. The anarchists themselves are ineffectual but provide the symbols around which the larger Left can rally.
In fine anarchists are Red Guards of the European Left, a collection of dupes formed inside the vast and creaky infrastructure of Marxism to advance the interests of one faction against another faction. It is impossible to understand the politics of the Left without grasping that it is all about deniable intimidation. The real problem European anarchism solves is how to send bombs without seemingly sending them, or how to trash the Tory party headquarters in London without really doing it.

Just as Mao’s Red Guards were never about themselves, always about Mao, anarchists are about a larger political question: what is the correct political line? Once the Red Guards of China had resolved that in Mao’s favor they were allowed to rampage for a time to bring hatred down upon themselves and subsequently suppressed, hapless tools to very end.

He follows up:

The problem with anarchy is rooted in its inability to escape from the traditions of the Left. People calling themselves “anarchists” opposed the Jacobins and were suspicious of the revolutionary state. Throughout political history they’ve found a resonance among those who have felt the revolution betrayed. And it is always, always betrayed.

But their mode of organization, which emphasized communalism and mutualism, continually undermined them. The resort to committees, meetings, agitation — in other words the clanking apparatus of the Left — made any kind of action cumbersome and opened them to takeovers by the Bolsheviks. In a fight between the ‘noble’ individual — Camenisch for example, who seems a genuine tough guy — and conspiracy, conspiracy usually wins.

The Bolshies normally eat the anarchists up alive.

The anarchists had a good idea, which was suspicion of the state. They were hampered by two notable deficiencies: the lack of appreciation of the role the market could play in off-loading price signaling to the individual and the use of limited government as a defense against despotic government.

You can make the argument that the Founding Fathers were the ultimate practical anarchists. Their goal was to minimize the necessary government in order to prevent a collapse into either chaos or despotism. And they largely succeeded because they enshrined property — which is the bulwark of individualism — and limited government, in part through the “trick” if you want to call it that, of deriving legitimacy direct from an external non-human source. Whether the Founding Father types can survive the Jacobins and their Bolshie heirs is an open question, but they have been the most successful so far.

Modern European anarchists are descendants of a far weaker model and are no longer serious competitors to the traditional left.

They are tolerated for color on its fringes for their ‘purity’. From time to time it is useful for the Left to trot them out for theater before the apparatchiks reel them in again.

Somehow these revival moments keep cropping up in human history. It is interesting to compare anarchism to the “anti-sacerdotal” Cathars or Albigensians, who were interested in practicing a purer form of Christianity than was possible with a clergy. In their view, the doctrine of Christ had been corrupted by the bureaucracy, and their message struck a chord. The Cathars were eventually suppressed, but like the anarchists, the memory of the dream lives on, in the Church as the Dominicans. In the Leftist traditions in these strange fools for the communal dream are given their little corner in the political playroom under the supervision of far more ruthless men than the “right wingers” they suppose to be their enemies.

Back in the day I remember how Eco’s In the Name of the Rose, in which the Cathars play cameo, resonated with members of the underground who were fighting against both the Marcos regime and the party. Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus. We hold only empty names.

Pursuit of the Almight Vril

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

I recently mentioned the once-popular novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who coined the now-cliché opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night…” and the phrases the great unwashed, pursuit of the almighty dollar, and the pen is mightier than the sword.

I also recently mentioned a series of supervillain origin stories re-done in the style of Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Oddly, those two stories are linked. You see, the origin of Brainiac gives his true, alien name as Vril Dox, which sounds like a typical made-up sci-fi name — and it is, but Vril is also the name of the mysterious energy wielded by the superhuman subterranean master race in Bulwer-Litton’s The Coming Race, the proto-science-fiction novel that gave us the phrase pursuit of the almighty dollar, in its opening paragraph:

I am a native of _____, in the United States of America. My ancestors migrated from England in the reign of Charles II.; and my grandfather was not undistinguished in the War of Independence. My family, therefore, enjoyed a somewhat high social position in right of birth; and being also opulent, they were considered disqualified for the public service. My father once ran for Congress, but was signally defeated by his tailor. After that event he interfered little in politics, and lived much in his library. I was the eldest of three sons, and sent at the age of sixteen to the old country, partly to complete my literary education, partly to commence my commercial training in a mercantile firm at Liverpool. My father died shortly after I was twenty-one; and being left well off, and having a taste for travel and adventure, I resigned, for a time, all pursuit of the almighty dollar, and became a desultory wanderer over the face of the earth.

The book was quite popular, and not only did pursuit of the almighty dollar enter the public lexicon, but so did vril — as a name for health tonics and similar elixirs, such as Bovril (bovine vril).

But it gets much, much weirder:

Some readers believe the book is non-fiction, and “Vril” has become associated with theories about Nazi-piloted Flugscheiben (“Flight Discs”), Vril-powered KSK (Kraftstrahlkanone, “force-ray cannon” — transmission rods that produce potent energy rays), Jesuit “spiritual exercises”, and Atlanteans to name a few.

The concept of Vril was given new impetus by the French author Louis Jacolliot (1837–1890), who at one time was the French Consul in Calcutta. In Les Fils de Dieu (1873) and in Les Traditions indo-européennes (1876), Jacolliot claims that he encountered Vril among the Jains in Mysore and Gujarat.

The writings of these two authors, and Bulwer-Lytton’s occult background, convinced some commentators that the fictionalised Vril was based on a real magical force. Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, endorsed this view in her book Isis Unveiled (1877) and again in The Secret Doctrine (1888). In Jacolliot and Blavatsky, the Vril power and its attainment by a superhuman elite are worked into a mystical doctrine of race. However, the character of the subterranean people was transformed. Instead of potential conquerors, they were benevolent (if mysterious) spiritual guides.

When the theosophist William Scott-Elliot describes life in Atlantis in The Story of Atlantis & The Lost Lemuria (first published 1896), the aircraft of the Atlanteans are propelled by Vril-force. Obviously he did not regard that description as fiction, and his books are still published by the Theosophical Society.

George Bernard Shaw read the book and was attracted to the idea of Vril, according to Michael Holroyd’s biography of him.

Theosophy was a kind of proto-New Age movement, looking to unite humanity and unleash latent (psychic) powers.

Rudolph Steiner, a prominent Theosophist, went on to develop an educational philosophy implemented at his Steiner Schools, which are now better known as Waldorf Schools. They tend not to play up their Theosophical roots.

Fans of old-school swords & sorcery fiction can’t help but notice Theosophy’s many mentions of Hyperborea, Lemuria, Atlantis, and reincarnated men evolving through various races from age to age.

If people were taking these ideas seriously in the early 20th century, perhaps that explains why Fascism, National Socialism, and International Communism didn’t seem especially crazy.

The First War on Terror

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Brian Doherty reviews Alex Butterworth’s book on the first War on TerrorThe World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents — about the violent anarchist movement that lasted roughly from 1880 to 1910:

Butterworth’s walk through the  oft-told tale of 19th-century anarchism includes plenty of familiar material. Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin, the Communards and the narodniki, the First and Second Internationals — all get plenty of attention. (So do many tangential stories, some interesting and some not, about the historical milieu in which they lived.) The freshest and most relevant parts of the book are Butterworth’s tales of cops and spies at war with anarchist radicals. The most valuable player in this battle against the international anarchist terror conspiracy — which didn’t actually exist, in the sense of one organization centrally planning attacks across national lines — was the Russians’ man in Paris, Peter Rachkovsky.

Rachkovsky started as a possibly sincere, possibly duplicitous mover in St. Petersburg’s radical underground in the late 1870s, after having been dismissed (for leniency toward political exiles) from a job as a prosecutor for the czar’s government. He ended up running the show for the Okhrana, the Russian secret police, in Paris, where so many radicals considered dangerous to the czarist regime had immigrated.

From 1885 until 1902, Rachkovsky was responsible for keeping anarchists under surveillance and on the run — and also, in many cases, financed and supplied with ideas. Butterworth notes that “prominent among his early initiatives were provocations designed to lure credulous émigrés into the most heinous crimes of which they may never have otherwise conceived.” Rachkovsky’s aim was to entrap his targets into committing acts that would help ensure that his job seemed of vital importance to the czar. This guaranteed him a solid berth in Paris that was lucrative both in salary and prestige — and, Butterworth’s research leads him to strongly suspect, in opportunities for corrupt under-the-radar dealings with a French government doing heavy business with Russia.

Rachkovsky wasn’t the first cop to use agents provocateurs among the French radicals. Louis Andrieux, the French prefect of police during the early 1880s, had been frustrated that all his spying on the anarchists failed to uncover a crime worthy of his time and attention, so he decided that “it was necessary that the act was accomplished for repression to be possible.”

Rachkovsky’s bosses in Russia and his hosts in Paris both feared the radicals, allowing the Russian agent to tighten the ties between the two nations. He succeeded so well that Butterworth argues he was partly to blame for the Russo-French alliance that helped make World War I such a bloody mess.

European anarchists grow more violent

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Europol reports that attacks by militant leftists and anarchists jumped by 43 percent from 2008 to 2009, with most of the incidents in Italy, Spain and Greece.

The Last Attempt to Return to the Gold Standard

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

The last attempt to return to the gold standard was a bit disastrous, an anonymous commenter suggests, and Nick Szabo responds:

Anonymous, you are probably referring to the attempt by European national governments, practically bankrupt after WWI, to return to the gold standard, often at pre-WWI levels, while they and others tried to pay the interest on the debts (and Germany tried to pay its war reparations) with the deflated currency. The problem here was not the gold standard, it was war debts beyond the ability of taxpayers to pay (causing governments to go off gold during WWI and later causing taxation higher than the Laffer maximum, which lowered tax revenues and made the situation even worse) and a massive deflation that Britain for example felt was needed to get back to the pre-WWI standard.

The U.S. Federal Reserve colluded with Britain in this regard, causing destructive deflation in the U.S. At the time of the October stock market crash, the real Fed funds rate was an extraordinary 14%: 6% + an 8% deflation rate. Today, the real rate is probably negative. The Fed itself seems to be subject to great mood swings.

The extreme debts wracked up during the war, the war inflation, and the subsequent forced deflation were all big mistakes. Using inflation during the war as a hidden tax had already destroyed the integrity of the gold standard. It was too late to return to the pre-war exchange rate of pounds for gold — they should have chosen a new exchange rate reflecting the inflation. Both the war inflation and the subsequent forced deflation seriously screwed up price signals and wreaked havoc on debt contracts.

Along with the extreme deflation caused by attempting to reverse the entire massive war inflation, it was Germany, Austria, Britain and a bunch of other countries defaulting on their debts, coming off the gold standard (a de facto default), or both,and the resulting massive gold flow into the U.S., and the idiocy of the Federal Reserve to sterilize this flow to maintain the deflation, that turned a recession into the Great Depression. There were also massive tax hikes in the U.S., Hoover using his Big Stick to promote wage stickiness which caused excess layoffs, Hoover and then FDR throwing up barriers to markets in farm produce, and other problems that also helped cause and prolong the Depression. To pin it on the gold standard itself is a red herring: civilization had been using gold for thousands of years without a Great Depression.

Commodity Hysteria

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Nick Szabo discusses the commodity hysteria of the past few years:

Those supply/demand curves in the first chapter of your Econ 101 textbook assumed that goods are sold for some fix standard of value, a currency. But under floating currencies, which the world has had since the U.S. went off gold in 1970, there is no fixed standard of value. When trading commodities, supply and demand for the currencies they are traded for must now be taken into account. A long commodity position is also a short currency position, and vice versa. Furthermore, expectations about future supply and demand for currencies must be accounted for. Under floating currencies and a free market in commodities, commodity prices, especially for commodities like oil and gold where the stockpile (whether below or above ground) to production ratio is very high and storage costs low, are highly volatile — a small change in inflation expectations causes a very large change in commodity prices. The commodities themselves start to act like gold: to take on monetary functions such as a store of value or a hedge for currency-denominated debt. The logical emergence of money from barter is taking place every day as commodities come to serve these monetary functions better than floating currencies.

The critics complain that commodities markets, no longer reflecting Econ 101 supply and demand, are no longer providing reliable price signals. In fact commodity prices still are reflecting Econ 101 supply and demand, but this often tends to get buried in the noise of the much larger price changes caused by changes in inflation expectations. The fault lies with poorly managed floating currencies, not with attempts by currencies users to protect against the damage done by floating currencies, for example by hedging their dollar-denominated investment portfolios with long commodity positions. Trying to stop “speculation” will be like curing a fever by attacking the immune system. You may get rid of the fever, but you won’t get rid of the flu, and the patient, no longer protected, may end up six feet under.

The evidence for all this, such as the great rise in the use of commodity derivatives and commodity index ETFs (exchange-traded funds) and ETNs (exchange-traded notes) by long-term investors such as pension funds, endowments, and sovereign wealth funds, in parallel the great recent rises in commodity prices, are lumped by critics under their derogatory label of “speculation.” Another, and probably even larger, source of the oil run-up are decisions by producers to keep oil in the ground (where its storage costs are cheapest) rather than pump it only to sell it for depreciating dollars. Similarly, there has been a great deal of informal “hoarding” of food. Here the commodity is being stored by those who expect to consume, or who expect their customers to consume, the commodity in the future. The stockpile is a hedge against both the falling currencies and political risk that governments might hoard and ration the food. This “tacit speculation” too reflects an increase in inflation expectations. If or when inflation expectations decrease, we can expect (contrary to “peak oil” theory) oil pumping to greatly increase, as having dollars will once again become more valuable than having oil in the ground, and we can expect informal food stockpiles to be drawn down and food prices to drop.

These are all attempts to preserve wealth in the face of a highly uncertain, and probably falling, value of the future dollar and other floating currencies. In the era of floating currencies, not only are commodities a legitimate asset class, they are an essential asset class. Floating currencies add a very large and dominating amount of noise to commodity price signals when inflation expectations change, but there is no easy fix for this problem.

Attacks against commodity “speculation” are attacks against efforts to protect property and markets against highly uncertain currencies. Without this protection, economies will be in grave danger of wealth destruction. Instead of attacking “speculation”, the great increase in trade of “paper barrels” or “video barrels” should be encouraged. The more commodities can be traded as bits instead of by shipping physical commodities, the lower the transaction costs that will be imposed on tradition physical delivery markets. The “rolling-over” of commodities futures — when expiring futures are swapped for distant futures instead of taking delivery of the physical commodity — should be formalized in long-term commodities securities that minimally disrupt traditional “commercial” commodity hedging operations.

We may be seeing only the first stages of a switch from floating currencies, which may be proving to be unworkable, to commodity-backed currencies. Floating currencies were and are a great historical experiment, and there is no guarantee that such experiments will work out in the long run. By serving monetary functions such as stores of value and hedges against currency-denominated debt, commodity index ETFs and ETNs are starting to serve as monetary substitutes. But the benefits so far have been limited to investors and other big players. Those saving for retirement or who will have to pay for their child’s education are benefitting from the use of commodity long positions to stablize pension and endowment funds against falling currencies and protect them against future inflation. But we still have to take our wages in floating currencies, hold our checking and savings accounts in floating currencies, and pay or be paid our debts in floating currencies. Can commodity money move from Wall Street to Main Street?

There are, alas, great legal barriers to retail commodity money. While legal barriers often just increase costs by a few basis points for Wall Street, they usually prove insuperable for the man in the street. To remove these legal barriers, contracts in any part of the economy should be allowed to use commodity index ETFs or other standards of choice as payment terms. Negotiable instruments law in the U.S. must be changed to allow payments by check, money order, etc. in commodity standards to compete against government currencies on a level playing field. Legal tender laws requiring an option to pay debts in particular currencies should be eliminated in order to allow payment terms denominated in commodity indices to be as simple as payment terms denominated in dollars. These kinds of reforms will bring the benefits of stable commodity money from Wall Street to the man in the street.

If the Federal Reserve decided to use leading indicators (e.g. commodities) instead of trailing indicators (e.g. the Consumer Price Index, CPI) to fight inflation, or decided to go to a de facto commodity index or back to the gold standard, and stopped bad practices such as “printing” dollars to swap for dubious real estate securities, we would not need to otherwise use commodities for monetary purposes. If the Federal Reserve or the European Central Bank prove incable of providing a stable currency, commodity money will provide the long-term stability that our floating currencies since 1970 have usually not exhibited. The more governments try to fight the use of commodities for monetary purposes, the more painful the effects of poorly managed floating currencies will be, and the more painful the resulting transition from those floating currencies to commodity money will be.

(Devin Finbarr declares this one of the Top 10 Articles About the Financial Crisis.)

An Autobiographical Game Creator

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s man behind Mario, is the closest thing there is to an autobiographical game creator:

His experience with his family’s pet Shetland sheepdog, and, more to the point, with other dog owners, gave him the idea for Nintendogs, a popular game in which you create a simulation of a pet and look after it on the DSi.

And Pikmin, a game featuring tiny creatures that have stalks protruding from their heads and that live and travel in pods called Onions, arose out of his time puttering in the garden.

When he turned forty, he decided to give up cigarettes and pachinko and get in shape. He took up swimming and jogging, and began weighing himself every day on a digital scale. He hung graphs of the data, down to the gram, on the bathroom wall. “Once the graphs I’d recorded started to pile up, I started to feel a strange fondness for them — regardless of whether I was gaining weight or losing weight,” he said a few years ago, in a Q. & A. with Nintendo’s president, Satoru Iwata. All this became, for his wife and his daughter, a source of curiosity and amusement, and an idea occurred to him. “This could be a nice trigger for conversation,” he told me. “If I could make it into a game, it could probably help isolated fathers get more association with their daughters.” He brought the notion to the team of designers developing games for the Wii. They were skeptical, but eventually they came out with Wii Fit, a fitness game, which has since sold thirty-seven million copies worldwide.

It suits his view, and the industry’s, that introducing an element of play to a transaction or a task can get people to do things they might not normally do. In the commercial sphere, this is called “gamification,” or, more gratingly, “funware”: make something a game, in a supermarket or on a social network, and Homo ludens will play it. “It’s a shame if we narrowly limit the definition of video games,” he said.

Balls Out

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

When a steam engine runs hard, it runs balls out — literally:

Power is supplied to the governor from the engine’s output shaft by (in this instance) a belt or chain (not shown) connected to the lower belt wheel. The governor is connected to a throttle valve that regulates the flow of working fluid (steam) supplying the prime mover (prime mover not shown). As the speed of the prime mover increases, the central spindle of the governor rotates at a faster rate and the kinetic energy of the balls increases.

This allows the two masses on lever arms to move outwards and upwards against gravity. If the motion goes far enough, this motion causes the lever arms to pull down on a thrust bearing, which moves a beam linkage, which reduces the aperture of a throttle valve. The rate of working-fluid entering the cylinder is thus reduced and the speed of the prime mover is controlled, preventing over-speeding.

David Foster suggests that our society has been hit with a plague of sticky governors:

It strikes me that the role played by the legal profession and the financial industry is analogous to the role of an engine governor. Like the governor, law and finance are control systems; they are essential enablers and regulators of the activities of the rest of the economy. But also like the governor, the percentage of total system resources that they themselves consume should be reasonably small.

What would we think of a governor that scarfed up 30% of the horsepower of the engine that it was serving? Most likely, we would conclude that it was either poorly designed or inadequately maintained, or both.

There is no question that the legal and financial industries are both vital. Contracts must be drafted, disputes must be adjudicated, and capital must be allocated effectively. But the numbers of people in these industries, and the share of national income devoted to their compensation — along with related expenses such as buildings and computer systems — is perhaps excessive.

Perception Is Reality

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

Dan from Madison notes that perception is reality, when it comes to cars, and, from my experience, I agree completely:

Back in 2005 or 2006 I bought a Hummer H3. Before then I owned three Ford Explorers in a row, all purchased about four or five years apart. After I bought the H3 I started to get lots of questions from my customers, and a lot of times they were almost deriding.

I own a small business, and since I am always the first one there in the morning I park in the closest spot to the front door. All of my employees and customers walk by my vehicle on the way into my place of business.

When I bought the H3, I was taking a step down in cost of the vehicle — it was a long time ago, but I seem to recall that it was about 10% less then a new Ford Explorer at the time.

Almost immediately, many of my customers would see me and start asking me everything about the H3. When I asked them why the interest, I found out that many thought it was actually an H1 (cost over $100k) or an H2 (cost over $60k). My customers were basically giving me the berries for owning an expensive vehicle — which they thought they were paying for. When I explained to them that it was actually the “baby” hummer and was nothing but a Chevy Colorado pickup with an inline 5 cylinder engine jacked up tall, they calmed down a bit. But I had to go through the story many, many times.

I loved that H3 — it served me well in snow, mud, and was fun to drive, besides the occasional middle finger I would receive from a raging Madison lefty who had decided that the Hummer was the mark of the beast.

But fast forward to last week. I have decided to move on and have bought a new Acura MDX. This thing is like driving a spaceship. It is super fast (300hp), has almost as much room as the Hummer, and is an absolute pleasure to drive. The interior drips with luxury and it has a boss stereo to boot. Bluetooth hands free phone. Beautiful, soft leather seats cushion my weary body after a long, hard day of work. When I back up there is a camera on the back so I don’t even have to crane my neck to see if I am going to run over anyone. Almost all of the controls I need are mounted on the steering wheel so I don’t have to look down while driving. The defrost heats up the rearview mirrors so there is no ice on them. The safety ratings on the vehicle are insane. On and on I could go.

But it has a very unremarkable exterior. It looks nice sure, but to the uninterested eye, it looks like a zillion other cars on the road. And so it does to my customers. Not one person has said one thing about the new vehicle, and I am thinking never will. My H3 received comments five years after I bought it.

So what have I learned with this little anecdotal episode in my life? The world moves fast and not everyone knows — or cares about — the details. Honestly, I am thinking now that I could have had a Porsche parked in the lot and it would have drawn less attention than that $30,000 Hummer. Perception is always reality.

Chestnuts and Silver Bells

Saturday, December 25th, 2010

It’s no secret that many of the best Christmas songs were written by Jews:

For example, looking at a fairly recent ASCAP list of the most played Christmas pop tunes, it appears to me that of the top ten songs, Jews wrote five and co-wrote two more. Out of the top 25 songs, Jews were involved with at least 11 and possibly more. Here was the top ten:

  1. White Christmas – Irving Berlin (Jewish)
  2. Santa Claus is Coming to Town – J. Fred Coots (Jewish) and Haven Gillespie
  3. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) – Mel Torme (Jewish) and Robert Wells (Jewish)
  4. Winter Wonderland – Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith
  5. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – Johnny Marks (Jewish)
  6. Sleigh Ride – Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parish (Jewish)
  7. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin
  8. Silver Bells – Jay Livingston (Jewish) and Ray Evans (Jewish)
  9. Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! – Sammy Cahn (Jewish) and Jule Styne (Jewish)
  10. Little Drummer Boy – Katherine V. Davis, Henry V. Onorati and Harry Simeone

The Christmas songs that Jews wrote seldom involved religion, and some were simply ditties about cold weather, but nobody thought to label them generic “Holiday” tunes.

Songwriters, and their bank accounts, appreciated having their efforts associated with the most popular day of the year. There’s no market for songs about snow in January!

The Elvis Presley of Christian Publishing

Saturday, December 25th, 2010

C.S. Lewis did not expect to become the Elvis Presley of Christian publishing:

C.S. Lewis was talking to his lawyer one day when the attorney told him he had to decide where his earnings would go after his death.

Lewis, who had already written “The Chronicles of Narnia” book series, told the lawyer he didn’t need to worry.

“After I’ve been dead five years, no one will read anything I’ve written,” Lewis said.

Lewis famously converted from atheism:

Though Lewis looked like the prototype of the mid-20th century English professor, he was actually an Irishman. He was born as Clive Staples Lewis in 1898 in Belfast. Friends and family called him “Jack.”

Scholars cite two events as the source for Lewis’ early atheism. His mother, Florence, died of cancer when Lewis was 9. And his best friend, Paddy, was killed during World War I. Most of the men in Lewis’ platoon didn’t survive the trenches.

“When he saw the carnage of World War I, he concluded that if God exists, He is a cosmic sadist,” says Dorsett, Lewis’ biographer.

Lewis’ conversion to Christianity was gradual. It was prompted by what he later called “good infection” — being drawn to faith unawares through the friends he made and books he read.

One of those friends was J.R.R. Tolkien, a fellow English professor at Oxford best known today as the author of “The Lord of the Rings.”

According to some accounts, Tolkien, a Christian intellectual, helped convert Lewis. He showed Lewis that many of the mythological books he loved to read were Christian allegories.

Lewis, though, would later add that there was something more subtle that led to his conversion.

He called it “joy.”

“Joy” was Lewis’ term for a stab of longing that unexpectedly welled up in him during moments of contemplation, such as listening to opera or reading an ancient Norse tale.

In his book, “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis wrote that the yearning he experienced during those moments convinced him there was another existence beyond this world.

“For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a love we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.”

A Christmas Tree with a Heap of Presents

Saturday, December 25th, 2010

Behold, a Christmas tree with a heap of presents:

Happy Wookiee Life Day

Saturday, December 25th, 2010

Happy Wookiee Life Day! May you find the droids you’e looking for.

(From io9′s collection of the weirdest and most inventive holiday greetings of the season.)

Fritz Leiber’s 100th Birthday

Friday, December 24th, 2010

Apparently today would have been Fritz Leiber’s 100th birthday. If you like your swords & sorcery tales hardboiled, give his Lankhmar stories a try.